“This Is a Cautionary Tale”: An Interview With Dan Gilroy of ‘Nightcrawler’

PopMatters speaks with Nightcrawler writer/director and Academy Award nominee Dan Gilroy about writing antiheroes, watching local television news, and questioning the pervasiveness of fear mongering media.

Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is the story of an enterprising young man named Lou Bloom. Equipped with little more than shrewdness and a will to succeed, Bloom creates for himself an entry-level position in the competitive field of news videography. Despite lacking the pricey tools of the trade possessed by his rivals, Bloom distinguishes himself by capturing footage no other “stringer” thinks to shoot. His success with a camera leads him to financial stability, a love interest, and eventually a thriving business for which he alone calls the shots.

All of this is true and none of this is true.

Nightcrawler‘s writer/director Gilroy creates a story world of irony and incongruity, in which the aspirational events of the plot directly contradict the values of fairness and justice popularly associated with tales of rags-to-riches success. Horatio Alger, this is not. Yet Nightcrawler never once plays like an exercise in hollow cynicism because Gilroy obviously wants to provoke his audience into thought and action around his story’s conflicts and contradictions.

Presently nominated for an Academy Award for the film’s screenplay, as well as having already won a Satellite award, Gilroy describes first finding his way into the amoral murk that gave birth to Lou Bloom (played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal). “The setting came first. I heard about these freelance videographers, who go out in L.A. at nighttime and shoot this footage and sell it. I became really intrigued with it. I thought it was a really interesting, unique backdrop for a film that I’d never seen before. It had all the elements that I wanted. Nighttime. Movement. Thematic relevance.”

For a while, however, the setting remained a backdrop, uninhabited by a plot or character that could lead the audience through it. “I worked on that idea for a number of years,” Gilroy says. “I couldn’t figure out how to break it open. And then the character of Lou came into the equation, and the idea of the hero being the antihero. And everything took off once those two things connected.” He describes Lou Bloom as “a total antihero. He’s my hero and my villain. He’s my antagonist and my protagonist.”

Gilroy says settling on an antihero for a lead character then required researching memorable antiheroes from past films and identifying what made them work within the narratives. “I’d never written an antihero before. People ask me, as a director, if I went back and looked at certain films to look at stylistic stuff. Actually, I looked at older material as a writer. I went back and started looking at films that had an antihero. I looked at King of Comedy with Rupert Pupkin, I looked at Nicole Kidman [Suzanne Stone] in To Die For, I looked at Matt Damon [Tom Ripley] in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a number of other ones.

“It’s a very unusual equation. You’re breaking one of the key narrative rules, you know, you’re taking your hero and you’re making him evil. It’s a very unusual, unorthodox formula that I had never done before. It was eye opening, as I started to understand the dynamics of it and how it worked.”

I observe that antiheroes seem to be enjoying a time of popularity among audiences. “Absolutely,” he agrees, adding, “Cable TV is leading the charge narratively in a lot of creative ways. You had James Gandolfini [as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos], complete antihero. Walter White [Breaking Bad] carrying the torch, another one. Audiences seem primed for it in terms of their ability to process an antihero and to embrace one.

“I think the key to an antihero — you see it with Gandolfini, Walter White, and the other films I mentioned — is keeping a thread of connection between the character and the audience. Because the audiences will judge the character, they’ll say, ‘This is an evil character, I don’t like this character and what they’re doing. I don’t like what the character is doing, but I like this character. I can understand this character,’ or ‘I’m fascinated by this character.’ You have to keep that thread because if you don’t keep that thread, you get another kind of movie, which is a completely valid kind of movie, but it’s a different animal, such as the ‘psychopath movie’, like American Psycho. And I did not want to do a character study of a psychopath. I wanted the antihero.”

In many of the television shows Gilroy cites, the method of “keeping a thread of connection between the character and the audience” is to present characters whose personal and professional lives are bifurcated and therefore in a state of sustained conflict. Drug king Walter White comes home and struggles as a husband and father. Mob boss Tony Soprano comes home and struggles as a husband and father. Others, such as Mad Men‘s Don Draper and Ray Donovan‘s titular character, exhibit the same twoness, with only their professions contributing degrees of difference. Nightcrawler is distinct from this formula, as Lou Bloom’s personal life is a mystery. We see him at home and in private time alone, but these views yield little concrete information to weigh against his dogged professional advancement.

Gilroy explains, “Part of that was the idea of not giving him any backstory. If you don’t give audiences backstories, they’ll start to create backstories. I think it’s a very interesting, powerful way of getting an audience involved in a film. If you hold back backstory, subconsciously or even consciously, audiences will start thinking about the characters more. ‘Oh he just said something, or she just said something, that fills in a blank spot that I didn’t know about.’ So I thought that worked out well for us, in terms of keeping interest in the character.”

Another set of expectations and associations for Nightcrawler comes from the tradition of films involving media ethics. I mention Ace in the Hole and Network as films that seem to provide an historical backdrop to Gilroy’s present-day treatment of similar issues. He acknowledges both of them, saying, “Any time you do a journalism film now or at any point you’re always going to be referencing to some degree Network or Ace in the Hole. Particularly Ace in the Hole because he’s an antihero; Kirk Douglas [Chuck Tatum] was an antihero in that film. And it was a brutal study of a morally bankrupt person driven to succeed. So there is a formulaic parallel in terms of narrative.”

However, Gilroy is careful to distinguish between the sort of movie he intended to create and the setting in which that movie plays out, as well as to identify the specific thematic breakthrough he experienced through his research. “I didn’t set out to write a journalism film. It’s just that once I heard about the world of night crawlers, it led me into the world of journalism.

“And when I got into the world of local television news, what struck me, what I knew about it generally was what Michael Moore talks about in Bowling for Columbine. That fear is the tone and the tenor that everything is spun to keep you watching. What I found in digging deeper and researching, particularly in the L.A. market, is that it’s a more nuanced narrative, which is what we talk about in the film.

“They’re selling the idea of urban crime creeping into the suburbs; that I was fascinated by. There have been studies. There was a Pew study and other journalism research groups have done statistical studies. The facts that Lou gives in the Mexican restaurant to Nina about how much time is spent on government stories and how much time is spent on violence and crime stories, those are all accurate facts that I got from the studies.”

Gilroy does not fault the local news for simply reporting crime. But he is critical of the disproportionate amount of coverage of violence and crime and the effects of that imbalance on viewers who consume it. “I feel that local television news sells such a steady diet of fear and paranoia. People, from the time that they wake up to the time they go to sleep at night, are fed this concept of nebulous, urban, faceless criminals who are going to crawl over your suburban hedge and break into your house and do horrific things to you.

“I think there’s a tremendous paranoia that builds up in people who watch it. I think in some ways it drives the lines to buy guns. I think in some ways it leads to people making judgments about other people based on a false concept, or idea. or thought about what they might or might not be doing. So I think there is definitely a connection both before the fact and then after the fact, how it’s covered.”

One of the choices that sets Lou Bloom apart from his rivals is his decision to follow violent stories into the homes in which they play out. For much of the plot, he’s not the individual who precipitated the crime and/or act of violence. But he is the chronicler guilty of a secondary invasion, which creates a new set of negative effects.

I ask Gilroy about the recurring home invasion aspect of his script. “It is the invasion of your personal space. I guess it comes from the idea that television is in your living room. TV is in your home already. So here’s somebody who’s coming in, servicing television, literally breaking into your home to find and/or create a story in your home. And I think audiences felt doubly violated. There’s the natural violation somebody feels where it’s like, ‘Oh my God, somebody’s gone into someone’s private space.’ But then it was, ‘Oh my God, somebody’s gone into private space to manufacture a horrific product that then goes back out on the TV and gets shown again on your TV.’ I guess it’s the pervasiveness of it, how it impacts all of our lives.”

He says there were additional dimensions to this pervasiveness that were intended to play a role in the film but ultimately never made it from the script to the screen. One of these is the peak of Mount Wilson. “I don’t wear aluminum foil on my head or anything — but the concept of Mount Wilson and those antennas beaming energy out over L.A. That was always an image that was very important. It never panned out the way I wanted to in the script. It was the idea of Mount Wilson as almost like the eyeglasses in Gatsby, sort of this larger thing over us. So I somehow imagined that Mount Wilson is beaming energy out over L.A., infecting all of us with these invisible rays. It’s everywhere. You can’t escape it. It’s part of who we are and what we do and it’s utterly pervasive.”

Though Gilroy has written several feature films, including Freejack, The Fall, and The Bourne Legacy, Nightcrawler is his first film as director. I ask if there were any challenges that accompanied the freedom to direct. His answer is a list of joys. “It was so liberating. It was heaven. It was the idea that what I wrote I could interpret the way that I envisioned it and put it up on the screen. So it wasn’t a challenge, it was a joy.

“It was having the ability not just to decide what actor was going to play [a role] or what camera was going to shoot it but all the way down to what clothes they were wearing and the color of sets. These were all things that — I don’t know about other writers — but when I’m writing these things I’m visualizing them. So the idea of having a hand in bringing them to life is just a joy. Utterly liberating.”

As the script for Nightcrawler is intended to question local news’ reliance on crime and violence to attract viewers, a consequential choice for any director would be deciding how to present crime and violence to the film’s audience. Gilroy says he was “absolutely” aware and deliberative concerning that ethical judgment in directing. He describes his approach as “always trying to hold back. We always wanted to hold back. We wanted to build up a pressure within the audience, that the audience wanted to see more. We always wanted the audience leaning a little forward, going, ‘What’s on that viewfinder?’, and, ‘Why aren’t they showing it full frame?’

“Everything lurid and graphic is being shown on smaller screens and not full screen. So we wanted to tap into the audience’s subconscious or reptilian desire to watch these images and to make it a part of the equation. So we were always holding back. We actually went much less graphic and violent than the images really demanded, in some ways, to create a thematic parallel.”

Yet even as Gilroy was judicious in holding back and supporting the thematic parallel, he says he also wanted to “take away moral judgment of the character. We didn’t want to get hung up on, ‘he’s a good guy,’ ‘he’s not a good guy.'” How did he execute that removal of judgment? He says, “I shot it, and everybody who worked on it framed it as a success story. We… took it as a literal success story, that it’s the story of a young man looking for work in the beginning, who’s the owner of a thriving business at the end.”

To consider the framework of Nightcrawler in this way creates additional questions. Why would a filmmaker critical of exploitative practices in media and aware of his own audience’s capacity for manipulation put the audience in a position of following such a character to an apparent happy ending? Is satire the overriding goal? Gilroy explains, “It’s not about him, which is what your question goes to. The intent of the film is: this is a cautionary tale.

“I believe that the ‘Lou’s’ of the world right now are winning. I believe that power is amassing and weakness is being exploited to a degree that I don’t think history has ever seen before. I believe it is getting worse. So my hope and intent was that at the end of the film an audience, by not having been spoon-fed a moral diet of, ‘This is a bad character,’ that they had left the question mark open. And that leads them to ask the question in the end, well maybe the problem isn’t Lou. Maybe the problem is the world that creates this character and rewards this character. And it makes them think. That was really the intent.”

Gilroy is not particularly hopeful that the cycle he describes will end. Ceaseless are the mechanisms that create and reward the Lou’s of the world and damage all else in their path. “That will never stop,” he declares. “I think all we can ever do is to make individual choices as to what it is we decide we want to watch and view and support and how well we want to be informed about what’s going on around us rather than buying really shallow, false narratives that are being purveyed. And to be aware of the world around you and how it operates and what the effects are.”