Director Dan Gilroy on Nightcrawler and the Rise of the Sociopaths

The screenwriter turned director on trying to capture a hard character to love.

Dan Gilroy, the screenwriter behind The Bourne Supremacy and Two For The Money, makes his directorial debut this week with Nightcrawler, a thriller that follows a would-be reporter played by Jake Gyllenhaal from crime to crime. Filled with gory shots of urban carnage and set against a vision of Los Angeles that makes Michael Mann look like Garry Marshall, Nightcrawler is an indictment of both the media and the people it stoops to keep happy. To see the movie is to leave the theater thinking, “I’d really like to talk to the guy who made that.”

Which is precisely what we did. 

Nightcrawler is your directorial debut. Why did you choose this project?

I reached a point in my life where I felt like I could do it. So, when I wrote the script, I [made the setting] Los Angeles where I live. It’s a personal script in the sense that it has a worldview that goes closely with things I feel and believe at this point in time. All of those things intersected to make me want to direct it.

You’re known for your screenwriting. Tell me about the differences between the two arts.

Everybody approaches any creative endeavor differently. When I’m writing, I’m trying to access my subconscious and turn off my conscious brain. I use my conscious for research, but when I’m actually writing I’m trying to get into a place where I’m tapping into the deeper, darker elements of what’s going on.

When I’m directing, I noticed I’m not using my subconscious at all. I’m literally using the whole front part of my brain all the time. When you walk on the set, every moment you have to be there because something’s going on that requires attention.

Honestly, I’m not totally used to being present. I spend most of my time in a room alone where eight hours go by and I have no sense of time. I work seven days a week and I live in this sort of vague subconscious fog a lot. So it was different to spend two or three months an entirely different [way]. Suddenly I’m talking to people and focusing on what people are saying and where things are moving around and I’m just there and present. Which was different. Now I’m writing a screenplay and I’m back in the other part of my head.

Nightcrawler makes a bold statement about the media, but softens it up with dark humor. How did your opinion on the media shape the film?

I believe it’s an accurate portrayal of what’s going on in local news in a meta sense, but certainly in the local sense in Los Angeles. The narrative that’s being told in the film is the narrative that’s being sold in local Los Angeles news, which is one of urban crime creeping into the suburbs and trying to create or instill a feeling of fear that if you’re not watching you might be in danger. I feel it’s accurate in that way. For me, as the writer and filmmaker, I was never trying to put a moral label on journalism or the journalists in the film; I was trying to show something that exists. But I was never trying to do it by underlying the immorality of it. And the reason is because it’s a far more complex scenario then just being able to say, “These people are bad” because we, all of us, are ultimately the people that watch what they put on. And that doesn’t make us good or bad either, but I wanted the equation to play out to people in the audience so they go, ‘Wait a minute.’

Media is extraordinarily important and is an extraordinarily powerful tool. There’s a reason that the first things that a rebellion or revolt will take is the media. The story you transmit is the story that becomes a given, or the narrative of a country and people. The media plays an extraordinarily powerful part of our lives and I used to be a journalist so I respect them. I respect journalism and I respect the role of journalists. And I don’t think people realize how truly powerful stories and images that are being transmitted into their lives are, in the form of news and shaping the news.

The juxtaposition of the gorgeous backdrop, ambiguous music, and excessive blood was unexpected.

Well, we didn’t want to label the character; we didn’t just want people to say he’s a sociopath or a psychopath. And the way we did that was, I sat down with Robert Elswit the DP [Director of Photography] and we decided that we’d never cinematically underline the moral darkness of the film. If something bad was happening we weren’t going to suddenly slant a big shadow across someone’s face or shrink the darkness around them. Or, concurrently, we were never going to use the score to underline something dark. When you watch the entire film, the score actually celebrates every bad thing that the character does and it serves as a way to keep the audience on track with the journey of the character rather than make a moral decision about him.

And, cinematically, we were trying to make Los Angeles look beautiful. The landscape is beautiful; it’s the creatures that move through the landscape that are doing something negative. And again, we were just trying to get away from putting labels on things. 

Audiences were introduced to main character Louis Bloom as a thief. Is there a connection between theft and his eventual career path?

I started him out as a thief for a couple of reasons. I wanted to show how desperate he was in the beginning – that he’s willing to do anything to survive – and that he was capable of violence. [The opening scene] shows him beating up a [security] guard, then he goes to a salvage yard and very respectfully asks for work. You start to see a different side of the character, and that was the door that leads you. As you go through the film, you feel that there’s more to this character than just stealing watches or jumping a fence.

Despite your avid refusal to label your characters, Louis Bloom engages in a lot of sociopathic behaviors.

He is by definition, diagnostically a sociopath. However, I feel that diagnosis is just a label for one aspect of a personality. There are other aspects of a personality – the desire to succeed, loneliness, a desire for a relationship. I wanted to go beyond the labels. In my life, I’ve felt like I’ve met people who [could be considered] sociopaths, and they were extremely successful. The world is populated by more sociopaths than we’re aware of and perhaps there’s a spectrum of sociopath that we all fall into, to some degree. What allows us to walk by somebody who’s starving on a sidewalk? Whatever it is, why don’t we have the empathy? Kids do, I remember when my daughter was three she’d cry whenever we went past a homeless person and would ask why I wasn’t giving him money. And you suddenly realize that you’ve lost that quality. Where did that go?

I also didn’t want to give Lou a backstory – I just wanted to imply that he had been abused and abandoned, and that he had nobody. Because he had nobody, he’d been forced to go on the Internet to establish some form of relationship and education, like he never had the parental figure to tell him what was right or wrong. He only had the Internet and as you know, the Internet will never tell you what’s right or wrong; it’ll only tell you information.

The film seemed to depict the “American Dream” as battleground.

The ‘American Dream’ is a concept that goes back more than a century and I think it’s changed over time. Where we are right now, we think the American Dream is accessible to an insanely small group of people. I feel that we live in a world now reduced to transactions, in which people are not given a chance to have a long-term meaningful career or health insurance and basic necessities to live. And I feel like a character like Lou, who does not care about people, is the person that succeeds the most in reality. The people who are succeeding at the top – not all of them but a growing percentage – exhibit the same qualities as Lou, where the only important thing is the bottom line which allows them to take over a company and raid the pension funds of 50,000 people and go off and build a 500-foot yacht and have articles written about them in magazines as if they’re some kind of success. And I find that more and more common and disturbing.

Photos by Open Road Films