‘Nightcrawler’ Director Dan Gilroy on High Expectations and Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen
It’s remarkable that ‘Nightcrawler’ is Dan Gilroy’s first directorial effort. The film is so stylized – but not in a “look at my style!” kind of way – that it feels like it’s from someone who has at least done this before. It’s funny to listen to Gilroy – brother of fellow writer/director Tony Gilroy – explain why he finally wanted to direct, which basically comes down to his nice way of saying, “other people were screwing up my vision.” And now he’s written ‘Nightcrawler,’ and Gilroy wasn’t about to let anyone else screw it up.
In ‘Nightcrawler,’ Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a misanthrope of a human being who gives up his life of petty crime to sell video of Los Angeles car accidents and murders – super grizzly stuff – to the highest bidder. That highest bidder becomes the manager of the lowest-rated television station in town (Rene Russo) … and, together, the pair profit off the tragedy of others.
I had met Dan Gilroy once before, right before interviewing Rene Russo at the Toronto Film Festival in early September. Right before Russo – Gilroy’s wife – invited me to conduct the interview with her in bed. As it turns out, Gilroy isn’t mad! (Whew!) Also, Gilroy reflects on “the one that got away," the year he spent on what would have been Nic Cage as Superman and Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen in Tim Burton’s ill-fated ‘Superman Lives.’
We met in Toronto.
You came in, I remember that!
I was there to interview Rene Russo, your wife.
I remember that, she was lying on the bed or about to lie on her bed. Who knows what she was doing?
She made me do the interview in bed with her.
In bed! I read the article! That was very funny. It’s great, I actually thought it was a really, really good interview.
I’m glad you’re not mad.
Oh my God, no. Absolutely not.
Why was ‘Nightcrawler’ the one that finally got you to direct?
I reached a point where I’d watched enough directors do the job that I felt I understood it. And it’s not that I’m a slow learner and it took me this long, I also was enjoying writing and I still enjoy writing – I get tremendous satisfaction out of the writing end of it. It wasn’t like I was thinking, “Oh my God, I hate writing so much.” And I came up with a script that I felt was personal.
I mean this as a compliment obviously, but it doesn’t feel like the work of a “first time director.”
No, it’s interesting – and I appreciate you saying that – when I write, I do imagine things visually. While I haven’t directed, I directed many things in my head. And I think that’s true of a lot of writers.
So, in the past, have you had a distinct vision...
Everything I’ve ever written, I had a very distinct vision of what I wanted it to look like. But, other directors never do it that way.
Is that disappointing?
Yes. It’s extraordinarily disappointing. But, it’s the reality: film is a director’s medium and, ultimately, they are the ones that are in charge and you have to respect that because somebody has to be in charge. But, yeah, you do reach a point where you want to have your voice come out. Now, all of that said, one of the reasons I think it looks like a more mature work is, honestly, I was surrounded by very talented people.
With ‘Nightcrawler,’ was there the thought that you had something special and you didn’t want anyone else screwing it up?
That’s exactly what I felt. That’s exactly what I felt. And there were some other big directors that circled it and wanted it.
Who wanted it?
Oh, I can’t say. But, there were other people who wanted it, who read it. And I was like, “No, this is the one I’m directing,” and I felt very strongly about that.
Did you get any pressure from anyone saying you should let someone experienced direct?
No, because I was so adamant from the beginning. If I had wavered and said, “maybe I’ll do it” – if people sense an opening, I think they would be more aggressive about trying to pry it open. But, if you’re adamant from the beginning and say, “No, I’m doing it this way,” people ultimately accept it.
I look at a movie you wrote, ‘Two for the Money,” and remember thinking that was a good premise for a movie. Then it came and went. I do wonder if that’s an example of a movie that didn’t turn out how you would have hoped.
You never know how films are going to do. D.J. Caruso directed it and he had a handle on it and he did a fine job. Would my film have been better or worse? It’s so hypothetical, I don’t know.
I feel confident saying it would at least be very good.
It’s not my place to say, but I appreciate you saying that.
Are you a “director” now?
I’m a “writer/director.” And I’m writing another script that I would like to direct.
What’s that about?
I can’t really say because it’s still sort of an early stage. So, it would be doing the story a disservice if I tried to encapsulate it. But, it’s set in Los Angeles and it’s in a budget range that’s maybe a little higher than this one. And it’s something that has ideas in it that I feel strongly about -- sort of like ‘Nightcrawler’ – and a character that I love.
Is this path to getting it made easier than it was with ‘Nightcrawler’?
Yes, there’s no question about it. Because ‘Nightcrawler’ is, so far, a fairly positive response and that people in town will definitely be more open to discussing the possibility of me directing. I’m already feeling that, actually.
When the early reviews came out and they compared ‘Nightcrawler’ to ‘Taxi Driver,’ did you like that?
It’s really nice to be compared to films that you love, but, at the same time, yes, it sets very high expectations for people who haven’t seen the movie. I’m a little bit shy of people saying, “Oh, this movie is phenomenal; you have to see this movie.” The bar gets so high that it doesn’t somehow meet the internal expectations of a person … but it’s also extraordinarily flattering to be compared to the films that have been referenced.
I knew nothing about it when I saw it back in August...
So, instead, before you went, somebody says, “Oh, man, dude, this is like ‘Taxi Driver’ meets ‘Network.’” And right away you go, “OK, I’m expecting 18 stars and this better blow me away.” So, no matter how good it is, at the end it’s, “You know, it’s pretty good, but I don’t know about ‘Taxi Driver’” … and I appreciate every positive connection that people have made. No question about it. I’m very appreciative of it.
You wrote one of the drafts for the ill-fated Nic Cage Superman movie, ‘Superman Lives’?
Oh, yeah! I spent a year on that movie. Do you want to know the story?
Kevin Smith had done a draft. Wesley Strick had done a draft. I connected with Warner Bros. and Tim Burton and sat down, I worked with Tim for a year. Tim had an incredible take, which was basically boiled down to Kal-El had been put into the little meteorite, but Jor-El never had time to tell Kal-El anything about his past. So, Kal-El lands on Earth, starts to grow up, and he’s different. But he doesn’t know why. And he’s tortured by it to some degree and there’s a psychological dimension to it. And his worst fear is that he’s an alien – that’s his worst fear. And you can imagine where Tim will go with that. And early on in the story, when Lex Luthor uncovers the remnants of the ship at the farm, suddenly Kal-El realizes he is an alien. And it just psychologically destroys him in a lot of ways. We had Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen. Tim had a great take. Unfortunately what happened was Warner Bros. was on a terrible losing streak with their films – one after another. And they just did not have the financial wherewithal to make the movie that Tim wanted to make and it got pushed aside.
Do you look at that as the one that got away?
Oh my God, totally. Tim would have knocked that out of the park. Nic Cage as Superman? As a psychologically tortured Superman? With Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen? I would kill to see that movie. He couldn’t commit to Lois Lane because he was so tortured on his own personal level. So, there are just so many different aspects to it that you don’t normally associate with Superman.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.