The pulsating shimmer of Los Angeles at night can seem either like a dreamscape fantasia or a topography of nightmares. In the new film "Nightcrawler" it is both, a land of opportunity and madness and left in some measure for the viewer to unravel.
The directing debut for Dan Gilroy, who also wrote the screenplay, the film enters the world of nighttime crime-scene videographers as a jumping-off point to explore contemporary media culture, self-created personalities in the Internet age and the boundaries of personal ambition. The film has its world premiere as part of the current Toronto International Film Festival, will have its U.S. premiere at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, and open in theaters on Oct. 31.
As the film opens, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal in a transformative performance) is adrift on the fringes of society, stealing scrap to sell at salvage yards. After seeing a freelance video news team swoop in during the aftermath of a freeway car crash, he sets a new goal for himself. The right person finding the right opportunity that fits his specific pathology just so, Bloom makes a quick study of his new profession, while encountering a more established competitor (Bill Paxton), an overnight-shift television news producer (Rene Russo) desperate to make a mark and a hapless tag-along assistant (Riz Ahmed). Bloom's rise comes with no minor cost and a small body count.
The enigmatic character of Bloom, stubborn, self-taught, self-made and possibly sociopathic, and personified by Gyllenhaal's full-throttle performance, makes "Nightcrawler" many things at once. It is a character study, a disturbing look at the impact of media and culture, a fascinating glimpse into the nocturnal life of Los Angeles and an unpredictable, pulse-quickening thriller.
"I didn't look at Lou as a deranged, damaged person," said Gilroy. "I really wanted to look at a person who doesn't have the programming and support from childhood and has limited tools to survive. To me the through-line of the character was somebody trying to survive in today's world.
"And the problem, as much as it's Lou, is the world that he sprang from and the world that rewards him. We adamantly tried to never make judgments on anything in the film. We never say [the problem is] Lou, we never say it's TV news. We were trying to get something that felt real, that felt topical, that felt current, that had a relevance to people's lives."
Gilroy started with an interest in the crime photographer of the 1930s and '40s known as Weegee and then began to learn of the contemporary world of news videographers who refer to themselves as "nightcrawlers." Connecting these together was a long fascination with what he called the "kabuki theater" of local L.A. news.
Gilroy is a longtime screenwriter who among other credits wrote on "The Bourne Legacy" along with his brother, director and writer Tony Gilroy, who is also a producer on "Nightcrawler." The film was edited by Dan Gilroy's twin brother, John. (Dan Gilroy is also married to Russo.)
In crafting a specific vision for Los Angeles, cinematographer Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for "There Will Be Blood") shot nighttime scenes with a digital camera and daytime scenes with a 35mm film camera. The production took place at more than 70 locations around L.A. on a 29-day shoot, including 22 night shoots in a row.
Gilroy noted that for him, Gyllenhaal's gaunt look in the film reduces his face to angular planes that catch light in different ways, shifting between handsome and grotesque. Gyllenhaal evokes the hungry demeanor of a coyote — "Lou is a nocturnal predator who comes down from the hills at night to feed," Gilroy said — and the film's vision of Los Angeles is also meant to capture the city's interface with nature that many films overlook.
"The Los Angeles I usually see on film is the Los Angeles that's man-made, downtown and freeway world," said Gilroy. "I always responded to the wild, untamed aspect of Los Angeles. To me, it's a place of mountains and oceans. It functions like a little island surrounded by wilderness."
Production designer Kevin Kavanaugh spent many nights just driving around Los Angeles looking for places that captured the feel of the city after the sun goes down, specific nondescript strip malls, Lou's apartment on a hilly street not far from Dodger Stadium or the glass box Chinese takeout place that resembles a fish tank and is a key location for the story. The more commonly filmed downtown area was largely avoided.
"We wanted to get away from the metropolitan feel of L.A.," said Kavanaugh, "to really get into the low-lying hills and more of the surrounding areas of Los Angeles. Dan and I had a lot of discussions on how to treat downtown, the Emerald City in the background. You can't ignore it, it's a beautiful skyline at night, so let's treat it like a distant element, a kind of center point that everything happens around it."