Lofty praise alert: Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in the new thriller Nightcrawler isn’t just one of the most fascinating movie subjects in years—he’s a combination of two of Martin Scorsese’s greatest protagonists. Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom is, more or less, what would happen if you melded The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle together.
Equally lofty praise: Gyllenhaal’s performance is right up there with both of those early ones Robert De Niro knockouts.
Set in the underworld of Los Angeles, Nightcrawler is a dark, cynical sort-of satire about an unhinged klepto who can’t land a job but has delusions of grandeur. Without any formal education, Lou’s a self-taught business savant thanks to endless hours devouring every piece of information he can find on the Internet. One night, after yet another employment rejection, Lou sees a couple of plain-clothed, guerrilla-style cameramen filming a horrific traffic action on the side of a highway. Realizing that these guys, known as "stringers," take their footage to local TV news stations for large paychecks, Lou steals a bike, pawns it for a camcorder and a police scanner, and becomes an upstart stringer. Before long, he’s capturing top-dollar footage, but since he’s not all there upstairs, he also starts manipulating said footage—as in, repositioning dead bodies and breaking into burglarized homes before the cops arrive.
And then the film gets really dark. Alternately funny, creepy, and thought-provoking, Nightcrawler is a killer debut from first-time director, and veteran screenwriter (The Bourne Legacy), Dan Gilroy. It’s home to a towering, almost unrecognizable performance from Gyllenhaal, a blistering turn that’s part Christian-Bale-level commitment (Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds for the role) and '70s-De-Niro ferocity (this).
Complex spoke in-depth with Dan Gilroy about creating the remarkably twisted Lou Bloom, what makes Jake Gyllenhaal one of Hollywood’s best, and why Nightcrawler isn’t the indictment against media several critics have been labeling it as.
Our first exposure to Nightcrawler's Lou Bloom was through a viral video where he speaks to a potential employer, followed by heavy social media promotion via Twitter (#RepeatAfterLou), Instagram, and Lou’s very own LinkedIn profile. It’s a really clever way to get people to embrace the character before they actually see the movie, not knowing that they’re actually embracing a guy who’s also a sociopathic deviant.
That’s a really good point. In addition to that viral teaser, we also put on ad on Craigslist, and the reason we did that is—and all credit due to [Nightcrawler distributor] Open Road’s marketing team for this—we’re introducing this person to the public, and we never wanted to introduce him as, "Here’s a sociopath," or, "Here’s a psychopath." We wanted to introduce him as, "Here’s a person who’s not that different from you." While there are certainly some darker things about him, it’s our way of saying, "Don’t judge this guy upfront." Understand that this person is not an inhuman monster.
One of the things about the '70s films I love—the films Nightcrawler is being compared to, like Taxi Driver—is that they never put their flawed characters into any one box. To call someone a sociopath or a psychopath is misrepresentative. On one level, yes, their behavior makes them diagnostically and accurately sociopathic, but a sociopath is not just black-and-white. You can’t see them from far away; they’re not rare creatures. All of us have a bit of a sociopath inside of us, and it’s wrong to think that somebody is just clearly sociopathic, because they’re not. It’s interesting to explore the shadings and nuances within a person. Those feelings exist within more human beings than people may want to acknowledge.
When I first saw that viral teaser, I was expecting a lighter kind of movie. Nightcrawler is definitely funny, but it's much darker than the viral clip suggests. The movie catches you off-guard.
Yeah, I’m really happy with how it turned out. That’s exactly what I was hoping it would do.
In the last few years, Jake Gyllenhaal’s made a concerted effort to take on challenging roles in difficult movies, like Prisoners and Enemy, but his work in Nightcrawler is career-best.
Yeah, the amazing thing about Jake right now is that he really wants to challenge himself. He could go for a paycheck any day of the week, but he’s taking jobs that are challenging him creatively and that are risky in the sense that you don’t really know how they’re going to turn out, but you’re hoping that they could become something larger or something really special. It’s very much driving him right not. Jake is just one of the most fearless and committed actors working today, and it’s been so exciting to work with him.
You must have met with him prior to even knowing about his work in Prisoners and Enemy, so initially, what was about him that made you think he’d be right for Lou?
I read an article that he did, like, three or fours years ago where he sort of announced to the world that he was not going to take any more commercials films; he was going to take films that challenged him. I thought, wow, that’s so unusual. You rarely ever hear anybody of his stature publicly announcing something like that. And I was aware that he’d moved to New York and that he was doing theater. The film that really solidified what he was doing, for me, was End of Watch. It was made for only $7.5 million, and he shaves his head and gives this phenomenal and perfectly accurate portrayal of a police officer. I thought that movie was a love story, actually, one between Jake’s character and Michael Pena’s character.
When it came time for Nightcrawler, he was right at the top of the list. I met with him and he had a similar vision to how he wanted to approach the film and the character.
The first thing about his performance as Lou Bloom that jumps out is how different he looks physically. Whose idea was it for Jake to lose so much weight and look so gaunt?
That was a decision that he made himself. There’s an element in the film that Jake really responded to, and that’s the idea that Lou is this sort of nocturnal animal who comes out at night to prowl the city of Los Angeles. Jake identified that and said, "You know, coyotes are very lean and hungry, so I’m gonna lose weight." I didn’t know how much weight he was going to lose, but he lost 30 pounds. It was a tremendously difficult and bold choice, because he had to run to the set everyday and eat nothing but salads. When you’re watching the film, every bit where he’s watching somebody eat, Jake is literally starving. He was literally eating a half of a third of the number of calories he should’ve been eating for that day. Not only does that give him a great gauntness and leanness physically, it also gives Lou this aura that seems like he’s about to consume everything around him at all times, whether it’s ideas or people.
I was talking to a female friend of mine who’s seen Nightcrawler, and she was telling me how she’s always loved Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting but has also never been able to lose sight of the crush she has on him, but how Nightcrawler is the first time that dynamic hasn’t existed. To her, he’s unrecognizable in this film.
And that makes perfect sense to me. With every atom of his being, he just totally immersed himself into this character, not just in learning the script but also exploring all of the levels within the character, trying things during every scene, and even the weight loss. Right before we started shooting, he came to me and said, "I’m thinking of putting my hair up in a little bun before I do larcenist things." It seems so natural now and so perfect for the character, but we hadn’t tried that or even thought about that; we didn’t know what that looked like. But I embraced it, because Jake’s process is one of, "Let’s try something, and if it doesn’t work, at least we tried it." And now I look at the film and I love it whenever he pulls his hair up.
It was Jake’s idea to wear sunglasses during the daytime. There are many other instances of things he brought to the character that make the character. His decisions are a function of how deeply committed he was to the character, in the sense that he was always thinking.
I’ll give you a small example. There’s a scene where he runs up the driveway to the Granada Hills triple murder, right? Jake is an athlete—if you’ve ever seen Jake run, he’s like an Olympic runner. But yet Jake came up with a strange little sort of tight-stepped run up the driveway, and said, "That’s the way Lou runs." And he practiced it. It’s so perfect for the character. There were so many nights when we were shooting where Jake would tell me he’s going to try something, and he was always so spot-on.
When you cast someone like Jake Gyllenhaal, an A-list star who’s very attractive and inherently likable, does it factor into your strategy that getting someone like him to play such a dark and complicated character will make the character easier to embrace for audiences?
You know, it’s funny, the reaction from the woman that you know, where she got so immersed that she couldn’t see Jake anymore—I didn’t think Jake was going to bring this "Look, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal" kind of connection to it. To me, it’s in Jake’s DNA that, when you strip away his name and all the other films he’s done, Jake has a very unique charisma about him. There’s something charming about his face and his energy and his eyes, to where you can connect with him beyond the sociopath. Like, "Wow, he’s so earnest."
Jake is almost like WALL-E. [Laughs.] He’s like a twisted WALL-E, just running around trying to stack shit up but he’s slightly bent—the instructions have gone wrong somewhere. But, at the same time, WALL-E is cute. Imagine if WALL-E was a big, ugly, burly robot—you wouldn’t have had the same feeling. I’m not saying Jake looks like WALL-E, but Jake, to me, has an endearing quality, and an affability, a charisma, and animal magnetism. I feel like I can’t take my eyes off of him whenever he’s on screen, and I thought that worked really well for this film.
Something I picked up on the second time I saw Nightcrawler is how clinically and almost robotically Lou speaks; it’s almost like he’s reading everything he says directly from a Wikipedia page, or a How To book, and it’s directly connected to how he says his education is all self-taught from the Internet. Was that in the script, or did Jake bring that dynamic to the dialogue?
Jake never changed a word in the script. There was no improvisation; he loved the script and approached it as faithfully as he could. But when it came to the performance, he had several weeks to sit with the script and really absorb the dialogue, so when he showed up on set… We were moving very fast. We shot the film in 28 days in Los Angeles for under $10 million. So it was a very tight production and a tight schedule. There wasn’t much time, but because he’d done all the work beforehand, when we showed up on any given day to do a scene, Jake and I knew the areas we wanted to explore. So Jake had the license to explore, within different takes, the different ways Lou would say something.
There’s a moment when Bill Paxton’s character asks him to become his partner, and Jake keeps saying, "No." And finally, Jake says, "I feel like grabbing your ears right now and telling you I’m not fucking interested." The first few times you approach that, it’s angry and it’s loud, but Jake said, "I’m going to play it calmly," and it turned out that that was the best way to do it. Lou is at his most dangerous and sinister when he’s quiet. It was little things like that in what Jake was doing that I really loved.
On your end, was there any element to his tone and delivery that stemmed from how Internet-specific Lou’s education and mind-frame work, too? It feels like he’s basically regurgitating things he’s read online whenever he speaks to someone, like that’s how he’s programmed himself.
Yeah, that was in the script in the sense of, I didn’t want to give too much backstory for the character. I implied certain things, like that Lou was abandoned and that he might have been abused at one point. A couple generations ago, there were people who didn’t have great home lives, so they were raised by television, but now there’s a whole new generation of people who’ve been raised by the Internet, and that’s what really interested me. They don’t have a great home and/or family structure, so the Internet, in some ways, becomes their home. The difference is, most people obtain that information and know how to properly use it, whereas Lou is someone who doesn’t understand how to properly use it in social situations.
To me, he’s a very lonely person, so when he’s communicating with other people, he’s trying to communicate with them normally but he just doesn’t understand them or basic human interaction. That’s something tragic about the character that I loved. The tragedy with Lou is that he’s trying to communicate and connect with people but he’s incapable of doing that, because he’s more than a few degrees off. He doesn’t really fully understand us, and he’s saying things that seem normal and appropriate to him but the people around him, as well as the audience, sees what he’s saying as absurd and bizarre. And that’s where a lot of the film’s humor comes from.
There’s a great line in Nightcrawler’s opening scene, where Lou gets stopped by the security guard as he’s trying to cut through a fence. He tells the guard, "I tried getting one of those jobs once—I like guarding things." That really encapsulates how Lou doesn’t approach work with any sort of passion or deep-seeded interest—it’s just a way for him to get ahead. To him, being a security guard is just about "guarding things."
Yeah, he just wants a job. He’s desperate for a job, just like so many other young people in the world today. That was one of the keys to the character: that desperation for a job that young people are facing right now, trying to get full-time work in a world where the only jobs most people can get are ones with bullshit wages. I very much feel Lou comes from that world.
The scene that best exemplifies why Lou is such a fascinating character is when he’s on the date with Rene Russo’s character, at the Mexican restaurant. It shows the character’s two extremes, from how he can he oddly charming to how manipulative and devious he can be, all within the same conversation. Did you approach writing that scene as if it were the film’s centerpiece?
It’s the centerpiece in the sense that, as I was writing it, I knew that was where you were going to see what this guy is fully capable of. Whatever you thought you knew about him was going to be upended in that scene.
I'm hoping people don't walk away and go, 'Oh, it’s a movie about a crazy guy.' We want them to say, 'This is a movie about a world that creates somebody like Lou and rewards them.'
Going into that scene, it appears as if he’s simply asking a woman out on a date, in his own strange Lou Bloom kind of way, and you feel that the woman, Nina, has the cards and the power to control what’s going on. But as the scene progresses, in the way I wrote it and the way I saw it, you start to realize that Lou is extraordinarily smart, has done a tremendous amount of research, and intuitively understands where people are vulnerable and how to most exploit them.
I think it’s a chilling scene, in a lot of ways, despite how humorous it also is. You’re seeing just how capable Lou is of exposing and ripping apart another human being, making them vulnerable and then giving them the choice of whether they want to be complicit in something against their will. That’s something that’s a hallmark of Lou’s character. He’s not a character who’s going to hold a gun and make you do something against your will, or threaten you with violence—he’s much more inclined to exploit your weaknesses and leave it up to you to decide whether you want to go along, and I think in some ways that’s more chilling.
The scene begins with Lou complimenting Nina by saying, “I like the dark makeup on your face; I also like the way you smell.” It’s such a weird and funny line, because it’s this really detached and unusual way of paying a woman a compliment. In Lou’s eyes, that’s probably a Don Juan kind of line, but for everyone else, it’s strange.
It is, and right away, again, the audience is saying, "That’s absurd—who starts a date by saying that?" And it gets laughs, but the interesting thing is, at that point, Lou is so dangerous and so unpredictable that it’s a nervous laughter. Like, where is he going with this? In that restaurant scene, Jake has his hair slicked back, and he’s wearing this corduroy jacket—I thought he looked actually quite charming and presentable, to where he almost looks, strangely enough, normal for the first time in the film. There’s a lot going on in that scene; it’s definitely my favorite scene in the film.
And it ends with one deeply troubling line from Lou. It comes after he’s basically told Nina that if she doesn’t have sex with him, he’ll ruin her career, but that he’s also her friend. She says something to the effect of, "Is this how you treat your friends?" To which he replies, "A friend is a gift you give yourself."
[Laughs.] And yet it’s true. The friends we have, these are choices that—unlike family, which we have no choice in, and I love my family, thank God—we’ve given ourselves, to some degree. So there’s an odd logic to it. He’s misapplying it, of course, in the context of what’s going on.
The last line I wanted to bring up comes right before the film’s climax; it’s after Lou’s "employee," Rick, played by Riz Ahmed, attacks him for not understanding people. Lou says, "What if my problem isn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?" It reminds me of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, who says something similar and is a monstrous person.
And considering the people he encounters throughout the film, you can almost understand why he doesn’t like people. He’s been encountering a group of morally compromised people doing not-so-good things. It seems like, in the world that he’s lived in so far, you can almost understand, I think, why he doesn’t like people. Not that under different circumstances he might not have the same feeling, but he’s a product of, again, this implied backstory of abandonment and abuse. That’s just his take on it at that moment, you know?
Not too long before he says that, we see him in the control room as the news team is airing the grisly footage he shot at the Granada Hills home invasion. The two anchors are very coldly commenting on the dead bodies and bloodshed, all while Nina’s feeding them lines and orchestrating their reactions. Viewers don’t realize how manufactured these reports are on the back-end. It’s a chilling but also weirdly funny scene, in a satirical way.
I like to feel that when people laugh as they’re watching that scene, it’s a laughter of recognition, like, "Oh, I watch news and that’s exactly what they do." It’s a thing of, "Oh, that’s how they make sausage. I’m going back into the kitchen and watching how they actually put sausage together," which is probably a process none of us should ever really want to see happen if we like sausage. [Laughs.]
One of the things we’re hoping to do in the film is to not have people walk away and go, "Oh, it’s a movie about a crazy guy." We want them to say, "This is a movie about a world that creates somebody like Lou and rewards them." He’s really being rewarded in that scene for his work, for his very dark work.
When he’s walking through the Granada Hills house with the camera, unaffectedly filming the victims, there’s a feeling that he’s doing exactly what we all do when we watch news reports with footage of murder victims or other victims of violent crimes. He’s no different than people sitting on their couches.
Exactly, you’ve nailed it. I’m so glad you made that connection, because that’s a deep connection we’re trying to make. We ultimately are the people who watch the images that get put up on the screen, so who are we to judge what Nina does or what the television station does if we demand that from our news? And we do seem to demand that.
A lot of the reviews and reactions to Nightcrawler have hinged on the idea that it’s a movie attacking the media. Has it been weird or perhaps expected, on your end, to see people responding in that way, even though it’s not quite accurate?
You just made the leap that we’ve all always wanted the audience to make, which was, "Wow, this is really an indictment, on a lot of levels, of local news," but then, exactly like you’ve said, "Hold on… I watch this shit!" I’m not trying to indict everybody in the audience, but I’m trying to say, "Hey, just beware: this is a really complicated mechanism, you are a part of it, and it goes beyond easy labels." So what you’ve just said was the final connection I’m hoping people will make. I think the starting point might be that it’s an indictment on local news, but I hope the takeaway is that we do watch this stuff, so you just made the best connection I could hope for with this film.
And, ultimately, I think that’s why I love the character of Lou so much. Because I’ve made that connection, I’m able to understand that, yes, he obviously has sociopathic tendencies, but who can blame him? He’s not necessarily the bad guy in this movie.
No, and, look at the main authority figure in the film: Rene’s character. She’s egging him on and rewarding him. What else is he supposed to do? It’s this world that rewards this character.