Unsung Auteurs: Dan Gilroy

March 9, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: the uncompromising Dan Gilroy, who helmed Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel Esq. and Velvet Buzzsaw.

2014’s mesmerising Nightcrawler was one of the best films of its decade, and while the film has a cult following, its director Dan Gilroy has never really received the credit that he deserves for crafting such a vivid and original work. His two subsequent films are also strong, yet Dan Gilroy remains far from a “name director”, which is bordering on the criminal.

If Nightcrawler has anything to teach us, it’s that persistence can be rewarded. Certainly that’s discovered by the film’s anti-hero, Louis Bloom – a resourceful petty thief who turns his skills to capturing video footage of car accidents and urban crime, and then selling them to LA news stations. But it’s also a maxim learned by the film’s debut writer-director, Dan Gilroy.

Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhall on the set of Nightcrawler.

Back in the eighties, Gilroy was an entertainment journalist working for the trade paper, Variety, when he decided to try screenwriting. “I would get up at five in the morning, most days, when I wasn’t totally hungover, and write screenplays,” he explained to FilmInk in 2014. Across six years, he wrote “seven really bad screenplays” before John McTiernan optioned one, though it was never made. “He was shooting Die Hard; that’s how long ago it was,” Gilroy laughed.

Gilroy continued to toil away for years in Hollywood (and eventually married actress, Rene Russo, who co-stars in Nightcrawler). “Maybe one in fifteen for me got made,” said the writer, who has penned the likes of Two For The Money and The Fall. “My brother, Tony [Gilroy, who wrote the Bourne films; directed Michael Clayton, The Bourne Legacy and Duplicity; co-wrote Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; and created Andor for Disney+], has been much more fortunate! Some might say that he’s a better writer than me, and that’s why his work got made! I wouldn’t!”

Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhall on the set of Nightcrawler.

Still, nobody can deny the brilliance of Nightcrawler, a savage look at American values seen through the prism of the news camera, driven by Jake Gyllenhaal’s eerie portrayal of Bloom. “I was always looking for the humanity inside him. Jake approached the character as, ‘This is a lonely but functioning human being, not a sociopath.’ And Jake sees the character as an artist, who discovers a talent that he’s good at and cares about.”

Gilroy and Gyllenhaal formed a strong bond during the making of the film. “He doesn’t care about the money,” Gilroy told FilmInk. “Jake is getting offered much bigger films for much more money. He’s decided to do films that challenge him. He came to this and was like, ‘I want to immerse myself in this and become this character.’” With Gilroy dubbing his star “fearless”, he watched with amazement as Gyllenhaal dropped 25lbs to give Bloom a gaunt, haunted look (“like a coyote”). Dieting like crazy, the actor would also cycle fifteen miles every night to the set, to help keep the weight off. “That’s dangerous,” laughed Gilroy. “You gotta be crazy to ride a bike in LA. But he would ride, and then have some kale salad, gum, and ice-cubes! He was so committed.”

Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhall on the set of Nightcrawler.

Unsurprisingly, Gilroy and Gyllenhaal hung out with real-life “nightcrawlers” – nocturnal newshounds who track police scanners to arrive at the scene of a crime or accident before anyone else. In particular, they met up with the English-born Howard Raishbrook, who together with his three brothers moved to Los Angeles to form RMG (Raishbrook Media Group) after they realised that there was money to be made. “Robert Elswit, our DP, Jake and I went out, and Howard offered us a bullet proof vest, because they shoot at his car all the time. LA at night is a dangerous place!” Eventually, they got a tip-off. “Three young girls had been in a car, and gone off the freeway at 80 mph, down a forty foot drop, and headlong into a wall. It was horrible. I have a daughter, and it was hard to look at.”

Gilroy also had the co-operation of the local LA news shows, which he was rather surprised about. “When I sent the script out, I didn’t think that they’d want to co-operate, but all the anchors in our movie are real anchors in Los Angeles. Those are the biggest anchors in Los Angeles – the stars – but they were all happy to be involved.” Tellingly, none of the real-life journalists admitted to any kind of under-handed tactics. “They all think that it’s not them – that it’s all the other stations!”

Dan Gilroy with Denzel Washington on the set of Roman J. Israel Esq.

What Nightcrawler does show is just how television news has become a ratings business, predicated on instilling fear into audiences. “Crime is going down in Los Angeles, but they sell the idea that minority-driven crime is creeping out towards those who live outside the city. It’s all bullshit. There is no huge crimewave. But you’ll see a fatal carjacking, a rape, a robbery, and they’re going to try and make it like it’s getting worse.”

Beyond simply spotlighting the amoral nature of contemporary news-gathering, Nightcrawler is a personal film, says Gilroy, about his “grim” view of the world, and the way that the most aggressive amongst us will triumph. “What I was trying to show is that when you take somebody in this world today and strip away their conscience, they will succeed. That says a lot about our world today, and how scary it is.”

Dan Gilroy with Denzel Washington on the set of Roman J. Israel Esq.

Gilroy got to showcase his view of the world again with 2017’s Roman J. Israel Esq., a powerhouse legal thriller with Denzel Washington in top form as the eponymous lawyer. Idealistic and highly driven, Israel finds himself caught up in the grinding gears of LA’s legal system. Though still obviously fascinated by the corruption and moral decay that he so brilliantly essayed in Nightcrawler, Gilroy’s hero this time is something of a white knight, though the character is so rich and layered that he is no simple crusading lawyer. “They are complicated characters,” Gilroy replied when asked by The Film Stage about the similarities between Roman J. Israel and Louis Bloom. “But I think that’s a reflection of how I see people in general and think we’re all complicated. I think we all have these contradictions that if we dug down a little bit we’d find. They’re extreme to a degree, and you could certainly make that case, but I like to think that they’re representative in some way of the rest of us.”

After the decidedly more straight Roman J. Israel Esq., Gilroy returned to the surreal strangeness of Nightcrawler with 2019’s Velvet Buzzsaw, a scathing, excoriating horror-satire-comedy about the contemporary art scene. When the work of a dead artist is released into the world post-mortem against his wishes, a host of bizarre characters (played by the likes of Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, Tom Sturridge, John Malkovich and Nightcrawler alums Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo) start to bite the dust. “I have a lot of ideas I try to get through my films and I think people underestimate the power of humor to carry an idea and a story,” Gilroy told The Hollywood Reporter. “I thought, ‘I want to mix a thriller with a comedy.’ I came up with the idea while I was at a contemporary art museum at closing with all this freaky weird art. I thought, ‘This a great place for a thriller.’”

With his true sense of cinematic style and wonderfully creative and jaundiced world view, Dan Gilroy’s is a highly original and powerful voice that deserves to be heard much louder, more frequently, and with far greater critical and audience support.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Tanya Wexler, Clio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.