More than most people who aren’t called Coppola, Dan Gilroy comes from a filmmaking family. His father Frank was a Pulitzer and Tony award-winning playwright turned Hollywood screenwriter, and fascinated by their dad’s vocation, its never-quite-reconciled balance between art and commerce, each of his sons followed him into the trade.
Tony and Dan became writers too: Tony scripting a string of blockbusters (including Armageddon, and all four instalments of the Bourne franchise), before directing Michael Clayton in 2007; Dan collaborating with him on The Bourne Legacy before making his own directorial debut this year with Nightcrawler. Another brother, John, is an editor, who’s cut a number of their films, as well as Pacific Rim and Joe Carnaghan’s gritty, underrated Narc (2002).
For the three boys, the allure of showbusiness was too enticing to resist: “Dad wrote films most of his life. He would always talk about what he was working on, who they were chasing to be in it . . . Watching any parent do their job is always kind of mystifying to a kid, but this one seemed an especially magical-yet-viable way to make a living.”
Hailed as one of the best American films of the year, his debut was very much a family affair: John served as editor, and Tony as producer. (“Working with my brothers, I felt very protected. And you need that, your first time out.”) And his wife, René Russo—whom he met while writing Freejack in 1992—co-stars alongside Jake Gyllenhaal.
The story of Lou Bloom, a lonely sociopath, driven first to capture and then to help manufacture the nightly news, Nightcrawler is simultaneously a study in obsession and a dark satire on the dehumanising quality of the media, its insatiable appetite for spectacle. Gilroy describes the result as “a really personal film, for me. I wrote it incredibly quickly, in a couple of weeks, in a style, on the page, that I’ve never used before or since. No exteriors, no interiors—just an almost stream-of-consciousness thing, bang bang bang—tapping straight into my id or something; it just seemed to pour out of me. And I’m really surprised and gratified that people have responded to it so positively.”
It’s certainly an anomaly in the marketplace, far closer, both in spirit and execution, to the issue-driven American cinema of the 1970s, to films like Network and All the President’s Men, than to the FX-heavy, characterisation-light tentpole blockbusters of today.
“It’s true,” he concedes. “And unfortunately, it’s pushing further and further to that extreme. I have no problem with superhero movies per se; every so often I’ll happily sit down and watch one. But the landscape right now is so dominated by fantasy, so weighted toward spectacle and escapism, that I think to work the other side of the street, where you’re setting stories in a contemporary world, with recognisable social themes, can actually work to your advantage. Because there’s an awful lot of viewers out there who are starved for that kind of filmmaking. But yeah, at the moment, everything’s definitely about synergy and serialisation and franchises.”
For a relatively in-demand screenwriter like Gilroy, with a proven track record, the current conditions are much the same as that beneath which Golden-era Hollywood craftsmen like John Ford and Howard Hawks used to toil: make one (or two, or three) films for the studio, then—hopefully—you get to make one for yourself. The only difference being that, half-a-century on, the scales have shifted: now that studio job is routinely budgeted at 100m or more, whereas your ‘personal movie’ has to be done for a relative pittance, a tenth or even one-twentieth of that amount.
“I’m actually writing another big movie now,” he confirms, “and then, all things being well, I’ll get to make another one of my own. But the figures have to add up.” What this requires, he explains, are some cold equations: “For Nightcrawler, it was about taking this script, with me directing it, a first-timer, and attaching a name actor—and then finding a particular budget-level that made sense. Having Jake onboard raised US$8.5m for this film, with a lot of that coming from pre-sales, based on what he’s perceived to be worth overseas. And that struck everybody as a very do-able number.”
"If you write a good enough script, the studios won’t care if you’re young or old, or black or white"
Yet as the obvious options diminish, with studios making fewer films at steadily higher budgets, some extraordinary, unanticipated opportunities in other fields have opened up. A growing number of writers and directors, feeling increasingly disenfranchised from the Hollywood mainstream (pun very much intended) have found safe harbours in television, or with content-platforms like Netflix and Vimeo. Steven Soderbergh, for example, announced his ‘sabbatical’ from filmmaking in 2011. (“When you reach the point where you're saying, ‘If I have to get into a van to do another scout, I'm just going to shoot myself,’ it's time to let somebody who's still excited about getting in the van, get in the van.”) Yet he recently directed (and shot) ten hour-long episodes of the Cinemaxx mini-series The Knick, with another ten due in 2015.
“Television does appeal to me,” Gilroy admits. “Definitely. My favourite writer is Dickens, so when I look at these five-year series, like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, I’m very envious: it’s an enormous canvas to work on, and the possibilities for both plotting and creating characters are just extraordinary.
“Yet as liberating as that might be, it’s also a major commitment. It takes so much time; it means doing one thing to the exclusion of pretty much anything else you might want to do. And I think I’m much more interested, right now, in various ideas I haven’t written yet.”
Does he fear for the kind of thoughtful, articulate cinema that he grew up admiring? “In the long-term? Not really. Eventually the pendulum has to swing back, because people will want stories that have something to say about their own lives and the world they live in.”
“And anyway, there’s always been an element of doom-crying to the profession. When TV came along, in the 50s and 60s, people were complaining that no one would go to the cinema any more and new films would never get made. Even back in the 1930s . . . you read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s diaries, he’s bitching about it as well. ‘Audiences are down, the end is nigh . . .’ It’s not exactly a new complaint.”
For the moment, he considers himself fortunate—not only to have a place in the industry, but to work in one of the few professions where demand remains constant. “People say Hollywood is faddish and ageist and sexist, and it is—especially if you’re an actor. But writers have always had an advantage: we have the ability to create our own material from scratch. And frankly, if you write a good enough script, the studios won’t care if you’re young or old, or black or white, or where you’re from.” He laughs softly. “You could be a serial-killer and they’ll buy t.”