How the Wild, Untamed Energy of L.A. Inspired Nightcrawler

Writer-turned-director Dan Gilroy talks about riding with real nightcrawlers and exploring the city’s hinterlands

Plenty of films and television shows take place in Los Angeles, but productions often use the city as a mere backdrop for the plot. Few put their noses in the dirt and prowl the streets the way Nightcrawler does. The movie, which opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a job-hungry grifter who stumbles upon the world of late-night news gatherers. Soon, Gyllenhaal is cruising around with a police scanner, waiting to pounce on any accident or crime scene he can so that he can sell footage of it to a local news station.

Our film critic Steve Erickson writes: “Nightcrawler may be the most vivid portrait of nocturnal L.A. ever: shimmery and ominous, seductive and alienating, otherworldly and not so much futuristic as beyond time altogether.” It’s also a gritty, intense look at people who will do anything (and we do mean anything) to make a buck.

Dan Gilroy has been a screenwriter for years, but Nightcrawler marks his debut as a director. He didn’t want to set the story anywhere besides Los Angeles. “I think it needed to be [L.A.],” he tells us. “When I learned about the world of people who do this, I found that L.A. is the biggest market. But I also thought it was the most vibrant setting, given the material.”

“Nightcrawling,” Gyllenhaal’s job in the film, is a real thing, and Gilroy had been thinking about the idea for some time. “A number of years ago, I found a book of photography by Weegee; he was a crime photographer in the 1930s in New York. He was the first person to put a police scanner in a car and drive around. He’s really the godfather of what these people do. When I moved to Los Angeles, I heard about these nightcrawlers and I was intrigued. I thought, ‘Oh, this is the modern equivalent to what this guy had been doing in the ‘30s.’ I started going online and looking for clips of what they’ve shot, and reading articles in which they talk about what they do.”

Gilroy’s research went deeper than just reading. “When I was writing the script, Jake [Gyllenhaal], Robert [Elswit, the cinematographer], and I drove around with them. The first first night we went out, we arrived at a horrific car crash that had just happened. Three young girls had gone 80 miles an hour into a wall, and they had all been ejected. It’s burned into my memory, but the people that we were with? That’s just one of a dozen things on an average night for them. They’re moving through a war zone, in many respects.”

Nightcrawler takes place in a heightened, sensationalistic atmosphere, but real nightcrawling doesn’t (or shouldn’t) involve scary brushes with police of the sort Gyllenhaal’s character encounters. “When an accident or a crime happens, there’s a period of time before the yellow tape goes up, before the official response becomes formalized. That allows the nightcrawlers to get very close. They’re respectful to the police and emergency workers, because they work with them and they want to continue to work with them. So when they’re asked to step back, they step back. But the competitive nature of the job means they want to get as much as possible, to capture images that have particular graphic appeal.”

Gilroy, who has lived in L.A. for more than two decades, knew that he wanted this film to take a different approach to the city than others he had seen. “I actually find Los Angeles to be a place of great physical beauty. I’m often stunned when I come up over Mulholland and I’m looking down at the Valley, and I can see for thirty miles; I can see the mountains, or all the way to the ocean. When when I was writing the script, I was trying to incorporate elements of that. I drifted away from the man-made. I didn’t really want it to go downtown or on the freeway. That’s what you often see in films about L.A.”

“I find this to be a place that has a wild, untamed energy. When I was with Robert Elswit to make our shot list or working with our production designer, Kevin Kavanaugh, we were always looking for places with this untamed spirit. Remote areas that butt up against a park or the ocean or a mountain. You get the sense that man has come and colonized it.”

That wild, untamed energy ended up being the key to Nightcrawler’s vision of the city. “We wanted to show Los Angeles almost in a way that you film an animal documentary. A place that was electric and vibrant and alive and lush, almost like a wilderness. And we wanted to show it as this large far-ranging landscape that had its own beauty.”

Gilroy also has a more nuanced view of the city than other films often convey. “I think Los Angeles is often portrayed as kind of a petri dish, where bad decisions start and then spread to the rest of the world,” he says. “I don’t see it that way. I feel Los Angeles is a place of almost primal struggle and survival. It’s not a city that embraces its inhabitants. It challenges you to succeed, and if you don’t, it allows you to leave and doesn’t really care about you. That’s the landscape that animals move through.”