In "Nightcrawler," Dan Gilroy's pitch-black satire about freelance crime reporters in Los Angeles, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a young, ambitious videographer. He knows Rule No. 1 -- if it bleeds, it leads -- but he gets a deeper insight from Nina Romina, news director at Channel 6 KWLA, a low-ranked, bottom-feeding station. Played by Rene Russo, Nina explains that the long-term goal is to terrorize viewers with stories of urban crime creeping into the suburbs.
"What's the best way I can put this?" she says. "Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut."
The media has become a favorite target in the movies recently. Just this month, David Fincher's "Gone Girl" focused on a suspected murderer who becomes an overnight celebrity, while Michael Cuesta's "Kill the Messenger" told the true story of a journalist pilloried by his peers after writing a controversial series. Even the broad comedy "Anchorman 2," released in December, depicted cable news as a 24-hour onslaught of brain-numbing garbage. "Nightcrawler," opening Friday, Oct. 31, may offer the most dismal view of the media yet.
The movie didn't start out that way. Gilroy, a 55-year-old screenwriter ("Two for the Money") and first-time director, was initially inspired by a more endearing figure: Arthur Fellig, the legendary news photographer known as Weegee for his near-clairvoyant ability to arrive on a scene before the competition. As Gilroy mulled the idea, his thunder was stolen by the 1992 film "The Public Eye," a period-piece starring Joe Pesci as a Weegee-like photographer.
Gilroy, the youngest brother of director Tony Gilroy (they collaborated on "The Bourne Legacy") and editor John Gilroy (who worked on that film and "Nightcrawler"), never quite gave up on the idea. After moving from his native New York to Los Angeles, he says, "I discovered the modern equivalent, these guys that drive around in vans at 120 miles per hour and chase down crimes."
NOW, AN ANTI-HERO
While writing "Nightcrawler," Dan Gilroy turned his hero into an anti-hero. Lou isn't entirely unsympathetic -- he's intelligent, hardworking and eager for employment -- but his willingness to do anything for a scrap of bloody good video can be shocking. Among those who will regret meeting Lou are his dim-bulb assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed, of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"), and a cocky competitor named Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). Kevin Rahm, of AMC's "Mad Men," plays a news anchor with a conscience, but the film's other anchors are all playing themselves.
Their participation surprised Gilroy, given his film's not-so-flattering portrayal of their industry. "I saw the script and signed on," says former KCBS and KCAL anchor Kent Shocknek, an iconic face of Southern California news for the past 30 years who just retired. "Dan Gilroy has done a wonderful job of showing Los Angeles, and also the competitive spirit of the news industry -- if not," he added, "the actual ethics of the professionals who work in it."
Russo, Gilroy's spouse of 22 years, admits she had doubts that her husband's edgy, often violent film would ever make it to theaters. "Once he handed me the script, I thought: This movie probably isn't going to see the light of day," she says. "I didn't tell him that. And then he wanted to direct it! I thought, 'Oh, my God.' "
ODD TAKE ON ODD MAN
Landing a major star like Gyllenhaal was clearly a coup, though it also made for some complications. For starters, Gyllenhaal took Lou's drive and hunger literally, and began half-starving himself for the role. "We'd be sitting around eating, and he'd eat these gourmet Wrigley chewing gums -- you know, the ones that come in dessert flavors," his co-star Ahmed recalled after a recent screening of the movie at the Hamptons International Film Festival. By eating salads and biking to and from the set each day, Gyllenhall dropped roughly 30 pounds.
Gyllenhaal also decided to cover his face with sunglasses much of the time and to wrap his hair into an odd, oval-shaped bun atop his head. "That was Jake," Gilroy says. "And let me tell you, when you're dealing with financing and producers, this stuff becomes political football. They're like, 'What? A little bun?' But these were very brave choices on Jake's part."
The result has been an early wave of strong reviews from festival screenings and overseas. The Hollywood Reporter called Gyllenhaal "one of the most daring actors working in Hollywood today," while London's Guardian praised the movie as "a ghoulish and wickedly funny satire."
"I never saw this as an indictment of local television news," Gilroy says. "I wanted people to say: Wait, it's not local news that's the problem. It's the fact that I and other people demand these images. We're the end users of the product that they're making."