‘Nightcrawler’ is a Brilliantly and Insanely Twisted Motion Picture

nightcrawler movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2014.

Just when I thought I wouldn’t see a 2014 movie as twisted as “Gone Girl,” along comes “Nightcrawler.” Delving into the underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism, this is a thriller which feels like a cross between “Taxi Driver” and “Network” as it follows characters who do not hesitate to cross over any and all ethical or moral considerations in order to survive another day in an infinitely cruel and competitive world. You will find yourself laughing at things you would normally never laugh at, but that’s because it serves as a way to deal with the increasingly insane scenarios which will leave you staring at the screen with your mouth open.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, an alienated young man struggling to find work anywhere and everywhere. The movie starts off with him stealing materials from a construction site which he then attempts to sell at a scrap yard with little success. His attempts to find a job or even an unpaid internship prove to be utterly fruitless despite his best efforts and conniving ways, and he is a symbol of how many Americans who are having the toughest time finding work. Then one night while he’s driving on the freeway, he comes across a nasty car accident and, like many, he is tempted to take a closer look. This is when a camera crew led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) drops by to film whatever footage he can get to sell to the local news station. Instantly intrigued, Louis goes out and buys a cheap video camera and starts filming crime scenes and human carnage which eventually catches the eye of veteran news producer, Nina (Rene Russo).

“Nightcrawler” marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy whose writing credits include “Freejack,” “Two for the Money” and “The Bourne Legacy.” With a limited budget, he succeeds in creating a crazy version of the American success story, proving it can be achieved but at a soul sucking price. Gyllenhaal, with a stare which cuts through the audience like a laser beam, gives us a character beyond determined to rise to the top of the TV news food chain. In many ways Louis is enigmatic as we don’t get to know too much about him, but no one can deny he is a full blown sociopath who has finally found something he can make a career at.

Gyllenhaal does some of his best work yet in “Nightcrawler,” and I’m not just saying this because he lost 20 to 30 pounds to play Louis. His focus as an actor is never in doubt as he makes Louis as compelling a human being as he is an insane one. Even as Louis throws all reason out the window, we cannot help but be mesmerized as Gyllenhaal makes him a highly unlikely antihero.

It’s also great to see Russo here as well as she brings Nina to a life in a way which showcases how vulnerable her character can be despite how hardened life has made her. This is a character clinging on to her job for dear life in a business prepared to chew her up and spit her out without a second thought. It should not be a surprise she crosses countless journalistic guidelines to get the bloody violent footage her audience is craving for. Whether or not she believes it is the right thing to do is beside the point because her survival in an unforgiving economy is foremost on her mind. You can chastise Nina and Louis all you want for the choices they make in life, but like anyone else, they are driven to survive by any means necessary.

I loved the scenes between Gyllenhaal and Russo as they constantly size each other up to where they firmly believe they have the other person figured out. As Louis gets more and more successful at capturing footage others could only dream of getting, and this eventually leads to him getting better equipment and a super cool car which goes super-fast, their relationship gets increasingly tense as he makes it clear to Nina who’s in charge. Nina observes Louis with both utter fascination and disgust as he stares right through her to where she can’t help but be taken in by him.

As “Nightcrawler” hurtles towards its wonderfully insane conclusion, Louis becomes a magician of sorts as he manipulates events to where he creates news he greatly profits from. We should despise him for what he does, but Gilroy has the audience firmly in his grip to where we can’t help but admire him for the devious things he has accomplished, and that’s regardless of what happens to others in his path.

Gyllenhaal was born to play Louis just as Russo was born to portray Nina, and both actors are well served by a supporting cast which matches them from scene for scene. The always reliable Bill Paxton plays Louis’ chief competitor, Joe Loder, and he is a hoot to watch as he tries to gain the upper hand only to see things blow up in his face. Also terrific is Riz Ahmed who plays Louis’ partner in crime footage coverage, Rick, a nice guy who hasn’t lost his moral bearings but is constantly forced to go against his better judgment in order to keep his job. Ahmed does great work as he makes us sympathize with Rick even as he gets into situations he can’t quite pull himself out of.

With “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy has given us a wonderfully twisted tale which shows how the American success story can become a reality if you’re willing to lose yourself in the process. What’s brilliant about the movie is it’s filled with characters molded by the world they live in. We can berate them all we want, but their actions speak more about what society has turned them into. In a time where employment opportunities are not as plentiful as they should be, it’s a little hard to blame these characters for what they do. But when we are forced to do the same, hopefully we can do it in a way that is nowhere as life threatening. Of course, that might just be wishful thinking.

I have to end this review with this piece of dialogue Louis Bloom has as it sums up the state of the world today perfectly:

“I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe, sir, is that good things come to those that work their asses off, and that good people such as yourself, who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there. My motto is: if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Please check out the interview I did with Gyllenhaal and Russo on “Nightcrawler” which I conducted on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.

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Exclusive Interview with Ron Shelton about ‘Just Getting Started’

Just Getting Started Shelton with Jones and Freeman

When I first looked at the poster for “Just Getting Started,” I was very happy to see the following phrase on it: written and direct by Ron Shelton. Shelton is responsible for creating some of the best sports movies such as “Bull Durham,” Tin Cup” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and he has a true gift for creating fantastic dialogue and getting wonderful performances out of his actors. Somewhere along the line, he stopped making movies to where I wondered where he was and what he was up to. Now we know.

“Just Getting Started” takes place at a luxury resort in Palm Springs, California called the Villa Capri. This resort is managed by Duke Diver (Morgan Freeman), a man with a mysterious past who is determined to make sure his residents will never ever stop partying or having fun. But while Duke is the life of the party, his ego becomes threatened by the arrival of Leo (Tommy Lee Jones), an ex-military man who wastes no time in battling Duke for the top spot of Alpha male at the Villa Capri. Things get even more complicated when a new resident, the beautiful Suzie (Rene Russo), arrives at the resort, and the two become determined to gain her affections in an effort to prove who is the better man. But once Duke’s past comes back to haunt him, he and Leo are forced to work together in an effort to stay alive.

It was a real pleasure talking with Shelton, and he spoke about what brought him back to the director’s chair for the first time in over a decade, how he goes about directing a comedy, and of what it was like to have Freeman and Jones go against type and play characters who are not so serious and eager to have fun. Shelton also talked about Glenne Headly who passed away recently, as this was the last movie she appeared in before her death.

Just Getting Started movie poster

Ben Kenber: I was very excited to learn you were directing another movie. This is your first feature film since “Hollywood Homicide.” What was it about this story which inspired you to get back in the director’s chair?

Ron Shelton: Well I had three or four movies which fell through at the last second, so it’s not like I suddenly decided to get off the couch and direct. I have been writing steadily and developing TV things and trying to finance features. In the independent world, there are so many moving parts to the financing that if one piece falls out, the whole thing falls apart. So it hasn’t been for lack of effort, and now I have a couple more I think that are gonna go. It won’t be such a dearth of time between them, and I got some other projects I’m working on. This one came together financially, that’s why this one got made.

BK: What inspired you to write this particular screenplay?

RS: Southern California where I grew up, and maybe you grew up, in the winters and Christmas, to me, I’m used to it. You go to the beach and play golf. But people from cold climates come out here and they are just like appalled; this doesn’t count as Christmas. And I started saying to half the world, this is Christmas, this kind of weather. What’s wrong with it? When the Nativity happened, it was probably more like Palm Springs (laughs). Then I remembered driving to Palm Springs at Christmas and there were dust storms and Christmas trees were blowing off lots down the street and Johnny Mathis was being piped in, and I thought, yeah, this was a good backdrop for a movie, so that’s where the backdrop came from. And then basically, the Duke Diver character is based on a hustler a producer and I knew who was a good hustler. He wasn’t a criminal hustler, but he was a guy everybody loved, and nobody ever knew what he did for a living or how he survived. So, I kind of turned that into this character, and the whole thing fell together.

BK: The characters played by Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Rene Russo, they are not all they appear to be at the start.

RS: Right, exactly.

BK: Your movies take place in the real world which we all understand and complain about more often than not, and they also contain fantastical elements which you can only find in the realm of fiction. How much of a challenge is it for you to balance those two elements out?

RS: It’s what I prefer to do. What I couldn’t imagine is a movie set in outer space or in the future or time travel or Death Stars blowing up or toys that turn into monsters or Transformers. That doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in human behavior whether it’s tragic or comic, and all of my movies, however disparate they are, are about how people behave. I just think that’s the most exciting thing to observe, and I tend to like movies about human behavior and not special effects. That’s just me. I’m in the minority obviously when you look at the box office results out there. I like to take the audience into a world they never would go into except for a movie whether it’s playground basketball (“White Men Can’t Jump”), minor league baseball (“Bull Durham”), or the political world of Louisiana politics in the 1950’s (“Blaze”). That’s just what interests me. It’s as simple as that.

BK: I fear many people will consider “Just Getting Started” as a movie about old people, but it really isn’t. It’s more about how no one ever really acts their age and how we roll with the punches.

RS: Well you don’t go to a retirement home to die. You go there to party. Everybody onscreen is not looking back and reliving their loses which everyone has, looking at their high school yearbooks, or thinking about what might have been. Everybody there probably is divorced or widowed, and all they are doing is looking for what’s next in their life. I’m 70. When you get to 70, that’s all you’re doing. I don’t think of myself as old. I can’t hit a golf ball as far, but I’m a better golfer. Morgan’s 80 and Tommy’s my age. We’re all about moving forward, working more, discovering things about ourselves, and that’s really what I think interests me. Most people I know who are my age, whether they are in the movie business or not, are not looking back. They are looking forward and looking forward to tomorrow. That’s all it’s about.

BK: I love how you cast Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones in these roles. Both are known for playing dramatic roles with a lot of gravitas, so seeing them let loose here is a joy because we don’t see them often in comedic roles. When it comes to directing actors to be funny, do you let them play the joke or play the scene?

RS: Play the scene always. Never play the joke. I’m not a very good joke writer anyway. I try to write behavior and interchange and exchange that’s humorous or that’s real and based on behavior, and I just say play it. You’re the actors, play it. Don’t ever look for a laugh. Don’t ever worry about where the punchline is because there’s probably not a punchline, and that’s the way we do it.

BK: That’s great because a lot of movies today, filmmakers just like to play the joke and that doesn’t work.

RS: Right.

BK: I think the trick with comedy, especially with your movies, is to play the scene and never play it like you are in on the joke.

RS:  Exactly. A lot of times an actor, not these two because they are so good, but in another movie I’d be directing, they would say this line is so funny on the page and I don’t think I’m getting the laugh out of it. I said you shouldn’t be trying to get the laugh, just play it real. Play every line real, and the laughs come or they don’t come. Sometimes you think there’s going to be a laugh in the script, and it’s a smile. Sometimes a laugh comes when you least expect it, but it’s not going to come on the punchline because there aren’t any, or they rarely are.

BK: You worked with Rene Russo in “Tin Cup,” and she looks and is fabulous in this role. It looks like a serious role for her at first, but then she pulls out the stops.

RS: Rene plays the strong woman who’s really a mess better than anybody I know (laughs).

BK: How did you direct the actors? Did you just let them loose?

RS: When a director says “action,” his work is done. It’s like you’re a basketball coach; at the first tip, you’re done. Plus, with these people, you don’t have to direct them as much as you give them a note and then get out of the way. Just help stage it and shoot it. Tommy’s note was look you’re not competing with Duke, he’s competing with you. You’re not threatened by Duke, he’s terribly threatened by you. So that’s where some of the chemistry comes from. Tommy’s toying with Duke, and Duke is fighting for his existence with Tommy. So that just needs a slightly different motivation.

BK: When you write a screenplay, you usually have a vision of it in your head of how the dialogue should sound like. What is it like when actors speak the dialogue you have written?

RS: Well then, it’s the third thing: You write one movie, you shoot another movie, and then you edit a third movie as the old saying goes. Once they have it, it takes on a new life of its own. That’s the truth. Once you’ve hired the actor and I hand them the script, I always say look, until this moment, I know more about this character than you because I have been living with this character and writing him and figuring him out. Now, it’s yours. Now you’re going to discover things about this character I didn’t even think about. So in a certain way, I’m handing this character to you.

BK: I also liked the three ladies (played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, Elizabeth Ashley and the late Glenne Headly) whom Duke flirts with, and I loved their dialogue because you expect them to not know what’s going on, but they know more than they let on. What was it like writing those characters?

RS: They were great. I wish I had more time. It was a fast shoot. We had 28 days if you can believe that. If we had more time, we could have done more with those wonderful actresses. And yes indeed, it was a shocking loss when Glenne passed. Nobody anticipated it at all, and it happened suddenly too. It wasn’t like a disease. But they were all great to work with. They were so happy to be working in a nourishing environment where everybody was having fun, and there was mutual trust and we could play. But everybody was very respectful of the script. There was virtually no improvising in the whole movie, and they were just pros. I love working with pros.

BK: I really thought the dedication you gave Glenne at the conclusion of the end credits was really lovely.

RS: Thank you.

BK: In regards to the shooting schedule you had for this movie, how did shooting it in less than 30 days affect you as a director?

RS: It’s not a shooting schedule when a movie is shot in three different cities with 80 and 70-year-old actors with about 80 locations. It’s a schedule when you’ve got sets, and we didn’t have any sets, and you’re moving the company all the time. When you’re moving the company all the time, that’s what takes time. The second unit I shot in Palm Springs because we also shot in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and I picked up a day in Valencia. So that’s a lot of movie for 28 days.

BK: Another actor I was happy to see in this movie was Jane Seymour, and she is almost completely unrecognizable here. Was this by design or was it her idea to look completely different from any role she has played previously?

RS: When she said she would love to do this, she was a late add. She said, what’s my hair look like? I said I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about that. And she said, I have two different wigs. And I said, why don’t you wear them both? We’ll just alternate them in scenes. She thought that was a great idea, and she said one is blonde and one is brunette. I said perfect, every time we cut to you, you’ll look different.

BK: How did this movie evolve for you while you were in the editing room?

RS: Well you keep finding the movie. The big question in editing was, how much should the audience know that you keep a secret? You don’t want to make it too much, and you also don’t want to say he doesn’t have a secret because when the golf cart blows up, it can’t be like, what the hell’s happening? It has to be oh, now we’re going to get to the bottom of the secret. So we were always playing with how much to share with the audience and how much not to share. That’s just a difficult kind of problem you address in post-production.

I really want to thank Ron Shelton for taking the time to talk with me. It was a real pleasure. “Just Getting Started” will open on December 8, 2017. Be sure to check it out!

Poster, photo and trailer courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

David S. Ward Looks Back at the Making of ‘Major League’

major-league-movie-poster

The 1989 sports comedy “Major League” got a special screening at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, and joining moderator and American Cinematheque program director Grant Moninger for a Q&A was the movie’s writer and director David S. Ward and producer Chris Chesser. This screening brought out many excited fans who consider “Major League” to be the best baseball movie ever made.

Moninger started off by saying that after watching “Major League,” it seemed like the most fun film to make as everyone got to film and play baseball. When he asked Ward what the making of the movie was like, we were surprised by his answer.

“It was one of the most difficult movies to make that I ever had been associated with,” said Ward. “When we started we had one of the hottest summers in 75 years in Milwaukee where we shot the movie. We started out with six weeks of night shooting because we had to work around the (Milwaukee) Brewers schedule at the time, and staying up all night for six weeks just kills you. It was an independent movie at the time, and we didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t have a lot of anything.”

Regardless of the production difficulties, however, Ward said he did have a great time making “Major League” because of the guys, and he even said that Rene Russo, who played Berenger’s ex-girlfriend Lynn Wells, was one of the guys as well. Ward described the cast as being magnificent and said everybody pulled together to make this movie work. It was just the physical difficulty of making it was hard, and it was something the cast and crew hadn’t planned on dealing with.

Ward went on to describe the “red tag” scene in the locker room in which the players discover whether or not they have been cut from the team. This scene ended up being shot in the basement of a high school which had no windows, and it was already 95 degrees when they began shooting there at four in the morning.

“We had two jerseys for each player, and I remember Tom (Berenger) doing a take and he would sweat through his jersey because it was so hot,” Ward said. “We would take his jersey and give him the other one, and we’d blow dry the one that was sweated through with a hair dryer. Well, it dried it, but it also made it hot. When he sweated through the other one, he had to put on the dry one which was hot!”

When it came to casting “Major League,” Ward said he would only cast people who could play baseball:

“I had actors come in and tell me they played Triple-A ball for the Cardinals, and Chris (Chesser) and I would take them outside and we’d play catch with them, and the Triple-A guy couldn’t throw the ball 15 feet; he never played baseball in his life! People will say anything to get the part, so we just took them outside and we tested them out.”

The cast ended up having two weeks of training before filming began with Steve Yeager who was a former Major League baseball player himself. This was about getting everybody in shape not only to play baseball but also to do basic physical conditioning.

“If you’re not used to playing baseball every day, you don’t realize how many quick starts and stops there are and you can pull muscles and hamstrings,” Ward said. “If an actor gets injured, you can’t shoot with them for a while and your schedule gets screwed up. So, everybody got in shape both physically and baseball-wise and that was a big help.”

Players from other baseball teams were also cast such as Peter Vuckovich who was an All-Star pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers and Cy Young award winner. Vuckovich played the New York Yankees’ first baseman Haywood, and Chesser remarked he was actually asked to read for the part of the Yankee reliever nicknamed “The Duke.” However, he and Davis found Vuckovich to be “so ugly and so menacing” to where it made more sense to cast him as the player who insults Berenger and hits home runs off of Charlie Sheen. But Chesser also said although Vuckovich looked like he could hit a baseball out of the field, he actually “never hit the ball out of the infield” and never hit a single home run in his entire career.

When it came time to film the climatic game where the Cleveland Indians play against the New York Yankees for the division title, Ward said he and Chesser promoted a night at the stadium to get extras, and 27,000 people showed up. Looking back, the evening was an amazing experience for him and the cast as they had so many cheering people to work with.

“We taught them how to sing ‘Wild Thing,’” said Ward. “We had cameras roaming around all night just picking up people. The girls who came out and danced on the dugout, they just did it! We didn’t ask them to do it, they just got out and did it! I just looked at that and said, thank God!”

Ward added there was a group of about 350 people who came out every night, and he even remembered a couple who had tickets to the Summer Olympics in Seoul that same year. The couple debated whether to travel to Seoul like they planned or stay for the last two days of the movie’s shooting. Ward encouraged them to go to the Olympics, but they ended up staying.

Moninger also asked about the late James Gammon who played head coach Lou Brown, and the mention of the actor’s name got a big applause from the audience. Ward got a bit choked up when talking about Gammon and said he never had any other actor in mind for Lou other than him.

“I was just thrilled to get him, “ Ward said. “He was everything I thought he would be. He’s a great gentleman and a wonderful man. Nothing bothered him. He was a rock of Gibraltar in every way. I remember going to his memorial service and one of the things that was really moving to me is they had his jersey from ‘Major League’ hanging up. He gave so many great performances, and yet the one everyone identifies him with is this one.”

When it came to writing “Major League,” Ward said he was inspired to write about Cleveland as he grew up there. The year this screening took place, every major sports team in Cleveland was pathetic, and Ward remembered it being pretty much the same way when he was deciding on what movie he was going to write next.

“I was thinking that probably the only way the Cleveland Indians would win anything in my lifetime is if I wrote a movie with them winning,” Ward said. “So what kept me going was I just didn’t want to be another Cleveland failure.”

One big question the audience had was why “Major League,” which takes place in Cleveland, wasn’t actually shot there. Ward responded he knew he was going to get into trouble for that.

“The reason we shot it in Milwaukee was that Cleveland is a big union town, and we couldn’t do it independently there,” Ward said. “The other thing was that they hadn’t built the Jacobs Field (which is now the Progressive Field) ballpark yet, so the team was still playing at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Also, the Browns were playing pre-season games there, and the field had football lines on it. That wouldn’t have looked very good, so it wasn’t feasible to shoot there.”

Another audience member brought up Bob Uecker who played Indians sportscaster Harry Doyle in “Major League” and asked how much of his dialogue was written and improvised. Ward replied he wrote the character of Harry and his lines, but when Uecker was cast he discovered just how incredibly funny he was. What also helped Ward was that Uecker knew a lot of things about baseball players he didn’t, and he felt he would have been an idiot not to let Uecker improvise if he wanted to. When it came to Uecker’s famous line of “just a bit outside,” Ward said he wrote it, but it didn’t sound anywhere as funny in his head as when Uecker said it.

Everyone at the Aero Theatre had a wonderful time hearing all these stories about how “Major League” came to be. After so many years, this movie really holds up as it is hilarious and has a lot of heart. While many of the actors other than Berenger and Bernsen were not able to make it to this screening, we did get a surprise guest with Jo-bu, Pedro Cerrano’s voodoo god doll. Ward and company celebrated the appearance with Jo-bu with some rum, the same kind Eddie Harris (played by Chelcie Ross) stole and took a drink from when nobody was watching. You all remember what happened to him, right?