Jake Gyllenhaal on How to Make World-Changing, Character-Driven Films

We all want to make powerful films, but aren't quite sure which elements are integral to the process.

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal and director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Prince Avalanche) discuss just that during an event at SXSW, going over what makes a story great, what actors look for in directors, and how to make films that can ultimately change the world.

Here are several takeaways:

Your story should have something to say

We all know that story is king, but to Gyllenhaal, the films that "have something to say" are the ones he finds most interesting. This doesn't mean that your film has to have a grand political or social agenda, or speak about the ills of the world from a soapbox — you could have something to say about any facet of the human experience, whether it's physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. Gyllenhaal says:

It has to have something to say beyond just, "This is an entertaining story." It has to have a resonance — I believe really deeply in the unconscious of a story — not just the [consciousness] of the story. So, it has to have something underneath.

Fear is good

If you're not scared, there might be something wrong. Fear is a great indicator — sometimes it indicates that the movie you're working on is horrible and you should run away screaming, but sometimes it indicates that you're being pushed as an artist and being given an opportunity to grow in your craft. So, if your project scares the hell out of you, good! Find out why — find out in which direction you should run.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Jean-Marc Vallée's 'Demolition', which won an Audience Choice Award at SXSW.

Character vs. Concept

It's easy for a story, especially ones that have complex ideas, to spend too much time developing and explaining a concept rather than doing so for the characters. You see this in films all the time — the plots are really complicated and interesting, but the characters seem to only be there to explain the plot. Really it should be the other way around, yeah? If you need an example, look at Christopher Nolan's films Memento and Inception. Both have very intriguing concepts, but in one film the plot exists to reveal more about the multi-dimensional characters, rather than the other way around. Can you guess which film it is? (It's Memento.) Director David Gordon Green talks about this in his conversation with Gyllenhaal:

I think a lot of films get lost in the overall scope and scale of the concept and forget the little nuances of character. I really do think it's something fun to watch a performance that's drawn from the intimacy of character rather than the enormity of concept.

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MVsuFX5x08

Allow an actor's instincts to come through

The job of a director is really nuanced; there's no one way or correct way to do it. But Gyllenhaal shares one thing he truly appreciates when working with certain directors is their willingness to forgo their ego, collaborate, and allow him to act on instinct. You have to remember that when a director and an actor begin to work together, many times it's the actor, not the director, who shines a light on the obscure edges of a character, performance, or scene, and a good director knows how to allow actors to do this. He says:

I think all the best directors I've ever worked with have always allowed for those ideas to happen — and then sneakily, in the smartest way, they get their way.

"How do you create movies that do change the world?"

An audience member asks Gyllenhaal how to make a film that can change the world, and his response was:

I think it's a balance of self-reflection — enough that you ask yourself what you actually believe in. I don't think it's all about making movies that people "deem important" or political. I do inherently believe that all movies are political regardless of what they are or what they're saying. I think it's just about being able to ask yourself what you actually love — I think I've discovered that — if I ask myself what really moves me, people start to gather around.

No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom    

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I am so in love with Jake. He is like the perfect actor, the perfect gentleman and so smart! Besides, how awesome he looks in this suit!

March 23, 2016 at 7:01AM


Renee, I love your work and the website. You're a good writer and your articles may be relevant, constructive, surprising or instructive.
But please, in the name of the almighty Muses of Cinema who may be listening to us right now, you may want to refrain from upholding a critical assertion upon Nolan's work and inasmuch in evaluating the spectrum of his structural storytelling process and its outcome for what it may or may not work or be "comprehensible" to an audience at large, you included. In every story, the plot and the characters intertwine - cheerfully dancing with each others as to compliment an elaborate and dramatic entertainment. That's inevitable. Dicken's used side characters whise sole purpose is to bring about explanations and new troubles to the plot and vice- versa - so did Homer so does JK Rowling. The problem, it seems to me that most people have with Inception, is that the audience often retains one part the story, overlooking the rest if it. After all, Inception is an action drama where a father has lost his children and wife and is about to lose his only "link" with the real world: his estranged father. There's an ethical theme to it underlined by the breaking of an energy monopoly controlled by a ruthless and greedy corporation incarnated by a cold-hearted dying CEO. There are psychoanalysis AND metaphysical theses in which one may lose her soul - waiting to die alone m, filled with regrets - or redeem a strained relationship with a parent who had never loved us. Or, one may ease by keeping them intact haunting "souvenirs" of a suicidal partner who, independently to her willing, lost touch with the "material". There is a theme of "infinity" where one may construct and design without limitations, busy in the meandering of absolute creation: the dream of any architect who dares and imagine. There is the theme that "inception" is possible if only conceived, implementing an idea that would seem occuring naturally to the subject victim of a subliminal "propaganda". There is a theme that transcends our reality which isn't necesserally what it might appear to be; though - regarless - we determine what to believe in and that's what the finale is all about: our choices. There is an overwhelming sensation of grandeur and tension both in visuals and in rhythm, imposed to the spectator and accentuating a gradual theme of "apocalyptic" proportions. There is a theme that sustains that our subsconscients trigger a more profound effect upon our human interactions that we would admit and that, in despite of whatever protective barriers we ought to enact, we remain vulnerable. There's a theme establishing that Love knows no boundaries and that it may even break free In its dimension from reason and folly: the hell with conventions and common sense, what's real becomes in fact real in a dream within a dream.
Finally, the argument that the characters exists only to reveal a plot is true - as in any story - albeit, in that case, one may argue that Nolan - a brave storyteller - has managed to depict an epic drama in which a character through his quest - a near-impossible kast minute gamble to reunite with his live ones - chases his demons and confronts them, avoiding bullets and traps of different nature in worlds where the only way up is down. The hero saves not one but three lives, he mentors a wary though curious apprentice (she's one in helping us in clarifying what's going on) and he challenges other collaborators to accomplish greater while constantly improvising to unforeseen circumstances threatening the whole thing to, gravity-suspended, fall appart at an any given "time", or kick, echoed by the ghostly voice of a distant Edith Piaf.
Some call this movie brilliant, ingenious, orginial, intellectual. Some will remember it - as the inception intends - for a maze so deeply and masterfully anchored into our uncouscious levels that, perhaps, at the end and when we wake up, so little if any remains.

March 23, 2016 at 9:39AM

Philo/Wrter/StoryMaker and so on.

Inception's problems stemmed from the storyline being glaringly obvious (and about 30 minutes too long) and chock-a-block with gratuitous action imagery reminiscent of a '80s Bond film or Marvel sequel-sequel. Other than that it was... well, meh.

January 8, 2017 at 12:04PM

Zan Shin