Story ideas can pop up out of nowhere, but how we decide to tell that story is a whole other process.
Nightcrawler is one of the films that you know is an instant classic. There is a restlessness to this neo-noir film as it digs into the ideas of our human nature and moral code. This unique feeling that the film evokes is greatly due to the success of Dan Gilroy’s script.
For most of us writers, ideas for screenplays don’t come to us in a great flash of light or a dream. Instead, they start as small ideas, moments that make us stop and wonder what that sliver of the world looks like. This was true in Gilroy’s case. The script slowly revealed itself in pieces to Gilroy which would allow him time to heavily research the world of a true nightcrawler and develop a story that questions society rather than the acts of a sociopath.
Gilroy’s inspiration for Nightwalker came to him in a bookstore when he saw Weegee’s Naked City, a photo book full of highly lewd and sensationalized pictures of crime in New York during the 1940s. Weegee’s book showcased his work as a stringer who would drive around the city with a police scanner in his car to find locations of crimes. Gilroy’s interest was sparked, but Howard Franklin already made a film out of this idea called The Public Eye.
The idea lingered in Gilroy’s mind as he looked for something new to incorporate into the narrative. Then, the modern equivalent to Weegee’s act revealed itself to Gilroy—the "nightcrawler." Similar to Jake Gyllenhall’s character Lou, nightcrawlers are crime scene hunters that speed around the city in their Crown Victorias while listening to a dozen police scanners.
This discovery of the modern-day Weegee inspired Gilroy to write a story that followed an anti-hero journalist that finds himself building an empire off of the fault of human nature. Gilroy chose to keep Lou’s past ambiguous to focus the story on themes surrounding the notions of unemployment and capitalism at work in our modern society.
Gilroy furthered his research for the character of Lou by joining real-life nightcrawlers, the Raishbrook brothers, who were also the film’s technical advisors.
One night out with the Raishbrook brothers, Gilroy, Gyllenhaal, and Nightcrawler’s DP Robert Elswit were taken to the site of a car accident on their first night out. The accident involved three girls who were launched out of a car that had crashed into an embankment at 80 miles per hour. While the accident was horrifying, the Raishbrook brothers' professionalism was on display as they filmed, edited, and sold the footage within five minutes.
This closer look at the realities of a nightcrawler’s job and connection to news outlets was something Gilroy had never heard of and wanted to shine a light on this hidden part of the world that produces the news every day.
Creating a story that is authentic and based in reality forces that audience to look at their own code of ethics. I know that I always tell myself that I won’t look at the accident on the side of the highway, but I always do, and you do it, too. It is human nature to look at tragedy because it triggers our flight-or-fight instincts, and news sources have found a way to capitalize off our instincts.
Rather than have Nightcrawler be about a sociopath’s descent into crime and violence for fame, the focus for Gilroy has always been about the strange success that nightcrawlers find in a world obsessed with tragedy and greed.
Lou’s character has a strange energy that Gilroy nailed because of his focus on the character’s lack of arc and hunger for a place in the world. Gilroy’s finished script never changed after he finished writing it due to how sure he was about the story he was telling about a world that creates and rewards people like Lou. The research and a clear focus on the story allowed Gilroy to write a perfect script that captured the success story of an anti-hero.
What are your thoughts on Gilroy’s script development of Nightcrawler? Let us know in the comments below!