View from the Viewfinder: The Purposeful POV Video in 'Nightcrawler'

“Who wouldn’t want to shoot a movie about Los Angeles with the cinematographer of Boogie Nights?” says director Dan Gilroy of cinematographer Robert Elswit.
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Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy, concerns Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a sociopathic young man who finds his calling as a freelance videographer. Racing through Los Angeles guided by a police scanner to capture the night’s goriest events to sell to local news stations, Lou is not above cutting corners or breaking the law to sell a clip.

Gilroy says the story was inspired by mid-century photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig), whose vivid black-and-white photographs documented some of New York’s most gruesome crimes and accidents. The writer/director explains, “I wanted to tell that story but make it contemporary. There are so many young people desperate for work [now], and when I tied that into this maladjusted character, the components all gelled.”



Cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC (There Will Be Blood), had filmed his brother, Tony Gilroy’s, directorial outings—The Bourne Legacy, Duplicity and Michael Clayton—so when he responded to the Nightcrawler script, it was a done deal. Says Gilroy, “Who wouldn’t want to shoot a movie about Los Angeles with the cinematographer of Boogie Nights?”

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Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

The film had a very tight budget and only 28 days to cover 80 locations, often with multiple company moves very late at night. At Elswit’s prompting, Gilroy prepared extensive shot lists in advance. “When we would arrive at 2 a.m. with our quarter-mile caravan, we all would need to have a very clear idea of what we were trying to accomplish,” says Gilroy.

“Robert assembled an incredibly high-caliber crew, able to move fast,” he adds. A transplant to Southern California from New York, Gilroy wanted to avoid the clichés other filmmakers have used to define the area. “I find it to be a place of great physical beauty,” he says of the Los Angeles area. “I’m stunned by how far you can see. You can see snowcapped mountains and ocean. Often, L.A. is portrayed as this desaturated place of cement and freeways and downtown. Early on, [Elswit and I] decided we didn’t want that look at all.”

The cinematographer used ARRI Alexas to shoot, taking advantage of the EI 800 and deep shadow response to capture the feel of the city at night. “Robert is a master craftsman of lighting,” Gilroy notes. “Sometimes he would very selectively light a building or some other object a few hundred yards away from the action and let the available light fill in. Other times he would fully light a scene if it required that. He didn’t just stick to the same approach for everything.”

Gilroy also gives Elswit credit for the way much of Nightcrawler is told so effectively through Lou’s camera monitor. This narrative device is integral to the way the film’s story unfolds. When Lou comes upon an accident or a crime scene, our view of the scene is reduced, to a great extent, to what he sees in his video camera. While Gilroy knew early on that this perspective would be represented in the film, he’d initially imagined giving the viewer more traditional coverage, too.

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Gyllenhaal and Ahmed with director Dan Gilroy. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick.

In a key scene shot early in the schedule, Lou and Rick (Riz Ahmed), his assistant, capture a violent shootout on video while hidden across the street from the action. “When we scouted the restaurant where that shootout occurs, we thought that even though Lou and his partner were across the street, we’d still show a lot of the action from inside,” Gilroy recalls. “But when we started to rehearse with cameras, Robert quickly spotted that the viewfinders of their cameras had a life of their own. We realized we didn’t have to go inside the restaurant. We stayed on the characters’ shoulders and watched the scene through their viewfinders. It made it a much more kinetic sequence, and that became the language of the film. Later in the story we have this big chase where we shot down 20 blocks of Los Angeles. The inclination could have been, ‘Let’s just film the hell out of this and get the action from every angle,’ but instead we made the commitment to stay inside the car. We go outside for a few moments to enhance the sense of motion, but all the heavy stunts in the chase are shown entirely from inside the car. I think it was a bold choice, to show these big action sequences from this viewfinder.”

Elswit shot action through a variety of real camcorder monitors; the material wasn’t composited later, though colorist Sofie Borup of Company 3 did do extensive work in Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve, selectively fine-tuning focus and contrast, sometimes degrading a “too-clean” picture to ensure that viewers held their focus on that video image. “Sometimes it didn’t pop quite enough,” the director explains, “and we were able to fine-tune that shot by shot in post.

“I think it worked perfectly to show those bloody images through a small viewfinder so the audience isn’t always sure what they’re seeing right away,” Gilroy concludes. “They have to lean in. ‘Is this a bloody corpse?’ In a way, it ignites that desire in all of us to see graphic, lurid images, and that parallels what I think this film is ultimately about.”  



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