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6 Filmmaking Tips From Dan Gilroy

The writer-director behind ‘Nightcrawler’ and ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ talks collaboration, creativity, and why you should forget about the “rules.”
Untitled Dan Gilroy Film
Claudette Barius/Netflix
By  · Published on January 28th, 2019

Dan Gilroy got his start in theater and then spent four years reporting for Variety before getting his foot in the door as a screenwriter. After decades writing films including The FallReal Steel, and The Bourne Legacy, he made his directorial debut in 2014 with Nightcrawler, which introduced one of the great antiheroes of the past decade in the cold-blooded Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) and earned Gilroy an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. His sophomore effort was the Denzel Washington starring Roman J. Israel, Esq. Now, jumping on the Netflix bandwagon, the filmmaker is reteaming with Gyllenhaal for Velvet Buzzsaw, a stylish tale of art and murder. With years of experience wearing multiple hats in Hollywood, Gilroy has plenty of great advice to give, including the following six tips.

Good, Cheap Script + Star = Success

It’s an old Hollywood saying that stars get movies made, but Gilroy can back up the adage with personal experience. After growing increasingly dissatisfied with seeing his ideas manipulated by other filmmakers over the course of two decades, he came to the conclusion that he wanted to make the jump to the director’s seat, meaning he would have to convince financiers to back him as a first-time director. He came up with the following formula for success, as described in a Q&A session at the 2017 Austin Film Festival:

“Here’s my formula. My formula is, if it’s your first one, write something cheap. My original budget for [‘Nightcrawler’], I thought I could do it for like $4 million. And then, I very much agree with [author and screenwriter] Bill Goldman’s adage that stars get movies made. […]

“So I had ‘Nightcrawler,’ and I knew I was a first-time director, and people don’t want to give you your first directing gig, but if you have a script and it’s good and you say, ‘I’m directing,’ it’s really rather remarkable the way people go, ‘Okay.’ […]

“So I took the script, I went around, and I got the financing because Jake was interested in doing it. And I did that with ‘Roman Israel,’ same thing.”

You can watch the whole Q&A session below. The featured quote begins at 4:46:

Get Your Star in Your (Creative) Corner

We all know actors can make or break a film, but their role in getting a filmmaker’s vision to screen can be a whole lot bigger than just bringing characters to life. Particularly when working with actors with some degree of star power, being on the same wavelength creatively and having a star invested in backing your ideas can make a huge difference, particularly for less experienced filmmakers who would otherwise be more susceptible to the whims of financial backers. In addressing an audience member question about what challenges he faced filming Nightcrawler as part of a masterclass at the New York Film Academy in 2016, Gilroy elaborated on how he learned the value of forming such a creative partnership through his experience working with Jake Gyllenhaal:

“Because Jake and I creatively partnered, we formed a team that nobody could touch. Because Jake is the money. Your star is the money. So when your star gets something financed, few people, ultimately, are going to wedge the star off of an idea. […]

“If I had not partnered with Jake creatively, if I had been out alone, I would have been susceptible to many strong winds blowing about ideas and processes and things like that, which would have made [making the film] even more difficult. Because what happens a lot of times with first-time directors, you’ll get your star, you’ll get your money, and then they’ll go, ‘Amber [the name of the audience member who asked the question] has got an idea for this thing that’s REALLY SCARY. Man, that sounds really dangerous.’ And then people will start coming up to yougoing, ‘You can’t do that anymore.’  And you’ll be like, ‘It’s really important,’ but they’ll be like, ‘No, no, you can’t do that.’ If you’re allied with your star, there’s nothing they can effing do. Because your star’s going to go, ‘Amber IS going to do that.'”

You can watch the masterclass below. The featured quote starts at 34:43:

Be Open to Collaboration

However, on that note, in an October 2014 /Film interview, Gilroy describes an important prerequisite to a fruitful filmmaker-actor partnership: a willingness to collaborate. As he told Russ Fischer:

“I think directors can only be so lucky to work with someone like Jake if you’re open to it. If you’re willing to collaborate and share, for lack of a better term, the power of directing with an actor in the sense of allowing them to explore and do things, try things and do different takes. Having those in the can so in post you can string together something that is unique.”

Give Ideas Time to Develop

Gilroy has frequently addressed what advice he would give aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers, and he has consistently given the same response: wait for a truly good idea, and then give it time to develop. He has repeatedly stated that, given a year to write a screenplay, he would spend 11 months brainstorming and one month actually putting together the draft. When FSR’s own Natalie Mokry asked Gilroy about the matter at the 2017 Austin Film Festival, this was his response:

Don’t just sit down and feel that you have to write and just start writing because that’s not going to turn out well. If your job was prospecting and you had to find diamonds, you’d have to wander around for a long time and then suddenly find something that makes you go ‘I think that’s a diamond,’ and then you go back to polish it. So make sure when you go back to polish it, make sure it’s like a diamond and that there is something there. Don’t just go, ‘Wow, I’m a writer and I’ve got to start writing something.” It’s not a good way to start. Think about the idea. Think about whatever it is that makes you excited by the idea. Because you have a voice, whoever that person is. Something that makes you go, ‘I love this idea!’ Wait for that feeling. And then write it. Usually, better things will happen from that and people will read that and usually go, ‘Wow that’s really interesting. Why did you do that? It’s so interesting you did this. It’s wild that you did this.’ And then they’ll say it should get made and do something about it. That’s the best way to go up if you’re a writer. And if you’re a director, hang out with writers, because you need a script.”

Director Dan Gilroy And Denzel Washington On The Set Of Roman J Israel, Esq

Dan Gilroy and Denzel Washington on the set of ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ (Credit: Glen Wilson/CTMG)

Hang the Rules

If you have ever so much as considered writing a screenplay, you might have gone to the trouble of reading a book about it. And if you have ever gone to the trouble of reading a book about screenwriting—maybe (almost certainly) Syd Field’s Screenplay—you’ve encountered a number of rules deemed of the utmost importance regarding things like character arcs, inner conflict, act structures, and the like. The good news is that for the Dan Gilroy method there’s only one rule: all those rules can go hang. As he told ScreenwritingU Magazine:

“There are no rules. I don’t believe there are rules. So you don’t need a conflict. You don’t need an arc. You don’t need a backstory. The character doesn’t have to be likable. You don’t have to have any preconceived ideas about an idea. The key to an idea is to come up with something that reveals itself—and you don’t sort of take it and form it right away into, like, it has to have a happy ending, it has to have a likable character… allow the idea, whatever it is, to define what it wants to be, and have the patience to pursue where it wants to go.”

You can watch the full interview below. The featured quote starts at 1:23:

Good Antiheroes Need to Connect

The past 10 years or so have been a great time for antiheroes, particularly on the small screen with shows ranging from Breaking Bad to Peaky Blinders that put antiheroes front and center. On the big screen, the physically and metaphysically starved Lou Bloom—an underfed and beady-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal—is definitely among the more memorable entries into the book of cinematic antiheroes in recent years. Gilroy elaborated on what he sees as the key to a great antihero in a February 2015 PopMatters interview:

“I think the key to an antihero — you see it with Gandolfini, Walter White, and the other films I mentioned [‘The King of Comedy,’ ‘To Die For,’ and ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’] — is keeping a thread of connection between the character and the audience. Because the audiences will judge the character, they’ll say, ‘This is an evil character. I don’t like this character and what they’re doing. I don’t like what the character is doing, but I like this character. I can understand this character,’ or ‘I’m fascinated by this character.’ You have to keep that thread because if you don’t keep that thread, you get another kind of movie, which is a completely valid kind of movie, but it’s a different animal, such as the “psychopath movie,” like ‘American Psycho.’ And I did not want to do a character study of a psychopath. I wanted the antihero.”

What We Learned

In the constant flood of content that is the internet, creative types seeking to make a career can easily feel pressure to keep up and be hugely productive all the time. However, as Gilroy says, it’s worth giving yourself the time to explore and develop a really good idea, because a screenplay and ultimately a film can really only be as good as the fundamental concept behind it all.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.