"NIGHTCRAWLER" arrives on Halloween, appropriate for a movie conceived as a campfire story.
And like a good campfire story, it leaves a lot to the imagination, says star Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the mysterious title character, a fellow who photographs crime and carnage.
"The opening shot of the film, it's pitch black, and the headlights hit him and he suddenly emerges out of this proto-darkness. He's like something primal and elemental that just comes out of the land," said Gyllenhaal. He'd stopped in Philadelphia to surprise a preview audience last weekend, part of a marketing blitz that took him to three cities on the same day.
The actor, who lost 30 pounds for the role, thought of his character, Lou Bloom, as a nocturnal scavenger and predator, lean and opportunistic. "I kept thinking of him as a coyote," he said.
A coyote with an online business degree.
In "Nightcrawler," Bloom builds a thriving business on the freelance sale of crime and accident footage. We see him engage in increasingly disturbing behavior, but his motivations are importantly left to the audience to ponder and decipher.
"Jake and I do a lot of studio work," said writer/director Dan Gilroy, "and a lot of what the studios demand in a story is that everything has to be explained. God help you if you're in your fourth preview and four cards come in and somebody needs something explained. You're back to reshooting.
"I think that what you lose [with this] is mystery. When you don't supply every detail of the backstory, you allow the audience to subconsciously start supplying their own, and that's part of the magic of storytelling. In the classic campfire story, you don't tell every detail. You allow the listeners to participate with their own imaginations."
Gyllenhaal started looking for offbeat movies like "Nightcrawler" after fighting his way to the top of the Hollywood food chain, ending up in blockbusters like "The Day After Tomorrow" that made money but didn't burn as much creative energy.
"I've always been the kind of actor who likes to throw a lot of ideas into the process, but I haven't always had the opportunity to do that," he said. "Early on in my career I was much better at following my instincts. But then you get offered things, and it's really hard to turn [them] down, and so I did that for a while.
"And then, a couple years ago, I don't know, something changed. I suddenly asked myself: 'What happened to the process of acting that I loved so much?' "
You can see Gyllenhaal make a career U-turn after "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," working with young directors on independent projects or challenging studio films - "Source Code," "Enemy," "Prisoners," and David Ayer's "End of Watch."
Gilroy is a veteran Hollywood writer, but "Nightcrawler" is his first stint behind the camera.
Gyllenhaal's "Nightcrawler" character has no friends, no family, so the actor came up with a story to fill in the blanks. He sees Lou as a moral orphan with no real parenting, no real schooling, a lot of virtual instruction.
"Lou is the ultimate self-taught man. He's had no formal education. He talks a little bit like Siri. His formative relationships are with the electrical impulses of the Internet. He's sort of memorized things, and when he talks, he's sort of recapitulating them in a rote way, but in a way that's logical to him."
Lou's bloodless, balance-sheet regard for the people in his life - his TV editor client (Rene Russo), his hilariously hapless intern (Riz Ahmed) - are what form the basis of the movie's escalating levels of horror and black comedy.
There is a line between arriving at a crime scene and arranging one, and Lou lives on that line. If he crosses it, it's in the interest of profit.
Said Gilroy: "When we had our first meeting about the movie and Jake asked me how I looked at the movie, and I said, 'It's a success story,' and we both burst out laughing."
From a sense of mordant agreement.
"I think Lou is part of a generation, my generation, that's been told to value success at any cost, and that success is measured by money," Gyllenhaal said.
"People say it's disturbing to watch him, and I think that what's disturbing is he's this creature that we've created. It's what we ordered up."