Nightcrawler is filled with its fair share of bloody images — after all, it’s about an amateur crime-scene paparazzo (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who captures carnage on the streets and sells it to the local news — but the most shocking thing in it may be a simple dinner date at a Mexican restaurant.
“It's fucked up!” admitted writer-director Dan Gilroy of the six-and-a-half-minute scene, which marks the crucial pivot-point of the film and has been eliciting stunned laughter from audiences since Nightcrawler’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September. “There's no spectacle you can show, in terms of 3-D and visual effects, that can rival a scene between two people if you're willing to write something that shows how truly dangerous and fucked up people can be.”
The scene in question comes halfway into the movie, when Gyllenhaal’s weaselly Lou Bloom has finally convinced morning-news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) to meet him for dinner. She’s still a little bit creeped out by the amoral Lou, but the gonzo footage he’s been selling to her may be the only thing that can move the ratings needle for her last-place station, so she agrees to meet him for a margarita. How bad can it be?
Very bad, as Nina soon finds out. She has underestimated Lou’s lunatic fervor, and over chips and salsa, Lou lays out exactly how much Nina would lose if he takes his footage elsewhere — including her already-tenuous job and health insurance — and then steadily ups the ante on what she must do for him in order to solidify their working relationship. Nina only agreed to this date to humor Lou, but now he’s audaciously blackmailing her into sex, making his case with a chilling smile. “I have to think you’re invested in this transaction,” he says, capping off a scene of monologues and power plays so dizzying that Gyllenhaal said he actually felt vertiginous while performing it. Lou reveals his true, shocking nature in that scene, and the movie does, too: It’s not really the satire of television news it seemed to be, but instead a recession-era tragicomedy of people crossing moral boundaries simply to stay afloat.
Audiences might recoil from Gyllenhaal after watching it, but that didn’t stop the actor from giving the scene his all. “It’s my favorite thing ever,” Gyllenhaal told Vulture. “There’s so much dialogue, and we would shoot full takes. The theater animal that I love got to come out and play, and you rarely get that in movies.”
Gilroy would know, since he’s written plenty of more conventional films, like Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy. Burned out by a career full of big-studio compromise, he decided to tackle the nervy Nightcrawler, and by the time he scripted the film’s Mexican-restaurant scene, he had very purposefully started breaking the rules he used to live by.
“I was in such a weird place when I wrote this movie, and I'm still in sort of a weird place,” Gilroy said. “I just wanted to throw out all the conventions that I normally use. Having a backstory, having a likable character, giving him an arc, having a happy ending … it was all out the window. So I was in unconventional territory from the moment I started. My hero was my villain! I'd never done that before, but I was just writing for myself.”
When Gilroy finished the script, he showed it to Russo — who, as it happens, has been his wife for 22 years — and asked for her reaction. She thrilled to the unconventional story, but couldn’t relate to Nina’s capitulation in the Mexican restaurant.
“I said, 'Danny, the female needs a rewrite,’” laughed Russo. “He was like, 'Shut up, no, it doesn't,' basically. We always sort of argue about things like that, because I'm not that delicate.”
Ultimately, though, “Not a word was changed,” said Russo. “Not one word. It was my problem! It took me a long time to discover her motivation and what made her tick. I'm not actually a horrible, step-on-everyone-to-get-where-I'm-going person, so I had to figure out how to draw from my own fear and desperation.”
She also had to chart Nina’s emotional arc through a scene that is mostly dominated by Lou. “I’m given, like, a .50 caliber machine gun of dialogue in that scene, and she's given a spoon,” said Gyllenhaal. But Russo made the most of it, packing a wilted life’s history into every stunned laugh and slipping a hand onto Gyllenhaal’s thigh at unexpected moments to unnerve him. “She was just doing everything she could to beat me and survive with the power she had — even actor to actor, not just character to character — and I love that stuff,” said Gyllenhaal. “I mean, that, to me, is why I do what I do: being fucked with and challenged as an actor by someone else.”
“He just had her trapped,” Russo said of Lou. “He knew everything about her, and had done his homework. I, Rene, might have just said, 'Fuck you,' and that would have been the end of it, but I thought, Well, you have health insurance, Rene, and you have a good job and don't have to carry things alone. Young people are coming to take her job, and if the ratings are still low, she's out, and God knows where she'll go.”
Once the scene (filmed at El Compadre in Los Angeles) was wrapped, Russo was surprised by how satisfied she felt, and critics concur, calling the role in Nightcrawler a career high for the actress. “Sometimes scenes just work,” she said. “At the end, I felt like I'd gotten everything I wanted out there, which is nice, because sometimes you feel like you didn't use certain colors in the paint box.” Russo hasn’t seen it herself yet, as she typically avoids watching her own work, “but I've been told that the scene is an E-ticket ride at Disneyland, although I'm aging myself by saying that.” Still, she plans to break her custom to view Nightcrawler, since it’s her husband’s directorial debut.
Another habit may need amending, too: Russo is typically a mainstay at Mexican restaurants, but after taking part in Nightcrawler’s centerpiece creepfest, she wonders whether it’ll be too unsettling for her to be seen in her usual haunts. She punctuated her fretting with a throaty laugh: “And a margarita is my drink!”