Magazine article The New Yorker

Rembrandt Lighting

Magazine article The New Yorker

Rembrandt Lighting

Article excerpt


"Oh, my God--unbelievable, awful, amazing," Dan Gilroy murmured, as he sifted through a box of Weegee photographs from the forties. Gilroy, a writer-director, was at the Steven Kasher Gallery, in Chelsea, last week, using its collection to explain how Weegee--connoisseur of the blood-spattered corpse--had inspired his new film, "Nightcrawler," about a feral loner who roams Los Angeles, filming scenes of mayhem for the local news.

The fifty-five-year-old Gilroy, who wrote "The Bourne Legacy," is as thin and pale as dental floss, with a sepulchral face and milky-blue eyes. He is the antithesis of beach volleyball. It all began, he said, when he came across Weegee's book "Naked City," in 1988: "I thought, What an amazing intersection of art and crime and commerce! But I couldn't figure out how to plug into it. I wrote a treatment with a 'Chinatown' feel, only instead of being about water it was about a landfill."

He shrugged in mild apology and continued: "Five years ago, I heard about these stringers-slash-nightcrawlers who drive around L.A. all night at a hundred miles an hour listening to ten police scanners--a modern update of Weegee. And I decided to set the film in that world and make it a character study." His antihero, Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a one-man startup who employs business bromides, then extortion and murder, to secure a monopoly on the most lurid images. "Ten years after the film ends, Lou would be running a major corporation, orchestrating a giant merger that puts fifty thousand people out of work," Gilroy said. "But he's not just a sociopath--he's also very good at adapting." He observed that Gyllenhaal played Lou as a human coyote who comes down from the hills at night to feed: "Jake lost twenty-eight pounds for the role, so he was literally starving on camera, desperate to consume."

Gilroy held up "Arrest," a 1940 shot of a wild-eyed woman resisting being frog-marched by a man in a trenchcoat. "I didn't give Lou a backstory, and we don't have the backstory here. I imagine that the woman's son committed suicide. And that guy over there"--a dapper observer with a weedy pencil mustache--"seems intent, like he's taking notes. He looks like a journalist." He noted that the photographer was able to capture these hectic moments because "Weegee invented carrying a scanner"--his version was a shortwave radio--"and getting there ahead of the cops, then selling the images to the highest bidder."

Dan Gilroy

The director peered at Weegee's circular stamp--"Credit Photo by Weegee the Famous"--and continued: "He used a Speed Graphic camera, had a ten-foot focus, and shot with flash to create what he called Rembrandt lighting. …

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