What is the first thing you notice about a character?
I mean, the first thing. Where do you look at a character? Or where does the director direct you to look at them? How do you establish a person’s identity with one shot?
This is one of those basic filmmaking things that has always baffled me, because it is one of those divides that could be art, could be science, or could be a mix of both. Each time you are introduced to a character, you are given visual clues to who they are and what they care about. What does it say about the audience that they can be swayed with such little information?
Nightcrawler as a study in character
Let’s break down the introduction to Jake Gyllenhall’s character in Nightcrawler. We open on his back. He’s facing a chain link fence. He looks uncomfortably out of place, with slightly off (?) clothes. He is positioned in an awkward pose, which we can see is associated with whatever he is doing. He’s too still to be comfortable, but doing something repetitive.
Before we get to the reverse shot, just think about how much of the character has been revealed with just this one shot. You see so much with so little. You can get a sense of character with such little information, so it is important to not waste these first moments.
When we cut to the reverse, instead of the face or the eyes of the character, we end up looking at the beaks of a cable cutter. We see him methodically cutting each link on a chain link fence. Each moment he cuts a different link. This tells us that he is not just doing this, he’s practiced. He’s done this before. He’s doing it with some purpose.
When another car shows up, a great deal is shown just by the way he turns. He is practiced at making this speech. He knows that his ability to talk his way out of it isn’t great, but he knows that he can buy time. He talks about wanting his job, comes closer and closer, and he ends up inside the man’s guard.
We get a shot of him noticing the guy’s watch. He sees the watch and we see him seeing it. As he pulls out his ID, he ends up taking the guy down.
What is an actor’s role? What is the directors?
I would love to sit down with both of them for this movie, because there are a lot of conscious choices that are going on here. There is something odd about Gyllenhall’s responses to what is going on, but his ability to play these tics with subtlety is pretty amazing. The most noticeable feature of the character is that he does not blink in this movie.
I know that sounds odd, but it’s weirdly compelling with this character. There is some mixture of tic and movie star charisma that makes you jump right into his story. He’s obviously a really strange dude, but you start to like his forward nature, and his ability to get these shots that no one else would. However invested you get in his story, though, the more likely it is that you can see the darkness coming.
The direction and the actors working together is what makes this movie so compelling. I think that a lot of the good stuff is based in this collision. Obviously, both were completely on the same page. They must have worked together incredibly well.