James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) Talks Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler

This darkly comic portrait of Los Angeles at night takes Ponsoldt back to his early days out West as a New York City transplant.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I rented a room with lawn furniture in a near-condemned hillside motel off Highland Avenue, south of the Hollywood Bowl and north of the Kodak Theatre (now rechristened the Dolby Theatre). To this day, it’s one of my favorite places I’ve ever lived.

I was coming from New York City, where I’d lived for years, most recently in Brooklyn, and I’d grown bored of art school warehouse parties in Bushwick and become depressed by long, grey winters (I was having too many fantasies of smacking pushy people in the back of the head in crowded, soggy rush-hour subway cars).

As eager locals often told me, in January in Los Angeles, oranges fall from trees onto the sidewalk, begging to be eaten. (Years later I came across a character in an A.M. Homes novel who offered a much truer sentiment: “That’s the thing about L.A. — you can freeze to death under a rosebush.”)

The motel on Highland reeked of cat piss, and the residents — many of whom had been there for years — didn’t say hello or goodbye and generally kept to themselves. I was lonely and shy, so I didn’t say anything either. Everyone seemed to have a secret. They bought their groceries at the mini-mart in the shopping center at the corner of Franklin and Highland. They sent emails or made photocopies of headshots or fliers for concerts at the apocalyptic Kinko’s down on Vine.

From the motel you could see an endless parade of people standing by the stoplight on Highland holding ironic cardboard signs (“My family was killed by ninjas. Need $ for karate lessons!”). Late at night, the tweakers who dressed as superheroes and posed for photos in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre would march up the hill, their pockets stuffed with tourist cash, looking for a fix and a place to lay down their masks and Darth Vader helmets.

The motel was demolished several years ago. I don’t know if anyone feels anything approaching nostalgia for its loss. When I Google the motel, I can’t find much (no famous celebrity OD’d there — that I know of). But I think about the motel fondly, a decade later, whenever I walk by with my wife on our way to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

When I watched Nightcrawler, the riveting directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, I felt a jolt of recognition as I saw where Louis Bloom (played by a gaunt and hypnotic Jake Gyllenhaal) lives. His dimly lit, low-rent bachelor apartment, spartan in its furnishings and lacking any homey detail, any element that might reflect the personality of its inhabitant — it’s a place to sleep, nothing more — looked shockingly similar to my room in the motel off Highland that now exists only in my memory.

It all came back to me: being young and alone in Los Angeles. Convincing myself that I enjoyed the anonymity of the place. But really just being lonely. Cripplingly lonely. And hungry not to feel that way for one second longer than necessary.

Now, Louis Bloom is a profoundly disturbed character. Probably a sociopath. A West Coast Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin. While there are some ways I can relate to his situation, in most ways I’m utterly horrified by his night-scavenger tendencies and the absence of anything resembling a conscience.

Louis discovers, early in Nightcrawler, that there’s quick cash to be made in videotaping accident scenes. Fires. Carjackings. The more blood, the better. And Louis quickly becomes really, really good at this job. He might just be a prodigy.

As Louis says with a smile, “If you’re seeing me, you’re having the worst day of your life.”

With the help of his Craigslist intern, Rick (played brilliantly by Riz Ahmed), who’s twitchy, between homes, and will do just about anything for 30 bucks, Louis owns the streets of Los Angeles at night. They make a memorable duo, driver and navigator, tuned into a police scanner with cameras ready to film any horror that they’re lucky enough to find.

And Louis and Rick find horrors. Plenty of them. They even, through their desire to get a great shot, directly affect the narrative of the ratings-chasing nighttime TV news shows. Corpse not lit dramatically enough? Eh, drag it over a couple feet. Voila! Morals, shmorals.

Roman Polanski famously said, “Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world, provided it’s seen by night and from a distance.”

I’m a sucker for films that exploit the big empty streets of Los Angeles at night, from Sunset Boulevard and Kiss Me Deadly to The Long Goodbye and Night Moves to Repo Man, Collateral and Drive. As digitally lensed by Robert Elswit (whose longtime collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson has helped redefine the look of cinematic LA — well, the cinematic San Fernando Valley), L.A. pulses at night with a permanent skyglow.

(I love slightly twisted and deranged NYC-by-night films too — The Naked City, The Warriors, After Hours, etc. — but somehow that world, at least in films, seems to have vanished by the late 1980s. Perhaps it’s due for a return?)

Los Angeles can still feel lawless, like there’s too much terrain and not enough police to cover it all. Nothing about Nightcrawler feels like a first feature (of course, Dan Gilroy has been a successful screenwriter for decades, from Freejack to The Bourne Legacy), and the director self-assuredly creates an intelligent, acidic and all-too-believable portrait of the seedy lower rungs of the free market entertainment business, where the pursuit of a 10-share in the ratings is justification enough for airing any image, no matter how sensational or exploitative.

In an age when images of the most gruesome kinds from all corners of the earth are readily available — with journalists reporting the story and becoming the story — Nightcrawler feels disturbingly of the moment. As a dark satire, Nightcrawler is so razor-sharp that it’s occasionally hard to tell whether the film wants us to mourn for the victims of horrific violence whom Louis shoots with his cheap videocamera — or for the culture that reduces those victims to nothing more than a sale.

It’s worth noting, that seen from another angle (where irony doesn’t exist), Nightcrawler is an archetypal portrait of a young man alone in the big city, struggling to make his way in the world. A classic American success story.

It’s only when you look directly into Louis’s eyes that you see yourself reflected back, not a lover or friend — just an opportunity.

James Ponsoldt is a filmmaker originally from Athens, Georgia. His films, which include Off the Black, Smashed and The Spectacular Now, have won prizes at the Sundance Film Festival, been nominated for Independent Spirit Awards, and honored by the National Board of Review. Ponsoldt co-wrote the graphic novel, Refresh, Refresh (selected by Alison Bechdel for The Best American Comics 2011) and directed the upcoming feature The End of the Tour.