Inspiration for Velvet Buzzsaw, the latest from Nightcrawler writer-director Dan Gilroy, ranges from the visuals of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist to the satirical nature of The Player. But the kernel for this idea, a horror twist on the bougie contemporary art scene in Los Angeles, began budding after Superman Lives, Gilroy’s famous movie-that-never-happened.
“It comes from a very, very personal experience,” Gilroy tells EW.
Jake Gyllenhaal reunites with his Nightcrawler filmmaker as Morf Vandewalt, a posh art critic, opposite Rene Russo (another Nightcrawler alum and Gilroy’s wife) as prominent gallery owner Rhodora Haze. Then there’s Toni Collette in her post-Hereditary turn as Gretchen, a museum curator who instead becomes an art advisor to a wealthy client for the money.
On paper, Velvet Buzzsaw follows what happens when Rhodora’s assistant Josephina (Nocturnal Animals’ Zawe Ashton) discovers all the art left behind by her reclusive upstairs neighbor after he drops dead. Instead of fulfilling his wishes to have his life’s work destroyed, she takes and sells the pieces with Rhodora, unaware that the painter’s personal demons are quite literally embedded in the art.
Beneath the ink, the script is about the “uneasy” relationship between “art and commerce in today’s world,” Gilroy says.
While exploring these themes, Gilroy’s mind went back to the 1990s when he was trying to make Superman Lives. He wrote a screenplay for the planned superhero feature with Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel, Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen, Tim Burton in the director’s chair, and John Peter producing. “For a year and a half, 24 hours a day, we were all going full force,” Gilroy says. Then, two weeks before filming, Warner Bros. pulled the plug “because the budget was too hot.”
Confidence rattled, Gilroy found himself on a beach in Santa Monica, California. “I go, ‘Wow, I just spent a year and a half. Nothing I wrote is gonna ever be seen,’” he continues. “I was looking at the waves and I was like, ‘I might as well come down and write words in the sand and have the waves just wash them away.’”
At one point in Velvet Buzzsaw, John Malkovich, playing an artist struggling to elevate his craft after purging himself of alcoholism, draws shapes in the sand as quickly as the water clears them out. This, Gilroy says, is a direct translation of his real-life moment from the beach.
Looking back on this memory, Gilroy recalls, “I suddenly thought, ‘It doesn’t matter. I am creating something as much for myself as for other people and I worked with people who appreciated and saw what I had done and I got the chance to create.’ I swore to myself then that one of the guiding precepts that I was gonna follow was that it didn’t matter, ultimately, the number of people who saw or the level of commercial success. [Art is] something I create for myself. I need to create something that is relevant to me that bears some world view that people may resonate with.”
“I’m saying in Velvet Buzzsaw,” he adds, “that art is more than a commodity and let’s not forget it.”
The film will premiere Feb 1. on Netflix and in limited theaters.