By Nick Romano
January 31, 2019 at 02:00 PM EST
Claudette Barius/Netflix

When production wrapped on 2014’s Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy and the man bun days of Jake Gyllenhaal, the filmmaker turned to his star and said, “We’re not done.” They had other stories to tell.

More than three years later, the duo reunite with actress Rene Russo and cinematographer Robert Elswit for Velvet Buzzsaw, trading in the dark and gritty atmosphere of late-night ambulance chasers for the bougie camp of Los Angeles’ contemporary art scene. It’s a world in which former punk artists cashed in on the capitalistic machine to become prominent gallery owners (see Russo’s Rhodora Haze) and critics sigh dramatic lines like, “Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining” (see Gyllenhaal’s posh Morf Vandewalt).

Everyone seems morally compromised and looking to make a buck — even if that buck comes from the sale of demonic paintings that kill people. Think of if the “Girl With a Pearl Earring” could leap off the canvas and strangle you with her shawl or if a Banksy art piece shredded onlookers instead of itself. “I couldn’t live with art because it’s so powerful,” says Russo, speaking with EW over the phone two weeks before the film’s big Sundance debut.

It’s a concept, according to her, that plays with the idea of “if artists could take revenge,” whether that is against the soul-crushing, money-hungry system that surrounds most art forms or critics gleefully bashing one’s life’s work. With a playful laugh, Russo says, “That could be fun!” 

Gyllenhaal mentions how Gilroy’s “creative process is very private,” but he knew the filmmaker, again, wrote the new leads specifically for his Nightcrawler stars. Russo, who’s been married to Gilroy for about 27 years, says she typically reads his scripts as he’s writing them. Not for Velvet Buzzsaw. “This time he just gave it to me when it was finished, and I just thought it was crazy wild because he is that way. Dany’s a trip.”

Well before the premiere of Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq., his second feature, the former East Coaster took a trip to the Dia:Beacon art museum in upstate New York. (Take Russo’s word for it — “It is a freaky place.”) That cultural excursion helped form the general frame for Velvet Buzzsaw: a reclusive artist dies in his apartment, leaving behind a career’s worth of art. Despite his wishes to burn the pieces, Rhodora’s assistant Josephina (Nocturnal Animals‘ Zawe Ashton) swipes and sells them to their elite clientele — unaware that the personal demons of the artist are quite literally bound to the paintings.

“We wanted to construct a believable world, inhabited with believable characters, dealing with unbelievable events,” Gilroy explains. “We then looked at, tonally, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, and we became intrigued with the idea, if you can set a tone in the beginning with things that are credible and believable, then when the unbelievable starts to happen it becomes more powerful” — like when a high-priced sphere exhibit goes from a sensual experience to a death trap.

Like the art itself, beneath the ink of the script lay a foundation based in Gilroy’s “very personal” struggles in Hollywood.

He mentions specifically his time trying to make Superman Lives in the ’90s. Nicolas Cage was set to play the Man of Steel for director Tim Burton, but Warner Bros. pulled the plug two weeks before shooting “because the budget was too hot.” This was Gilroy’s worst fear made real. Shaken, he made his way to a Santa Monica beach where he mourned the year-and-a-half’s worth of writing that would never be heard.

“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,'” Gilroy recalls. “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.” (A scene from Velvet Buzzsaw with John Malkovich is taken directly from this experience.)

Claudette Barius/Netflix

By the time he finished up with Roman J. Israel, the director had a script in his star’s hands. “He notoriously doesn’t send anything to me. He sends it to me in person,” Gyllenhaal says. “He gave me a hard copy, a beautifully bound copy of Velvet Buzzsaw and I read it as soon as I opened the package.”

After playing a psychopathic documenting crime scenes for a local news agency, Gyllenhaal got sucked into the character of Morf. As the name suggests, “he’s morphing all the time — his identity, his opinion, his attraction,” the actor explains. The sexually fluid art critic, who becomes involved with a woman amid his breakup with a man, mentions to Josephina, “We have a taste relationship.”

While Gyllenhaal “never changed a word of his writing,” Gilroy says “the backstory, the look, every character trait was something Jake came up with on his own.” Just as it was Gyllehnaal’s decision to have a man bun in Nightcrawler, his “Roman”-styled haircut in Velvet Buzzsaw came partly from the actor as he and Gilroy “were dying hysterically” discussing it in his bathroom. The glasses came from the film’s makeup artist Donald Mowat (“Those are his glasses,” Gyllenhaal exclaimed) and the physicality came, in part, from Marlon Brando after Gilroy screened a clip of the Godfather star on The Ed Sullivan Show.

“Brando is someone who was obviously sexualized and fascinating as a result of it,” Gyllenhaal says. “And we have since found out a lot about his own identity and he is pushing boundaries everywhere, and yet he is one of our [more traditional] classic male stars and so I think we just looked at Morf that way.”

Claudette Barius/Netflix

Russo, admittedly, isn’t on the hunt for her next gig. “If I had my way, I would walk around in my garden, I would clean my closet, I would read, I would watch documentaries,” the star of films like Major League and The Thomas Crown Affair says. “I would not work at all. It’s stressful. And I hate getting up in the morning!” (To that we say, “Preach!”) But with Gilroy feeding her scripts, she finds rare opportunities.

“I’ve had a great career, don’t get me wrong,” she clarifies. “It’s been wonderful, and I can’t complain, but also I can’t say that I feel like I haven’t had as many characters that I could put so much into. And then all of a sudden when you least expect it, life just drops a gift in your lap.”

Rhodora, for her, was “a trip.” Russo elaborates, “Rhodora’s not easy and I really have to think about this ‘cause for me she was a complex person. I have a saying on my board here [in her California home] that says, ‘Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle’ … I just always come from that place: What is their battle?” Rhodora’s battle comes from her past as an anarchist artist, per the tattoos that peek out from a sleek, Anna Wintour-approved wardrobe. Now, her concern is about selling as many of these cursed paintings as possible. It doesn’t matter that bodies are piling up. As one friend in the biz says, “It’s a major hit.”

The new story felt like a spiritual continuation of what Gilroy explored in Nightcrawler — (this writer’s words, not Gilroy’s) — as his freshman outing unpacked the conflict between unethical journalism and consumer demand for gruesome news packaged as entertainment.

“For Velvet Buzzsaw, I wanted to explore the relationship between art and commerce in today’s world… and it’s an uneasy one in multiple areas of entertainment,” Gilroy says. “I feel the quality of a work shouldn’t be judged by the volume of social media engagement or number of views or clicks or the amount that was paid for something. That’s not to say that commercial success diminishes a work; it doesn’t, but I believe it doesn’t define it either.”

The director adds as a final thought: “I’m saying in Velvet Buzzsaw that art is more than a commodity and let’s not forget it.” If only his characters realized that before selling the next killer art piece. 

Velvet Buzzsaw premieres on Netflix Friday.

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