A director in a van, costars on Zoom: Jake Gyllenhaal explains how he made it through Netflix's The Guilty
It's hard to imagine feeling more isolated making a movie than Jake Gyllenhaal did on Netflix's The Guilty.
From the moment the Oscar-nominated actor saw the Danish original of the same name at Sundance in 2018, he "just felt in my bones" that the "intense, psychological thriller" would translate to an American context. Gyllenhaal quickly acquired the rights, recruiting True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto as writer and Antoine Fuqua, whom he previously collaborated with on the 2015 boxing drama Southpaw, as director. And then came the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent Hollywood shutdown — but Gyllenhaal soon realized that he actually had the ideal movie to be made during this unique time. The Guilty takes place completely over one day in a 911 dispatch call center and features the main character, demoted cop-turned-operator Joe Baylor (played by Gyllenhaal), mostly interacting with a deep bench of recognizable actors that both he and the audience hear but never see.
Then, just 48 hours before the 11-day shoot was to begin, a close contact of Fuqua's tested positive for coronavirus, putting the filmmaker in quarantine and the project on the brink of never happening.
"What seemed advantageous at the time ended up being a bit of a curse," Gyllenhaal tells EW of the late 2020 shoot that was already in jeopardy due to the rise of COVID cases. "They were talking about shutting Los Angeles down almost every day. So, because Antoine subsequently tested negative for days afterwards, we decided to get a van that was outfitted with screens and park him a block away, hardwired to the stage where we were shooting. We'd FaceTime each other after these 25-minute long takes. He'd give me direction, I'd take it down, we'd do another take. We never saw each other in-person the entire shoot."
Gyllenhaal says the love that he and Fuqua forged on Southpaw is why they were able to work under such unusual circumstances: "Because of our relationship and because I trust him so much, I'll go anywhere for him. I just knew, somehow, when we are challenged, Antoine and I always get better."
For his part, Fuqua found it an "exciting" experience. "I had to have eyes on set [and] our main cameras, and a way to communicate with my actors via Zoom and phone, when it needed to be private," the Training Day and Equalizer director shares with EW over email. "Jake and I would only physically see each other from behind the studio wall. Jake would climb on a ladder and I would open the door to my van, and we would communicate. I definitely missed the close contact with my crew, but everyone stepped up and we found a way."
While Gyllenhaal couldn't have anticipated the last-minute loss of his confidante and partner, he knew going in that he wouldn't be working face-to-face with most of his talented costars. Gyllenhaal appears in almost every frame of the film, as Joe tries to save a caller in grave danger, only to soon discover that coming to grips with his own truth is the only way out. Ordinarily we'd mention the list of voices that filter in-and-out during the film but Gyllenhaal believes "part of the fun is people trying to guess who the actors are." The opposite of enjoyable for Gyllenhaal, or for all of us in the early days of the pandemic, were the Zoom-related issues that the production found themselves encountering while connecting the ensemble.
"There was one computer, and it was in a drawer next to me, but I had no control of it," explains Gyllenhaal, who acted through loss of signal, echoes, and a wandering eye. "That drawer is the sound drawer, and it was also our first AD's drawer. So he would open it, and he would talk to the actors and get them ready, half-close the computer, close the drawer, and then go to one other monitor where he could cue them. And only every once in a while, I looked over the right and I could see these 12 squares of people in their closet, on a bed, someone in their living room, someone literally stuffed between pillows to try and get the right sound. [Laughs] It was really fun — outside of how intense it is as a movie."
Adds Fuqua: "Watching Jake pull off his performance was difficult in the best way. Acting is also listening, but the difficulties of having to perform under COVID and the technical challenges was a challenge that Jake handled beautifully."
When it comes to speaking directly to what happens onscreen, Gyllenhaal is much more cautious in what he shares, hoping he can make it through the interview without giving away too much. "Nothing is as it seems," he teases after taking a pause to contemplate. "Joe really does not enjoy his job, but, in the end, what he realizes is, in order to solve this case, he has to face a truth within himself. I love characters that are question marks, and, in a lot of ways, he's the ultimate question mark."
The Guilty premieres Oct. 1 on Netflix. See exclusive images from the film above.