Dan Gilroy on the War Between Commerce and Art in ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

We chat with the director about the current state of criticism, his desire to challenge the contemporary art world, and the ferocity of Jake Gyllenhaal.
Velvet Buzzsaw
Claudette Barius/Netflix
By  · Published on February 7th, 2019

Filmmaker second, utter art obsessive first: Dan Gilroy is one passionate consumer, and he’s incredibly concerned with how we treat those that dare to invent. If you take anything away from his new film Velvet Buzzsaw, it’s that the director wants his audience to consider the prices we plant on creation. Is it a what or a who that manipulates the worth of a painting? The art gallery is a treacherous artifice that has its eyes on your wallet rather than the captured gems hanging on its walls.

Yet, for all the ideas and concerns pumping through Velvet Buzzsaw, Gilroy did not set out to make a meaningful attack on consumerism. The message eventually bubbled from his basic desire to play around in a world he adores. He sought a fresh surrounding, and the contemporary art world seemed devoid of cinematic adaptation. Inception began with that very particular scene and the character of Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose world is shaken when wannabe art dealer Josephina (Zawe Ashton) discovers and exploits the haunted work of a deceased outsider artist.

I spoke with Gilroy over the phone shortly after the film premiered at the Sundance film festival. Our conversation begins with his desire to create horror in a universe where beauty should be cherished. We discuss the anger packed beneath satire, and his enthusiasm to mix genres onto their own unique canvas. We also chat about the current state of film criticism and whether or not Morf is a heroic figure or just another villain getting between artist and audience.

Here is our conversation in full:

Your quote that leads off the film’s press notes reads, “I want this movie to do for the art world what Jaws did for swimming.” Why do you want to transform an Art Gallery into a place of dread?

Because I feel that there’s a respect when you go swimming for sharks that goes beyond fear. It’s something that you specialize. It’s not just something negative concepts without any value. I feel that the contemporary art world has become so over commoditized that we’ve lost sight that there’s a power to art. That was my way of pushing an extreme of emotion; that one might get from a piece of art but really the basis of it has to do with the idea that artists invest a piece of their soul in their work and you should never forget it, and that art is more than a commodity. That was the essence of what I was saying.

When I watched the film at Sundance, the first person that popped into my mind Henry Darger. Are you familiar with him at all?

I am conversant with Henry Darger and I’m also conversant with the school of art brut, which is outsider art. Henry Darger was one of several, certainly, he’s one of the more famous ones, but a half dozen or so famous outsider artists. It’s the idea of somebody dying and leaving behind an unfound trove of art and that was definitely part of the script. And it’s not an uncommon story in the world of outsider art. But I was certainly aware of Henry Darger was certainly.

Your story extends from that brutal reality. Yes, there’s a fun, or humorous tone, to Velvet Buzzsaw, but underneath it all, it feels very ferocious.

Well, if you go to the character of the outsider artist, in our movie he’s named Ventril Dease, he’s working through horrific childhood trauma. His art is very personal, cathartic experience to work through trauma. That is my way of saying that art is a hallowed place where demons and angels lurk and in our film both of them are being excised in the core of New York. At the same time, as you pointed out, it’s a mixed genre film, there’s a satirical edge to it. I like mixing the genres, I like the building of tension and the release of that tension through humor and that was something I wanted to try, and we definitely were aiming for in the film.

Talk about that a little bit. That balance – how do you know whether you’ve gone too far into one tone or another?

Test audiences are invaluable. We tested this movie a number of times, to dial in our visual effects, to dial in some of our structure, certainly to dial in our music. You can tell by the audience’s reaction if you’re where you need to be. In this regard, there are scenes that we know we want people to feel comfortable laughing in, and if you’re not careful and the music is wrong, or you haven’t cut it together well, these laughs just don’t come, and you’re in a dead zone and people start to go “well, where are we tonally?” Conversely, when you’re in a thriller section, if the mood is too light, nobody gets afraid in the dark. So you dial it in scene-by-scene, moment-by-moment. This is very much where Marco Beltrami’s score, which is a very good score, acts as a barometer for every moment where we are in the film.

Let’s talk about Beltrami’s score there. It doesn’t necessarily telegraph what’s coming up but it does ride the scenes tightly. It knows how to have fun. What was the inspiration behind that score?

The opening cue, during the animated credits run, was meant to tell the audience that it’s mixed genre film. So there’s dark undertones and currents, but at the same time, it’s got a wacky playfulness about it. Marco is planting a flag right up front with the audience with that score. You can laugh and be afraid in this movie, that’s where we’re going to be taking you. There are times also when we first meet the Ventril Dease character, when we first go into his apartment, Marco came up with specific music cues that were more ominous for that character, any time we were referencing that character.

Marco is keeping track, sort of on a mixing board in his head of all these different cues that are definitely, as you said, accompanying the film, but at other times, I think it’s having a fun time building to the scene, especially early on. It’s a really beautiful accompanist for what was going on.

Cinema seems to be embracing angry, satirical storytelling right now. Films like this one, or Sorry To Bother You, where I find myself questioning my laughter. “Should I be laughing at this? Am I the bad guy here? Am I being attacked?”

That might have been the case in Nightcrawler. I was certainly condemning us more than I was condemning Lou, who I sort of saw as an animal and beyond moral judgment, but I was judging the people who watched the images that Lou took.

In this film, I’m not really trying to condemn anybody, including the people in the art world. I’m trying to transmit certain ideas that art is more than a commodity, that the contemporary art world was a movement that was designed to provoke and challenge but has now lost its way with big money. And I like people to think about those ideas and I think one of the really effective avenues of doing that is through satirical humor. To me, Velvet Buzzsaw works in genres in which I can run ideas on and get them into your head in a way that sometimes drama can’t.

I think I might be taking it a little personally as a film critic, as somebody who obsesses over movies. I see a little bit of myself in Morf and squirm.

Oh, that’s a good thing because actually Morf I think would claim himself to be a person of substance and character, who very much takes the role seriously. I was a film reviewer for Variety for three years, and I took it probably as seriously as you did. You want to look for substantive work. The only thing I would say about criticism today with film and maybe even with the art community is that so much is about public success or non-public success. Did it have a big opening weekend? Rotten Tomatoes, where was it? All this stuff. I think we lose sight of the fact that that methodology very much discourages certain artists to try new things. When somebody does, and this is going to sound self-serving- I’m not asking this for myself at all, but if an artist tries something new and it doesn’t succeed on the public level, I think everybody should acknowledge it.

The film that I would point to specifically is Mother. I thought Darren [Aronofsky] took a tremendous risk with Mother, and really laid it out there. I read very few reviews, and it’s fine if they didn’t like the movie, but I read very few reviews where anybody said: “well he’s an artist.” And he is an artist, he is trying something, and where does it come from? Where does it lead? Criticism could acknowledge when somebody is trying something new. I think it’s valid.

Yes, but also there is the idea that criticism today must be geared to a soundbite or a tweet. Film conversation, and conversation, in general, has been reduced so much.

It has, and that’s unfortunate. It’s the same with news, that’s what we covered in Nightcrawler. Yeah. We’re living in an attention economy and time is premium. Yes, soundbite reviews do not allow depth. You’re really just giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down and ultimately that’s probably what Rotten Tomatoes is at the end of the day. Not to say that Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t have relevance, it is certainly an aggregate of many different voices which has some validity. But yeah, it’s nice when you can go into more depth.

Sure, and when Morf encounters this new unknown artist, he now has to have a much longer conversation with it. Of course, it also wants to talk back to him and that might not be a great thing.

Right, in the film you actually work with a critic who wants to go further with his writing and go into an exploration of his art on an in-depth level. He’s actually taking criticism and now decides he’s gotta write a book about this art. He wants to take his writing ability and go deeper into an exploration of that artist.

I guess the big question has to be why are you having this conversation today? Art vs. commerce.

I don’t start out with the idea of what the message will be. I try to come up with ideas that have relevance as vehicles for scenes. I came up with the idea of a thriller set in the contemporary art world. What I liked about it was I had not seen any big narrative film set in the contemporary art world, so it felt fresh, that was the first thing. The second thing was that putting a satirical edge to it, which sort of allowed me to make it cockier, kitschier, campier, and more fun.

The contemporary art world has lost its way, like so many other forms of entertainment, which is really what it is. Where 25 of the top contemporary artists account for over half the sales, there are so many new voices that will never get heard because there’s not the shelf space or the wall space. There are no galleries that will show them because galleries are often about making money, you can make more money with branded artists.

I became interested once I came up with the idea of addressing a scene that is relevant to me, which is an appreciation of art almost on a spiritual level. That art is a very powerful force in our lives and I feel that in the contemporary art world and perhaps the movie business as well, we’ve lost sight of it being something more than a commodity.

Do you think that your audience is interested in hearing that message as well?

I like to think with mixed-genre films you’re talking to a number of audiences. We are a thriller and we certainly, I think, have that cred in term of scenes and visual kinetic imagery to have fun, so if you like thrillers you will be responding on that level. If you are a contemporary art fan, you’ll respond on that level. If you like Jake Gyllenhaal, doing a wild character you’ve never seen before, then you’ll like that. I believe that we’re hopefully hitting different boxes with this film.

What is it about Gyllenhaal that’s such a great fit for you and your films?

One, I consider him one of the finest actors alive. On a talent level, I’m attracted to him. On an artist level, he’s utterly fearless and willing to try anything. When you throw him the part of an elitist, contemporary, bisexual art critic, he just goes “that sounds really interesting to me and I want to try something. That sounds like a really neat character”. He’s willing to try things that on the surface look unorthodox. I really learned that on Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler has done well, it all makes sense now, but there was a time where starting out with that protagonist who is unlikable with no backstory, and a message at the end that’s really a cautionary tale that celebrates his malfeasance in a way, but we’re really trying to say “Watch out.” It was a big question, but he’s willing to try things. I’m at a point now in my life where I’m trying things and I like working with somebody who’s a risk-taker as well as balanced.

Velvet Buzzsaw is now streaming on Netflix.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)