The more you listen to how Antoine Fuqua and Jake Gyllenhaal talk about how they pulled off making The Guilty, last October, during one of the surges of Covid, before vaccines, and with not many other productions making movies … it’s basically a miracle this movie exists. How difficult was this production? Antoine Fuqua had been exposed to someone who had tested positive for Covid-19, which means he had to quarantine. And this quarantine would last throughout the entire allotted shooting dates. So Antoine Fuqua directed the movie from a private truck and gave directions virtually. When I asked Fuqua what the most difficult aspect of shooting this film was, not joking, he just says, with a sigh, “Everything.”
In The Guilty (which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival), Jake Gyllenhaal plays Joe Baylor, an LAPD cop who has been reassigned to a 911 desk taking calls because of an unspecified incident that he will be in court for the next day. The film takes place almost entirely at a desk, as we witness a series of phone calls as Gyllenhaal’s Joe Baylor tries to solve a mystery of a kidnapped woman, while all along the specter of whatever it was Joe Baylor did comes more and more into light.
I spoke to both Fuqua and Gyllenhaal over zoom (at one point our cat decided to say hello to the both of them) about how on Earth they managed to pull this movie off. And why, for the both of them, it was important to dig into some issues that parallel some recent real life events.
You started filming last October or November. Is that right?
Jake Gyllenhaal: October, yeah.
So this is one of the first things to get going again?
Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, it was right at the height of Covid. At the peak.
I’m curious, would the movie be any different if that wasn’t happening?
Antoine Fuqua: I don’t even know if I would have been directing it.
Antoine Fuqua: It was just weird. Jake developed this script. He’s a friend, obviously, and he called me one day, I think it was early in the morning. I was going to train, workout. And Jake called me and out of the blue, he goes, “I’ve got this script!” And he was really passionate about it and I could hear it in his voice. And he goes, “Can you read it?” And he said, “Will you make it in five days?” I was like, “There’s no way, but I’m going to read anyway because it’s you.” And I read it, it just struck me. And there was sort of like a moment in time where I had space because of Covid. We didn’t know how we were going to do it because nobody was making movies at that time because of Covid. We weren’t sure how we were going to actually pull it off. I’m not sure I would have made it.
Jake, is that true? Would he not be doing it? Would you have not done this movie if it wasn’t for circumstances?
Jake Gyllenhaal: I mean, like in every film, there are different circumstances bring the people together. I mean, but yeah, I think in a way, this film: there were not many films at the time being developed that were contained and safe and possible to make in this way. In terms of how it was going to be made or developed? Yeah, I think it was made in that space and safely because there was one character. And, potentially, if I had sent it to Antoine maybe, at a different time, he would have said, “Let’s open it up. Let’s see what it feels like there.”
But the quality of the movie, the reason why we both wanted to make the movie, wasn’t just because of the technical parts. It allowed us to play with people’s perceptions and misjudgments and projections on other people, because you don’t see those other characters. It actually spoke very clearly to more of the political and social things that we had been going through in that time that we experienced the summer before, and all these questions that we had all had and the discussions that were coming up. And so it was this merging of a lot of things all at once. I don’t know… I would say, for me, what I was always moved by in the story was that you never saw the other characters, but you always heard them.
Which affected me, because the mind creates the images. It’s that thing people always say about movies, your mind will create more horrifying things than some of the stuff you show. And a lot of what we have to learn is through the reactions on your face. And that seems challenging for you?
Jake Gyllenhaal: Yes and no. I mean, the fun part about it is if you’re in a detective story, which this is, and you know as an actor the end of that detective story, you can deflect based on how you respond. But most of all, with this, Antoine assembled this incredible group of actors. So every time they got on the phone, it was all shot live. I was basically responding to the way they were acting. And all I had to do was really listen. I knew the audience was going to hear the call. I was just sometimes thinking how boring that movie would have been if we are never hearing the calls, just watching my face. I’m sure there were some camera operators after our 20-minute long takes who weren’t listening to the scene and they’re just like, “Oh, my God, this is boring.”
That’s a very different movie. You’re just saying, “What?” And then no other dialogue.
Jake Gyllenhaal: You might see that at the Whitney. That might be at the Whitney, you know? Like you could stop in for a second and sit down for 30 seconds and be like, “Interesting piece.” And then walk out. But I think that this is really about the other people’s performances and 70 percent of my performance is their performance.
So was there always a plan after Southpaw for you two to get back together and do something? Because I don’t know how that works. You work with a lot of directors. After you finish are you like, “Yep, I want to do another one.”
Jake Gyllenhaal: [Laughs] It definitely doesn’t work that way. Not with everybody.
See, I never believe an actor loves a director until I see them do something else. Once they do another movie together, I’m like, okay, I buy it now.
Jake Gyllenhaal: It’s more about a director loving an actor, that is the actual secret. I mean, I guess Antoine must love me. We finished that movie and we had such a special experience making that film. And it was like we just sort of mind-melded. And so we just have spent a number of years trying to find material together. I don’t know if you feel this way, Antoine, but some of it was also like, all right, let’s just quit fucking around. Like, let’s just do this one. It was always, “let’s shoot this in a short period of time.” Our high standards were sort of like, let’s go. We needed to tell a story. We wanted to work together. And we just went. That happened, too, right? I mean, I don’t want to speak for you…
Antoine Fuqua: I do love Jake.
We’d have quite a scoop here if you said, “I do not like this guy.”
Antoine Fuqua: In fact, I was the one who wanted, years ago, I wanted to meet Jake. And we met years ago, we sat down and then Southpaw came around. And so Jake was somebody, for me, I always targeted “the one to work with.” I thought he was just an incredible actor – and an interesting guy when I met him. And I always felt with Jake … I personally felt like people didn’t really know Jake. You know what I mean?
But I think, Jake, I think that’s on purpose. I don’t think you want people knowing everything about you.
Antoine Fuqua: Well not knowing him, we can’t know Jake. But as an actor, for example, Southpaw was one of those things where I remember I thought Jake would just be amazing if he would do this movie. And they were like, “Yeah, Jake? You sure? Jake’s a handsome guy. He’s kind of good-looking.” I said, “No, there’s something about Jake.” And I sat down with him before this. He’s got some other things going on in him. And physically, when you meet him… You know, you’ve met Jake? So he’s an athlete, really.
That is true. I have met him. I remember the first time I interviewed Jake, I think it was for Enemy, and you are more imposing in person than you probably think you’re going to be.
Antoine Fuqua: Yeah! He’s something, you know? But anyway, so I love Jake. We’ve been trying to find something to do together after Southpaw. And this one came around and I think Jake, you’re right. It was more like: this makes sense. This makes sense for where we are in the world. Makes sense creatively. Let’s not fuck around and just try to do it safely and quickly.
Well, that’s why I was curious, because it makes sense why it was so contained because of the situation. But at the same time, it really works that way. And if not for Covid if the movie would be opened up more to see what we are hearing?
Antoine Fuqua: We had lots of conversations about this. In fact, I had designed a few other shots. What we said was, let’s look at the movie first before we go shoot anything else. Just the performance and the story. And then I had a list of things I wanted to get, and I shot a couple of things, and me and Jake talked one day and we were like, “Let’s not doing anything else.” You know, let’s not open it up anymore. Anything more than that, as you said, it would have been a different movie.
It is such a different movie for you. It’s mostly Jake on the phone with people. I’m wondering if there’s any point where you just like, “I hope this is working.”
Antoine Fuqua: For me, it worked knowing Jake was going to play the role. I mean, it’s like Training Day for me really. That’s exactly it. If you look at Training Day, it’s Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington in the car a lot.
Yeah. I just rewatched that. This is true.
Antoine Fuqua: It’s all about those two! And I remember sitting there making that movie, sitting on an apple box and just fascinated with the sparring and acting. I wouldn’t yell “cut” sometimes. It was just crazy. I was drawn in completely. And I realized that that’s really what I love. That’s what I love. And so when I read the script, I had the same feeling to watch Jake do this. Had the same feeling. I was just watching, in my van, on my monitor. It was just me alone in my van, in the dark, watching Jake. And I knew, for me at least, it was going to work because of Jake. Because of his ability.
You mentioned the actual actors were on the phone with you. I didn’t know if that was dubbed in later or whatever. But I assume when you’re talking to Ethan Hawke he’s legitimately on the phone, nowhere near the set.
Jake Gyllenhaal: He was in New York. And Paul Dano was in Australia. Peter Sarsgaard was in New York and Riley Keough was in LA. I mean, it did help, except there were also tremendous technical difficulties, you know? All the actors were on a Zoom, so, it naturally creates a rhythm for you that you wouldn’t create. And acting is all about rhythm. It was shave a quarter of a second, or push a quarter of a second on either side. So you’d have to develop something in your mind where you started your line a quarter of a second after. It was like you were living in a world of partial gravity. That’s how it felt. It’s like, you kept trying to get on the ground, just walk forward. That’s how it felt sometimes. Even though the actors were there and alive and I could listen. When I need to have an exchange with them, it became a very difficult thing for us to work out. I mean, it took us five or six days to figure that situation out, even. I mean, it was a really interesting experience, technically.
You both mentioned the other subtext of this movie, and how it reflects with a lot of stuff we saw last year. How important was that to both of you? Police violence is not the main part of the story, but it’s always lurking in the back…
Antoine Fuqua: We talked about it. Myself and Jake talked about it quite a bit. When I first read it and I called him back about it, we just kind of started really having a deep conversation about what we cared about as human beings, you know? And we both just wanted to make a story about human beings. And the background, which is fantastic because people paint their own picture, but the background politics and everything else is layered in it. It’s really because of what’s happening in real-time in our world, right? If you just look at what’s happening in our world, and then you watch this picture, it starts to paint the picture for you.
Antoine Fuqua: We never say it, right? We never say it. We never say what nationality. We never say who’s who or what’s what. But the audience creates it here because it’s true. It is the truth. That’s what’s happening. Right? There’s mental illness. There’s judgment. There’s a lot of anger, passion, frustration. We’re all confined because of Covid in a space. So you know what I mean? A lot of stuff, the audience is actually feeling because we’re actually experiencing it.
Also, I guess what helps fill it in is the fact that, in the movie… sorry about that, our cat just jumped in my lap…
Jake Gyllenhaal: Awwww.
But in the movie the media is very interested in talking to him. So that tells me this is something very serious with a lot of repercussions.
Jake Gyllenhaal: You know, I think we all speak our truth. In some cases, there will be consequences. The consequence in most cases of expressing the truth is freedom of a certain kind, maybe not earthly freedom, but definitely spiritual freedom. And you end up healing a system when you do that. And we talked about that a lot. And I think that it was important to make a movie that brought up all these things as well as was incredibly entertaining because I think the discussion is necessary. He’s a very morally complex person caught in a very complicated and disturbing system that does not allow either him or all the people in that system much help.
Right. It’s like, maybe I shouldn’t be rooting for him?
Jake Gyllenhaal: Yeah! He starts off and it’s just, the room is filled with toxicity. The way he’s speaking to people in dire circumstances from the jump. Someone’s saying, “I took drugs.” He’s like, well, it’s your fault, isn’t it? It’s like, well, that’s not the concern here.
We touched on this earlier but you two started filming a movie when not many movies were filming. You mentioned it was difficult, what was the most difficult thing?
Antoine Fuqua: Everything.
Antoine Fuqua: Literally everything. How are we going to do that at the height of Covid, where it’s really life or death for some people? That was first. Then we had to put it into action, which meant everything was done in pieces. Who can be on the side, who can’t, wearing booties, plastic… We had to wear the mask and the plastic shields and gloves. I mean, it was really like a movie. And then once we figured all that out, we were about a few days away from filming… someone close to me tested positive. I was negative, but I’d have to quarantine, which was literally the full time of our shoot. It was 11 days, right? So now me and Jake were looking at each other like: It’s not going to happen unless we figure out a plan.
And we came up with a van. This high-tech van that’s normally used for still photography, but it had monitors and speakers like a jet. And we were like maybe this could work. And when we first tested it from my home in the courtyard, it didn’t work. So it was horrible. Then we figured out that maybe we should just hardline the van outside the studio, rent a line, and see if it worked that way. That worked. It was like, great, okay, so I’m in the van like Austin Powers. I’ve got a button, no one should come near me. I got a couple of Navy seals, literally outside of my van, making sure no one comes anywhere near. Then I had to come up with another system to communicate with me and Jake: communicate off walkie-talkies, cell phones, FaceTimes. So, literally, we were figuring it out as we were going.
This sounds like a miracle that this movie even exists.
Antoine Fuqua: Yeah. All of it … Again, all of these things, I think, influence the movie and what you see. Because we were really working urgently, cautiously, to get the best movie and make sure everybody made money and went home safe. That’s what we were trying to do.
‘The Guilty’ will begin streaming via Netflix on October 1st after playing in limited theaters a few days prior. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.