Over the last few years, the thing that has separated Jake Gyllenhaal from a lot of his peers is that it’s kind of obvious how much thought he puts into what movies he’s going to do. Not that other actors don’t, but it’s almost like we can actually imagine Gyllenhaal anguishing over whether to do a role or not. Because we know once he does choose to do a role, he’s going all in. It’s at the point that – almost to the point of being unfair expectations – that if Gyllenhaal is in a movie, we assume it will be really good.
Life is the perfect example. On its own, it has a director, Daniel Espinosa, who has made well-received films. It has a great cast that includes Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds. It was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who wrote Deadpool and Zombieland. But then when we find out Jake Gyllenhaal is in the cast, it gets upgraded another level. We just assume it will be good because Gyllenhaal has a reputation of making good movies.
The plot of Life is fairly straightforward: Six astronauts are on the International Space Station studying an organism that was found on Mars. The life form, nicknamed Calvin, turns out to be a killing machine, as he devours crew members one by one.
Gyllenhaal has made many suspenseful movies — Zodiac, Enemy, Prisoners, Nightcrawler – but this is his first full-on horror film. Ahead, Gyllenhaal explains why he wanted to make a horror film and why Life turned out to be even more interesting than he thought it would be. Also, Gyllenhall reflects on the ten-year anniversary of Zodiac and shares some nice memories of his Nightcrawler co-star, Bill Paxton.
I kind of wasn’t expecting Life to be so terrifying.
Yeah! I think it’s scary, which is fun. It’s very scary.
If you look at everyone involved – you, the rest of the cast, the writers who wrote Deadpool – it doesn’t scream “horror movie.”
Yeah, it’s an unlikely group of people – combination of people – but I think somehow, because of Daniel Espinosa, the tone of the movie found itself with the organism that he brought together. You know, all the people end up making the thing, what it’s supposed to be. But it was terrifying to read. I mean, the script is literally, absolutely terrifying to read. So, all we were really doing was following that. And we had an incredible crew of people making the movie more interesting than I think I even expected it to be – and even in just terms of how it looked. I mean, the reality of the space station – how it was shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who’s incredible. I think it was just all of it. Every aspect of it heightens it. But it’s always scary as shit, I’ve got to say, from the beginning.
You said it even turned out more interesting than you thought it’d be. Does that happen a lot?
I mean, it’s what you hope. You hope you can always elevate material and a lot of times that has to do with the craftsmanship and the crew. And performance, definitely, but mostly the fundamentals of a movie can be elevated by those people. And in this case, it’s what you hope for. It’s a really fun and entertaining movie which could easily be just that, but there’s a real sort of tinge of artistry throughout it as a result of all the talented people who are making it.
I didn’t even think about this until the day after I saw it, but the weightless scenes look so good I think my brain just assumed you guys were in space.
Yeah, my friend said that to me last night after they saw it. They were like, “Yeah, it was weird, it looked so good. I didn’t know you guys had done it the way you did,” which is pretty cool.
I have no idea how it was done.
We were on wires the whole time.
You’ve done a lot of suspenseful movies like Zodiac, Nightcrawler, Enemy. But this is a horror movie. Have you always wanted to do a horror movie?
I mean, I just want to do things that keep an audience’s attention and are fun to watch. It can find itself in any way, but in the case of this, when I read the script I was like, “this is super scary and I’ve never done anything like it and it seems like it would be a lot of fun to make a movie like this.”
I love the alien’s name is Calvin. That seems like a name of something that would be nice, but he’s a jerk.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I guess there are some ironic qualities to Calvin. There is a bit of a sense of humor all throughout it in a way. And like with the terrifying moments of it in horror, there’s also an absurdity as well. So that’s I think what Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick do really well also – and it’s all in there in different ways.
I spoke to Rhett and Paul yesterday and they’re huge fans of Alien. I rewatched Alien the day after I saw Life and this movie really does capture that claustrophobic horror of the first Alien.
Yeah, definitely. With the Alien movies, it ends up, stuff starts making no sense – like as incredible as it is, there’s just like so much sort of information that you’re kind of… And this is just straight up the stuff that you really love about a story about “life on another planet” and the possibility of survival with that thing. So, yeah, I agree. I definitely agree. I feel like what Rhett and Paul have done is taken your favorite parts of every meal and put them into one movie.
I would watch an Alien Versus Calvin movie. The Alien fought the Predator, so he can fight Calvin, right?
That’s true, that’s true.
I don’t know who would win. Calvin would at least have a shot..
[Laughs.] You know, I’m not up for fights, man. You know, we’re each our own. There’s no need to fight. Let’s listen to each other. Let’s talk. Let’s hear each other out. It’s time. We need to do that more.
If more of the characters in this movie maybe sat down with Calvin and worked it out, maybe we could have avoided some bloodshed.
Perhaps, perhaps. I know my character believes that.
Do you reflect on your past movies a lot? I bring this up because Zodiac just had a ten-year anniversary and I wonder if you look back on your own movies much. I mean, at this point you can look back at your filmography and say, “That’s pretty good.”
I mean, yeah! I mean, from the beginning, you get your first job and you’re like, shit, this is going well! Then there’s also the part of you that’s just like always moving to the next space and being like, well, you know, you’re always constantly auditioning in one way or another, you know? So that never changes, I think. But you look back on work that’s done and stuff that lasts and stuff that doesn’t and you really start to be able to see the reasons why certain things do last. And some of it has to do with luck, but a lot of it has to do with craftsmanship and the initial idea of how anything is thought of. And oftentimes, you can start to feel that really quickly when you’re talking with someone who’s making a film of any kind – and those end up being my cheat sheet. And it’s an honor, man. It’s an honor to have worked with David Fincher and Ang Lee and so many other directors. It’s an honor, and I’ve learned so much, so much.
I think people can tell you put a lot of thought into the movies you choose to make and I think that’s what people appreciate about you as an actor.
I mean, I think quality is important. I think quality, thoughtfulness, attention to detail is what makes anything last – even if it’s entertaining and pure entertainment – and is interesting to the eye and to the heart and to the mind, you know? And we live in a time where people don’t necessarily think so much about what they’re saying before they say it. There’s a lot of just sort of spewing out a million ideas because all we need is information. And when people take time – even in something that’s fun and easy and palatable – to really think about the artistry and to think about the craft involved, those are the things I want to be involved in and those people inspire me.
You worked with Bill Paxton on Nightcrawler. I had a long lunch interview with him once and he was the nicest person…
He was just so wonderful.
He is, totally.
What was he like to be around on a movie?
Bill was, I mean, he was so lovely and supportive. In the midst of doing that movie we were shooting all-nights and he would come in and out at different times. He lived in L.A. And just, it was always a feeling of community that he created and he was this sort of, I don’t know, he had this wealth of the oddest knowledge. There was no one who spoke like him. There was no one who was as enthusiastic about sometimes the strangest things. But because of his enthusiasm, you were always interested. And I think as a result he occupied this space in the world that some people are sort of afraid to occupy. And just think about the movies he made and the movies he was involved with and the filmmakers that he worked with! You knew somewhere, if he was involved, it was going to be successful – not only I think to an audience and all those other conventional ways, but just creatively. And working with him was so fun. I will miss him.
After the interview he emailed me and wrote, “Do I really sound that emphatic?” I replied, “Yes, you do. You really do.”
[Laughs.] It’s so like him, too! To like find people who interviewed him and email them and track them down. He was always like that. He was a lovely man.
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