Both Satire And Slasher, 'Velvet Buzzsaw' Sends Up Contemporary Art

Feb 1, 2019
Originally published on February 1, 2019 8:41 pm

Director Dan Gilroy is back with a new film called Velvet Buzzsaw.

Like his last movie, Nightcrawler, Gilroy is the writer and director. And also like his last film, this one stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Gyllenhaal plays an art critic named Morf Vandewalt, Russo a gallery owner named Rhodora Haze. And the movie hinges around the work of the late artist Vetril Dease.

As the names may give away, Velvet Buzzsaw is a comedy. It's also a horror movie, where the killer is — wait for it — the works of art.

"We're campy, we're kitschy, we're satire," Gilroy says in an interview. "The film is, I believe, is meant to be fun. You know, I think there's some very serious themes and ideas in this. But at the same time, I think that humor can be a very powerful avenue to transmit an idea. So I love that we're in that realm."


Interview Highlights

On why the movie is about contemporary art

Well, the original germ of the idea came from just being at a contemporary art museum near closing, and there was a lot of contemporary art that had sort of a dark tone to it. And I thought: This would be an interesting world to set a thriller. So that was the original genesis of it. I like to do films now that have some sort of thematic relevance to me. And contemporary art was a movement that really began to challenge and to provoke, and it's been co-opted by big business and money. And I saw it as a world off its axis. It seems like a world that's sort of teetering, and the people within the world know it. And there's an interesting dramatic tension in that that I thought worked really well with the thriller element of it. ...

I was interested in exploring the relationship between art and commerce. And I think it's a very uneasy relationship in general. The quality of a work shouldn't be judged by the first weekend of box office or the number of people who've seen it online or the amount paid at Sotheby's. Success doesn't diminish your work, but it doesn't define it either. And I think that's something that I wanted to explore. ...

I went through a personal experience: I worked on the epic debacle Superman Lives. And I worked on it for a year and a half, and they finally pulled the plug on it two weeks before shooting. And I went down to Santa Monica, and I was sitting at the beach. For a year and a half, I've worked on this script. And I was watching the waves, and I thought: I could have written the words on the beach and have the water wash them away. And it was a real sobering thought. And shortly thereafter, I said to myself: It doesn't matter. As a creator, it was a valuable experience. I got something out of it. I've grown as a writer. When I got up from the beach, I sort of decided that I was going to do things for myself as much as other people.

And I think it's important to always know that art of any sort is more than a commodity. Yes, hopefully, everybody's art can generate enough money to pay their rent, and take care of their needs, and if it gets bigger than that, more power to you. But if it doesn't, never lose sight of the fact that you're investing something into it that has meaning. Really, if there's any sort of central theme to the film, it's that art is more than a commodity. Artists invest a part of their soul in their work, and it has value on that level.

On choosing Netflix for distribution rather than other interested studios

When I was trying to decide whether to go with [Netflix] or not, I went online. And ... there was a story about somebody who said, "Oh, Netflix is going to destroy the theatrical experience." And there were 50 comments that followed, and they were all like, "Oh, you must live in Los Angeles or New York, because I don't get to see all these movies that you're getting to see." And I suddenly realized: Netflix has democratized the filmgoing experience. And as a storyteller, I just want people to see the film. Yes, I would love everybody to see the film in an IMAX theater with pristine sound. That's just not going to happen. So the idea of two or four or one person sitting and watching this film in the comfort of their home — that's fine with me.

On the names of the characters

First of all, I like unusual names 'cause I'm an enormous Charles Dickens fan, and I love the character names that he would come up with for his characters. And so: Morf Vandewalt sort of came after a lot of thought. Rhodora — the rhodora is a flower ... and I think it was Emerson who wrote a poem about the rhodora. Vetril Dease ... I did a movie that never got made, set in the South in the 1800s, and I got a list of census rolls, and one of the names on the census from, like, 1842 was Vetril Dease. And I used that from that.

On making the works of art that appear in the film

About six months before we started shooting, my art advisor who came on [for] the movie, David Hundley, and I started to create – it's over 100 pieces of original art. They fell into two categories: There is this central deceased artist named Vetril Dease — we needed to create a body of work for him — and then we needed to create all the art that surrounds, you know, Art Basel and the galleries. And we hired artists to create original pieces of art. It was quite an undertaking. That was a big part of the film. Jim Bissell, our production designer, was deeply involved in this as well.

It's all right now sitting in a storage facility that I'm not sure what I should do with. Some of it's creepy, some of it's not my taste. There's a 2-ton, 6-foot, solid chrome sphere that's just sitting there that I don't know what to do with. I'm very uncertain what to do with it all, to be honest.

On any reaction he's heard from the art world

I've had no reaction from the fine art community whatsoever. I'm very curious to see what they think of it. When I made Nightcrawler, I actually thought that local television news would be offended by what we had done. And I would run into people all the time afterwards saying, "Oh, no it's so accurate" and "We don't do that. Other people do that. So I'm not really offended." So I'm hoping that the contemporary art world looks at it that way. I should say, last week I finally caught up with a really wonderful documentary called The Price of Everything on HBO, which is about the contemporary art world. And here are the titans of the industry speaking about the very issues that our film is about. So I'm hoping that they see it as something that's relevant and real.

Nathan Heffel edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Dan Gilroy is out with a new film, called, "Velvet Buzzsaw." Like his last movie, "Nightcrawler," Gilroy is the writer and director. And also like his last film, this one stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Gyllenhaal plays an art critic. Russo plays a gallery owner. In this scene, they're on the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VELVET BUZZSAW")

RENE RUSSO: (As Rhodora Haze) Meanwhile, I'm signing new talent.

JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Morf Vandewalt) Heard you got Damrish. He's fierce.

RUSSO: (As Rhodora Haze) And this morning - Mertilla Splude.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Morf Vandewalt) We are on the same frequency. I swear. "GoPro Kindergarten's" going to break big.

RUSSO: (As Rhodora Haze) Your lips, God's ear. Oh, wait. In our world, you are God.

SHAPIRO: "Velvet Buzzsaw" is a comedy and also a horror movie where the killer is the art.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VELVET BUZZSAW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Help.

SHAPIRO: Dan Gilroy told me he always intended this movie to paint with a broad brush.

DAN GILROY: We're campy. We're kitschy. We're satire. The film is - I believe is meant to be fun. You know, I think there's some really serious themes and ideas in this, but at the same time, I think humor can be a very powerful avenue to transmit an idea. So I love that we're in that realm.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VELVET BUZZSAW")

MIG MACARIO: (As Cloudio) There he is, Morf.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Morf Vandewalt) Cloudio...

MACARIO: (As Cloudio) It's Kenji, as you probably...

SHAPIRO: What made you think that the art world was ripe for skewering? And I realized skewering might not be the best word to describe a movie with such a high body count, but there we are.

GILROY: Well, the original germ of the idea came from just being in a contemporary art museum near closing. And there was a lot of contemporary art that had a sort of a dark tone to it. And I thought this would be an interesting world to set a thriller. So that was the original genesis of it. I like to do films now that have some sort of thematic relevance to me, and contemporary art was a movement that really began to challenge and to provoke. And it's been co-opted by big business and money.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VELVET BUZZSAW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) But the wealthy vacuum up everything. Except crumbs, the best work is only enjoyed by a tiny few.

GILROY: And I saw it as a world off its axis. It seems like a world that's sort of teetering. And the people within the world know it, and there's an interesting dramatic tension in that that I thought worked really well with the thriller element of it.

SHAPIRO: And was it always kind of a stand-in for your own experience in Hollywood trying to make movies that sell that are also artistically sound? You know, the same tensions we see playing out in the film, have they played out in your own life?

GILROY: Yeah. I like to think there's a parallel. I mean, I was interested in exploring the relationship between art and commerce, and I think it's a very uneasy relationship in general. The quality of a work shouldn't be judged by the first weekend of box office or the number of people who've seen it online or the amount paid at Sotheby's. Success doesn't diminish your work, but it doesn't define it either. And I think that's something that I wanted to explore.

SHAPIRO: But that's such a hard line to walk - right? - because if nobody sees a film or a play or a piece of art, I mean, does that make it more, like, valuable than the thing that sells for millions of dollars at Sotheby's?

GILROY: I don't think it makes it more valuable. I went through a personal experience. I worked on the epic debacle "Superman Lives," and I worked on it for a year and a half. And they finally pulled the plug on it two weeks before shooting. And I went down to Santa Monica, and I was sitting - the beach. For a year and a half, I worked on a script. And I was watching the waves, and I thought, I could have written the words on the beach and had the water wash them away. And it was a real sobering thought.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VELVET BUZZSAW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Gestation implies birth. Ideas come, but they kill themselves as soon as they appear. This is a slaughterhouse.

GILROY: And shortly thereafter, I said to myself, it doesn't matter. As a creator, it was a valuable experience. I got something out of it. I've grown as a writer. When I got up from the beach, I sort of decided that I was going to do things as much for myself as for other people, and I think it's important to always know that art of any sort is more than a commodity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VELVET BUZZSAW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) We don't sell durable goods. We peddle perception thin as a bubble.

GILROY: Yes, hopefully everybody's art can generate enough money to pay their rent and take care of their needs. And if it gets bigger than that, more power to you. But if it doesn't, never lose sight of the fact that you're investing something into it that has meaning. Really if there's any sort of central theme to the film, it's that art is more than a commodity. Artists invest a part of their soul in their work, and it has value on that level.

SHAPIRO: It's also interesting then that this film is coming out on Netflix where there's not going to be opening weekend box office numbers, right?

GILROY: Right. When I was trying to decide whether to go with them or not, I went online. And there was a - first sort of - there was a story about somebody who said, oh, Netflix is going to destroy that theatrical experience. And there were 50 comments that followed, and they were all like, oh, you must live in Los Angeles or New York because I don't get to see all these movies that you're getting to see.

And I suddenly realized Netflix has democratized the filmgoing experience. And as a storyteller, I just want people to see the film. Yes, I would love everybody to see the film in an IMAX theater with pristine sound. That's just not going to happen. So the idea of two or four or one person sitting and watching this film in the comfort of their home - that's fine with me.

SHAPIRO: OK, so to get back to the actual content of the film, I have to ask about these characters' names because the character played by Jake Gyllenhaal is named Morf. The character played by Rene Russo is named Rhodora.

GILROY: Right.

SHAPIRO: The artist they discover is named Vetril. I don't want to offend any listeners who are named Vetril, but where did these names come from?

GILROY: Well, I - first of all, I like unusual names 'cause I'm an enormous Charles Dickens fan. And I love the character names that he would come up with for his characters. And so Morf Vandewalt sort of came after a lot of thought. Rhodora - rhodora is a flower. And I think it's...

SHAPIRO: It's, like, related to a rhododendron, or something like that?

GILROY: Yeah. Something. And I think it was Emerson who wrote a poem about the rhodora.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VELVET BUZZSAW")

RUSSO: (As Rhodora Haze) Tell me all about Vetril Dease.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) His name is the tinsel on the tree.

SHAPIRO: Vetril Dease sounds like an anatomical part, or something.

GILROY: I did a movie that never got made, set in the South in the 1800s. And I got a list of census rolls, and one of the names on the census from, like, 1842 was Vetril Dease.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GILROY: And I used that from that.

SHAPIRO: How did you make the art that we end up seeing on screen?

GILROY: About six months before we started shooting, my art adviser, who came on the movie, David Hundley, and I started to create - it's over a hundred pieces of original art that fell into two categories. There is this central deceased artist, named Vetril Dease. We needed to create a body of work for him, and then we needed to create all the art that surrounds, you know, Art Basel and the galleries. And we hired artists to create original pieces of art. And it was quite an undertaking. That was a big part of the film. Jim Bissell, our production designer, was deeply involved in this, as well.

SHAPIRO: Was there any piece of art that, at the end of filming, you took home for yourself?

GILROY: No. It's all, right now, sitting in a storage facility that I'm not sure what I should do with.

(LAUGHTER)

GILROY: It's - some of it's creepy. Some of it's not my taste. There is a 2-ton, 6-foot solid chrome sphere...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GILROY: ...Sitting there that I don't know what to do with.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VELVET BUZZSAW")

RUSSO: (As Rhodora Haze) creates this unique sensation depending on each person and whatever hole they decide to explore. Just like life.

GILROY: I'm very uncertain what to do with it all, to be honest.

SHAPIRO: After watching this movie, I would be afraid to send anyone to that storage facility.

GILROY: And certainly not at night.

SHAPIRO: I realize the film has been out for less than 24 hours, but have you had reaction from the fine art community?

GILROY: I've had no reaction from the fine art community, whatsoever. I'm very curious to see what they think of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VELVET BUZZSAW")

JOHN MALKOVICH: (As Piers) Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining.

GILROY: When I made "Nightcrawler," I actually thought that local television news would be offended by what we had done. And I would run into people all the time afterwards saying, oh, no. It's so accurate, and, we don't do that. Other people do that so I'm not really offended. So I'm hoping that the contemporary art world looks at it that way. I should say, last week, I finally caught up with a really wonderful documentary called "The Price Of Everything" on HBO, which is about the contemporary art world. And here are the titans of the industry speaking about the very issues that our film is about. So I'm hoping that they see it as something that's relevant and real.

SHAPIRO: Dan Gilroy. His new film is "Velvet Buzzsaw." Thanks for talking with us today.

GILROY: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.