I started my career in news where just about everyone does: working the graveyard shift at a local station. I was barely 22-years-old and like most kids just beginning to feel their way around the business I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Maybe this is why one of the best pieces of advice I ever got about TV came from someone who was an executive producer at WSVN in Miami when I was a lowly overnight writer there, and it probably applies to just about anyone in any industry. It was a variation on "fake it 'til you make it," only because this was television, it was slightly more misanthropic and profane. She told me, "When you don't know what's going on, just pretend you do -- because the person next to you who you think is completely on top of things doesn't have a fucking clue what's going on either."
I spliced this wisdom into my DNA and quickly mastered the fine art of putting my hands on my hips and nodding seriously whenever anyone talked to me, because nothing communicates to your coworkers that you're completely in control of the situation like some bullshit theatrics. And when somebody mentioned a person, piece of equipment or bit of news lingo that left me completely stumped, I made sure nobody was ever the wiser. Like, for instance, the first time my producer told me that we would be getting video for a story from a "stringer."
If you've never worked in a newsroom there's a pretty good chance you've never heard the word "stringer" before -- other than on The Wire -- and don't know exactly what it is that a stringer does. A stringer is nothing more than a freelance journalist. But if you work overnights at a local news station in a decent-sized market, a stringer is one very specific type of freelance journalist: he's a nightcrawler, somebody who prowls the streets well after dark armed with camera equipment and a police scanner. He follows the dispatches and the chatter, races to crime scenes, fires and car crashes, and shoots anything he can -- whatever he can then turn around and sell to the highest-bidding local news station or whichever one he has a contract with. You can generally see the product of his night's work all over the morning news for the simple reason that local news stations often won't pay to staff overnight photogs, so the stringers become the graveyard producers' eyes and ears to the outside world.
There's a good chance that the picture forming in your head of the person I just described is one of a gaunt, sallow creature with vaguely anti-social tendencies -- someone who could easily be mistaken for one of the criminals who roam the night right along with him, whose exploits he's paid to document. I've certainly met stringers who fit that description, but for the most part they're no worse than anybody else in the news business (which admittedly isn't really saying much). They're professional photographers, they just do their jobs as private contractors rather than being tethered to the strictures of a particular newsroom. They have the night. They have freedom. It's not the worst life there is.
As you might have guessed, I'm bringing this subject up because I saw Nightcrawler yesterday, the new movie that stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an amoral low-life who finds his calling as a stringer working the streets of Los Angeles. It's a film that's every bit as intense as the trailer suggests, with Gyllenhaal turning in a truly revelatory performance as a creepily unctuous small-time thief who may or not be a full-blown sociopath but who definitely has a knack for getting the perfect shot at a crime scene, even if he has to rearrange bodies to bring his vision to life. Gyllenhaal's bristling with nervous energy throughout the movie and you absolutely can't take your eyes off him; he's like Travis Bickle on meth. And he takes to the news business like a dog to red meat, telling the police at one point that his professional motto is, "If you see me, you're having the worst day of your life."
His partner in crime in the business is the "news director" of the morning show at the fictional KWLA TV (what would in reality be the executive producer, in this case at KTLA where the newsroom scenes were shot). Played by Rene Russo, she buys his ghoulish and often gory video, basically playing the role of the vampire who thrives on the blood he provides. Her professional motto? "Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut."
Nightcrawler functions as a kind of Network for the new millennium, taking a razor-sharp satirical blade to the entire "if it bleeds it leads" ethos by amping it up to ludicrous heights. Russo's character airs video that would never in a million years be allowed on television, even in the most unethical newsroom, and Gyllenhaal's character goes to lengths to get shots that would get him hauled before a judge ten times over. But the whole goal of the film is to be both a wild-eyed adrenaline jolt and a blackly comic take on the media and it succeeds on both counts. If nothing else, it's worth seeing just to behold Jake Gyllenhaal's deliciously menacing performance, which honestly is one of the best I've seen this year.
Obviously, if you've ever worked in television news there are a lot of little joys to be found in Nightcrawler. I used to joke that my job as a producer at WSVN in Miami was to turn murders into music videos. Not only do I understand the "if it bleeds it leads" philosophy of local news coverage, I honestly helped to pioneer it. WSVN was and probably still is the most powerful independent news station in the country; what was done there in the early 90s set the (sometimes grotesque) tone for local news throughout the nation. It was news as terrifying, hallucinatory insanity and the hour-long 10pm show that I eventually wound up producing during that era was the showcase -- "the big show" as Rick Sanchez called it. Nightcrawler skewers the police blotter style of news, even at one point breaking down how much local news is devoted to city government and current events versus how much is dead people, especially dead white people -- "crime creeping into suburbia," Russo's news exec correctly characterizes it -- and things on fire.
What's interesting, though, is just how dated the dark center of Nightcrawler feels. Satirizing violence in local news is honestly the kind of thing that should've been done decades ago, right around that time I was cutting my vampire teeth at WSVN -- at the rise of the leads/bleeds movement. You'd think that making a movie about news now would involve social media and the way it's upended the entire industry. Maybe that's a meta gag on the part of writer-director Dan Gilroy: to make a gritty 70s-style noir film with a distinctly late-80s/early-90s moral. Regardless, it's a pretty exhilarating piece of entertainment and one that remains relevant if for no other reason than the fact that in big city local news, crime is still king. And the underlying message that anything and everything is now available to be voyeuristically broadcast, even your more private moments -- including your death -- resonates loudly. The difference now is that you're as likely to have those moments photographed by ten people with iPhones as you are by one intrepid stringer.
Used to be the stringers were the only ones roaming the streets late at night armed with high-tech video equipment and a lust for the perfect shot. Now, everybody is.