The director of Jake Gyllenhaal's Netflix movie, 'Velvet Buzzsaw,' explains how a doomed Nic Cage Superman film inspired him to make it

Netflix‘Velvet Buzzsaw.’
  • Netflix’s “Velvet Buzzsaw” is the latest movie from the writer-director Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”).
  • The movie is a twisted look at the topic of “art versus commerce” that’s part dark comedy, part B-horror movie.
  • But it’s also personal for Gilroy: It’s a way he got over being the screenwriter for the doomed Tim Burton “Superman Lives” project starring Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel.
  • Gilroy talked to Business Insider about making a past failure into its own art.

“Art versus commerce” is a topic that has been explored for centuries in many forms, but leave it to the writer-director of “Nightcrawler” to put his own demented twist on it.

Dan Gilroy’s “Velvet Buzzsaw” (available Friday on Netflix) is part B-movie slasher film, part commentary on the monetisation of creativity, and, like his two previous directing efforts – “Nightcrawler” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” – part personal story.

The movie is a gory, darkly comedic tale set in the art world that follows what happens when the paintings of a recently deceased unknown artist become a must-have for the art-gallery elite. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a renowned critic, and Rene Russo plays a prominent gallery owner. As the works sell for millions, the people responsible for making a profit from them begin to be killed by the art.

Gilroy wrote the movie to release his frustrations from the experience of being involved in the doomed Tim Burton “Superman Lives” movie. The scrapped attempt to make a Man of Steel movie in 1996 (the behind-the-scenes debacle was told in the 2015 documentary “The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?“) is best known for the infamous costume-test photos of Nicolas Cage dressed as Superman.

Superman Lives Schneppzone IncSchneppzone Inc.Nicolas Cage as Superman during a preproduction costume test for ‘Superman Lives.’

“I worked on it for a year and a half with Nic Cage and Tim Burton, and they pulled the plug days before shooting,” Gilroy, who was a screenwriter on the movie, told Business Insider. “It was my worst fear in regards to my career. I thought it was going to be this great film.”

“Velvet Buzzsaw” is Gilroy’s way of getting over it. In the movie, the art has the unstoppable superpower to destroy anything that wants to taint its purity. But Gilroy doesn’t just show the connection through the movie’s subtext – there are literal points of reference. In one scene, John Malkovich’s struggling-artist character can be seen randomly drawing shapes on the beach as the waves wash them away moments later, similar to what Gilroy did after learning that “Superman Lives” would not be made.

“I went in my car – I remember the day – and I drove to Santa Monica Beach. And I got on the beach, and I stared at the ocean, trying to process what had just happened,” he said. “I felt I could have taken all the words I had wrote and drawn them in the sand and had the waves crash them away for any relevance they may have had to a larger audience.”

NetflixRene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Velvet Buzzsaw.’

Then there’s an art exhibit in the movie called “Hoboman,” an animatronic figure Gilroy based on Jordan Wolfson’s “Female Figure” exhibit he saw at the contemporary art museum The Broad in Los Angeles. Gilroy said Hoboman represents what’s left of his Superman/Clark Kent character in “Superman Lives” after being chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine.

“I was there for all the visual tests and the design of so many elements of it,” Gilroy said of the preproduction of “Superman Lives.” “So I wanted to draw a connection, do a piece that has to do with a superhero.”

Gilroy said there was interest from studios in making “Velvet Buzzsaw,” but it was Netflix’s deep pockets that allowed Gilroy to make the movie properly, including elements like the use of CGI.

Dan Gilroy Steve Granitz GettySteve Granitz/GettyDan Gilroy, who wrote and directed ‘Velvet Buzzsaw.’

It probably also helped that Netflix subscribers are fans of his work. Gilroy’s acclaimed directorial debut, “Nightcrawler,” starring Gyllenhaal as a stringer selling footage of grizzly accidents and other violent events to LA news stations, got a lot more notice from general audience members once it made its way onto Netflix.

In the industry, Gilroy is best known for writing scripts like “The Bourne Legacy” and “Kong: Skull Island.” But after directing three very different movies, he’s built a unique filmography. All his movies come from the heart and are set and filmed in Los Angeles, giving them a different texture than most productions that travel to other states and countries for huge tax breaks.

Read more: Ben Affleck is finished playing Batman, and new details have emerged about the DC character’s movie future

A lot of it has to do with how Gilroy has gone about his craft since being on that beach after “Superman Lives.”

“I decided when I walked away from the beach that I was going to do things that I wanted to do that had relevance to me,” he said, “that from that point on I was not always going to react to what the market dictated. I needed to satisfy myself. Like John Malkovich in the film: on the sand, with all his art washing away, but utterly free.”

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