Netflix’s new original film Velvet Buzzsaw premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and the art world thriller may be the last thing you would associate with superheroes. But back in the ’90s, its writer/director Dan Gilroy made a name for himself rewriting troubled scripts for Hollywood. One of those scripts was Superman Lives, the proposed fifth live-action Superman movie that would have starred Nicolas Cage and been directed by Tim Burton. It was a dream project for Gilroy, but unfortunately the project was shut down right before filming was due to start, and it has since become one of the most legendary canceled movies ever (check out the documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? For more crazy stories about the production).
You may think this has nothing to do with Jake Gyllenhaal being haunted by a vengeful entity killing people through art exhibits, but according to Gilroy, it helped set him on the road that led to Netflix. “I worked for a year and a half on that movie and it fell apart,” Gilroy told GameSpot during an interview at Sundance. “I felt like I’d wasted my time, so I decided I was going to do this job for myself from now on. I decided to include as many personal ideas as I could so if it happens again, I can at least feel that I’ve grown. Whether it’s a big studio film or an indie film, I just write things with ideas or themes that are important to me, so it’s easier to make peace with it happening again.”
Since the ’90s, Gilroy has worked on both personal and big budget movies, from The Bourne Legacy and Kong: Skull Island to his directorial endeavors Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq., and now Velvet Buzzsaw, which may be his most personal film yet–though not at first glance.
This is a movie about a dark entity murdering various figures in the art world. At the center of it all stands Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf Vandewalt, an outlandish art critic who never stops critiquing and has the power to make or break an artist with one sentence. While some may interpret Gyllenhaal’s over the top performance as mockery, Gilroy drew from his own experience to make sure the character was as serious as possible. “I was a critic for three years at Variety,” Gilroy said. “I certainly wanted the character to be somebody who takes the job seriously and whose integrity is vital to the character.”
He goes the distance with that portrayal to even show the negative effects of working in criticism, and how it affects both the critic and the artist. There’s a line in the film that Morf says: “Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” which rang true to Gilroy. “I take criticism seriously as a form,” explains Gilroy. “But there are instances where a negative review can hurt the artist. I wanted to explore that and how a negative review can affect the artist emotionally, and how that sense of responsibility can affect the critic. It was meant to underline Morf’s position and power.”
Morf is certainly a powerful critic, so when he discovers some disturbing but intriguing paintings at a dead man’s apartment, he immediately sets up a plan to sell them and get rich with a few other wacky characters. Greed takes over, until they start dropping like flies.
Once the killings begin, one of the most important things a horror movie needs to do is let you know early on whether you should feel sad for the characters that are dying, or if you’re meant to celebrate. Halloween? Good people being terrorized, Friday the 13th? Horrible people who deserve to die. Every horror movie has rules that it needs to follow, and Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t the exception.
Turns out, this was an early discussion, and by no means an easy one. “I remember thinking for about a week about this issue,” said Gilroy. “And I eventually decided that there was no way these could be good people we feel bad for. I decided that they all deserved to die, which would make their deaths funny, which helped lean into the satire of it.”
Not everyone who dies in Velvet Buzzsaw seems to deserve it, and that’s where the rules get tricky. A character who goes against the artist’s wishes and sells their paintings? Sure, go ahead and get killed by sentient paint. But a guy who realizes their mistake and tries to stop the whole operation? Someone who never even tried to sell a painting, and barely saw one? That’s where clear rules are needed, and Dan Gilroy did give this issue some thought.
“We thought of it like The Ring or Final Destination,” Gilroy explained. “We had a rule like traditional horror movies, where if you saw the video in The Ring, that’s it. Or if you cheated death in Final Destination, it didn’t matter what you did afterwards, you’re just going to get killed. So for us if you see or profit from the art, no matter in what way, you’re going to die.”
Velvet Buzzsaw is streaming on Netflix now.