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How Tim Burton’s failed Superman movie inspired Netflix’s new thriller Velvet Buzzsaw

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The ending of Dan Gilroy’s new movie is a surprising moment pulled directly from his life

Zawe Ashton in velvet buzzsaw Netflix

Netflix’s new original film Velvet Buzzsaw, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, is outrageous: after discovering a deceased artist’s trove of uncelebrated work, an agent (Zawe Ashton), gallery owner (Rene Russo), and fine art critic (Jake Gyllenhaal) become the victims of a vengeful specter. But according to writer-director Dan Gilroy, the gory mayhem comes from a very real place.

Like his pawns in the art-world horror-thriller, Gilroy was once caught up in the commercial side of creativity. The son of a playwright, and the brother of screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne series), the brains behind Velvet Buzzsaw got his start after penning the 1992 sci-fi thriller Freejack, a script that earned him a few more writing jobs and a metric ton of punch-up work. Throughout the ’90s, Gilroy was the guy Hollywood called upon to make what wasn’t working work — a job that eventually landed him scripting duties on Tim Burton’s proposed epic, Superman Lives.

The Nic Cage-led Man of Steel movie never happened, and as Gilroy puts it, the movie’s implosion was a wake up call for his career. Twenty years later, the writer is directing his own independent features and, with Velvet Buzzsaw, finally working through the headache of his peak in Hollywood. With the film now streaming on Netflix, Polygon spoke to Gilroy about his inspirations for the fine-art madness, how the ending of the movie, in which John Malkovich’s artist character is seen wandering the beach, directly correlates to his screenwriting career, and exactly why Superman Lives died an untimely pre-production death.

Polygon: Your wife and Velvet Buzzsaw star Rene Russo said at Sundance that a trip to Dia:Beacon art museum in upstate New York inspired this movie. What was it about that space?

Dan Gilroy: I went up with some family members towards closing, it was in the winter, this big empty space, all this rather disturbing art. And I went to the basement, and there was a video installation, and I just started thinking, ‘Wow, the contemporary art world would be a really interesting place to set a thriller.’ Then, with the understanding I had of the contemporary art world, and through the research and certain themes that I wanted to bring up, it all started to coalesce. But the genesis of the idea was being in a contemporary art museum towards closing and really sensing and feeling the power of this art in a disturbing, powerful way.

Were you able to funnel your own artistic experiences into that setting?

Gilroy: Yes, and that’s the satirical part of it. I decided early on that if this film was a piece of art, it would be pop art. Pop art takes modern icons and images and then mashes them together to challenge tradition, and that’s sort of how I saw it. That became a prime mover for how we were going to approach it.

Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in Velvet Buzzsaw. Claudette Barius/Netflix

Is there any figure in the film world that you would compare to Dease, the mysterious artist at the center of everything (who’s murdering people from beyond the grave)?

Gilroy: Dease, in the film, is somebody who died who never wanted his work to get out, but I don’t know if there’s an equivalent to that. Perhaps an artist who didn’t get their full due, was overlooked or maybe has some violent feeling towards [...] I don’t know why Orson Welles comes to mind a little bit, somebody who, after Citizen Kane, when Hearst attempted to destroy him, kept going and clawing his way through and making great work and always working on the fringes, but looking at the center of it and commenting on it [...] I think Orson Welles might be the closest I could come to.

I thought of Orson Welles, too, because remaking Citizen Kane feels exceptionally egregious and totally plausible.

Gilroy: Anyone who tries to do that ... that would be a fool’s errand. If somebody tried to make Citizen Kane, Orson may claw his way out of the ground and then destroy the footage and the camera. But that’s that studios, right? They own the rights to a film and it’s a known name, so it’s branded to some degree and they’re going to milk the name. That’s what they do. Automatic branded IP exists in the library. That’s the economics.

Speaking of movie studio hoopla, you’ve said Velvet Buzzsaw was also inspired by your work on Superman Lives, the Tim Burton superhero movie that never happened. What’s the connection?

Gilroy: So in the ’90s, a million years ago, I spent a year and a half working on Superman Lives, the most epic debacle of all time. I worked on it for a year and a half, and one day, a day before shooting, Tim and I and the producer Jon Peters, walked into Warner Bros. offices, and they announced they were pulling the plug for economic reasons and other reasons. I remember just being devastated. I’d worked for a year and a half. This was going to be a massive film for me. I was so excited. So I drove down to Santa Monica, and I sat on the beach, and I was just trying to process this year and a half and I thought, Wow, I could have written all of those words on the beach in the sand, and the waves could have just washed them away. That’s pretty much the relevance of what I just went through.

Then I started to ponder, and I thought, ‘You know what, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter for me right now, because I worked as a writer and I grew as a writer, and it particularly does not matter for me moving forward, because I have to assume that this could happen again, and I have to make peace with the idea that, at a certain level, I’m working as a creative slash artist for myself. I have to find work that’s relevant to me, so that it transcends what the world thinks of it or if it ever gets seen, if ever.’

And I made peace before I got up from that beach that I was going to really be working on things that I got satisfaction out of, and that led me to Nightcrawler. That led me to [Roman J. Israel, Esq]. It certainly led me to Velvet Buzzsaw. The last image of the film, the credit sequence, is John Malkovich drawing on the beach as the waves are washing away the images. And those images are just as relevant, even though they’re about to be washed away. That sells at Sotheby’s for hundreds of millions of dollars.

How much were you thinking about “art” when your career was blowing up in earlier in the ’90s? Dennis Hopper directed your script for Chasers in 1994, then you go un-produced until 2005’s Two for the Money, with Superman Lives around ’97. I assume you were making a living throughout.

Gilroy: I was certainly working. I was coming in and doing a lot of rewriting jobs, production rewrites. I was also writing specs, some of which got made. Like, I worked on The Fall, which I don’t think got made until 2005, but I started with Tarsem in the late ’90s, working on that. Two for the Money was a spec I wrote back in the ’90s, too. There were ideas that I was exploring that I’m still working on now. So I was always trying to satisfy the inner voice of doing something for myself while I was paying the bills.

Velvet buzzsaw ending on beach Netflix

What did the producers of Superman Lives hire you to do? You were not the first screenwriter for that movie. Were you re-writing to bring down the budget?

Gilroy: They didn’t have any care about the budget. When they brought me in, they said, “Don’t think about the budget at all.” Tim Burton and I, and Jon Peters, we sat down and crafted the story and I wrote the script and I’ll never forget it: I handed the draft in and Jon Peters, god bless him, calls me up about two hours later and says, “Oh my god, they just ran a budget on the script and it’s like $240 million dollars,” which back then was like $18 billion, and then we had to figure out how to cut this budget in half. For like the next six months, we’re scrambling to consolidate sets and stuff like that. This was the tortured process. We could never get the budget down. And Warner Bros. was going through a horrible period. Every movie they were making was bombing. I’m talking about, like, a dozen films. It became an economic decision.

What did you write that was so impossible to realize without the GDP of a small country?

Gilroy: Superman died, and K, his little electronic sidekick, builds this massive sort of thing to bring them back to life. Brainiac turns into Lex Luthor, or Lex Luthor really turns into Brainiac, and he has this ship, the Skull Ship, with a menagerie of animals from every planet they visited. There was no end of gigantic sets and set pieces. We had the most massive urban fight that would have ever been shot. It was just carte blanche. “Write whatever looks good, let’s really blow it!” And boy, did that come back and bite us on the ass.

Your imagination certainly soars with Velvet Buzzsaw, which has gleeful bloodshed that remind me of a Chucky movie. Which of the art-inspired, horror-style murders did you first dream up?

Roman Holiday is the Gregory Peck movie where he sticks his hand, right? The one where he sticks his hand in the little sculpture. I was always intrigued with the idea of the image of Gregory Peck sticking his hand in, and Audrey Hepburn screaming and going, “Oh my God!” as he’s pretending to have it bit off. So I just thought something with holes in it that people put their arms in and feel things. Was it a square or is it a rectangle, oh it’s a sphere, and we’ll coat it on the outside with metal. Then the production designer came in and started changing it all up and putting all in place. It all came from Roman Holiday, oddly enough.

We didn’t want to get to magical, but when you say Chucky, that’s a compliment to me. We were fine with being trope-y. He was in a mental institution. He bathed with his own blood. We’re not breaking any new ground there, but we were never trying, because there’s a kitschy element to it. I mean there’s a moment where Zawe Ashton’s character comes into a dark room and goes, “Here, kitty, kitty.” They were probably doing that in the 1950s in every black-and-white, bad horror movie that ever happened, and we were fine with that. So it’s liberating to have the satirical aspect of it, because it’s not being judged on being the scariest or having the most unique backstory.

Could you see yourself writing or directing a bigger studio movie after working on the independent level? Is there art to be made there? I know that, before he passed, you were working with Stan Lee on a movie called Annihilator.

Gilroy: I’m not at the moment, but I’m not adverse to that. And I don’t know [about Annihilator]. I loved working with Stan. It was something that was Chinese-American co-production. This was about six years ago or seven years ago. That was a very rocky road. They ran through a lot of trouble with trying to raise the $80 million on the Chinese side and marry it with the American film money. So I think that the Chinese-American co-productions are very knotty things to untie, and I don’t think they’ve ever managed to do it.