The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Guilty.
There are many constraints built into this film… you’re in a call center, on the phone, there’s limited space to move. What drew you to that?
Jake Gyllenhaal: I guess I’m a fan of creating a certain type of resistance, and then I think that gives me a sense of freedom. For me, when I think about the process, I always thought it could be done in forty-eight hours—the movie, I thought we could shoot it in forty-eight hours. When I presented it to Antoine as something to direct, I said we could shoot it in five days. And then we ended up shooting it in eleven days. It became an issue for us while we were shooting because Antoine had been near someone that tested positive for Covid on a Friday, and we were supposed to start shooting on Monday. He had to go into quarantine for twelve days, which would have shut down everything. I should mention that he directed the entire movie from a van a block away that we hardwired to the stage I was shooting on and I never saw him the entire time. I didn’t consider it constraints; I considered it new land, a new world, a new creative space… one that I had not been in before. I also loved Antoine saying, “you cannot move from this space,” and I wanted to know what feelings would come from that. I’m a very physical actor. He tends to move his camera a lot, but he forced himself to keep it still particularly for the first quarter of the film. As we faced all these technical difficulties in the process, and as these emotions started to come through the actors, and as I started to realize that all the research I had done was leading me down a very difficult emotional road, I didn’t like standing still or sitting still. I hated it after a while and I was forced to. All of these very primal, very childish—infantile—feelings came out of having to sit still. Which was a really interesting part of the process.
All of these very primal, very childish feelings came out of having to sit still
Because of Antoine’s situation, it almost sounds like he was method directing this film.
JG: After a while, it became so odd. He was in a van with like three or four monitors. Communicating through a walkie-talkie and through the phone. And I was in a room, with three or four monitors around me, communicating through a walkie-talkie with him. So we were complete mirrors of each other.
It seems like you were almost living a similar situation to an actual 911 control center worker. Covid is happening all around the world, your director is in a van, you can’t move… it sounds pretty intense.
JG: Part of the advantage of the role is that he’s not a 911 dispatcher. It allowed for this brash and initial toxicity in him. And then all that crap comes out during the course of the film and there’s a sort of theatricality as the acts progress. We split the movie into five acts, twenty pages each. We shot twenty pages a day, one continuous take for each one of the twenty pages. Each one was staged with the actors on Zoom. I didn’t see them, but I heard them. The AD would cue them based on the script and whether I called them or they called me. And that was pressurized. One of the reasons I love Antoine is that he gave me so much ground and room to express. And then he started to move his cameras in closer and closer to me as we got into that room. He started choosing lens where, no joke, the cameras were six inches away from my face. Focus was so sensitive and my movement was so important. You have six people operating three cameras and they’re this close to your face and they have masks on and you don’t. You’re in a period of time where any one of you could have contracted something. And you’re in a pretend world. And that was the odd thing for me. As soon as I took my mask off to act, which is always my space to sort of pretend, using my imagination, the actual risk to me sort of contradicted all the reasons I got into the whole thing and I thought, I’m actually unsafe. And I thought that added to all of it. I think we were all pent up. There were all these political things going on, and I think all those feelings started to come through. That’s what’s so great about my job—there’s an allowance for feelings that you might otherwise shun or be ashamed of, and you are praised for when you express them in that space. You’re encouraged.
I was fascinated by the world you guys created for this character. It’s almost reality, but that lever is dialed to 11 and his inner anxieties have permeated his entire space. There’s a blurring of subjective reality and actual reality. What sort of conversations did you have about that?
JG: First, it was really important that as soon as Emily calls, it sets off this sort of fantasy. And the movie is a fantasy. Because essentially, I think the movie is about how we judge people and how we project on people that we can’t see, but only hear. And the choices that we make that we think are right and may not end up being right because of those assumptions. So often we’re wrong about what we think of other people. So often we don’t look within ourselves to realize, oh shit, that’s actually coming from me. I think we realize that if it was a psychological journey that was internal, that it became Greek, you know? As you progress from act to act in this five-act structure that we had created, in the end, I think the admittance of forcing out that feeling is almost an exorcism for him. It has to come out and it’s a horror film in a lot of ways. I always thought about that. When he admits to what he’s done and as things start to get worse, it becomes what Antoine refers to as Dante’s Inferno. That’s why he starts it in the fire. The feelings that come out of him become huge and that’s all part of that fantasy. We don’t live in a world where someone in his position says, “I did it, I’m sorry. I will not be redeemed on this earth but I will be redeemed spiritually because I have admitted and expressed this truth.” That’s a necessary thing. Both Antoine and I believe that big feelings needed to be there, because truthfully, there are big feelings in those ideas. There is a world—maybe more so in the Danish version—where those feelings are sort of held back and you see a man making a decision. But for us, it was so important that those feelings come out like snakes. You see Medusa’s head and it has to come out that way. For us, it did. That’s more metaphor than reality.