Watching Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom go to extreme lengths to capture shocking footage in “Nightcrawler” — available to own now on Digital HD and on Blu-ray/DVD on Feb. 10 — will make you think about your local TV news a little differently.
It’s a fictional depiction of a very fictional character, to be sure. But in cities across the country, there are freelance camera operators, driving through the dead of night, racing to the scenes of gruesome crimes and accidents for footage to serve up by breakfast.
Can some parts of this movie possibly be real? Ken Herzlich, a freelance TV cameraman who runs Network Video Productions, which supplies footage to Chicago’s local affiliates as well as national cable networks, says yes. Actually, a few things about the real-life business of late-night news gathering sound just about as strange as fiction.
1. They Learn on the Streets
In “Nightcrawler,” it seems incredible that Lou Bloom is able to jump into the field without any prior training or journalism school. But Herzlich was a professional photographer before he parlayed his hobby of listening to police scanners into this new career. He’s only ever run into one or two stringers who studied the subject in school.
“A couple of the guys I have hired, I ran into at fires,” he says. “They were firemen. One was a 9-1-1 dispatcher. Some of the other guys, I would find them going to [fires, accidents and crime scenes], and they were interested in listening to radios and chasing stuff.”
2. Police Can Make or Break Their Shots
While Lou Bloom is constantly pushing his way around paramedics and ignoring police tape, real-life camera operators have to try to befriend the officials on the scene, or at least make them tolerate you. “I think the cops we dealt with when I first started were definitely nicer than dealing with a lot of the younger guys now, who don’t really care for the media too much,” Herzlich explains.
When the police know him and like him, they can help him get better access to a scene. But when they don’t, watch out. “At 3 in the morning, when [police are] upset about something, they don’t really care about statutes or anything like that. When it gets dicey is when they tell you, you can’t shoot something. And then we start to have a little bit of a discussion. That has happened a lot over the years. They will threaten you with arrest.” While Herzlich says he’s never been arrested, he knows others who have.
3. The Race to the Scene Can Be Dangerous
“That might have happened a couple hundred times, more than that,” he says of hitting the pedal to the metal when he hears something good on the scanner, though he doesn’t quite go to Lou Bloom’s car-chase extremes. “If I’m going to a hot call in a police district, I know that every police car within that district is headed there, and they’re not sitting around writing traffic tickets.”
There’s a reason Herzlich drives a reclaimed police vehicle with a large engine. Not that being first there is always necessary, since it’s also about getting the right shots and the finished product out to clients.
Herzlich adds that while he and all of his colleagues have been in car accidents on the job, it’s not usually their fault. When he’s on the road from 10 p.m. to about 4:30 a.m., drunk drivers are everywhere. “I just assume that everyone else that’s driving at 3 in the morning is drunk. It can be really dangerous, especially when the bars close.”
4. They Shoot Gruesome Events
The whole “If it bleeds, it leads” ethos by which Rene Russo’s “Nightcrawler”character lives was much bigger in the ’90s, Herzlich says, but he does deal primarily in multiple homicides (a single gang member won’t do), accidents, fires, and extreme weather.
“You have to have some personal taste. In general, we try to shoot around the body, hide the body behind the police car or people standing over it,” Herzlich says. “And then you shoot them looking down at it, as opposed to shooting the body.”
Some scenes stick with them long after they air. One of Herzlich’s horror stories is covering the fire at the Paxton Hotel, a single occupancy room building. “I was very close by when the call came in and got there with the first arriving fire equipment. Literally every window of the place had somebody hanging out of it. … People were jumping out of the windows and landing next to me. … The screaming and stuff really bothered me for a long time.”
5. They Can’t Stay on the Sidelines Forever
Again, we’re not talking Lou Bloom-level involvement, but news services find their footage shown as testimony in court cases. Herzlich used his camera light to help firefighters save people in the Paxton fire. And he’s been caught in the middle of gunfire.
6. The Weather Sucks Too
After witnessing people dying, you’d think covering a big snowstorm would be cake. While Herzlich does enjoy displaying a bit of artistry when shooting weather stories, he says they have their hazards. “I’ve had frostbite on my index finger and thumb, because my hand to hold my camera is up in the air, and the blood is draining from it. I wear gloves but it doesn’t matter. It hurts!”
So, who’s ready to sign up for this gig? Or, you can stay frostbite-free and watch “Nightcrawler” instead.
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