Director Dan Gilroy came up with the idea for Velvet Buzzsaw a couple of years ago while wandering Dia:Beacon, a contemporary art museum in upstate New York that houses a large collection of strange-but-cool sculptural art. The filmmaker, whose thriller Nightcrawler earned him a screenwriting Oscar nomination, was searching for a project when he found himself alone among all the creepy art and thought, “Man, this is a really wild world, it's like the set of a thriller.”
That got him thinking even more.
“I was very interested in the idea of where art and commerce were right now, and that’s not a very good place,” Gilroy told VICE. “I don't think the quality of a work should be judged by the number of views or clicks or amount of pay. I mean, success does not diminish your work, but it doesn't define it either. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really cool place to say that art is more than a commodity.’”
Gilroy took that concept and married it with the slasher genre to create Velvet Buzzsaw, which premiered at Sundance and is now available on Netflix. The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf Vanderwalt, a fancy-pants LA art critic who can make an artist’s fortune rise or fall with a review. The film is an ode to the fast-moving world of modernist art, and where exclusiveness before commercialization and branding come in.
“I feel that we're in a time where art on a wall, a song, a movie, or a sculpture is very much looked at [in monetary terms,]” Gilroy said. “Instead of getting into the elements, [people are] analyzing it like, ‘So many people have seen this, this is so famous, it sold for so much money.’ To me, art is a very personal relationship between the artist and the viewer, listener, or reader, and it doesn't matter to me how many people look at it. It has an inherent power.”
About 30 years ago, Gilroy worked as a reporter at Variety for three years. Gyllenhaal’s character was an outgrowth of that.
“We didn't want to make a caricature of the art critic, we wanted to try to get it as realistically as possible," Gilroy said. "Once [Gyllenhaal] read the script, he started doing research on his own. He was going to galleries. It was really an exploration of the economics and aesthetics of the contemporary art world. As we were doing the scenes, we really understood.”
When Gilroy was working on the script, a now infamous interview with Quincy Jones was published in Vulture in which Jones claimed that Marlon Brando had sex with Richard Pryor, James Baldwin, and Marvin Gaye. Gilroy was intrigued with the idea of an archetypal male who's essentialist. The film portrays Morf as a confident and swaggering bisexual man, who frolics around naked with both men and women, and wields enormous power in the art world.
Rene Russo, Gilroy’s wife in real life, plays Rhodora Haze, a one-time punk rock superstar turned gallery owner. When Rhodora’s associate Josephina (played by the stunning Zawe Ashton) comes across a treasure-trove of undiscovered paintings by a just deceased artist, they partner to capitalize on the dead man’s work. Selling his paintings to the highest bidders which ignites a frenzy of greed, desire, and murder.
This escalation of violence and blood-letting brings a virulent intensity and Quentin Tarantino-like feel to the film. As the visual effects get more and more graphic, the satirical thriller turns into a gore fest. Luckily, Netflix gave Gilroy complete control of his film, which allowed him the freedom to get real weird, and that translated into its vibrant visuals.
Gilroy told VICE that while storyline and dialogue are important to storytelling, for him the visuals are the most compelling element. “The best thing in the world could be a scene that has no dialogue whatsoever,” he said.
The film ultimately says two things to two different groups of people. To those selling art: Art is more than a commodity. And to the artist: Turning yourself into a brand might make you a lot of money, but there’s a danger in it, because repetition can kill creativity.
“I’m hoping that some artists will see [Velvet Buzzsaw] and go, ‘Wow, my creativity is a fragile thing, it's kind of like the edge of a knife, I've got to keep it sharp. Maybe my decisions should be focused one way or another,’” Gilroy said. “When somebody's in a museum or any other platform and regarding a work of art or listening to a work of art, they [shouldn’t] forget there’s a power in that, and respect it.”
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