Joel Edgerton has spent a lot of time around incredible directors. Not only is he good friends with David Michod (“Animal Kingdom”) and Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”), but he’s worked with Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Ridley Scott (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”), Baz Luhrmann (“The Great Gatsby”), and many more, absorbing the lessons he learned on set to inform his directorial debut, “The Gift,” opening this weekend. (He’ll also appear in upcoming, highly anticipated films “Black Mass” and “Midnight Special”). Written and directed by Edgerton, “The Gift” stars Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as Simon and Robyn, a nice couple moving back to his hometown for a fresh start. Shortly after buying a beautiful new home, they run into Gordo (Edgerton), an old classmate of Simon’s. At first, Gordo seems like a dangerous third party, the kind of mentally deranged loner that we’ve become accustomed to in cinema, but there’s more to “The Gift” than meets the eye.
Edgerton recently sat down with us in Chicago for a lively conversation about audience expectations, socially resonant cinema, the edge of Jason Bateman, and the best advice he’s received from his director friends.
Jason Blum, who produced this movie, and I were talking a few years ago about the changing ways people see movies. Are you on board with the “however you can see it, see it” mentality of VOD, streaming, etc.?
Look, I used to be very much “Everything Has to Be Shot on Film” and “Everyone Has to Go to the Cinema,” but I recall a friend talking about how sad it was that they had to close the drive-in cinema and I remember as a kid going, “Who cares?” It’s really about the majority. Yes, I still would say to you that I would prefer to shoot a movie on film and I would prefer you to see the movie in the cinema. Preference is one thing. The way things actually operate is different. It’s more the case that I haven’t gone “I prefer you to watch it on an iPhone,” but I’m more OK with that. I’m more OK with the idea of a movie being day and date on Netflix.
I made a movie in Australia not too long ago called “Felony” and it was set in a particular area, and the people who lived in the area in which it was set were writing to us on Facebook going, “We have to drive more than half an hour to see the movie in the cinema.” Give it them on Netflix. Give it to them on Hulu. HBO. Amazon. Whatever it is, let them watch the movie however they need to watch it. Just make sure they watch the movie.
There is an argument that streaming services allow for a more diverse array of films to get to a wider audience. Look at the documentaries on Netflix or the Criterion Collection on Hulu.
Yeah. Look at what movies get made these days. Our movie’s original. That’s rare. It’s not a prequel or sequel or book. The majority of movies that get made by a studio nowadays are big tentpole movies. Or you got these smaller independent things. But there’s not much middle ground. My buddy David Michod is about to launch into this project with Brad Pitt called “War Machine,” which is more of a middle budget thing, but it’s going day and date with the cinema and Netflix. It’s the first time, I think. Anyway, look, you want to make movies and you want to tell stories and get them out there however you can.
Something like this you note is not a tentpole but it’s surrounded by them in the first week of August. How do you compete? What are your expectations?
They call it counter-programming. I call it “Everybody Fend For Yourself.” (Laughs.) You go in there with a small movie and duke it out with the big ones. It doesn’t mean at the end of the day that you expect to come away with #1 at the box office. You need to cover your own niche. I don’t know if there’s ever a good day to release a movie like this. We make what we make. I always figure that I’ll make the movie and then be less involved with marketing because there’s people whose job it is and are expert at doing that. They feel like it’s a good time to release the movie. I think that there are enough interesting things about the movie on a marketing level to entice people to come see it.
I was struck by the difficulty, without spoiling, of having two central characters with whom audience loyalty is tricky. We’re not sure who to trust, who to believe, who to like, other than Rebecca Hall. How delicately do you balance the “good guy, bad guy” aspect of your male leads and was keeping that gray a concern for you?
I wanted to invite people into a familiar genre. By that I mean, “Fatal Attraction,” “Cape Fear,” “Single White Female”—that kind of a world. The typical well-meaning couple besieged by the third freak. Even when you look at a movie like “Fatal Attraction,” Michael Douglas’ character is very gray. The whole thing kicks off because of his grayness in having an affair. What I wanted to do was say, “Welcome to this movie that’s familiar. It’s a nice couple. Fresh start. Here comes this guy.” Once that was set-up and we established the constant visitation by the awkward acquaintance from high school, I wanted to bend the rules a bit and take it into new territory. What would it be like if that bad guy sort of vanished; sort of left them alone, but didn’t really? The tension exists in changing the familiarity of the genre. You take the dog away from the couple—he’s stolen the dog. What’s going to happen? Of course, the dog is going to end up in five pieces. But then you do the opposite. You constantly jostle around. What I wanted to do was swap the roles of the villain of the hero. As much as the film is about the bad things you’ve done in your past and what if they came back to haunt you, it’s also about who are the people we’re living with that we think we know.
That’s difficult in thriller form. Was there ever pressure to “cut the dog up into five pieces”? You bring up “Fatal Attraction,” which was notoriously altered to give it a bigger ending. Did you feel pressure to give it more traditional thriller elements?
No, strangely enough. There would have been a very easy way to turn this into a straight thriller. But I feel like the whole point of even wanting to make a movie was that my promise to everyone was to make a movie that had one foot in the genre world, but there’s another foot in something else. I want to say something as well. I want to say something about the nature of people and whether they change or don’t change. The nature of the roles we played in high school, and at what age we’re culpable for what we do and say. The power of words and ideas and how they affect other people’s lives. And all sort of wrapped up in this parcel of a genre movie. I wanted it to be suspenseful and scary, but I wanted the monster to be something that could be in any one of our lives.
It reminded me of ‘70s thrillers, which more often very clearly had social subtext. Were there specific cinematic influences from that era?
Definitely. “The Shining” was big for me. “Rosemary’s Baby” was a big influence. In fact, there are little mini-homages to both of those movies in the film. Michael Haneke was a big touchstone for me, particularly “Cache.” The villain in the shadows was very significant.
And how the idea of something can tear people apart.
Yeah. And “Cache”—when the idea is out there in the mist, the relationship falls into itself. A lot of stuff. The triangle thrillers like “Pacific Heights”—some of those films are really dated but the ideas never date. I didn’t want to just make a triangle thriller that was reduced into Psychopath vs. Lovely Couple. I figured it could be more than that. I’m really happy that you mentioned films that had a social context and resonance. There's something a little bit more to take away than a bag of scares. The reduction of that kind of a movie is fine, but I’d rather not take my time making it because someone could do it better than me.
There’s tension produced by knowledgeable audience expectation. We expect the plot to go a certain direction, so the tension exists because of the films that came before it.
This is EXACTLY what my plan was. Take the dog away and go isn’t it more confusing if the dog comes back?
Casting is essential for a project like this. Jason has an everyman quality but also a very believable dark side, and Rebecca is always great. How did you find both of them and how do they make the project different?
Rebecca was kind of the obvious choice. She’s the center. She’s the one with no hidden corners. She’s open, honest, straightforward. I was looking for that, plus someone I could believe when she says she wasn’t such an outgoing person in school. School wasn’t an easy ride for her. She wasn’t gifted everything. There’s a certain beautiful awkwardness and honesty. It was a real coup. Jason was a more out of the box choice because the obvious choice is more of a typical jock 20 years later. Jason was someone who I believed got by on his wits more, which can often be a more viper-tongued, vicious human being. That version of the character was really interesting to me.
Jason came into my head as someone—I had seen him play parts in “Disconnect” and his dramatic stuff in “The Kingdom” and “State of Play.” I was like that guy is just good. A lot of comic actors inevitably prove it to the world when they take a dramatic turn. Steve Carell. Jim Carrey. Comic actors are better than drama more than dramatic actors are ever going to be suddenly funny.
It’s the old axiom that comedy is harder than drama.
It is. So I knew he was capable of it and I got excited that if I could get him to do that for a whole movie, I would almost be doing something new with him. And he was very excited about taking a walk in that arena. There’s an element to his comedy that is very interesting because he can pull off the straight man but still get laughs. He has this ability to be the smartest guy in the room.
And that makes you want to listen to him, which is essential to this part.
Jason and I had many conversations about levels of deceit. When is the lie changing? Super-intelligent guy. And, on a side note, having been in the director’s chair twice now, he was an excellent producing partner.
Do you go with anyone else you worked with and are friends with for directorial advice?
How do the directors that you know help you make your directorial debut?
Just by being in their presence. I said to someone recently—most directors won’t ever get to watch another director direct. They might visit the set once or twice. I’ve been on the set for the duration and watched Jeff Nichols make a movie, watched Scott Cooper make a movie, watched Ridley Scott make a movie, watched Gavin O’Connor make two movies. That is an incredible privilege if you care to open your eyes and ears to what’s going on. You learn the good parts and the bad parts. You start filling your bag with good and bad ideas. As friends, you can call them up and ask for advice. Someone told me you should wear a comfortable pair of shoes. You should change your shoes at lunchtime. That was great advice! Take your feet on a holiday. (Laughs). From Ridley, I learned how to make real clear decisions, which you can only do if you’re incredibly well-prepared. Know what your own strengths are. I loved Scott Cooper because he really trusts actors and he lets them play. I’ve had the privilege of having many discussions about directing. I’m in a privileged seat as an actor to learn so much about directing. I know that in my future that I’d like to be directing more movies and so my only concern was was I going to enjoy it or not? I felt like I could do an OK job of it, but would I be good at it? And could I really love it? And then I’ll do it again.
I did love it for sure.