Joel Edgerton on directing and starring in 'The Gift'
As one of Australia's greatest acting exports, Joel Edgerton has worked with some of Hollywood's biggest directors - from Ridley Scott to Kathryn Bigelow and Baz Luhrmann. Flitting between big-budget studio films like Exodus: God and Kings and The Great Gatsby to smaller, more character driven roles in local productions like the acclaimed Animal Kingdom and Felony (a screenplay which he wrote), Edgerton is seemingly at home in both. One part of Blue Tongue Films, a production company helmed by filmmakers like his brother Nash, Kieran Darcy-Smith and David Michôd, Edgerton has recently branched out to direct and produce his first feature, The Gift.
It's a twisty-turny psychological thriller which he also stars in alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, and it's already drawing favourable reviews for its cleverly plotted script and solid casting choices. Despite the premise of the trailer, which poses it as your stereotypical suspense flick, it's a thought-provoking treatise on some much bigger issues (that we'll try not to spoil for you) - let's just say appearances can be deceiving. It opens in cinemas today, so we sat down with Edgerton to discuss his first feature film as director.
You've written, directed, produced and acted in The Gift. How did you go about directing yourself?
It's very weird! You know, you're supposed to be behind and in front of the camera at the same time, I don't know how other actor-directors have done it, but I had my brother [Nash Edgerton] there. He's a supremely talented director and someone I know better than anybody else, so I'd be doing my thing and then I could look up and he'd call cut. It saved me having to run behind the monitor and also saved a lot of time by allowing me to stay in the scene or in character, rather than jumping back and forth for roles. Because I think directing is much more about intellect, [compared] to acting.
When you were looking over scenes you'd shot that day, did you give yourself constructive criticism? Was it funny to look at yourself and have to be objective?
Strangely on this movie I felt like I knew when I'd got the things I needed. I didn't spend a lot of time the next day watching dailies - I knew there was enough to cut the movie together. It felt like when I was cutting the movie I wasn't watching or appraising myself, I was just another part of the puzzle.
You kind of played against type in this movie. A lot of roles you've played, such as in The Great Gatsby are more the bullying, stronger-willed characters, but this one you're a socially awkward outsider. When you were writing the script, was that the role that you naturally wanted to play?
Yeah I wanted to. Once I realised I could write movies and get them made, [I figured] as an actor I'm going to create a job for myself. So I asked myself, 'What do I want to do?' I've always been interested in playing socially awkward, misunderstood characters. So when I had the idea of a successful guy getting a tap on the shoulder from an old school acquaintance who he hadn't treated so well, I thought I'm going play this character - Gordo the weirdo. The idea of directing it came later on.
The movie is largely about bullying and I guess lying as well, did you draw on any real-life inspiration when you were writing it?
I drew on a lot. I played both roles in my high school year, I'm sure I was mean to other kids and I was also, I wouldn't say bullied, but I had moments of feeling physically scared and terrorised by other kids for pockets of time in school. I talked to a lot of people about being bullied and sadly it's always in the zeitgeist, now with social media it's even worse. You've got kids ending their own lives because of it. I read these wild stories about people - there was one where 45 years after high school, a guy killed another guy because of something that happened in high school. So it was just permeating in the air as I was writing it.
By the end, you don't know if you should be empathising with the bully or the victim. Is that ambiguous ending and treatment of the characters something you were going for?
As an actor I'm always looking for ambiguity in the characters, the grey areas - the bad guy is not just a bad guy and the hero is not just straight up good. As a writer, I'm looking for that grey area too and it's always interested me. We're all fallible, normal people and one day we could judge ourselves as good and the next day we might trip over and do something bad. What I'm interested in is not the mistakes we make but how we clean those up. This film is about is the mistakes people have made or a quality that a person has that they can't correct and 25 years later they're going to be held accountable for that. In story terms, as a suspense movie (which is what this is), nothing is as it seems, including characters. Hero can be villain and villain can be hero.
Did you think of a different way to end the film? Because it's kind of ambiguous.
For sure. Look, I have a very clear idea of what's happened at the end of this movie. And I feel like I've laid enough crumbs and clues that it's pretty clear to a relatively intelligent person what the truth is. The moral compass of the movie from Gordo's point of view is that good people like Robyn deserve good things and bad people deserve bad things. You can interpret the movie your own way but the majority of people see it the way I see it.
There's a version of the ending which is going to be on the Blu-ray, which is a very clearly laid out, almost a flash back situation. I wasn't willing to do it for the movie because I felt like stories exist in our culture to deliver messages to people. And one way for the message to really set in is for people to engage their own thinking in it. I didn't want to cross all the t's and dot all the i's, I wanted to be like a good kid's party where you get a little package at the end of it and you go home and chew on.
The Gift opens in cinemas nationally today. Watch the trailer below.
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