Not only does Joel Edgerton star in The Gift, it also marks his feature directorial debut. I spoke with Joel about the whole experience. You can listen to the full audio by clicking here.
Matt: Many of us will have had friends pop up unexpectedly from the past who we’re not really interested in associating with. Where did the idea for this story come from?
Joel: My brain works in mysterious ways and a lot of times I’m thinking about stories that are going to make good fictional stories. Given that I’m twenty-something years out of high school, what would it be like if someone from your past tapped you on the shoulder and you vaguely remembered them? What if you hadn’t of been such a good person? The possibilities of a story like that were very exciting for me.
Nowadays with social media, it’s a lot easier for people to pop out of their hidy-holes and go “hey”. You often don’t need to rekindle those relationships but what if someone has a psychology where they feel they need to. You’re forced to deal with it. It’s a social etiquette responsibility.
Matt: You’ve written several screenplays such as The Square and Felony but you’ve handed them over to other directors. Was the intention always to direct The Gift?
Joel: The intention at first was just to write the story. I was all excited about playing a creepy, overbearing character that became Gordo in the movie. It wasn’t until I was in the experience of writing it that I realised it would set me up perfectly as a first time director because it wasn’t going to cost a tonne of money and it was quite contained in terms of its scale of set and character.
Matt: Did you find the process easier or harder than you anticipated?
Joel: There were days when I found it incredibly hard but other days I found incredibly smooth and rewarding. I actually called and texted some other directors I’d worked for to jokingly tell them sorry for anything I did that slowed down the process. The second thing I said was that you had the best job in the world.
Matt: You’ve been working in the industry for about 20 years and have worked under a number of different directors. Are there some in particular who have had an influence on you? Those that have shaped the way you direct now?
Joel: I feel lucky to have worked with directors who were loved by their cast and crew. The reason was because they loved their cast and crew in return. I learned that from Gavin O’Connor, Ridley Scott, Scott Cooper and a lot of the Blue Tongue guys. I believe that filmmaking is such a collaborative art. You hire great people and you get out of their way. It should be a fun experience that is shared by all and contributed to by all.
I’ve learned that lesson from a lot of directors and it’s a simple “path of least resistance” thing that makes the job a whole lot easier. I’ve had a front row seat to watch so many great people make movies and that’s the privilege of being an actor.
Matt: Hollywood has a tendency to make people either good or evil. There’s not a lot of room in between. Without giving too much away, there’s a lot of greyness to all of these characters. Was that always your intention when writing the screenplay?
Joel: Yeah, suspense movies are intended to be a journey around a series of corners and the audience is not meant to know what happens next. That extended to the characters themselves in this case and whether they were good or bad people. It’s always been an interest of mine as an actor through movies like Felony where you get a good character and you give them a lot of “grey” space. You then take a bad character and you give them a lot of “grey” space. That has always interested me as an actor and it’s now filtering into my work as a writer and director.
Matt: There are some intense scenes in the film where characters are walking around and you get the sense that something is about to happen. How much post-production work goes into the editing and the music right in those moments? How do you know you’ve got it just right?
Joel: That work can’t be done alone with a director and an actor. If you were there on the set on the day that Rebecca Hall was walking down corridors in the movie, it doesn’t feel half as suspenseful as what it does in the movie. I was proud of the music of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, the sound design of Julian Slater, and the cinematography of Eduard Grau.
Performance plus music plus sound creates something where the tension starts to build. You can intensify that in the editing suite. I need to drop the name of Luke Doolan, my editor, who cut Animal Kingdom and is a master of tension. Together, we try to freak the audience out.
Matt: Do you get to show the film to test audiences to see how they react? Or do you just talk about it yourself in the editing room?
Joel: The testing process in America is interesting and unique. It’s frustrating, it’s wonderful and it’s everything in between. You have to make use of it when making a movie that will be released widely. My budget was very low so there wasn’t a lot of pressure but when the decision was made to release it on 2,500 screens, suddenly I was in the game of having to test.
I’m a big believer that if you’re told you have to do something, rather than resist you should lean into the experience and mine it for the benefits that it throws up. We learned a lot about how to adjust the movie accordingly. What I really fought for was sticking to my artistic vision that I wanted.
Matt: The house you’ve used in the movie really does add to the tension with its spacious rooms, high ceilings of course, big glass windows. Was it easy to find?
Joel: Strangely enough, I’d written the film to be set in a more typical house rather than the mid-century modern house that we settled on. My designer really loved the house. The idea of a movie in a house predominantly made of glass was important to my cinematographer and I because we were talking a lot about reflection.
Also, I remember as a kid growing up in a house with a lot of glass. At night time, you get this feeling that anyone out there can see me but I can’t see them. We start the movie going “wouldn’t you love to live in this house?” and by the end of the movie it’s like “get me out of this place.”
Matt: Did you always picture yourself in the role of Gordo? Did you think about playing Simon instead?
Joel: There were a number of incarnations. At one point, I floated the idea of playing Simon to help get finance in the early stages. I’d written the script with the intention of creating a weird character to play and then someone else would direct the movie. Once I realised I was directing, I thought maybe I should let go of the idea of being in it as well. I had such a clear vision of how the character was going to look and sound that it was hard to let go. I ended up crossing my fingers and doing both.
Matt: How did you get Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall involved? As the director, are you also out there trying to find the right actors or do you have other people who help out?
Joel: You have people throwing names in a hat and discussing concepts. When you’re talking about a married couple in a movie, you have to find the “perfect storm” of two actors who are compatible. Jason seemed like a really exciting idea to me as he wasn’t the typical choice. As an actor, I’m always looking for people to cast me in roles that I’m not the typical choice for. There was a bit of my own ego in the casting of Jason. I wanted someone who would love the challenge of doing something they’re not used to doing. Plus, he’s a comic actor doing a serious part when I think creates a surprising and exciting situation.
It’s tough. As a first time director, I was worried that people would be “I dunno if I can trust this guy.” I’m an actor. I get first time directors sniffing around and I’m like “I like the script but where’s the proof that you’re going to do a good job?” What you need are actors who will trust you and have faith. Jason and Rebecca were two who were willing to take the gamble .
Matt: Can you tell us when we’re going to see you on screen next? What’s coming up?
Joel: Black Mass will be the next one in September. It stars Johnny Depp and is set in Boston. It’s about the Boston Irish Mafia figure Whitey Bulger and his relationship with the FBI agent John Connolly who I play. It’s like a Goodfellas-type gangster story. The movie is amazing. Very rarely do you watch a movie that you’re in where it meets your expectations and goes beyond that. I’m excited for people to see it.