The idea of Australia’s Joel Edgerton being an actor on the rise has been brewing for many years, but it probably couldn’t have been clearer than on Tuesday, when he received his very own Star Bond on the Hollywood Stock Exchange.
Before that, Edgerton had already appeared in two of the “Star Wars” prequels, Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces, the Jerry Bruckheimer reinvention of King Arthur and other roles, but things really exploded when he appeared in the Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” opposite no less than Cate Blanchett. Recently, he’s been cast in leading roles in the upcoming Mixed Martial Arts movie Warrior and Universal’s prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing.
At the same time that he’s been building his acting career, Edgerton had been appearing in short films directed by his brother Nash, who has been equally busy as a stuntman in many films. Last year, the two brothers finally tackled a feature film with The Square, a tough suspense thriller which Joel wrote as well as in which he stars as an arsonist, whose neglect starts a series of disastrous consequences for the film’s protagonist Ray, played by Dave Roberts.
The Square is already being declared one of the breakthrough films of the year due to the brilliant storytelling and filmmaking skills on display, and it’s the start of a wave of films from the brothers’ associates at Blue Tongue Films, who will have two other movies released this year: Animal Kingdom, also starring Joel, and Hesher.
ComingSoon.net first met Joel at ShoWest last month, but we got on the phone for an official interview earlier this week. You can also watch our video interview with the film’s director, Joel’s brother Nash here.
ComingSoon.net: First of all, I have to say I’m really impressed with what Blue Tongue Films have been doing down there in Australia. It’s really coming to a head this year, because I know you had a bunch of movies at Sundance. Haven’t seen them but heard good things all around, and I loved “The Square,” which is pretty amazing. How long ago did you come up with the idea to do “The Square”? I know you’ve been doing shorts and things like that for some time.
Joel Edgerton: Yeah, well, I first wrote “The Square” as an idea in my early 20’s just, I had notebooks filled with thoughts and ideas about movies I wanted to write, but I never was a writer until I sat down to write a screenplay for Nash. It was this sort of jumbled mess of a thing I was trying to write for him, a crime caper story. As I started writing that, I sort of stopped at one point and started writing “The Square” as a different project with no director attached to it. Then at some point, when “The Square” started developing its first draft and then at subsequent drafts, I eventually did the old Indiana Jones switcharoo and was like, “Why don’t we just take this script away and put this one in its place because I think this is a more mature project for us to make.” Thankfully, he felt the same and so we basically put our focus into a new thing and that became “The Square.”
CS: When you originally wrote this, it wasn’t going to be for Nash to direct, just something you were writing on your own?
Edgerton: No, initially it was just a way for me to kind of create a new project. I was initially writing a crime cape story for him and me to make, but really that screenplay just became more of a way of realizing how not to write a screenplay. “The Square” was something that I actually kind of formed in a more proper way I guess from one idea to explore this kind of character as a guy and how far would someone go for love? That’s what “The Square” was born out of, this stage that grew into being something really good. Nash and I kind of latched onto it at the same time, thinking that we really should make this together.
CS: I talk to so many writers and once they finish a screenplay, it goes to the studio or a director and they’re kind of done with it. Some are still involved, they go on set and help with dialogue, etc. This is a different case because once your brother said he was going to direct it, how involved was he with developing it? You weren’t writing it for him, so you must’ve needed to tailor it toward his strengths. How did that work?
Edgerton: I would write a few drafts and we got another writer involved, Matthew (Dabner), who started writing with me. He and I would write and then we would check in with Nash, we would deliver a draft or a polish, and Nash would put his opinion in. Nash was quite instrumental in steering it through that development process. At one point, we had various people who had been involved with the development process. I remember at one point Nash going, “You know what I feel is wrong with this script at the moment, is that all these different people’s opinions are coming in and taking all the darkness out of it.” He said, “What I really loved about the first draft was how unrelenting it was. When you guys do the next polish on it, let’s put some of that darkness back in.” So in different ways, Nash kind of just steered the process, and I really believe that you could almost credit Nash as being one of the writers in that when you edit a film, I think editing is the final stage of writing, in as much as we created the script on the page and then rewrote during the rehearsals and during the shoot. Then it’s the job of the director and the editor to kinda rewrite the show in the edit, to take away things that don’t need to be there or to rearrange things that are in the wrong order. We were always involved and as you say, as a writer, it’s a real luxury to be on set and there’s going to be no keeping me away from the set on this, because I was an actor as well and the co-producing side. I actually got to be on set. I never really turned into a pesky writer or all that stuff. (laughs)
CS: At what point did you decide you were gonna play Billy? I assume you had a choice of parts. Was that something you decided early on as the part you wanted to do?
Edgerton: Yeah, well if I was old enough – and I really believed that the central character of this story needed to be a guy who sort of is at a certain point of his marriage and he wanted out. I would believe that more on screen as a guy who’s sort of between his mid-40’s to his 50’s rather than a guy in his early 30’s. You’d almost forgive Ray a little bit more for feeling like he’s in a point of stasis in his life, than if he was a younger guy. He’d go just pack him everything up and start again. So the role of Billy was the rightful one once the story had formed that I thought, “That’s the role for me, a nice sort of supporting role that I could sink my teeth into and do something with.”
CS: How much of a back story did you work out? I talked to Nash about this and one thing that’s cool is that the movie starts in the middle of these people’s lives. You never try to explain where Smithy got the money or any of that stuff. Did you work any of that stuff out in your head and kind of knew about it beforehand?
Edgerton: Yeah, totally. Like, for us, the way Carla and Ray’s relationship started is the inspiration between the dog love stories is that they would have met each other walking their dogs, but we never shot them meeting; we just inject the story right into the middle of their affair. There’s a clue in the film as to where the money came from that Smithy has. So a lot of the film actually has clues and answers to everything, but Nash doesn’t cover them in a neon sign. There’s definitely a clue in the back story of Billy and Lily where there’s a line I said to her when I agree to burn Ray’s house down. I say to her, “I promise I won’t stay and watch,” which kind of alludes to the fact that not only is he an arsonist, but he’s practically an arsonist in the truest sense of the word, but a real pyromaniac. There’s all those little kinda clues. What I love about “The Square” and the way I describe it and with anything that I write is that it’s like looking at a picture frame. What I love about great painters, naturalist painters in a way is that you can imagine the world outside the frame as well. I think a good movie should feel that way, that good characters should feel like they’ve have a real solid past before the film starts and then if they survive, they’re gonna have a kind of an interesting and textured life.
CS: I like the fact it’s like anyone’s life where something happens, and then the next day, something else happens. It’s not like their story begins and ends. It’s a very complex movie and there are lots of moving parts, that need to come together at the end. You talked a little bit about how Nash in editing was able to do some of that. When you were writing it, was that a hard thing to put all together?
Edgerton: Definitely. When I look back on the writing process of “The Square,” it was a mind field I mean, it was a mind f*ck (Laughs) and a minefield. Because it’s such a web of characters and there’s so many threads and it’s such a delicate balance. Every move that Ray makes in a way kinda disturbs the tapestry of the town. Leonard particularly, the character that Ray comes in conflict with that causes a major shift in his life, well Leonard has ties with both Ray’s world and Carla’s world and that disturbs a major balance. Keeping the balance in tow was such a delicate balance in the writing process and the editing process. I mean, just to compare… recently, I’ve kinda written a story that’s a thriller that’s three characters in only two locations, and I think, “Wow, how did we ever manage to kind of juggle 13 or 14 characters that each one of them had an ability to undo the path?” That’s attribute to a lot of hard work. It wasn’t just kinda we wrote a screenplay and went, “Oh cool, let’s make a movie.” We really polished that thing within an inch of life, and we wrote it in all different directions. I think there was at some point, we counted I think 12 different versions of the first act that we’d written. There were versions of the draft where we actually wrote how Ray and Carla met each other and then we threw them out. We wrote a whole world basically so many times in so many different ways. Matthew Dabner had a lot to do with the orchestration of the puzzle, because he’s a real master of structure, which I think is something, especially in the very early stages, that I was very deficient at, the patience involved in the analysis of structure.
CS: Structure is hard and tone is a hard thing, too. I really liked the tone of it. I asked Nash about this, but it definitely feels like you have a very ’70s tone. Not just from the look of it but from how the characters talk and interact. Was that in your head at all? I know those movie’s influenced everyone.
Edgerton: At some point, we realized that some of the characters, Billy and Lily, that I play, there was a certain pop culture sort of element to them that the seemed like they suited more of a Tarantino film than the rest of the film’s tone. I guess there could be a version of “The Square” which is very much heightened dialogue and cool references and all that stuff, but we really paired back. Remember, a lot of that tonal kind of signature comes from Nash deciding that we really need to look at everything in the most simple terms, in the same way he looks at filmmaking. Where is the most important place to put the camera? It’s like, what’s the most important thing that needs to be said here and what’s the least… the road of least resistance I guess. Sometimes reams and reams of dialogue, while they’re grand for a different kind of movie, they sometimes just sort of steer you off into an unreal world. I think the great tension that this film has is somewhat reliant on and attributed to just the basic realism of the world that the story fits in. It was always the inspiration behind the story, which was my fascination with ordinary people doing extraordinarily awful things. Like when you read about a guy who decides to pay someone to have his wife murdered. Can a normal human being end up in those circumstances or how do they believe that their life is being reduced to choice? For me to heighten the world with peppery dialogue, I think would have stripped away the realism too much.
CS: Now that you mention it, you could theoretically have them talking about some movie they’ve seen or references that could help the audience relate more, but I think even for Australia, these people and the area they’re from, just seems very different.
Edgerton: I think the most “writery” moment in the film for me, and one of my favorite scenes, is when the cop comes to see Ray and he says that line, “I feel kinda bad, but finally, I have stuff to do. A death and now this” To me, that’s about as colorful as the writing gets in a way. Sometimes, what’s not said is just as important to the writing as what is said. As a writer we have our voices heard I think that at oftentimes the ability to allow the dialogue to recede properly into the world of the film is also a really valid sort of way to be a writer I think.
CS: It definitely worked and whatever you guys had to do to get it there, it’s a brilliant film. I’m really fascinated about the whole Blue Tongue Films idea, that you have all these guys making movies, they’re all coming out in the same year and it’s this explosion and you’re actually in another movie. I know you’ve been acting for a long time doing a lot of different movies. How do you balance being a writer and a filmmaker as part of that movement, and being an actor and continuing your acting career as well?
Edgerton: Well, it’s always been the way. Part of the success of Nash and I in a way is we’ve learned so much by participating in our separate careers. I learned so much by being an actor and part of my sort of development as a writer is big thanks to the scripts I read in my acting life. Nash has spent so much time on set watching great directors at work that I think that’s really helped along his skill as a director. I think what keeps us fresh when we all come together to make stuff, is that we’re all off learning new things from other people all the time and then we can come together and make use of the best of all that in a collaboration. As a side note, it was very hard to be the actor playing Billy on “The Square” knowing that I’d written those words and rewritten them for so many years. Suddenly, it was like, “God, is this what it’s like to not have a fresh approach to a script because I’ve lived with it for eight years?”