Joel Edgerton Bends Thriller Conventions With Directorial Debut 'The Gift'

"Fatal Attraction" influenced the actor's first time behind the camera.

Joel Edgerton has accepted second billing for long enough, first as Owen Lars in the "Star Wars" prequels and later as the Navy SEALs team leader in "Zero Dark Thirty," Tom Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby" and Ramesses II in "Exodus: Gods and Kings." He's written a few movies along the way, but it's "The Gift," which opens on Friday and marks Edgerton's directorial debut, that will put him on the auteur map.

A taut thriller in the same vein as "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle" and "Fatal Attraction," the film follows a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who have just moved from Chicago to a lavish home in the Hollywood Hills. While shopping for housewares one afternoon, they encounter one of Simon's high-school classmates, formerly nicknamed Gordo the Weirdo (Edgerton). The old acquaintance later deposits a harmless bottle of wine on their doorstep, but after Simon and Robyn invite him over for dinner, Gordo's presence quickly becomes a bit too pervasive. Gordo says he wants to "let bygones be bygones," and with that, hidden pasts begin to emerge. The Huffington Post sat down with Edgerton, now a 41-year-old triple threat, at our offices last week to discuss what went into crafting his first project behind the camera.

It's been a while since you started working on this movie.

Yeah, it was 2010 when I started writing. But I think the evolution of screenplays for me tends to be about that much time. They wouldn’t take as long if I wasn’t doing other work in between. I think if I was just a dedicated writer, it would hopefully be a quicker evolution, because it is a long time. I’m happy this one took the time it took. I think if I’d have made the movie a year ago or two years ago, it would not be the piece of work it is today. Particularly for such a carefully plotted and paced movie, it probably really benefited from that gestation period. 

Did it start with a desire to tell a stalker story?

It started with the story of a bully and his wife. What’s interesting is it’s always been, from the very first draft, seen through the eye of Rebecca Hall’s character, Robyn. My instinct was that an audience needs something to hold on to, and that needs to be something that they can trust -- and she’s the only person they can really trust in the movie. So the second draft became even more about seeing things through her eyes. Only for a couple of very important moments do we deviate from that.

Joel Edgerton directs a scene from "The Gift."
Joel Edgerton directs a scene from "The Gift."

The tension does stem from Robyn's perspective. What guideposts did you use in writing a movie from the viewpoint of the triangle's outsider, seeing as the conflict is primarily between your and Jason Bateman's characters?

I learned a very important lesson by watching “Caché,” the Michael Haneke movie, and a lot of lessons from great stalker movies like “Fatal Attraction.” The great fear actually doesn’t come when the person pops out of the cupboard; the great fear is waiting for the person to pop out of the cupboard. In “Caché,” that person kind of stayed in the cupboard. Essentially they were in the shadow, actively taunting this couple -- or this man -- in a way that I was like, “Wow, I don’t even know who the villain is and I’m kind of terrified.” I wanted to take those triangle thrillers that we’re all so familiar with and hold the audience’s hand going down that road for the first third of the movie, and then just start messing with those conventions. In our case, it's about bullying and the idea of what roles we play and how we can affect each other with words and stories, how we can plant seeds that can destroy a person, and also who’s your partner and how well do you know them, which I think resonates with a lot of people.

Much of the film takes place inside the couple's glass house. How important was finding the right aesthetics for the home where Simon and Robyn are stalked?

What was beautiful about that house is it’s the kind of place where you want to live. We wanted the lifestyle of this couple to feel aspirational. They’re not out of touch with us, but it’s a nice life they’re living. It’s a house we’d like to move into. And then we allow it, throughout the film, to transform into a place where you don’t want to be, particularly at night, with that fishbowl where lights are on inside and people lurking outside can see you. It’s an unsettling place to be. I knew that 75 percent of the movie was in that house. Giving the house a beauty and giving the audience something beautiful to look at is very key. 

You wrote movies before "The Gift." What made it the one you wanted to direct?

For very practical reasons. I’d written a movie, “Felony,” when I wasn’t quite ready to direct. It had a lot of moving parts in it. It felt like it wasn’t the right thing for me to do, and my responsibility as an actor in that film was a bit too large to play double duty. This one, I’d written with the intention of playing Gordo. It was once I started writing the screenplay that I thought, given the whole villain-recedes-into-the-shadows aspect of it, Gordo was only in a third of the movie and it may be possible to do both duties. And, if anything, I could always cast another actor in the role of Gordo and sit back and direct. But the practical limitations I had making my first movie were always in my mind.

What were those limitations? 

I needed to find something that wouldn’t cost too much money because first-time directors don’t get a bottomless pocket full of change. And it’s something contained in the amount of locations and the amount of characters -- something I felt like I could hold in my head without it causing me too much chaos and stress. Once I started writing this, I thought, “This is actually quite a contained movie. It shouldn’t cost us too much money." Then the only obstacle left was: Would anybody finance it? And, could I get over my fear of directing, which was definitely preventing me from doing it sooner?

You're distributing the movie through a brand-new studio. Does that mean finding financing was difficult? 

We tried all sorts of things early on to finance the film. It was a real chicken-or-the-egg scenario. It’s like, do you get the actors and allow the strength of having the actors onboard to raise the finances? Or do you raise the finances and then use it to make offers to actors? It’s almost complete opposite versions of making movies.

Which do you think is the main model in Hollywood right now?

I feel like it’s a bit of both. There are benefits to both. If you go actor-first, you’re actually usually lucky because that actor who comes on board, if you’ve made the right choice, is an independent, self-confident person. They’re the person who says, “I’ll partner with you and together the money will come.” Any actor partnering up with a first-time director -- I know this as an actor -- is taking a big confidence risk. It’s sometimes the most wonderful risk to take, but you can also fall on your face. So I really respect Jason and Rebecca for taking that risk with me.

So you found the actors first?

Well, I had talked to Jason and Rebecca, and I knew they were both interested. They were both willing to take the plunge, and very soon after that, Jason Blum read the script. He knew it wasn’t his usual red-title, buckets-of-blood horror-type movie, but just something about it really grabbed him -- something about the suspense of it. He said that he just loved the script, and to his credit, that first day he told me he wanted to make the movie with me and he’d let me make it however I wanted to make it and he wouldn’t get in my way creatively. With a first-time director, he doesn't usually make that plunge. But he felt that my experience as an actor kind of equated to having more experience than an otherwise first-time director would have on set. They came to the party and it started to roll down the hill quite easily.

You seem more invigorated than discouraged by this experience, which is great. What's the biggest thing you've learned about Hollywood? 

It's the idea that, as an actor, when you finish a movie, you’ve been responsible for one part of the puzzle. You arrive a third of the way through the process, which is the production phase. When an actor turns up and checks out their trailer and asks for a latte, there’s a whole world that’s gone on -- a whole world of thinking and decision-making that’s arrived at that moment. When the whole puzzle doesn’t come together, you can just stand back and go, “Well, I did my bit.” And if the puzzle comes together incredibly well, who’s the first standing in line, waving their hand and pointing at themselves? It’s a very luxurious position as an actor. You’re on the front battle line because it’s your head on screen, but you have the choice to pick up your sword or wave the white flag, depending on how it all turns out. As a director, there is no white flag. You just have a sword. Especially as a writer and director, you built the sword. You better hope the sword works in the battle. And I love that responsibility. I love a crew now more than I ever loved a crew, and I’ve always loved a crew.

I’m very pleased to know that so far the reception of it has been good, too, because otherwise I would feel a little deluded. I finished the movie and said, “I think we’ve made something really great.” Like all movies, it’s not going to be for everybody. But for what we set out to achieve, we’ve really kind of landed in a place where we’re going, “Well, fuck, how did we do that?”

I assume there's more directing in your future.

Absolutely. Absolutely. I loved it. I’ll definitely be doing it again.


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