Joel Edgerton wore many hats in the filmmaking process of The Gift, a psychological thriller starring Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (due in theaters on Aug. 7).
Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Exodus: Gods and Kings) wrote, directed, acted in, and produced the film from Blumhouse Productions and STX Entertainment, which tracks married couple Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) through their downward spiral after one of Simon’s old acquaintances, Gordo (Edgerton), comes back into his life — bearing a number of gifts and a secret from their past.
Here, Edgerton tells Entertainment Weekly about balancing his myriad roles, building suspense, and the film’s clever but, perhaps, too-close-to-home marketing campaign (which includes a Twitter for Gordo, and personalized “gifts” for journalists that, naturally, had an “element of creep to it”).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This film takes place in our world, which seems to make it especially eerie. It feels very close to home.
JOEL EDGERTON: It is very close to home. The intention was to make a movie that was definitely like a genre movie, the kind of movie that makes you a little bit frightened and makes your skin crawl, that’s filled with intrigue and mystery. I had this thought one day about wanting to make a movie that discussed the idea of bullying, telling that story 20, 25 years after high school, and what that meant. I also had really strong ideas about making a movie about which ones of us change and which ones of us don’t and how much do we change. At what point in our high school life are we the person that we’re going to become?
It became an exciting prospect to make this movie that was very much a thriller, but the villain was somebody that could be in any one of our lives, or we could be the villain. You’ll see too where we deviate from this type of genre, if you could call it that, that triangle thriller, the Fatal Attraction and Cape Fear, is that at certain points those roles get reversed. Who’s the bad guy? Who’s the good guy? Jason as an actor is doing something remarkable to me in the movie, and part of the reason we brought him into the process was I wanted somebody who we had a history of liking and trusting and was a good guy — so that we could kind of subvert that as well — and he’s done such an amazing job of that in terms of those role reversals.
It seems like the film toys with audience perceptions as well with you in the role of Gordo, who is seemingly a bit eerier than other characters you’ve played. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, well the other starting point for me was writing this script because I wanted to play a character of this kind — a creepy, misunderstood guy. The directing part of it came once I was not even halfway [through] writing it, I was like ‘God, this is something I’d really like to make.’ The question of whether I should be onscreen and behind the camera was a big dilemma for me, but it was manageable. I’m glad I did. I wondered whether the idea of directing and acting in my first film was an ego issue. I wondered if it was my ego going ‘You should be in this too, Joel.’ It was hard to let go of, but also, I’m not the main character in the movie. The movie really centers around the couple, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall’s characters, and I’m that third party that sort of infiltrates, so it wasn’t so much like I was on set everyday wearing two hats, which made it feel manageable. If I was number one on the call sheet and directing the movie I think that would have been hard to do — especially the first time around.
How was your experience directing yourself?
I was a very, very obedient actor. I loved working with myself. To be very honest, though, the trickiest days on set [were when I was] wearing two hats, but I have the luxury of having a brother [Nash Edgerton] who’s a very accomplished director. The arrangement I had from the onset from both the actors and the production was that on the days that I was doing double duty, my brother would be there as an outside eye. One, because I trust him, and two, for practical reasons. When you’re moving so quickly on a small budget, there’s not a lot of time to break the momentum by coming back behind the monitor and checking your own work. So my brother, who in many ways is just an extension of myself, he and I could look at each other and just with a look could agree to move on, or that we needed another take.
That made things easier. It’s definitely the hardest I’ve worked my brain in the last number of years and therefore the biggest challenge I’ve had in a long time, but I was the happiest I’ve been in a very long time. I love being an actor but there tends to be a lot of downtime and I have a brain that goes a bit crazy if I’ve got nothing to do. Acting, as wonderful as an experience as it is, and as privileged as I am to be able to do that, it tends to be a thing where it makes you feel like you’ve done something great for an hour of the day, or five minutes here and there. You’ll have moments between action and cut and you’re like, ‘Wow, that day was worthwhile, that made my week.’ There was something about biting off the responsibility of making the movie. I realized how much stamina is involved in filmmaking on a cerebral level and how switched on you have to be and how communicative. I really enjoyed that part of the process.
This is a thriller. How did you bring suspense into this film?
Suspense, to me, is just the unknown. Hitchcock movies are always about throwing enough crumbs that you could leave a trail but you never know which corner of the forest you were going to end up in. You want the audience to feel active in that journey. You never want them to feel ahead of you. You want them to feel like they’re just making those decisions with you. They’re making those discoveries, they’re predicting those things alongside you, so there’s that and then pushing things into the shadows is really important to me. I wanted to use all these great archetypal, classic movies. I mentioned Cape Fear and Fatal Attraction. Those movies [include] some crazy person who has established this sort of realm of terror and come minute 30 or 40 into the movie, that person is just going to be jumping out of cupboards with a butcher knife.
What if we just pushed that even further into the shadows? The person that you think is going to besiege you, it’s like they’re just waiting in the wings. When are they going to come? This film has that, but it also has this sense of waiting and this dreadful sense of what is coming, when is the storm coming, and how big is that storm going to be? All the while, the villain potentially starts to become somebody that’s inside your own house. That was very exciting, so [it was about] creating that suspense not only in terms of events and the building of events and the building of the dread, but [also] only seeing the tail of the alien—that theory of not giving away too much, allowing the audience to be f—ing right there with you.
Speaking of thrills, one of our writers received a handful of close-to-home “gifts” from “Gordo.” Presumably the marketing team personalized them, at least in part, by finding information on social media. Is there a message here about how much we reveal about ourselves, online or otherwise?
The real delectable part of the mystery is this constant stream of gifts that Gordo keeps bringing around. He’s like the most generous guy in the world. It starts with a bottle of wine and ends with something quite remarkable. But he just gets a little too personal, so on a marketing level we thought that it’d be kind of good to connect these gifts to journalists to moments in their pasts that just had an element of creep to it.
Nowadays, there’s a whole ripe area too about just how much our social imprint leaves us way open for things. You look at actors. I remember last year there were all these people getting their accounts hacked because they were using familiar dog names and stuff as their Google passwords and whatever, so that’s a whole other story — and that’s where the marketing campaign tapped into people’s pasts. This being of an era where it’s sort of just pre-Internet, it’s sort of the last generation that we can almost cut any sense of history away. There’s no real Internet imprint of what we were like in the early nineties. You can almost reinvent yourself.
You’re clearly very connected to this project, professionally and emotionally. How do you think you’ll feel when the film is finally in theaters?
I don’t know. That’s the terrifying part. I’ve been involved in writing movies before, and it’s so much more exposing to watch a movie at a premiere or festival when you’ve been behind the ideas behind it. As an actor you can say, I was just part of a team. I was helping someone else facilitate their vision. I always joked that if a movie’s great you stand up and take all the credit as an actor, and if the movie’s terrible you stand up and point at the person who’s responsible. ‘He did it! It was his fault!’