LET­TER FROM THE HEART

VOGUE Australia - - CONTENTS -

Ac­tor and di­rec­tor Joel Edgerton re­flects on what he has learnt in Hol­ly­wood and how he plans to bring that back to Aus­tralia.

While ac­tor and di­rec­tor Joel Edgerton is cel­e­brated for his film Boy Er­ased, he has long yearned to make more movies back home. Here, he re­flects on what he has learnt in Hol­ly­wood and how he plans to bring that back to Aus­tralia. Por­trait by Will David­son.

Iwas in high school in Texas when I first re­alised the power of the Aus­tralian story. I had started knock­ing about with school theatre projects in Syd­ney and at some stage I had been cho­sen to take part in an in­ter­na­tional cul­tural ex­change of sorts at a school in Lub­bock, where for two months we per­formed an Aus­tralian re­vue of snip­pets of theatre scenes, skits and movies on stage – show­ing our cul­ture to stu­dents in high schools and col­leges through­out Texas. It was the first time I’d seen any part of the world apart from trav­els with my fam­ily. I was ob­sessed with movies and Amer­i­can cul­ture, so that trip made such an im­pres­sion on me. Back then (in my early teens), my mates and I would go to the cine­mas at West­field Par­ra­matta, near where my dad had a law prac­tice, and watch a movie (most of­ten an Amer­i­can film) to en­ter­tain our­selves while he worked. If we had time to kill we would of­ten sneak into the lo­cal courts to see open hear­ings, watch­ing Aus­tralian sto­ries un­fold in real life.

My brother Nash and I loved movies and be­cause we had ac­cess to a fam­ily video cam­era – circa 1980s, big and slung over the shoul­der – we would make them at home: he was the di­rec­tor and ed­i­tor, me and my mates the ac­tors.

I never imag­ined my­self as an ac­tor back then; it was a way to pass time and fur­ther em­u­late what we saw on the big screen. The dream of Hol­ly­wood was so far away. That path was even­tu­ally set by fin­ish­ing high school and en­rolling in drama school, in­spired by see­ing Opera House theatre shows as part of high school ex­cur­sions. Within a few years I was lucky enough to be work­ing in that very same theatre. Soon af­ter, it was a frus­tra­tion of hav­ing lim­ited ac­cess to big­ger theatre roles (based on not be­ing a TV star at the time) that led to me seek­ing to aban­don the theatre to make my­self avail­able to au­di­tion for TV and film parts that started me on the path that I am on now. It was Star Wars: Episode II, be­ing shot lo­cally in Syd­ney in 2000 (in which I landed the role of Owen Lars), that ac­tu­ally be­came my road to the US and, af­ter many years, my road to big­ger things.

When I ar­rived in Hol­ly­wood I be­came quickly in­tox­i­cated by the prom­ise of what riches of jobs and op­por­tu­ni­ties it held. My peers like Heath Ledger and oth­ers be­fore him had carved out a life and strong ca­reers there, and I pre­scribed to that. And while it didn’t pro­vide im­me­di­ately for me, luck­ily I had things to go home for; the con­stant ten­sion was that I had a ca­reer back home that was larger than the one I hoped to forge in Amer­ica. I was will­ing to keep try­ing, and yet I was also happy to come home to par­tic­i­pate in op­por­tu­ni­ties there. I was back and forth, some­what lead­ing two lives. Aus­tralia and Amer­ica were in some ways sim­patico for me. And it was a great bal­ance.

Back then, ac­tors like me felt the need to have a foun­da­tion back home be­fore pre­sum­ing to “take a shot at the ti­tle” in Hol­ly­wood, as my brother and I called it. It is in­ter­est­ing to note that things are dif­fer­ent now: young ac­tors book their tick­ets to Hol­ly­wood much ear­lier. There doesn’t seem to be a sense with the younger gen­er­a­tion to wait. I mean, why wait for a smaller in­dus­try to pro­vide for you when you can just take that shot ear­lier? The mod­ern-day grind to make good as an ac­tor is a whole dif­fer­ent world now than it was then, partly thanks to the in­ter­net. You can do an au­di­tion via Skype th­ese days, and now there are so many more qual­ity tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tions, backed by stream­ing ser­vices. There are more op­por­tu­ni­ties; no more bor­ders. It’s a fuller and more con­nected in­dus­try.

For me, as things got bet­ter and the jobs came, I started to fo­cus al­most solely on the op­por­tu­ni­ties I was get­ting in the United States to carve a big­ger sit­u­a­tion for my­self.

And along the way it be­came more and more ev­i­dent that I was los­ing touch with what was go­ing on back home. And as much as my ini­tial im­pulse was on the one hand to cre­ate a bet­ter work­ing life for my­self back home, I have to ad­mit that what took over was this need to suc­ceed in a big­ger pond. But ev­ery now and then I would look up and think: “What am I miss­ing out on? And why have I let that other part of my dream go, which is to come home and par­tic­i­pate?”

While Star Wars opened up a road to Hol­ly­wood in 2002, there were two other piv­otal mo­ments back on home soil that in some ways shaped my ca­reer, and in turn, shaped me: mak­ing the movies An­i­mal King­dom (2010) and Felony (2013).

In 2009, I was still chip­ping away in Amer­ica but not gain­ing that much trac­tion, when David (Michôd, a mem­ber of our Blue-Tongue collective of film­mak­ers) asked me to come back and be a part of An­i­mal King­dom.

Some mem­bers of my rep­re­sen­ta­tive team in the US were wary and said: “Do you re­ally want to go home and make a lit­tle story in Aus­tralia?” They thought my time might be bet­ter spent in the States. Thank­fully I didn’t lis­ten to those voices. I took up David’s of­fer. That ‘lit­tle story’ of An­i­mal King­dom cre­ated a wa­ter­shed for not just my­self but for Jacki Weaver (who re­ceived an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for her role) and for Ben Men­del­sohn, for Sul­li­van Sta­ple­ton, for a num­ber of ac­tors; plus it im­me­di­ately marked what a great di­rec­tor David is. It re­ceived crit­i­cal ac­claim, bagged a swag of awards and was even adapted into an Amer­i­can TV se­ries. Back then, it was proof that with the right story, Hol­ly­wood would stand up and take no­tice of Aus­tralian films. Iron­i­cally, it be­came more piv­otal for me in the US than most US-based films had been.

Three years later I hoped that Felony, a psy­cho­log­i­cal po­lice thriller that I wrote, pro­duced and starred in, would be a sim­i­lar ex­cur­sion. It was an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and a film I am deeply proud of. But un­for­tu­nately it didn’t pro­duce the re­sult I dreamed it would. Felony had a big im­pact on me, for rea­sons you wouldn’t ex­pect. When I was try­ing to get that movie fi­nanced in Aus­tralia there was an in­ter­est­ing mo­ment where I was asked: “Why not make this into an Amer­i­can story?” I was told it would be eas­ier to fi­nance. So I started rewrit­ing that screen­play as an Amer­i­can film set in Wash­ing­ton, and I got about three quarters of the way through and thought: “I don’t have as great an un­der­stand­ing to write in Amer­ica as I do back home.” It felt very per­son­ally Aus­tralian to me in ways that meant set­ting it in the US would di­min­ish its val­ues. So I re­verted to my ini­tial plan and in­stincts and thank­fully we man­aged to fi­nance it in Aus­tralia in­stead.

We made the film and we were very proud of it, but when we re­leased it, it didn’t light the box of­fice on fire. That be­came a wa­ter­shed mo­ment; it made me de­spon­dent. I started to think: “Why should I bother try­ing to make Aus­tralian movies? There’s not enough of an au­di­ence here.”

So again I de­cided to just keep fo­cussing on Amer­ica. In hind­sight I un­der­stand why, but at the same time I re­gret giv­ing up in that mo­ment so eas­ily, be­cause it’s also worth ac­knowl­edg­ing that maybe Felony it­self was one of those sto­ries that just didn’t res­onate on the scale that it needed to.

It was the mo­ment for me where as a writer, as a pro­ducer, as a film­maker, I thought: “Do I re­ally want to in­vest my time mak­ing things back home if they felt like some­thing of a waste of time? Un­wanted and un­der­val­ued? If they weren’t go­ing to stick to the wall in the way that I hoped they would, then why in­vest all that time and en­ergy?”

For some rea­son au­di­ences don’t tra­di­tion­ally al­ways want to see Aus­tralian films. Lo­cal films have smaller bud­gets gen­er­ally, for the mak­ing and the mar­ket­ing. We com­pete at the same ticket price against much larger star-driven Amer­i­can films. And Aus­tralian films are more of­ten a re­flec­tion of cul­ture rather than be­ing genre-driven. So how do we com­pete even in our own cine­mas against for­eign films? How do we ap­peal to lo­cal film­go­ers? And be­yond that, how can our movies travel and ap­peal to for­eign au­di­ences on a larger scale, and should we even care? I think one po­ten­tial sub­ject to ex­am­ine is the fund­ing and scale of lo­cal films.

I of­ten won­der if we could ben­e­fit from mak­ing more medium-bud­get films at home. In Aus­tralia we ei­ther do the $1.7-mil­lion-bud­get movie, or you have di­rec­tors like Ge­orge Miller and Baz Luhrmann mak­ing the big $100-mil­lion-plus-bud­get block­busters. What we don’t re­ally see is the $20- to 50-mil­lion bud­gets for sto­ries that are told here. It would be re­ally in­ter­est­ing to see what ef­fect that could have on the mar­ket. And it is a mar­ket that is in part cob­bled to­gether fi­nan­cially through state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment fi­nance in­cen­tives (we are lucky that this ex­ists) and var­i­ous pre-sale mod­els and other part­ner­ships.

I’ve al­ways likened fi­nanc­ing an Aus­tralian film to play­ing Jenga: ev­ery­thing can be in place, but if one thing falls out, the whole thing can top­ple over. It can be so frus­trat­ing: you try for years to piece some­thing to­gether, then an ac­tor will sign on and that’ll mean some­thing, and then you get to a prom­ise of in­ter­na­tional dis­tri­bu­tion and that means some­thing, and then slowly you build this house of cards, and then it can all blow over in a minute. But, es­sen­tially, Aus­tralian film­mak­ers in gen­eral are not com­ing from a place of think­ing: “We’re in it to make a ton of money.”

Amer­i­can films seem to dwarf the op­por­tu­nity for Aus­tralian movies to suc­ceed, even on home soil, be­cause we just don’t have the money to pro­mote and com­pete against th­ese big­ger sto­ries.

But it’s not re­ally about money made, it’s about the mark you make: An­i­mal King­dom was a turn­ing point for many peo­ple’s ca­reers, and Tanna (2015), an indige­nous love story set on a vol­cano in Van­u­atu, by Bent­ley Dean and Martin But­ler, be­came the first Aus­tralian film to be nom­i­nated for best for­eign pic­ture in 2017, the same year Lion was nom­i­nated for six Os­cars. They all re­ally showed that the Amer­i­can in­dus­try was will­ing to take no­tice of prod­ucts made back home.

And then along comes a movie like Ladies in Black (2018), which broke the mould and has done well at the Aus­tralian box of­fice. It has been one of the re­cent suc­cess sto­ries, along with Red Dog (2011), which had mass ap­peal. When I see the suc­cess of those movies, I’m buoyed by the pos­si­bil­ity of find­ing that story that we can tell back home that not only has lo­cal res­o­nance but can also find its way to res­onate on a world scale.

It is not nec­es­sar­ily about fo­cussing on busi­ness and fi­nance and mar­ket­ing. I think the thing I am hap­pily re­minded of is that great sto­ries do cut through – they do res­onate. Au­di­ences cre­ate word of

mouth. Aus­tralian sto­ries time and time again prove that when the odds are stacked against them they can com­pete against the big­ger­bud­get over­sees coun­ter­parts. Peo­ple do want to watch lo­cally made great sto­ries.

Boy Er­ased, while it is an Amer­i­can story, has be­come a new in­spi­ra­tion to bring me back. Through mak­ing Boy Er­ased, and work­ing with so many in­cred­i­ble Aus­tralians – Ni­cole Kid­man, Rus­sell Crowe and Troye Si­van – I re­alised the value and scope and thread Aus­tralian artists have around the world. We should har­ness that en­ergy, and not al­ways away from home.

Aus­tralians re­ally do have an ap­petite and op­por­tu­nity to work in the big­ger pond, and we’re do­ing it in an amaz­ing way, but there’s a big­ger value in not tak­ing that tal­ent out of Aus­tralia com­pletely. I have faith in the lo­cal in­dus­try and in com­ing back home when I hear things such as Ni­cole be­ing in­ter­ested in mak­ing a project here, Rus­sell film­ing Justin Kurzel’s True His­tory of the Kelly Gang in Mel­bourne last year and Chris Hemsworth help­ing his lo­cal com­mu­nity when he con­vinced Marvel to shoot Thor in Queens­land. Peo­ple hav­ing suc­cess in Amer­ica and bring­ing that suc­cess home, that in­spires me. When we have suc­cess abroad but come home and do our thing on a world scale, that helps sup­port the in­dus­try that made us who we are. You also have peo­ple like Ge­orge and Baz, Bruce Beres­ford and Phillip Noyce: Aus­tralians who do dream big­ger and tell sto­ries that are more res­o­nant.

There is such a wealth of sto­ries and prac­ti­tion­ers be­hind and in front of the cam­era that it would be a shame to lose be­cause of the in­tox­i­ca­tion of Amer­ica. And I’m a great ex­am­ple of that: I dreamt of go­ing to Amer­ica and got car­ried away with my­self. When Felony didn’t do as I ex­pected, I some­what be­grudg­ingly turned my back on the de­sire to make Aus­tralian con­tent and started to fo­cus more and more on keep­ing things go­ing in Amer­ica. What turned me off was feel­ing a sense of per­sonal dis­ap­point­ment that I shouldn’t have paid too much cre­dence to. There are many ex­am­ples year af­ter year that prove me wrong.

But that was six years ago. Since then I’ve made The Gift (2015) and Boy Er­ased (2018), and now that I’m in a dif­fer­ent place I am al­ways think­ing of, and keep­ing an eye on, the Aus­tralian in­dus­try. I don’t feel like a traitor, but I do feel like some­times my ci­ti­zen­ship within the Aus­tralian in­dus­try is in ques­tion when I’m away from home for so long, and I’d love to earn the right to par­tic­i­pate more in the lo­cal in­dus­try and to bring what­ever I’ve learnt back in some way.

Now I’m in my mid-40s, that is where my fo­cus is start­ing to shift to: what can I do to keep my eye on the Aus­tralian in­dus­try and recog­nise where we re­ally do hold some weight and value in the rest of the world? And how do we har­ness that en­ergy? And how can I par­tic­i­pate in that so that I’m not al­ways away from home?

One of my favourite mem­o­ries of mak­ing a movie at home was mak­ing The Square (2008) with my brother, be­cause it was the first time that all of the dream­ing we had done in the back­yard when were kids of mak­ing films to­gether, came to life. Backed by the Film Fi­nance Cor­po­ra­tion and Screen NSW, we were mak­ing a fea­ture film to­gether, and that felt very spe­cial. And again, we didn’t light the box of­fice on fire, but at the time, peo­ple like A.O. Scott in The New York Times gave The Square a great re­view, so there was a bit­ter­sweet re­sult in that. But just be­ing on set with my brother mak­ing a proper grown-up fea­ture film was amaz­ing.

The sec­ond was on a much larger scale: be­ing able to par­tic­i­pate in The Great Gatsby (2013) with Baz in Syd­ney. I mean, talk about mash­ing Amer­ica to­gether with Aus­tralia. It was in­cred­i­ble: I trav­elled all the way from Syd­ney to New York to au­di­tion for Baz only to fly home to shoot the movie five min­utes down the road from where I lived, with th­ese big movie stars and us­ing Syd­ney and Fox stu­dios as a way to tell this mas­sive Amer­i­can story.

In the end, no-one owes any­thing to the coun­try they’re born in: it’s re­ally about how much you want to be home and re­flect your own sto­ries. It’s up to the in­di­vid­ual; films are in­di­vid­ual pur­suits by cer­tain groups and it’s up to an in­di­vid­ual how much they are will­ing to go home and par­tic­i­pate.

As for me, I was some­one who was in­tox­i­cated by the ma­chine of Amer­ica and then re­alised it’s never too late to come home to strike that bal­ance again … lucky enough to have the ex­pe­ri­ences that I have and not be made to for­sake one place for the other. I’m so thank­ful for my suc­cess and re­ally value the place I’ve carved out for my­self in the States, but I miss my own coun­try. And af­ter all my ex­pe­ri­ences, the idea of com­ing home and the de­sire to par­tic­i­pate in a big­ger way just feels right. There are a cou­ple of things I’ve op­tioned that I would like pro­duce back home, and I’m cur­rently work­ing on a project I’ve got my eye on shoot­ing in Aus­tralia at the end of next year.

My plan was al­ways to come back and plant my flag in the ground in a deeper way on home turf. I love mak­ing movies and lately I’ve been get­ting ex­cited about do­ing that more at home – to wake up in Syd­ney, have a swim, then go to set there or head to an edit room.

“Aus­tralians re­ally do have an op­por­tu­nity to work in the big­ger pond … but there’s a big­ger value in not tak­ing that tal­ent out of Aus­tralia com­pletely”

Joel Edgerton di­rect­ing Ni­cole Kid­man in Boy Er­ased.

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