LETTER FROM THE HEART
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.