In his feature directorial debut, Monsters (2010), Edwards received a crash course in independent guerrilla filmmaking, as he roamed around Latin America with Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able and a skeleton crew, shooting an original sci-fi film on the fly with prosumer-grade equipment. With a determination to find real-world locations that were compelling in and of themselves, Edwards minimized any dependency on VFX augmentation, allowing him to cut together his movie and then composite the VFX elements that were absolutely necessary.
And following his experiences as the director of the $160 million-budgeted Godzilla (2014) and the $220-million Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Edwards wanted the best of both worlds for his new John David Washington-led sci-fi film about a war between humans and AI. That meant combining the same guerrilla filmmaking techniques of Monsters with a budget of $80 million that is still well below the going rate for even the most modest of blockbusters. Amazingly, the 20th Century film was actually going to cost even less than $80 million until the pandemic upped the sticker price.
At a time when tentpole budgets are consistently crossing over into the $300 million territory, Edwards believes that franchises like Star Wars and Godzilla’s MonsterVerse can take a similar guerrilla approach with enough discipline.
“I think you could give it a good go, yeah,” Edwards tells The Music news. “If you take the indie movie Excel document and start adding zeros, it’s the most liberating thing in the world.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Edwards also explains why the escalating resentment towards AI worked to his film’s early advantage.
Well, it’s been about seven years since you’ve had to do all the things that come with releasing a movie. Is it safe to say that you’ve made up for lost time with how much responsibility you’ve shouldered on The Creator?
I don’t know, I don’t know. I didn’t mean for it to be seven years. I thought I’d have a bit of a break, write a script or come up with an idea and then take it to a studio. And they’d go, “Great!” and then off we’d go. But I ended up in this era where there’s not such an appetite for original blockbuster-y sci-fi, and so it took a long time to get the film off the ground. I also wanted to have a little bit of control over the process. The process of making a film affects the final outcome as much as the screenplay, et cetera, and so it was trying to get a studio on board with the crazy approach we wanted to take with the film. It harkens back to Monsters, my first film, where we had very little money. We traveled around the world, found amazing locations, invented scenes to some extent and reverse engineered the film. We kind of worked backwards. So I wanted to do that with a Hollywood budget and using people at Industrial Light & Magic. I thought that would be a really super exciting way to make a film.
In my reaction a few weeks ago, I noted that The Creator felt like the culmination of all your work. It has elements from your previous three films, especially Monsters and Rogue One. So it seems like the ultimate version of the type of movie you’ve been making since 2010. Would you agree with that assessment?
I would hope that’s true. That would be the goal. There’s all kinds of bad analogies you could use for filmmaking, but one of my favorite ones explains what we did with this one. Typically, you design and write and conceive the entire movie, and then you go try and get it. So that’s like the equivalent of painting a target on the wall and then trying to hit that bullseye with a bow and arrow. And often you miss. So I’ve always felt that the better way to make a film is to fire the arrow and wherever it hits, you then walk up to the wall and paint a bullseye right around the arrow head. It makes you look good. It makes you look like you got exactly what you were intending, and so The Creator was that reverse engineering kind of approach.
We went to eight different countries around the world. We traveled 10,000 miles, and we went to the Himalayas, Indonesian volcanoes and floating villages in Thailand, et cetera. We shot all these different scenes from the film, and then in post-production, I hit screen grab on my laptop and gave those images to people like [production designer] James Clyne and Industrial Light & Magic. So halfway through the edit, that’s when we started designing the world, and it was much more efficient. We didn’t do anything outside of the frame. Everything is a hundred percent on screen, and we didn’t build sets or do things that never ended up in the movie.
For every scene in the film, I wanted to go to a real-world location that was the closest thing that existed to that [scene’s setting], and it varied each time. For the underground AI lab, we shot in a particle accelerator in Thailand, and so you’re always trying to find something that’s as close as you can find. And then you augment it in the computer, and you only really need to change about 20 or 30 percent. It’s also very simple to change. It’s 2D tracking; it’s not complicated stuff. Half the time, you’re just rotoscoping around things and sticking them in. And so everyone’s a winner, really. It’s more creative, easier and cheaper, and I don’t want to go back to the other way of doing a big film, if I can help it.
Coming off of Rogue One, I have to imagine that you wanted your original sci-fi film to avoid any overlap with Star Wars, but given how ubiquitous that franchise is, was it virtually impossible to avoid at least some resemblance to a galaxy far, far away, both visually and thematically?
Yeah, even if I hadn’t made a Star Wars film, this movie probably would’ve turned out quite similar looking. I’m speaking English to you because my parents spoke English to me, and when you sit and watch a Betamax tape of A New Hope every morning as a kid, you speak Star Wars a little bit, especially when you finally get to make films. [Production designer] James Clyne also worked on Star Wars films, and if anything, we tried to take Star Wars out. You might design something or start trying to conceive something, and then you suddenly look at it and go, “It’s too Star Wars, isn’t it?” And so it’s kind of the opposite problem, as you’re trying to remove it from the movie. But it is such an inspiration, and there’s so many inspirations, design-wise, on this movie. It’s hard to avoid them, and to some extent, we use them as a sort of stepping stone. They’re a fast-track way of getting the audience to understand something like, “Oh, I get who these guys are. They’re kind of like that from that movie. Oh, I get what this situation is. It’s like that from that other film.” And then, hopefully, we go in a different direction than where those movies went.
The Creator eventually puts us in a position to sympathize with AI, and I think some people will feel conflicted about that since AI is currently a threat to livelihoods in all walks of life. That said, is this AI species really just a stand-in for anyone who’s been otherized or marginalized or oppressed?
I started writing this in 2018 and AI was a distant dream, like flying cars and things. So, yeah, it’s totally a metaphor or an allegory for people who are different to us. That was the intention. But things have changed very quickly, and there are super fascinating philosophical questions that come up when you deal with AI. So we tried not to shy away from it in the movie. And now, in 2023, it’s very, very timely in that sense. It’s funny because we shot scenes in Bangkok of people protesting AI with signs and things like that, and when we were filming it, I felt a bit embarrassed. I thought, “People aren’t going to really do this. This is just a little science fiction silliness for this part of the movie.”
And then, just as we were finalizing the movie and doing all the post and sound stuff, we would drive past the studios as everyone was on strike. So we saw all the signs and AI picketing, and it was very surreal. It was like, “Man, this has come a lot faster than anyone predicted.” And when you play around with chat GPT, it’s very convincing. It’s hard to do that and not think someone is there on the other end. It doesn’t quite make sense. And anyone who tries to predict what’s going to happen over the next five years is going to look a bit silly when that prediction is played back. But things are definitely going to change.
During post-production, as the conversation around AI intensified and resentment grew among the public, were you worried at all that people would keep themselves closed off to your Simulant characters?
That’s okay. The default setting of the movie is that I want the audience to be anti-AI at the start. We work quite hard in the first few minutes to set that up. So people arriving with that attitude is a good thing; I think it helps the film. If this was a war movie about two different sides, I’d probably have still done the same thing. The great thing about storytelling is that you can show things from other perspectives. When I was a bit younger and I went to see Saving Private Ryan at the cinema, there was one shot in there that just blew my mind. It was already blowing my mind because that film has such a great opening.
You spend the whole of that Normandy Beach landing just thinking about the Germans and going, “Just stop firing. Please stop firing. Why are you [German Soldiers] doing this? Stop firing.” So you get really angry about it as you’re watching the first half hour, and then suddenly, there’s one shot from behind a German’s point of view through the pillbox. And there’s just thousands and thousands of soldiers with guns running towards him and trying to kill him. And suddenly you’re like, “Stop coming, stop coming. Stay back.” So you instantly understand how these things happen. There’s no good guys and bad guys. There’s two opposite points of view that completely disagree and assume the other person is the enemy. And so I love it when cinema can jump around perspectives or take you on a journey that does a 180 degree flip at one point to see things from another point of view.
The duty of storytelling is to try and get that more truthful version. The idea that we go around the world and all we have to do is kill all the bad guys and it’s all going to be okay isn’t what’s going on. Everybody thinks that they’re the good guy and the other people are the bad guys. And this stuff gets solved a lot more when you start to understand each other. We were filming this giant tank battle sequence in The Creator, and it happened to be the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. We needed Western faces to play the Westerners, and during the pandemic, there were very few Western people or European-looking people in Thailand. But there was this expat community from Russia and the Ukraine.
And so, that day, we had Russian and Ukrainian guys hanging out together during the first day of the invasion, all playing soldiers on the same side. And it was very weird, because during the breaks, they would sit down, exhausted, and just chat to each other and joke and mess around. And it was kind of like, “Yeah, this is what it’s about.” Once you get to sit down with someone and talk to them, you realize how similar we all are. And so I was using AI as the most extreme version of something that’s different, and if you can get there with AI, then you can get there with anybody. So that was really where it all came from rather than an agenda about the future of technology.
Everyone is pretty bowled over by this movie’s price tag and the stripped-down process behind it a la Monsters, albeit a more substantial version of it. But could this approach really be applied to a Godzilla or Star Wars movie? Would Godzilla itself or the space battles immediately push the budget into the high-rent district?
I think you could give it a good go, yeah. The reality is that the expensive part of those movies is the VFX. And if you’re talking about Star Wars, it’s probably the costumes. You can’t escape putting costumes on everybody. Godzilla is usually a contemporary movie, so it’s more the VFX budgets. The VFX budgets always end up a certain amount and you can’t shortchange them too much, because you’re asking for a thousand-or-more effects shots. You can be clever about them, but there’s a limit. 50 percent would be the greatest outcome of what a normal budget is, but it’s still going to be tens of millions of dollars.
But yeah, for every scene in the movie, we just tried to find the most similar thing in the real world, and we could cherry pick from the whole world. Once you get the size of the crew small enough, it’s cheaper to fly absolutely anywhere in the world than it is to build a set on a soundstage. And so the goal was to get everything small enough so that we could go anywhere. I had a golden rule on the film. It was sort of a joke, but I sort of meant it. Our original budget was not $80 million. It went up because of the pandemic, but let’s just pretend it was $80 million. We would say, “No one can ever utter this sentence on the film: ‘We can’t afford to do that because we only have $80 million.’” $80 million is an insane amount of money.
I was very lucky on my first film, Monsters, as someone gave me 250,000 pounds [roughly $304,000], which felt like a miracle at the time. And if someone had told me, “One day, you’re going to have 300 times that or something,” I’d go, “Oh, we can do anything.” And so it feels like there’s two kinds of spreadsheets or Excel documents in the film industry. One is a massive Hollywood blockbuster and the other is small indie guerrilla filmmaking. And if you take the Excel document for a Hollywood blockbuster and start deleting zeros, you’re going to find you’re crippled really fast and you can’t really do anything and you’ll be complaining the entire time. But if you take the indie movie Excel document and start adding zeros, it’s the most liberating thing in the world.
And so we would always joke, “Don’t think of this as a cheap Hollywood blockbuster. Think of it as the world’s most expensive guerrilla indie film, and then suddenly you can do anything.” So we made sure we kept that mentality, because you always get gravitationally pulled into the default way to make a film, and you’re always spending the whole time fighting it and trying to do things differently.
Well, please don’t make us wait another seven years for your next feature.
I’m going to try. Maybe it’ll be six-and-a-half years.
The Creator is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.