How Gareth Edwards Beat the System to Land ‘Godzilla’ and ‘Rogue One’
Art and Experience: They thought a VFX designer could never be a director, but Gareth Edwards proved everybody wrong.
As a teenager, Gareth Edwards had a very specific plan on how he’d make it big. It was pretty simple. He’d just do what his idol, Steven Spielberg, did. He recapped this list in the beginning of his SXSW keynote earlier this week: “I made cheap films with my father’s camera, check. I went to university, check. I made a professional short film, check.” The overwhelming difference in the two directors’ paths really came in the final step. “I sent it to Hollywood producers and got given a very polite rejection letter.”
The road to Rogue One did not start off easy for Edwards. “I was twenty-one years old, just finished film school and felt like I sort of had just wasted my life,” he remembered. “But one of the things that happens at film school, is of course, that you meet other film students. One of the guys that I was living with studied this brand new thing called ‘computer animation.’ It was very clear back then, Jurassic Park had just come out in cinemas, that this was going to be the future of filmmaking.”
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that after seeing Spielberg’s dino-masterpiece, Edwards decided to move back home and momentarily give up his dream of directing films to teach himself the art of visual effects. “I moved back home and stacked shelves at the supermarket during the night and learned software during the day,” he recalled. “I did lots of silly things like animate dinosaurs and robots in my parents’ driveway.”
Eager to direct, he would bring his shorts to producers around London. Naturally, most of them thought they were (to put it in distinctly British terms) “shit.” Whenever they got to the robot/dinosaur portions of the film, however, the producers would pause and say, “You can’t do that at home.” To which Edwards would reply, “Ya, you can. It’s Windows 95.” And they would respond, “Hang on. We’re paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to do this stuff, how can you do this with just a two grand machine?” “I don’t know. That’s your problem,” he professed. “But honestly, you can do it with Windows 95. I’m not lying.”
“People don’t call footage ‘camera generated imagery,’ or a screenplay ‘computer written documents.’ But for some reason with visual effects, it’s magic and you press a button and that’s how it works.”
So he got into jobs doing computer graphics, not directing. He was now full sail on a course to becoming a visual effects artist. He vowed to only do it for the moment, though, playing it off as taking the time to learn the software he’d need to make his movie. Somewhere down the line, he realized that his company was getting paid 100,000 pounds to make title sequences even though he was spending months creating them on his own and at a cost of two grand. So he thought, “Hmm, that’s 98,000 pounds of profit there.”
As his work progressed, however, he started getting friendlier with the clients. Soon it became a routine for him to ask them, “If you ever want to do this for like a tenth of the price, I will quit my job and do it in a heartbeat.” After being laughed off more than a few times, eventually one of them agreed to give him a shot. This job led him to make more money in one month than he ever made in a year.
“What if I make something and deep down inside I know it’s shit? I’d have to admit to myself that I’m not really who I thought I was and not meant to make films.”
He had now gained a reputation from the BBC as “this kid who made graphics in his bedroom,” which he admitted was nice because it got him a lot of work. Ultimately, it was counterproductive because it caused him to continue putting off making a film. Or at least that’s what he told himself.
The work combined with a perpetual attitude of, “Oh, there’s this big software update, there’s a camera, Sony’s making this thing that’s going to make everything so much easier, it’s going to be HD with a thing on the front and blah, blah.” Reflecting back on it, however, it was easy for Edwards to admit, “in reality, it was because I was afraid of failing. What if I make something and deep down inside I know it’s shit? I’d have to admit to myself that I’m not really who I thought I was and not meant to make films.”
Eventually, he shifted tactics, “If you let me direct one of the episodes,” he asked the BBC, “then I will do the visual effects for free.” They didn’t bite, instead suggesting if you’re a visual effects guy, then you aren’t a director. “I think part of the problem was even things like the name of it, CGI – computer generated images,” he explained. “It’s like you turn this thing on in the morning and by the end of the night, it’s made a Pixar film. It’s never attributed to a person. People don’t call footage ‘camera-generated imagery,’ or a screenplay ‘computer ‘written documents.’ But for some reason with visual effects, it’s magic and you press a button and that’s how it works.”
If he was going to achieve his goal of making a movie by the time he was thirty, he had to tell the BBC that he would no longer be doing visual effects and was now a director. Eventually, they relented.
“I found that what happened was that this fear of failure, that puts you off from doing something, that chases you through your life, is sort of met head on with this bigger fear of having never tried. There’s a certain point where the two meet, and it feels like if I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it.”
His first major project, a BBC documentary on Attila the Hun, proved to be more frustrating than he expected. “We would set up filming and this crew of at least a hundred people would help us. But behind them, these amazing opportunistic moments would happen, like beautiful lighting on the hill and I’d want to do the shot there.” Since he was now shouldering a crew of over one hundred people, however, the producer told him it’d be impossible to set up any such move. “So what you’re saying is, if there was no one here to help us at all, we’d be able to do whatever we wanted?”
This was the philosophy Edwards would end up taking into his first film, but there was one more crucial realization he would have to come to terms with before he went into production. “I found that what happened was that this fear of failure, that puts you off from doing something, that chases you through your life, is sort of met head on with this bigger fear of having never tried. There’s a certain point where the two meet, and it feels like if I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it.”
“The worst thing to ever happen to storytelling is the written word.”
His idea was to take everything he learned from visual effects and apply it to a professional short, just like Spielberg had made. For Edwards, it ended up being the most liberating thing he’d done in his entire life. “You spend forever doing this boring laborious crap with VFX, and then suddenly, you’re given a camera and it’s the most amazing thing. If you’ve got a camera and you make a mistake in composition, you’ve wasted just like five seconds. If you make a mistake on the computer when you’re doing visual effects, you’ve wasted at least a day. It’s a very painful way of learning composition.”
For his first feature, Monsters, from the very beginning, there was one pitfall he knew he wanted to avoid. “The worst thing to ever happen to storytelling is the written word. What used to happen down the ages was that you would tell someone the story, they would remember all the exciting bits and leave the boring bits out. Then they’d go tell someone else and add a little thing that they thought was cool. And this would happen over and over, and the story would become better and better and better until it was exactly the story that everyone wanted to hear.”
Edwards wanted to keep things organic, so he employed an interesting and adaptable screenwriting method. “We wrote all the physical things that happened to the characters in black ink and all the emotional things that happened in blue ink. We drove around Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Texas with the actors and everywhere we went we asked, ‘What’s visually interesting here?’ We would go there and would look through what physical thing would happen and we would write that and what emotional moment would happen. We figured it out as we went.”
Another key thing he learned in traveling around with actors was that “all they wanted was a scene that was like a void.” “If they’re like Evil Knievel and the scene is the Grand Canyon gap, all we have to do is build a ramp,” he explained. “We have to give them a trajectory into the scene that can launch them and they can take care of the rest.” What this analogy boils down to is giving your actors the backstory, why they’re there, what they’re trying to do, what they’re not trying to do and then leaving the scenes alone and letting them do their thing.
Even though it was unfinished, Edwards entered Monsters into nearly every major film festival, only to be denied by virtually every single one of them. This was, perhaps, in no small part due to the fact that where the VFX monsters were supposed to be, there was placeholder text describing an action like “monsters attack here.” SXSW, however, decided to take a chance.
“The promise of digital technology is that it’s not really about being able to create spaceships and robots and dinosaurs. It’s that everyone can now afford to make a film. Everyone can have a voice.”
Edwards took a minute to describe a meeting he had with Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League prior to the premiere of his film at the festival. “Did you change the text?” League asked. To which Edwards responded, “Ya, ya, ya, ya don’t worry, don’t worry. It’s a much better font now.”
Of course, Edwards had finished the film and the result was a massive success. He was scooped up days later while still in Austin by an agent who represents directors like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven, and Tim Burton. From there, it was off to Hollywood for a series of screenings and meetings to attract buyers for the film.
In two weeks, he had meetings with over one hundred people. As Edwards tells it, these meetings were all quite similar. There was a senior and a junior producer. The junior would always be the one to ask about the film, while the senior would be on his Blackberry scrolling through emails and nodding along inattentively.
As he entered what would be his final meeting, Edwards strolled through the halls of Legendary Studios, unaware that his childhood dream was about to come to fruition. “What are you doing the rest of the week?” the producer asked. “I told him I had some meetings and screenings and such. He told me to cancel them all. ‘You never need to have another meeting,’ he told me. ‘From now on, you’re making all your movies at Legendary.’ And I just started crying. It was really embarrassing, but I couldn’t stop it. All my life, I’ve been waiting for someone like him to say something like that and I didn’t realize how much it was going to impact when it came.”
Edwards had finally reached his Spielberg moment, it just took a different path to get there. He recognized a need in the filmmaking community, did everything he could to master the visual effects skills necessary, and no matter how many people wouldn’t take him seriously as a director, he never gave up on the job he knew he deserved to have. “If there’s a point to all this,” he concludes, “the promise of digital technology is that it’s not really about being able to create spaceships and robots and dinosaurs. It’s that everyone can now afford to make a film. Everyone can have a voice.”
“Digital technology is allowing kids at home to do amazing stuff…I think it’s never been a better time to be a filmmaker.”
There is no reason you can’t be the next Gareth Edwards. These days, there is even more room for aspiring directors to take advantage of tools the way Edwards did back in the nineties. It all comes down to recognizing the trends and teaching yourself skills that make you valuable as a creator.
“There is definitely a gap that’s growing between high-budget filmmaking and low-budget filmmaking with this void happening in between,” Edwards explains. “Even from ten years ago, the difference between a 200 million dollar movie and how that looks, and a 1 million dollar movie and how that looks, is getting narrower and narrower. Digital technology is allowing kids at home to do amazing stuff. So somewhere between that gap, something’s gotta give. I don’t know what that is, nobody knows what it is. But I think it’s never been a better time to be a filmmaker.”