On the heels of multiple successful festival runs for their short films, Australian stuntman-turned-director Nash Edgerton and his brother Joel (who co-wrote and stars in the film) finally ventured into feature filmmaking with The Square, a stylish and twist-filled film noir about an adulterous couple whose scheming leads to arson, blackmail and murder. Escaping the monotony of a loveless marriage, Raymond (David Roberts) becomes entangled in an affair with the beautiful and troubled Carla (Claire van der Boom) but Ray’s moral limits are tested when Carla presents him with the proceeds of her controlling husband’s latest crime.
We sat down this week with Nash and Joel at a round table interview for The Square. The brothers talked to us about why they used their 2007 short, The Spider, to introduce their new feature film, how they work together creatively, and why they chose to avoid the stylized staginess of classic film noir. They also discussed their upcoming projects including Joel’s lead role in Universal’s prequel to the horror classic, The Thing, which is currently in production.
Q: The idea of having a short, “Spider,” preceding the feature film is a terrific throwback and a nice touch to get us in the noir mood for the film. Is this also a good way to get a film that you made out there, because other than festivals few people have seen it?
Nash: Yes, I guess so. For me, “Spider” sets up how dark the humor is and lets people know it’s okay to laugh and enjoy this movie. We set out to base the film and play it as straight and real as possible. I think sometimes if people aren’t used to that or don’t know it’s okay to laugh, they’ll find the movie, as tense as it is, even harder to cope with in a way.
Joel: You’re absolutely right. I think it’s great to be able to go and watch a short film before you watch a feature.
Nash: It gets you in the mood rather than watching ads before. Pixar did their animations. When I grew up, you’d see shorts before movies. I know it happened a lot more before I started going to the cinema. It was definitely enjoyable for us to have that happen.
Q: You have a great reference to “Spider” in the middle of the movie. That was a nice tension-breaking moment which might get lost if people hadn’t seen the short.
Nash: It’s totally meant as a nod to “Spider.” Otherwise, it’s a natural part of the [story].
Joel: It’s definitely a bit of a running theme with a lot of the Blue Tongue product or a lot of the films that have come out of there by Nash and a lot of the other guys. For anyone who’s a bit of a film geek or fanboy, there are lots of clues within the film that are there for a second time viewing that are like little grace notes, that if you watch the film the first time, you don’t need to pick them up. But if you choose to go back and see the film a second time, you’ll notice things that are significant and kind of hidden in the film.
Nash: We’ve done things before in our short films where we’d have a character from the first short film we’d made make an appearance in another short film we’d made, like he was on his way to the incident that happened in the other film. We do that just for our own entertainment.
Joel: That’s that guy Tony Lynch who’s kind of Nash’s lucky charm. He appears in every film that Nash makes.
Nash: He plays Santa Claus in “The Square” and he plays one of the paramedics in “Spider.”
Joel: He’s a stunt guy. He’s not an actor, but Nash from time to time puts him in films.
Q: It’s satisfying to go back and see all the pieces fit together after you know how the story is going to turn out. I liked how you chose not to tie up all the loose ends. For instance, we never know for sure where the bag of money came from.
Nash: Well you do actually. It’s in the film.
Joel: There’s a clue in there, yes.
Q: We know who’s involved but does it say where it came from?
Joel: It doesn’t definitely answer it, but there’s a clue in there where you go “Ah, that’s where the money could’ve come from.”
Nash: When the news story is happening and Billy’s watching the news, the second news story, before he gets angry with the TV, tells you where the money came from.
Joel: There’s been a hold up and it names a sum of money…
Nash: …and the armored car that was robbed…
Joel: …in the same local area. So it’s sort of there but it just becomes noise in the background and there’s a lot of that stuff. You get the guy talking about the shark cages and how he’s going to build his own shark cage and when Tony Hayes’s character goes around to beat him up a bit at the caravan park, if you notice as he storms past to the front door, there are four or five screen doors laying against his caravan. He was really in the process of building a shark cage out of screen doors. (Laughs)
Q: The river was very specific to the story. Was this location a place where you guys grew up? Did you write that into the movie before or did that come after you found the location?
Nash: When Joel wrote it, it was always set on the water. It was set on a man-made canal system which I think in his mind was a place in Queensland that’s like that. There’s also a place in Sydney that we started looking at when we were developing the script, and then when I was describing it to a friend, she said “Have you ever been to Woronora?” and I hadn’t. It was this place and that was where the river and the bridge was, and literally I went there the next day and I rang the location scout and said “I found the town. This is where we’re going to set the movie.” The whole waterway was definitely integral to the story – that they live across the river from each other and the way the dog love story was going to work.
Joel: It also had a real sense of the social/economic division between the two lovers. There’s the sense that this river divides the town between the haves and the have nots in a way without being too overstated about it. And also, this idea of sort of an undercurrent, which is a true thing in Queensland, this idea of the manmade canals and that dogs and people and all sorts of things go missing in there, that there’s this element of questioning and crocodiles and sharks and things that live in there. It sort of had this feeling because this film is so much about things being buried and things being smoothed over and that also there’s something kind of insidious living underneath it.
Q: Can you comment on your visual style and how you use it to underscore the film noir tone of the story?
Nash: Visually I always wanted to feel fluid and moving where you feel like you’re with Ray the whole way. I thought the more you were experiencing it from his perspective, then the more you would relate to him or experience what he was going through.
Q: What you did has elements of classic film noir but not the stylized staginess.
Nash: That’s because I wanted it to feel real. I thought as much as it’s film noir, we were basing it in a reality rather than this surreal world. A lot of it happens during the day. Also, a difference for an American audience that isn’t usually shown in Australia either is Christmases in the summer. I’ve never really seen Christmas in a movie in the summer time. But, just the whole idea of basing it in reality, to me, made it more relatable as an audience member and, by doing that, made it more tense. A lot of times, film noirs have elements of tension and intrigue to them and it’s thrilling, but I thought the more real it felt, it would be much more engaging in a way.
Joel: And also, the film noir has a kind of traditional story structure that somewhat feels like it went out of date and in some ways we feel like musicals went out of date. I sometimes suspect whether that’s because of the traditional role of the [duplicitous] woman in film noir. She was a femme fatale and she had absolutely no genuine interest in the man except that her interest was a financial gain or to dupe him into killing her husband or to do something like that. The successful kind of modern noirs that appear have to take what was old and take the best of what was original and bring something new to it. And, for us, Carla, our femme fatale, while she may remain a little questionable sometimes, actually has a genuine interest in escaping with Ray rather than just hobbling him.
Nash: And, in that way, all the relationships or characters were not just black and white. Her husband isn’t just some wife beater. He cares about her but they just don’t communicate. They don’t have that connection and same with Ray and his wife. She’s not like a nag. There’s nothing really wrong with her. They just have fallen out of love. These two people kind of find each other and even their relationship is not a steamy sexy kind of typical film noir passionate love story. They’ve found each other and you come into the middle of their affair. It’s kind of mundane and real. They have this connection and they’ve been planning on getting away together, but they have their other things to deal with. It’s not just cut and dry. I think in that way again it’s all about keeping those relationships realistic and gray and complicated rather than “This is how this person is” and “This is how that person is.”
Q: Do you think that contributed to the amount of tension you were able to build? It’s difficult today to find a thriller that’s really thrilling. Was it a challenge to keep the thrills as a surprise?
Nash: Yes, it was definitely challenging, but that was the plan to make it as tense as possible and feasible. I think the reality and feasibility breeds the tension. If you believe in what’s happening, then the shocks and surprises are actually shocks and surprises.
Joel: I think one of the great things that Nash has done with the finished film is that the answers are all there but he doesn’t spell them out too much. So, I think that you can watch the film and feel like you’re in the grip of the story, but also be engaged in trying to plot and find out what might happen next without being able to really accurately answer that. I enjoyed the fact that I hadn’t seen the film for a little while and recently saw it again and really enjoyed the experience. I was able to stand back and see how artfully Nash has managed to tread that balance between guiding you on a story that feels familiar and yet not make it familiar enough that you can predict what happens next. That’s a really tricky thing.
Q: Is what you’ve put together with Blue Tongue and the loose collection of different artistic talents a model for battling Hollywood with home-grown films? You both have experience on big Hollywood productions so you know how that can bring a shot into the economy, but those aren’t necessarily Australian films.
Nash: It’s not like we set out to battle anything in particular. It’s more that we’ve found a like-minded group of people who I think as much as David (Michan) and Spencer (Susser) and myself and Joel and Kieran (Darcy-Smith) and Luke (Doolan) all make different films from each other, they are all based in a similar kind of universe. I think we all have similar interests and it has become this kind of healthy competition. It’s like constantly encouraging each other to make the films as good as possible and to make new things. By doing that, I find that when my friends make something that I really like, it inspires me to want to make something else. It kind of perpetuates itself in that way.
Joel: Obviously too, being an actor in L.A., I’ve noticed now a lot of things that have been green lit and a lot of things that are easily pushed forward through the studios are all just brand names. They’re all things that I guess make the marketing side of things easier so they get funded up front. How many original stories are being brought to the screen this year? Everything seems like a reboot or a franchise. In a way, what Blue Tongue does for us, or hopefully will do in the future, is become our own brand name that will replace the brand name of a franchise. In the same way, when we went and saw films that had the words Miramax or Band Apart, we were like we don’t even need to know exactly what that movie is about. We’ll go and see it because we’ve had a track record of good films from those people. Hopefully, that will work for us in the future.
Q: Could you talk about working together? Nash, how is it directing Joel, and Joel, how is it taking direction from Nash?
Joel: (Laughing) I was laughing before because there were times when we’d rehearse and Nash would come in with a script and, without even looking at me, he’d just be talking to an actor and he’d be like, “Don’t even say that. That’s sort of pointless.” And I’d just be sitting there going “Okay.” So what’s interesting about it is that we can be really blunt with each other and almost careless sometimes, but never bear a grudge. We have a really easy dialogue with each other. It’s sort of surreal to be directed by your brother but I trust him. The proof is in the product. I’ve watched all of the stuff that I’ve seen Nash make over the years and watch him grow as a director and completely trust him. One of the exciting things, and I remember saying [this] to Louise (producer Louise Smith), one thing I always knew is if I had a decent screenplay, I knew that Nash was one director who could actually elevate material. It’s very rare that I would say that about a director. I feel that whatever is on the page, he could make even more exciting in a film.
Nash: We have an interesting dynamic in that sure I will direct him, then I’ve also turned up on film sets and been his stunt double and dressed up like him and then been hit by a car.
Joel: For me. (Laughs)
Nash: For him while he’s all rugged up having a coffee and chatting to a makeup artist or something like that. I’m like, “How did this happen?!”
Joel: I remember Nash getting glass vacuumed out of his hand. He did a car hit for me and he came out of it with shards of glass just sticking out of his hand. The way they get the glass out is they vacuum it out. I was on a rooftop. I had a blanket wrapped around me and I was sitting in a chair just sipping tea watching Nash get hit by a car for me.
Nash: They were vacuuming it out so I could get hit by it a second time. But, I don’t know. It works really well. We get on great. We’re both ultimately aiming for the same end result.
Joel: But we do have different points of view and different sensibility. I think that’s part of the reason why it works. I’m really interested in other aspects that he’s interested in. But together, those aspects all join together to be a big strong part of the filmmaking process.
Nash: We have skills that complement each other in a way. We’re not actually competing. I really enjoy working with him and I really respect his opinion. I didn’t cast him in the film just because he’s my brother. I really think he’s a wonderful actor and he’s way better than I am. As much as I’m in “Spider” and I do little bits and pieces, I don’t think I can do what he can do in the same way. Same thing with his writing, I feel like whatever he brings to the table makes whatever I do better.
Q: How does the stunt experience serve you as storytellers? Often in a film the stunt is sort of the punch line. It doesn’t necessarily drive the story forward as much as get you to a point.
Nash: If it’s not done right, it’s like that. Sure. But, in the same way, I think action, if it’s done right and based in the world that the story is set in, can create tension just as strongly as straight performing dialogue can and sometimes more. As much as I’m a stuntman and there’s action in the film, I was never interested in doing stunts just for the sake of stunts. I can do that as a stuntman. If anything was going to happen in the film, it had to be based in the world of what we’d created. In that way, I wanted the violence and the action that happens to be realistic in the same way that the performances and the story were. Obviously, my knowledge of how to do that stuff definitely helped in the creative and technical aspect of it. Action is definitely a huge part of visual storytelling.
Joel: It’s hard to retain it in an Australian film. We were instructed that your script starts with a car chase, and then by the time you’re in pre-production, it’s become a foot chase, and by the time you’re shooting, it’s become two guys shoving each other, and then by the time you see the film, it’s just an argument. It’s a shame we don’t have the budget to retain it. So, it’s good to have Nash’s background as a stunt guy to kind of plant the flag in the ground and say “At a bare minimum, I’ll be willing to lose X, Y and Z, but we need these pieces.” And together, we all worked out what was financially possible and, of course, you can’t have too many explosions and everything in a small budget film. We were pretty luck to have retained the action that’s there. As right as Matthew Dabner and I wanted to make sure that as Nash was saying, whatever action was there really served the story and served the characters rather than just throwing in an explosion for the sake of it.
Q: Could you talk about the pre-shooting technique you used to plan out shots in advance?
Nash: I don’t really storyboard because I can’t draw very well and also for me, when you’re trying to create rhythm and timing and tension, you need to know what the timing of a scene is. I would go with Luke (Luke Doolan), my editor, Joel, and my friends and some of the other guys from Blue Tongue, David, Spencer and some of the actors if I had them, and we would shoot as many of the scenes in the film as we could on video, and I would cut those together and they were kind of my video storyboards, I guess, or pre-visualizations of the scenes. They were very rough the way we’d do them, but it would give you straight away the kind of shots that are needed and the timing.
Joel: We would do that. Nash shot a quarter or a third of the film as video storyboards. For instance, there’s a scene early in the film with Ray and Carla. They’re having their affair and they’re in the car under the bridge.
Nash: It’s the very opening scene of the film.
Joel: And Nash and I played Ray and Carla so we were sort of embracing in the front of this car…
Nash: …and then Luke, the editor, and Joel played the two dogs and the cut together of that thing is completely comical but it’s so accurate to what visually you see.
Joel: By the time pre was over, I’d played something like 7 or 8 characters in the video storyboard including the dog standing at the window going (panting) “ahahahahahah.”
Q: Are you saving that for the DVD?
Nash: Yes, there will be some of the pre-vis stuff. It shows you the comparison of scenes.
Joel: What was cool about it – because I always learn stuff too and making a film this way I learn about all sorts of things I’ve never been privy to as an actor on other productions – is that seeing Nash put the hours in to go and shoot those scenes and then go back and edit what was a video, a mocked up version of the car chase, edit it together and then realize what was missing and then go back the following weekend to shoot the bits that were missing. Sometimes I think with that we went back to that location three times, and if he hadn’t have done that, the day we shot the car chase would have been a lot more of a difficult experience. It’s a really valuable thing and I think a good thing for all filmmakers to try. If you’re going to do storyboards, why not make them more akin to a moving storyboard.
Nash: Especially when that’s the medium you’re working in.
Q: When you were writing it, did you write the part for yourself?
Joel: I was trying to write another movie and I did have sort of a vanity issue with trying to write a heroic lead role for myself and it was definitely getting in the way of writing a story. So, when I wrote “The Square,” I had put aside trying to write a lead role for myself in the movie, and that story really grabbed me. Ray needed to be a guy in his middle age who was at that point in his marriage where he was looking for other things, so that wasn’t me at the time. Still isn’t quite yet. But the role of the arsonist when the story started to form, I said that’s the role I’ll play and it never changed. It did become a really odd sticking point when we finally got to shooting it because I’d been writing, and a lot of the Billy and Lily sayings hadn’t changed very much in a lot of years because I’ve been writing the story for a long time. To finally get to act words that you’d written and thought about and slept with and dreamt about for so long was so tough as an actor to keep a freshness to it. In any other experience, I’d normally get a script a month before we shot and I’d never scrutinized something as much as I had with that. It was definitely a task to do.
Q: Can each of you talk about what you have coming up next? Joel, aren’t you currently shooting The Thing?
Joel: I’ve got a few movies coming out. I’m in a Lionsgate movie called “Warrior” with Nick Nolte and Tom Hardy which comes out in September. “Animal Kingdom” which our friend, David Michod, won the international jury prize for, comes out in September here too through Sony Pictures Classic. I have a few movies coming out in Australia. I’m shooting “The Thing” at the moment. It’s a prequel to John Carpenter’s movie that Universal is making with Matthijs van Heijningen – I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to pronounce his name right — which we’re in the middle of shooting right now. We just started.
Q: How does that compare to the original?
Joel: It’ll be heaps better. (Laughs) What Matthijs has done I think is great, because he’s a massive fan of the original and he loves “Alien” and “The Thing.” They’re his two favorite horror movies. He’s not trying to reinvent the film. He’s certainly not trying to eclipse the film. He’s certainly not trying to remake the film. But, what he’s trying to do is tell the story “pre” that film. Whoever’s familiar with the film knows that very early on in the original the two Norwegian guys seem to have become crazy. One is blown up in a helicopter and the other one gets shot by the Americans and, in order to find out why they went crazy, Kurt Russell goes in a helicopter to see and question the Norwegian base and when he gets there it’s been decimated and they find the carcass of this “Thing.” And this story tells what happened to the Norwegian base. What Universal and Matthijs are trying to do is make a partner piece to “The Thing” while also reinventing the aspect of — modern filmmaking has come a long way — so I guess they’re paying respect to the original while bringing a new time and different [approach] without throwing away what they did in the past.
Joel: You’re right. Is it 1957? Yes, in 1957 Hal Roach produced the original and I still haven’t seen that one.
Nash: It wasn’t called “The Thing” though, was it? It was called “The Thing That Came From….”?
Joel: “The Thing From Another World” or “The Thing From Another Planet”? From the original story, the John W. Campbell story called “Who Goes There?” It’s had a long history.
Q: Will this be R-rated?
Joel: I don’t know. I mean, certainly not in terms of any nudity because we’re all wearing parkas and anoraks and all that. But, in terms of blood and gore, I can’t answer that question just yet.
Q: Is there any competition between New Zealand filmmakers?
Joel: They didn’t have any Oscars for a long time but then Peter Jackson changed that all over night, didn’t he? Australia had X number of Oscars and New Zealand had one or two and then overnight he flipped the table the other way.
Nash: I don’t know if there’s a rivalry or anything. Taika Cohen, who made “Boy” and “Eagle vs. Shark,” is one of my best friends. I don’t feel like there’s a rivalry.
Q: Can you talk about the stunt doubling work? Does part of the skill involve masking who you are by learning how the other actor moves? Are there moments when you say, “Oh I can see myself right there.”?
Nash: Obviously I know what I did because of the shots, but usually it’s pretty hard to pick out. The idea is to constantly imitate the actor and move like them.
Joel: Hide your face.
Nash: And hide your face. (Laughs) When I started being in “Spider” or any of the short stuff I’ve done or any time I get put in front of the camera, the natural instinct is to constantly hide your face because as a stunt double that’s what you do.
Joel: In “The Thin Red Line” didn’t you die like 40 times?
Nash: A lot. Yes.
Joel: You died a lot and the trouble is if you become a significant death, then they wouldn’t be able to use you anymore because we’ve seen you definitely on camera. That kind of blows it for me.
Q: Has stuntwork gotten harder since the Jason Bourne films?
Joel: It’s gotten harder because you’re getting older, hasn’t it? (Laughs)
Nash: I think technology has advanced what you can do and in some ways made it safer. It’s interesting when green screen and CGI started coming in there was always talk about will there be less work and it feels like there’s almost more sometimes. It depends on the type of filmmaker and the way they’re making it. There are definitely filmmakers who are trying to make stuff look more realistic. I think constantly there are always people trying to reinvent the way of doing things. That’s what filmmaking is all about, is trying new things. In the same way, like any department, the stunt department is trying different things as well.
Q: Is the fact that audiences are now more savvy a factor? When you watch movies made in the 50s and 60s, you can see when the star turns their back that it’s another person, but we want to see their faces now in the middle of that scene.
Nash: Yes, I think definitely in the same way when John Frankenheimer was making “Grand Prix” and trying to create car crashes and racing to look as realistic and gave them the flare. People saw newsreels of car crashes and wanted films to mimic that and make them feel more realistic. I think that has continued in a way with all the stuff that’s accessible on YouTube and news. Everyone is trying to capture that feeling of what that feels like when you see real things and take an audience to that place as well.
Q: Giving away secrets isn’t something that anyone doing stuntwork is normally comfortable with. But there’s a moment in “Spider” that’s really visceral. Can you tell us how you did that?
Nash: I don’t mind telling people how I did it. It’s interesting to me how much people ask about how it was done. When I’m doing something, I try to think how would you see it if you were that person, and I wanted it to feel like, as the boyfriend, how do you see this girl get hit. Rather than cut away to his reaction, I wanted the audience to feel like he felt for what had happened. So I just thought I’ve got to try and do it as real as possible. It’s composited in a computer. All the elements are real so I shot the part for Jill’s character and then I shot a dummy getting hit as well and then combined the two together. There’s no 3-D creation or anything like that. It’s all real elements just composited in a way that still looks real. And the computer makes it more possible to do those kinds of things. That’s what’s interesting about technology if it’s used in the right way, for me. I personally don’t like all the CG that’s in movies because you can’t connect to it. No matter how good the technology gets, the human eye can pick fakes a mile away. That’s what was so beautiful about “Where The Wild Things Are.” To see giant puppets, for me, had much more emotion to it than if it was all 3-D rendered.
Q: There’s something tangible about it.
Nash: Yes, there’s something tangible in the same way as I think with technology, if you shoot as much real elements as you can and then use the computers to combine them, when technology is used in that way there’s something more visceral about it than if you just know it’s all a computer game, no matter how detailed that computer game is.
Q: What inspired the music and songs you used in this film?
Nash: There was an Australian film called “Wolf Creek” and there was something about the score of that. I felt like all the music was made from things that were within the film. It’s like the composer made music out of props in the film. It felt like that to me. The music definitely felt totally connected to the movie and I was like, “I gotta find that guy. I want that guy to do the score.” I told him what I loved about the score in “Wolf Creek.” I said “I felt like there was hardly any score to it, but what you did do was great.” And then he told me that over three quarters of the film had score in it. Then I went back and watched it, and every time you get engaged in the film, you don’t even notice the score. I said, “I want that feeling.” And then Frank (Francois Tetaz), who did the composition, said when he read the script as he was watching the cut as he was putting it together, it felt like it was all about this guy who’s drowning and all the music became based around that. He recorded a far away one. He wanted to feel like the music was underwater a bit and it would slowly get deeper and deeper into the film. Again, in “The Square,” the score is there from the beginning but it’s very low and it sort of builds and I really love what he did. He created this theme through it and worked against conventions. When the Katje is happening, I don’t want to feel like Katje music so he did the exact opposite and made it really slow which made it feel more personal and emotional. That was a really smart thing to do.
Q: Nash, what do you have coming up next?
Nash: I worked on that film, “Hesher,” that was at Sundance that Spencer Susser was asked to director. I was the stunt coordinator on that and I was one of the editors. That’s coming out. I’m writing another film with Joel and I’m going to make another short which is kind of a sequel to “Spider.” I thought no one ever makes sequels to shorts (laughs), so yes, I’m doing that. And I’ve been directing some music videos.
Q: What’s the name of the script that Joel and you are co-writing together?
Nash: It hasn’t got a title at the moment. It’s still taking shape. I kind of know where the film is but I’m not really ready to [say much more]. It’s a mix of genres. It’s different from “The Square.” I can’t help myself if I base all my films in that kind of reality in some way, but it will be bigger than “The Square” is, I think.
Q: Will Joel be in it?
Nash: Yeah, if he plays his cards right.
Joel: I’m getting really good at auditions so…. (Laughs)
The Square opens in theaters today.