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Gareth Edwards – Dynamic Sci-Fi Director Envisions an Artificial Intelligence-infused World

Gareth Edwards

Dynamic Sci-Fi Director Envisions an Artificial Intelligence-infused World Decades From Now in His Latest Film The Creator

by Brad Balfour

Employing actors with global reputations and locations all over the world, master sci-fi film director Gareth James Edwards has now put out The Creator. The film considers the effects of the Artificial Intelligence revolution in technology some 40 years from now. It stands the Terminator premise on its head and drives a whole re-think on the supposed “menace” of AI.

As if it’s a metaphor for the Vietnam war as much as anything else, future America and its allies are in a conflict between the human race and the forces of artificial intelligence which have taken root in many Southeast and Far-East Asian countries. While AI-enhanced androids have merged with the general human population there, the USA has prohibited them and is committed to destroying Asia and its robotic allies.

Entering the mix is Joshua (John David Washington), a hardened ex-special forces agent grieving the disappearance of his wife Maya (Gemma Chan), one of the leaders of the Asian-AI community and resistance. After having been undercover among the AI community — where he met and wed Maya, Joshua had reluctantly been removed from the area. He had then been recruited to return and hunt down the Creator, the elusive advanced AI designer/programmer who has developed a mysterious weapon with the power to end the war and destroy Nomad, the American super weapon — a computer-enhanced airborne battleship. Ironically, it depends on sophisticated computer technology to fight its anti-AI war. Joshua and his team of elite operatives venture into enemy territory, invading the heart of AI-occupied territory to find and destroy Nirmata — an AI in the form of a young child.

Born on June 1, 1975, in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, the young Edwards admired movies such as the original 1977 classic Star Wars and went on to pursue a film career. The Welshman even cites George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as his biggest influences. He got his start in special visual effects, working on shows that aired on networks such as PBS, BBC and the Discovery Channel. In 2008, he entered the Sci-Fi-London 48-hour film challenge, where a movie had to be created from start-to-finish in just two days (which he won). Then he wrote and directed Monsters, his first full-length feature, which was shot in only three weeks. Edwards personally created the film’s special effects by using off-the-shelf equipment. Aside from its two main actors (real-life couple Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able), the crew consisted of just five people. The $500,000 thriller received a riotous reception and was released to great success.

The impact of Monsters resulted in Edwards becoming an alt-sci-fi movie-making star. With offers from major studios, Warner Bros. tapped him to direct an English-language reboot of the 1954 Japanese classic Gojira. His Godzilla re-visioning garnered mixed reviews but did tremendous box office. Following its success, producer Kathleen Kennedy had Edwards helm Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — a Star Wars spin-off — for Lucasfilm Limited. The film boasted a cast including Felicity Jones, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen and James Earl Jones among others.

Such an ensemble anchors this film as well. And while its story (co-written by Chris Weitz) doesn’t offer much of an innovative leap in a sci-fi narrative, it does have a spectacular view of an AI-infused future. The following Q&A is drawn from an appearance Gareth Edwards made shortly before the film’s release this week.

This is your fourth feature — and your fourth science fiction production as well. What is it about this genre that you just keep coming back to it?

Are there other genres…? I heard about this, films without robots in them and stuff. I think the best science fiction is a blend of genres. With my first film, I saw it as a love story meets science fiction. My second film, Godzilla, was like a disaster movie meets science fiction. Star Wars is probably a war movie meets science fiction. That’s a really good point because science fiction is at its best when it holds a mirror up to us. That definitely happens here. How did this come about? When and where did the inspiration hit you for The Creator? It was 7:32 p.m. on a Tuesday. There were numerous things that happened. I guess the most obvious one was after we had just finished Rogue One. My girlfriend — her family lives in Iowa — and I drove across America to go visit. As we were driving through the Midwest, there’s all sorts of farmlands with tall grass. I was just looking out the window. I had my headphones on and wasn’t trying to think of an idea for a film, but I was getting a little bit inspired. I just saw this factory in the middle of the tall grass. I remember it having a Japanese logo on it and I was thinking, “I wonder what they are making there?” Then I just started thinking — because that’s the way I am — my tendencies, it was like, “Probably robots, right?” Then I was thinking, “Okay, imagine you were a robot built in a factory. Then for the first time, you step outside into the field and look around and see the sky. I wonder what that would be like.” It felt like a really good moment in a movie, but I didn’t know what that movie was, and I threw it away. Suddenly he tapped me on the shoulder and went, “Oh, it could be this,” and these ideas started coming. By the time we pulled up to the house, I had the whole movie mapped out in my head, which never happens normally. I was like, “That’s a good sign. Maybe this might be my next thing.” It’s an original concept that you’re working with, how did you get New Regency on board as a producer?

I need to shout out to New Regency as you probably noticed in cinema recently, there’s very few original films being made. That’s because everyone’s gotten very gun shy with the franchises and IPs getting regurgitated a bit. Hats off to Yuri and Michael from New Regency for having the balls to take a big swing and do something like this. Some of my closest friends are concept artists and that’s probably because I know I need them to make my next film, so I asked all my friends… “Could you do some artwork for this idea I’ve got, I’ll pay you” and I started building up a library of imagery. Basically, I had about 50 images when I went into it. I kept it very secret because I didn’t want to put any pressure on it. I just went to New Regency and laid out all the artwork and talked them through the idea beat by beat — which I hate doing. I hate being a car salesman. I just wanted to hit play on the movie. That’s my favorite thing to do. Trying to sell it and speak with a microphone, it’s not my fun thing. You look at all that imagery and it was incredibly ambitious. The natural reaction was, “This is a $300 million film. We’d love to do it, but we can’t really do it.” I was like, “We’re going to do it very differently. We’ll film it with this very small crew and essentially reverse engineer the whole movie.” In theory, what you normally do is have all this design work and you have to build sets in a studio against a green screen — and it’ll cost a fortune. We were like, “We will shoot the movie in real locations in real parts of the world that look closest to what these images are. Then afterwards, when the film’s fully edited, we’ll get the production designer, James Klein, and other concept artists to paint over those frames and put the sci-fi on top.” Everyone was like, “It sounds great.” But basically, we had to really prove it to them. How many locations did you shoot?

On some of the other films I’ve done, I’m so lucky when I get away from the studio and go to a proper location a handful of times. On this one, we went to like 80 locations. We didn’t really use any green screen. There was occasionally a little bit here and there, but very little. If you do the math, and keep the crew small enough, the theory was that the cost of building a set — which is typically 200 grand apparently — you can fly everyone anywhere in the world for that kind of money. It was like, “Let’s keep the crew small and let’s go to these amazing locations.” We went to Nepal, the Himalayas, to active volcanoes in Indonesia, temples in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Tokyo for mega city stuff. Then we did a bit in Pinewood [Studios in London] using their stage and screen — everyone knows it from “The Mandalorian” — but the kind of special non green screen led screen environment.

Your antagonist in this feature is artificial intelligence — AI — but could your timing be any better?

The trick with AI is to get time in that sweet spot window where it’s before the Robo-apocalypse and not after — which I think is in November or maybe December. I think we got really lucky. The joke would be that when you write a film, especially a science fiction film, you avoid putting a date on it. I didn’t want to write a date for the movie because even Kubrick got it wrong. I was like, “Don’t write a date and then at some point, you have to. I did some math and picked 2070. Now I feel like an idiot because I should have gone for 2023. Everything that’s unfolded in the last few months or year is kind of scarily weird, especially when we’re showing it now. When we first pitched the movie to the studio, this idea of war with AI, everyone wanted to know the back story. Well, hang on. Why would we be at war with AI? It’s like, they’ve been banned because it kind of went wrong. But why would you ban AI? “It’s going to be great and blah, blah, blah.” It was all these sorts of ideas that you have to set up, that maybe humanity would reject this thing and not be cool about it. The way it’s played out, like the setup of our movie, is pretty much as it’s been for the last few months.

Set it up for us as the first scene begins?

To understand what’s going on, I would say, essentially, something terrible happened in America and AI got banned — it’s completely banned in the West. But in Asia, there was no such problem, so the world is divided in two camps. They carried on developing it until it was nearly human-like. So there’s this war going on over there — to wipe out AI [in Asia]. The person everybody’s after is called Nirmata — Public enemy #1 — which is basically a Nepalese word for the creator. From the Western perspective, this is the Osama bin Laden of our story. But from the Asian and AI perspective, this is like God. When it came to prep and research, consulting with scientists and technological advisors, were you able to really dive into that?

That’s all I did for years. It was a bit like researching jet packs because I started writing this, I guess it was like in 2018, and it did feel back then like this was 30 years away. But when we were filming, we were in the middle of the jungle and driving to places when I got a text on my phone. There was that whole whistleblower account from one of the big tech companies thinking that AI had become self-aware. It really wasn’t on my radar back then in terms of being a reality, it was just something that [raised the question of] whether it’s a good or bad thing. In one way, humanity might get wiped out, but on the other hand, I get to make my dream film. So everyone wins.

What were some of the tools, some of the new innovations, when it came to cutting-edge technology, that you were able to take advantage of that didn’t exist when Rogue One came out in 2016?

Camera and film making technology has come a long way in the last few years. I needed the actors and me to have total freedom on set. Something we did on this film that was really important was that I wanted it to feel as realistic as possible. We would always be able to shoot in 360 degrees but the problem working against you when you try to do that in a film is [that] you have lights like we have here. The second you want to move the camera, you suddenly see the lights and you spend 20 minutes moving them. It takes forever to shoot a scene. The way we worked there was with really sensitive camera equipment in terms of how we could use the lights. They’re very lightweight. We’re all familiar with how lights have become. We thought we could set it up — you have a boom operator holding a pole with the microphone on. Why can’t you have a person holding a pole with a light on it? We had a best-boy type running around holding the light by hand. If the actor suddenly got up and did something — went over here and suddenly there was a better shot — I could move and suddenly the lighting could really be readjusted. What would normally take like 10 minutes to change was taking four seconds. We would do 25-minute takes where we’d play out the scene three or four times. It just gave everything, this atmosphere, this sort of naturalism and realism that I really wanted to get where it wasn’t so prescribed. Like you’re not putting marks on the ground and saying stand there. It wasn’t that kind of movie.

What about the casting process, particularly with leads John David Washington, Gemma Chan and Ken Watanabe?

With John David, we were casting the film during the pandemic. It was really hard to meet anybody but fortunately he lived in LA, and I just heard through his agent that he’d meet me any time I wanted to go for a meal. So I went to meet him, and he walked in — it’s the pandemic. He’s got his mask on, a Star Wars mask, like with the Star Wars logo on it. I initially thought, “He’s doing this because of “Rogue One.” He sat down and admitted that he’s a massive Star Wars fan and he’s like, “I’ve been wearing this mask every single day for like a year or whatever. It’s been for the whole pandemic. I thought about not wearing it to this meeting, but then it felt false, so I thought it’d be like a good ice breaker.” We hit it off straight away. I’d worked with Ken [Watanabe] before — he’s the only actor I’ve worked with twice. I don’t know if that says something about me. I always want to do something new and so for the longest time, I didn’t think about Ken for this role. The second he turned up on set, I felt like such an idiot, obviously it was supposed to be Ken from the beginning. Every time we held the camera up and Ken’s in the shot, it felt like this strange hybrid — it’s meeting Star Wars or something, which was exactly what we were going for. He gave us goosebumps. There’s something about that guy. He’s just got this face that, I think, is the reason he’s so successful internationally; it’s not really about what he says. He can convey so much with just his looks; he’s so good. How did you find the right Alphie? What was that casting process?

We basically did an open casting call around the world and I think we got hundreds of videos. Thankfully, I didn’t have to watch all of them. They sent me like the top 70 or something and then we met. I went to meet, I forget, about ten kids. The first one was Madeleine who plays Alfie. She came in and did this scene. We were all nearly in tears at the end. I thought to myself “This is weird and phenomenal. Maybe the mum was just brilliant at prepping her to get really upset just before she came in. There was some little trick going on. So we chatted a bit and we did some other scenes and then right at the end — I was a bit cruel — I was like, “Could we just try one more thing?” I just wanted to see if it was repeatable. “Can we do another scene?” I explained a different scene and we just improvised it and she was even more heartbreaking. I don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t found the right kid. We got really lucky. I’m glad I live in the universe where that happened because the movie lives or dies [with her]. I hate movies about little kids because they can be so annoying and that was my biggest fear — are we going to do one of these really annoying kid movies? It was the biggest relief because she’s beyond her years. She was really something.

How was it working with John David Washington and vice versa?

She’s quite “method.” I can tell she does “method” a lot because we only knew each other during the filmmaking process. But it’s like she kept everybody at arm’s reach. I was allowed in a little bit. But she and John David were inseparable. He became a brother or father figure. I’m not sure which. What’s amazing is that I thought I was going to have to trigger it. So when we deal with sex and all the scenes, I need this to be like a documentary so we can pull this performance out of this, this girl without kind of like her having to act and she could act her pants off, you know what I mean? She was amazing at it. it was a director’s dream; you could just tell her what Alfie was thinking and this amazing performance came out. I’d look at the other actors and[think] be why can’t you be like this — what’s your problem?

Talk about filming those combat scenes and how did they differ from the ones in Rogue One? Obviously, we went to the Maldives and that wasn’t bad. We went to shoot real exterior locations. Everything in this movie is the closest thing we could do to be what the artwork suggested it should be. I glimpsed it a little bit when we were in Thailand. We needed to find a really technologically advanced factory. We looked everywhere. There were car manufacturing plants that were nervous about us filming but eventually we found a particle accelerator and it’s one of the most advanced, probably in the whole of Thailand. We were like, “Please, please, please, could you let us film.” It looked amazing. It had that whole circular thing going on. We went to visit, and they were like, “There’s no way you’re going to be allowed to film here.” They asked what do you want to do? Why are there people with guns shooting and explosions? This is like a multi-multimillion dollar facility with all these leading cutting-edge scientists. Then, at the very last minute, someone was like, “What filmmaker is doing this?” They were like, “It’s this guy from the States or whatever. He lives over there, but he’s English. And they go, “What films has he done?” They went, “He did this Star Wars film called “Rogue One.” And then, they were like, “Can we be in it?” We were like, “Sure, whatever. Everybody was in those scenes, with everyone running around. They’re nuclear physicists — they really are — and they were amazing.

You did a lot of location work. Isn’t that right?

We went into real locations. We wanted it to feel like we were making a student film to some extent. But it got to the point where like that beach scene where Gemma’s running and there’s all that crossfire. It was the beginning of when the pandemic restrictions were lifted, and Thailand was opening up to tourists. They’re like, “You can film on this beach, but you can’t close it. so it’s like, “How are we going to do that scene where there’s tourists there. I don’t know what happens normally in Thailand at night on these beaches. But with the stuff that’s in the movie and the trailer, we didn’t close the beach. If you look carefully in the background, you can see cars and tourists, but one person came over and went, “What are you doing?” It was just the four of us with a camera running around so it didn’t look like this big, massive movie. The goal hopefully was that it all ends up on the screen. We tried to be very efficient about it.

So further along in the film, what do we see?

Further on the journey, we have Joshua and now Alfie. The best way to say it is that Joshua infiltrated the AI village with the insurgents and guerrillas. Basically they’ve abducted the child. As this is happening, it seems that the Americans have also arrived. Essentially these rockets ascend into the air, and they smoke out the whole village and then it all unfolds from there.

What would you list as your cinematic influences for The Creator? What movies should we see as companion pieces?

Since my first film, I put up posters in the edit suite of movies that had inspired the film I was doing. There are some really obvious ones you’d probably predict. But there’s a film called Baraka. The cinematographer from that film went on and directed another film called Samsara, which is one of the greatest movies ever made. Lone Wolf and Cub is a Japanese manga series. There’s a whole bunch of films called Sword of Vengeance. The really obvious ones are Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner. In terms of this film’s dynamic, maybe there’s a little bit of Rain Man [in it]. It’s a journey of someone normal and someone who’s a little bit special. And there’s Paper Moon, with its dynamics.

What was your inspiration behind the robot designs? And talk about working with your costume designer for the entire film.

A lot of the costumes were done by the WETA Workshop in New Zealand. Peter Jackson and ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] did all the visual effects — or a lot of them — plus some by the vendors around the world. We tried to summarize the design and aesthetic of the movie as a bit retro futuristic. Imagine if Apple Mac hadn’t won the tech war and Sony Walkman had. everything has this sort of ’90s/ ‘80s kind of Walkman/Nintendo thing. We looked at all the product designs from that era and riffed off little pieces and tried to put them into the robots. The tricky thing with designing robot heads was to pull from sources. We did a whole pass at one point where we took insect heads and then tried to make it as if that insect had been made by Sony — like the praying mantis — and changed it into product design. Then we took products and tried to turn them into organic looking heads. We took things like film projectors, vacuum cleaners — things like that — and then just messed around. I just kept experimenting; it was like evolution in real life, like DNA getting merged and trying to create something better than the previous thing.

Being a big science fiction director, who are some of the directors and writers that you looked up to and get inspiration from?

There are the obvious people — Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Ridley Scott. It’s the high benchmark of essentially what we were trying to do. I’m not saying we got anywhere close to achieving it, but the goal of the movie was to try and go back to that style and type of film that we grew up loving, like the film was shot on 1970s anamorphic lenses and things like this. Actually, I hate writing. It’s like doing homework. The worst thing in the world is having to write a screenplay. The only way I can bring myself to do it is to lock myself in somewhere nice. I’m not allowed to leave until I’ve finished. I’ll stay there for like a month or something. I went to Thailand, to the exact place where the beach ended. I didn’t realize I was getting inspired for the movie. I just picked this nice resort, and it was like a recurring theme like in the Maldives and now this beach resort in town. Whilst I was there, a filmmaker friend who was in Vietnam said, “Come over and we’ll just do a little trip.” I went there and you can’t just go around that country and not think of all the imagery from films like Apocalypse Now. Now I can, but I was writing this science fiction film. So everything I was looking at in my mind was like robots, spaceships and things. You’d see Buddhist monks going to temples and I’d picture a robot Buddhist monk. I just spent the whole time going, “Oh my God, what is this movie?” This feels like there was something so appealing about it, this mix of Blade Runner meets Apocalypse Now.

What was the biggest challenge filming this? I wouldn’t say it was a particular thing; it was more just the duration of it. We started filming in January 2022 and we finished in June. We were there for six months and it was like nonstop 40-degree heat, people were dying every day. it was a dream looking back at it, to get to do that. But there was a point where you wanted to collapse and you felt like, “He’s only done seven days of filming and there’s still all that is still left. The first cut of this movie was five hours long and we had so much great, cool material but everything that’s in this film is all the best stuff. The editing process was basically like a game of Jenga where we would pull things out and see if we missed it or it fell apart. We had it packed by the end through the editors, but we finally got it down to two hours. It’s like the old adage “less is more” most of the time.

What are the highest and best values of humanity that you hope this movie ultimately illustrates? I hope some sort of empathy for others [is there]. That’s a strong value which is very important. When this film began, I obviously didn’t know AI was going to do what it ended up doing this last year. AI was really in the fairy tale of this story. We want to get rid of people who are different from us. All kinds of fascinating things start to happen while you write that script. You start to think, “Are they real? How would you know and what if you didn’t like what they were doing? Can you turn them off? What if they didn’t want to be turned off?” This sort of stuff started to play out which became as strong as the premise and that’s what I’m most proud of.

Two words for you: Hans Zimmer.

Everyone’s iPhone tells you the last 25 most played tracks or something like that. I looked at [mine] out of curiosity and I think 14 were Hans Zimmer tracks. I was like, “I don’t know how we get composer Han Zimmer, but we have to try.” Joe Walker, editor of Rogue One, assembled the film. He had worked with Hans a lot and was like, “I’ll talk to him.” We ended up in this strange situation where I had to call Hans whilst in the middle of nowhere; we were going to meet the head of the military in Thailand to get permission to film the Black Hawks for one of those sequences. It was this massive deal meeting that took months and months to organize. It happened to be the same moment that Hans was available to do a Zoom. We had to pull off the road. It was like a hotel in the middle of nowhere and they had Wi-Fi. I go in there and get Hans and the worst thing in the world is that they said you’ve got to leave in 30 minutes. You can’t stay because the whole military is waiting for us over here. I was looking at this clock and Hans started telling his anecdotes about The Dark Knight and Terrence Malick. All my life I’ve wanted to talk to him about these films and I have to go,” I’m really sorry, Hans, I have to leave now.” It was so against every bone in my body to come away from that.

Talk about working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Greig Fraser.

I obviously worked with Greig on Rogue One. Greig had to make this work as well. We were totally on the same page and Greig’s very rebellious. and despite how it might look because he’s, you know, doing his big movies. But we’re both during that, like the build up to this film, I got to go around one of these virtual reality studios where they had this poster on the wall as to how you make a movie. it was every part of the process, and I was just looking at it going, “What a strange thing to have. Why are they doing it? Why have they got this poster?” The guy who ran the thing came up to me and went, “Oh, I see you looking at the poster — that’s 100 years old.” When I looked at it, I realized the typography was like 100 years old. We haven’t changed how films are made in 100 years. We still do it the same way. With all these new digital tools and technology, there are other ways to make films. People like Greig and I really want to do things differently because that’s how you make a different type of movie. The process is as important as the screenplay to some extent.

Let’s talk about the opportunity and power of science fiction to drive social commentary and reflection.

I like science fiction because there’s a chance to sneak ideas under the radar. My favorite TV show growing up was The Twilight Zone which was in the ’50s and ’60s. Rod Serling, who wrote a lot of those shows, had said the reason he did science fiction was because he could get out from under the radar of the censors and say things you’re not normally allowed to say out loud. If you start to type and work out a film, and you go, “I want to make a film about this. It’s got to have this social commentary to it”— it will be a rubbish film. If you get attracted to an idea, there’s something primal about it that pulls you in. There’s something that needs to be said about this subject matter but about halfway through making or writing a film is when you start to realize what that thing is. It’s like a child who tells you what they want to be when they grow up. You learn what it is and then you try to help it along. Science fiction does it the best because we all go through our lives with certain beliefs, and they never really get tested. You do everything you’re supposed to do but science fiction says, what if the world had this different thing about it. Would your little idea still work, and you hit against the wall? The thing you used to think was true starts to be false. And you begin to question things. I love that kind of storytelling. I hope our film does a little bit of that.

[For fans of this film or any genre film, go to Big Apple Comic Con‘s Christmas Con, taking place in the New Yorker Hotel this December 16th, 2023, There are many opportunities to steep yourself in sci-fi and other graphic story collectibles. Get posters and other collateral available from The Creator and many others as your stocking stuffers.]

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: September 28, 2023.

Photos © 2023. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. All rights reserved.

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