Two brothers, one named Joel, make their first feature film—a twisty thriller reminiscent of the great films noir of Hollywood’s past. No, they’re not the Coen brothers, and the film isn’t “Blood Simple.” They’re the Australian Edgerton duo, Joel and Nash, the former an actor who appeared in such films as “Star Wars II” and “Star Wars III” and the latter a stunt man who also worked on the George Lucas megahits. Now they’ve collaborated on their first feature “The Square,” which Joel co-wrote and has a major role in as a for-hire arsonist and Nash directed.
It’s the tale of Ray, a construction supervisor having an affair with the wife of a petty crook. When she discovers that her husband has hidden a stash of money in the attic, she suggests that she and Ray steal the bundle and cover up the act by burning down the house, and he reluctantly agrees. But of course things go awry and soon Ray finds himself in deeper and deeper trouble.
Nash Edgerton, who brought the film to the USA Film Festival, talked about the comparison to the Coen brothers during a Dallas interview. “We get reference to that,” he said. “But I think the only kind of similarity, really, is that we’re brothers and my brother’s called Joel, and our first film’s a film noir. Other than that, it’s very flattering, but they’ve made a lot more films than we have. The comparisons are nice, especially when we’re such fans of their films. But let’s see where we are in ten years’ time.”
Were the brothers big fans of the noir genre, too? “He [Joel] is, yeah,” Edgerton said. “He’s always been a film noir fan. I haven’t seen as much as he has. A lot of people have referenced ‘Double Indemnity’ in reviews, and I rang him a couple of weeks ago and asked, ‘Hey, have you seen this film?’ and he says, ‘Yeah, it’s really good,’ and I said, “I should check it out.’ I watched it the other day. It’s really good. He was inspired by these films in writing it, but I hadn’t seen them, so I didn’t really take any visual reference from those films.”
When the brothers got into movies, they both thought about working behind the camera as well as in front of it, and began with short films. “Once we started making shorts, it became evidence at one point that we were really keen on making a bigger film,” Edgerton explained. “We were just learning as we went, and it felt like the right thing to do.”
Then came the script to “The Square.” “When Joel first wrote the idea, he was just writing it as something to write,” Edgerton said. “But from the moment I read it, I said, ‘This is what we should make, definitely.’ At that stage he didn’t write it with himself in mind—that’s why the lead character’s a lot older than him. He makes jokes that he thought it would take us so long to make the film and get the finance that he’d be old enough to play Ray. But the reality is he found it really hard to write scripts with himself in mind. And then at some point it became evident that he was the right guy to play Billy [the arsonist]. He’s very easy to sympathize with on screen, even if he’s playing a darker kind of role—he’s very accessible as an actor. I didn’t cast him just because my mom said I had to, or just because he’s my brother. He’s a very talented, versatile actor.
“I read it at the end of 2003,” Edgerton added. “But we didn’t really put the script out in the world to try and finance it until 2005, once I’d sort of shaped it into what I thought it should be, with Joel and Matt [Dabner, the co-writer]. I was keen to cast an unknown actor as Ray—it took a little longer to finance because of that. From the moment we thought it was ready it took us a couple of years to get the finance and get to shooting it. But I thought that if I cast an unknown guy, then he would be that character and you would have no expectations about what he was going to do—he wouldn’t come with any baggage. He’d be an ordinary guy who’d gotten himself into a bad situation. And it also took time because I’m a first-time filmmaker, and that’s always a gamble. You do a lot of tap dancing to convince people you can do it and that it’s worth investing some money in you.”
How did his work as a stunt man prepare him to take on directing a feature? “It’s been like being in film school, being a stunt man on so many film sets,” he said. “I found it a logical progression. As a stunt man you’re always thinking on your feet and you’ve got to be adaptable, and it’s a lot of problem-solving. And filmmaking is all that for me—just on a larger scale. There’s lots more responsibility and a lot more departments to deal with. And stunts are all about overcoming fear—and I think being a director is very much that as well!
“But directing isn’t as physically taxing—it’s more mentally taxing. The hardest thing…is battling your own insecurities about whether you can do it. Compared to doing short films, the biggest challenge is keeping the whole film in your head and having to shoot out of order, because there were so many locations, and trying to juggle where everyone was at all the time. That I wasn’t prepared for. I just kind of ate, slept and drank and dreamed the film all the time while I was making it. But it was cool—I really enjoyed the process and I’d definitely put myself through it again.”
One of the problems to solve was finding locations, and at first the plan was to stitch different locales into the composite place Edgerton had in mind. But a casual description to a friend resulted in a suggestion that he visit a town about half and hour south of Sydney. “Everything was there,” Edgerton said. “I rang my locations guy and said, ‘I’ve found the place.’ Pretty much the whole film was shot in that town. It was such a great find. I really wanted it to feel what for me Amity felt like in ‘Jaws’—this contained area where everyone knows each other, and it feels like everywhere but it’s off the main highway. I thought if we could do that it would feel a bit more claustrophobic for Ray—that it wasn’t easy for him to escape.”
Nash Edgerton may soon be known as the director of “The Square,” but he’s also likely to be remembered for his most recent short called “Spider,” just minutes long but with a nasty twist at the end. “I finished it just before I started shooting ‘The Square’—I shot at the end of 2006,” he said. “The whole time we were trying to finance [‘The Square’] I was still making short films. Actually, ‘Spider’ I shot the day after we lot the money for ‘The Square.’ That was the week we were finding out everything was going to fall into place. And rather than sitting at home and stressing about whether we were going to get it or not, I wanted to be making something. And so my focus was on making ‘Spider,’ and I thought even if we don’t get the money, I’m making something.”
“Spider” has become a phenomenon at festivals and on the web. “It’s fun to watch with a crowd—I’ve seen people spill coffee on themselves,” Edgerton said with a laugh. “I’ve had people write to me on line saying that I owe them a new keyboard because they spilled their drink on their laptop.
“Which is kind of fun.” And many viewers will say the same of “The Square.”