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Joel Edgerton: juggling roles, and spare shoes

Boy Erased writer/producer/actor/director Joel Edgerton on how his passion for this true story led to a whirlwind turnaround from page to screen.

Nicole Kidman and Joel EdgertonBoy Erased / Nicole Kidman and Joel Edgerton on set

A mere nine months after a producer read the memoir Boy Erased – and handed it to Australian Joel Edgerton – the feature was written, cast, financed, and production had wrapped.

Another nine months or so later and Edgerton was at Toronto International Film Festival with the author Garrard Conley, for the feature’s world premiere. And on 8 November it will release in Australian cinemas through Universal Pictures.

In it, 19-year-old Jared (Lucas Hedges), is pressured into attending a gay conversion therapy program after he is forcibly outed to his loving Baptist parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) for fear of being exiled by his family and community. (A practice that is still occurring in Australia today.)

Edgerton wrote, produced, acts (he plays the head therapist), and directs in Boy Erased, which marks his second directorial effort after the tense 2015 psychological thriller The Gift (which he also wrote). For Boy Erased, he built a team of people around him that included familiar faces from recent acting work, such as director of photography Eduard Grau (Gringo), production designer Chad Keith (Loving), costume designer Trish Summerville (Red Sparrow), and his brother Nash Edgerton (Gringo) as executive producer.

Here, he reveals why the development of the script was so fast, the difference between making a first and second feature, and why every director should bring a spare pair of shoes to set:

Boy Erased had an incredibly fast turnaround for a feature – how?

“I became so obsessed with the book and started writing without anybody knowing.”

I became so obsessed with the book and started writing without anybody knowing. I had such momentum [and] feeling that it needed to be a movie, that the book itself was such a great foundation to write the script. Once I started writing, I wouldn't say it was easy, but it was much easier than creating a whole world and a whole set of characters from nothing, so the development process of the script was an easier thing than I imagined.

The other part of it was because I'd already made The Gift, once I had a script it was an easier movie to cast, for two reasons. One is I had something to show – that I'd made a movie before, so people trusted me. And the second thing was I just realised how much swell of support would be behind the subject matter. So Nicole (Kidman) and Russell (Crowe) were the two people that I wanted to cast [for those roles] and they both said yes very quickly. And before that Lucas (Hedges) was the first person that I approached to play his character and he also said yes incredibly quickly. So I had a cast almost bafflingly quick; the writing process was faster than normal; and [for the] window of opportunity in September to shoot, everyone was available. It was like the world wanted us to make the movie.

From a producing and financing point of view, how crucial was it to get A-list cast such as Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe?

Well absolutely it does a couple of things actually, and it was all by design. One of them is I wanted to make sure that we were financed and had guarantee of release. And it was all about trying to get the subject matter out there to as many people as possible, so having (distributor) Focus Features behind us was a huge deal, and I wanted to cast high-level people for that reason, but also because I wanted to know that when we finally made the movie given that it's a very divisive and polarising subject matter, that having movie stars in it was going to help us push it out further into the world. [It would mean] that people who were curious couldn't just pass it off as some silly independent movie, that they'd be like ‘well Nicole's in this and I really love Nicole so maybe I'll go see it even though I'm not sure about this subject’.

Joel Edgerton and Lucas HedgesBoy Erased / Joel Edgerton and Lucas Hedges on set

When you’re working with difficult subject matter, how do you as a director create an atmosphere on set that’s not weighed down by the material without trivialising it; or do you embrace that tone for the purpose of the film?

Everybody had a real enthusiasm and support and reverence for the material. Sometimes the most serious movies can be the most fun on set. We were certainly not having fun by making fun of the material, but just having fun with each other.

It was an incredible shoot. It went through all these different phases, and… the first phase actually was shooting two weeks of the [conversion] therapy stuff, and just [seeing] the family that was sort of created out of all these kids and grown-ups who were playing the ‘clients’ (including Australian YouTube star/singer Troye Sivan and Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan)... But casting those people was a really interesting thing because I wanted that group to – it's not entirely – but be representative of the LGBTQ community. So there was incredible support from them and a lot of those kids brought their own stories to us as background for their own characters. So there was quite an emotional feeling when that phase of the movie was over… And in that first two weeks I was acting a lot and I had Nash there behind the camera. And I would find myself directing a lot of the kids in those scenes in character.

How difficult is it to write something based on a memoir, when you’re trying to craft a story, but you’re aware this is also someone’s life? And from what I understand while writing it you were also in the midst of filming Red Sparrow?

“Every time I wrote a draft I would send it to Garrard (Conley, the author) for his approval.”

I was shooting Red Sparrow. I had a few weeks off and it was very cold and I was in a hotel room (in Budapest) and so I wrote the first draft then but then after I'd wrapped Red Sparrow, that's when I was in the casting process. I was constantly writing and every time I wrote a draft I would send it to Garrard (Conley, the author) for his approval, because I was leaving sections of the book out. I was creating extra life for other characters within the therapy. I'd created an entire character in order to represent what I thought was a very important component of conversion therapy, which is the risk of self-harm and suicide or attempted suicide, and I had to get his approval on that. So I was just constantly reaching out to Garrard, saying ‘anything you feel doesn't ring true or you don't agree with, just let me know’. And that continued all the way through. He would come to set with his husband. So in many ways I felt like I was a passenger to his life, but having the privilege of being able to tell his story, just in a different form.

Hear more about the effort to make Boy Erased an authentic narrative in this panel Conley and Edgerton appeared on at Toronto International Film Festival

Joel Edgerton, Russell Crowe and Nicole KidmanBoy Erased / Joel Edgerton, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman on set

Do you have any practical tips for aspiring directors?

“Take a spare pair of shoes to change into at lunch time.”

First of all make sure that you're working from a script that you feel is airtight, and then always be prepared. Do your homework. I mean unless you're just some genius who turns up and has some instinctive force of will that can create something out of nothing, be prepared about how you potentially are going to use the camera for the day, because you can always abandon that plan but then if everything falls apart, you've got a plan. The other really incredible, literally the best piece of advice, and most directors will go laugh and go ‘yes I totally agree’ is to take a spare pair of shoes to change into at lunch time because it's like giving your feet a holiday; because I'm on my feet all day long when I'm directing. And my other piece of advice is just care about your subject. Some people are a director on stuff that they don't necessarily care about and it's just a lucky job to have because a) you've got a job b) you're working in film and sometimes people are just journeymen directors, they don't care that much what they're doing [so long as they’re directing]. But if you're really lucky you can find a subject that you care so much about. And I think it finds its way into the product when you know that it really matters to somebody.

You had decades of acting experience, and had written and produced the feature Felony, before making your feature film directorial debut in 2015 with The Gift; how was that experience different to Boy Erased?

I was terrified of walking into the unknown with The Gift, and when I realised we were financed for Boy Erased I just had that same feeling. And I actually realised how wonderful the feeling of nervous anticipation is, because it makes you do that homework, it makes you be prepared. But it was funny, I felt no more skilled. It wasn't like I was moving up the different coloured belts of karate – ‘suddenly I was a purple belt and the next time I directed I'd be a brown belt and one day I'll have a black belt and nothing's going to faze me’. Problems are constantly arising and you've got to solve them creatively. And I always am reminded that solving problems creatively without the ability to just throw money at a problem always makes for far better a solution. And I was reminded of just how much I enjoy it and how much I enjoy working with actors… of how much of a privilege it is.

Boy Erased is in Australian cinemas on 8 November 2018.

Joel Edgerton hails from Western Sydney and became known early on for TV series The Secret Life of Us, before roles in films including The Square (which he co-wrote), Felony (which he wrote and produced), Kinky Boots, Animal Kingdom, Wish You Were Here, Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Black Mass, Midnight Special, Loving, Red Sparrow and Gringo. He made his feature directorial debut with The Gift in 2015, which he also wrote and starred in alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, and is a part of the Australian collective Blue-Tongue Films.

This interview has been edited and condensed.