Fear got the best of Joel Edgerton.
The Australian actor (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Great Gatsby”) was one of the founders in 1996 of the collective Blue Tongue Films along with such directors as David Michod and his brother, Nash Edgerton. Over the past two decades the group has written, directed and produced such films as the critically acclaimed “Animal Kingdom.” Edgerton wrote and directed a few short films and penned the 2014 drama “Felony,” in which he also starred.
But Edgerton was terrified about making the step to directing a feature film because he feared “I wasn’t going to be able to do a good job of it,” he said. “I would fall apart at the seams, or I wouldn’t be thorough enough to do the right homework in order to support myself to make a great movie.”
While writing the psychological thriller “The Gift,’ which opens Friday, Edgerton finally felt confident enough to make the move behind the camera. “After I finished writing the screenplay I was starting to go, ‘Maybe I need to direct this movie as a first movie,’ ” he said in a recent interview. “I was thinking this could be a first good, achievable, not-too-expensive movie for me to take on the director role.”
Besides, he said, “there was no rush. I was happy to hear that Ridley Scott didn’t direct his first movie until he was 39 or 40. I’m 41 this year.”
Early reviews for “The Gift” have been strong — it’s currently at 94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Though early trailers made the film look like a standard horror/suspense film, “The Gift” is far more complex in its plot development and themes.
Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robyn, an upwardly mobile young married couple who have moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, where Simon grew up, after he lands a new job. Robyn, though, is still grieving and battling depression from a failed pregnancy. One day at a store, they have a chance encounter with Gordo (Edgerton), an affable but rather odd man who went to high school with Simon.
The couple start receiving gifts at the front door of their home in the Hollywood Hills from Gordo, who also suddenly shows up several times at their home. Robyn soon discovers that Simon had bullied Gordo and turned his life into a nightmare from which he never recovered.
“The idea of having school 25 years behind you and then having a half-familiar person tap you on your shoulder and say, ‘Do you remember me?’ — and if you hadn’t been such a great, kindhearted person at school — that idea had such a great charge for me,” said the easygoing Edgerton in a recent interview on the bedroom balcony of the window-filled Sherman Oaks house where most of the film was shot.
Edgerton is not a fan of “buckets of blood or body counts in movies” he said. “I am a fan of unsettling an audience in a way that has a social resonance — the fertile ground of talking about bullying, not just bullying that occurred at school, but how it is plays out now in adult life. The bullying that goes on in subtle, subversive ways in a marriage. I knew that I wanted to go down the genre path with one foot firmly planted but also trying to subvert the genre.”
That’s why, he explains, Gordo recedes into the shadows in the middle of the film. “You are waiting for him to return. What’s he doing? What is he thinking? How is he going to seek some kind of retribution, and while they are waiting for me, this couple starts to seek the truth about each other, and that becomes thrilling as well.”
For Hall, “The Gift” is a story about the “sort of manipulative behaviors that can go on in relationships,” she said. “And how one person can be surprised and inhibited by them and not even realize it. From my perspective, the character I was playing was a woman who was growing up.”
Producer Jason Blum (“Whiplash,” “Insidious”) read the script on the plane and couldn’t put it down. “I thought it was really striking and odd and really compelling,” he said
Still, Blum had concerns about Edgerton as a first-time director acting in the film. But he soon changed his mind. “Joel talked about it a lot and thought it through a lot,” he said. “He had a lot of help from his brother on set — his brother was his eyes and ears when he was performing..”
Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), who directed Edgerton in the upcoming “Black Mass,” an action drama about criminal Whitey Bulger, believes Edgerton is going to have an “outstanding career” as a director. “Joel is an extremely collaborative actor because he understands all that goes into making a film,” he said. “As a director, you are wearing many hats at one time. Joel is so well-suited to be a director because he is extremely aware and keenly observant.”
And with “The Gift” under his belt, Edgerton is eager to direct his second feature. “I think the responsibility and the whole consuming of your brain and facilities in order to make a piece of work like this is so much more interesting in many ways than just being an actor and being one part of the puzzle.”