An Australian view of the crime thriller

Joel Edgerton
Joel Edgerton played Owen Lars, the farmer who raised Luke Skywalker in the last two Star Wars films. He's known as a film and TV actor in Austraia, and now is writing movies too. He wrote and acted in "The Square."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Filmmaker Joel Edgerton's career is on the bubble. Not only is he acting in big features, including the last two Star Wars movies, he's writing them too. This weekend his new movie "The Square," opens in Minnesota. It's one of a new breed of crime thrillers from Edgerton's Australian homeland.

In person, Joel Edgerton is a polite and charming fellow, but a few years back he came up with a way of roughing up a guy called Ray. Ray was a character Edgerton sketched out in notes he rediscovered recently.

"It was called 'For the Love of Carla Lipnik,' or something like this," he said with more than a hint of New South Wales in his voice. "The idea was to try to write a film about how far a guy was willing to go for love, and a real 'how-not-to' guide to having an affair."

The notes lay in a drawer for quite a while, but Edgerton eventually took them out and wrote the script for "The Square." His brother Nash directed the film. It's the ill-fated story of the tortured Ray, and his girlfriend Carla.

They are both married, but not to each other.

"They see an opportunity in a bag of cash that is stashed in the roof of her house from her very shady tow-truck-driving husband," Edgerton said. "And things go wrong, and then things go even more wrong, and they just keep getting worse and worse and worse. It's one of those movies where a guy digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole."

In "The Square," Edgerton plays a small-time criminal who adds to Ray's torment.

He believes thrillers appeal to Australian audiences in part because of the country's historic role as a prison colony.

'The Square'
Ray (David Roberts) keeps digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole in "The Square" written by Joel Edgerton
Image courtesy Apparition

"The other fascination, I think, is our tall-poppy syndrome," he laughed. "We like to see people get cut down. I think the combination of those two things makes us a really good nation, or audience, for noir films."

Edgerton came to Minnesota to present the local premier of "The Square" at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. He's excited it's getting a U.S. release.

"It would have been a tragedy to make this film and not get it shown to an audience in North America," he said.

While "The Square" is a very Australian movie in its settings and sensibilities, Edgerton says its roots are very much here. He talks about the cross-pollination between Australian and U.S. film culture.

"The reason I think so many Australian actors are good at doing American accents is because everything we watch growing up is American. I grew up on 'Happy Days,' 'The Brady Bunch,' 'Eight is Enough,' 'Leave it to Beaver,'" he said.

And that was where he and his brother learned how to make movies.

Edgerton in 'The Square'
Joel Edgerton in his small but pivotal role in "The Square."
Image courtesy Apparition

"We never went to film school," he said.

But the Edgerton brothers did have a video camera, and they started shooting.

"We got arrested one day shooting a car chase in a factory area, because we had no council clearance," he said. "And that's the way we used to do it. We'd call it 'stealing locations.'"

Joel Edgerton claims the budget for their first film was $500, because that's what it took to replace the two windshields his brother broke in the car chase. He admits to a lack of professionalism back then, but says they learned some useful lessons.

"And I think that's what makes our filmmaking quite vibrant and robust, considering the low money that we use," he said. "We know how to squeeze a dollar quite well."

While there are obvious comparisons with the Coen brothers, whose first film was the thriller "Blood Simple," Joel Edgerton shrugs them off, saying they need to make a lot for films to be in the same league.

"So look, I'm flattered, but we have a long way to go," he said.

Edgerton admits that just before shooting began for "The Square," he wondered why he hadn't written himself a larger part. However not being in front of the camera all the time allowed him to learn more about the overall craft of feature filmmaking.

"So having the time again, I wouldn't change a thing about that."

He paused for a second and his face split open with an easy grin. "But the next film I'll write has got a slightly bigger part in it for myself, of course."

Joel Edgerton is currently a month into shooting a prequel to John Carpenter's classic movie "The Thing." He is also writing a new film with his brother, which includes that bigger role.