Director Gareth Edwards (Rogue One, Godzilla, Monsters) promised attendees at his SXSW keynote address that he would answer the question, “How the heck do you become a filmmaker?” SXSW is an annual conference on film, music, and technology in Austin, Texas.
It all started, he explained, when his parents took him to “an obscure art film” called Star Wars. He immediately wanted to grow up to join the rebel alliance and destroy the Death Star. He shared the disappointment he felt when he was told he couldn’t do this because it was “only a movie.”
He then held up a book which explained how he got his next goal: The Steven Spielberg Story. Edwards said that the book recommended to start small, make short films and eventually you world work your way up to features. The book didn’t, however, say anything about rejection letters. When he started getting them, he told the audience, he even checked the index. “Nothing about rejection letters,” he said.
His next strategy was to go to film school. Jurassic Park had just come out, so he bought a simple computer, while he had a day job working at a supermarket, and began to do computer animation. He created films, he said, of animated dinosaurs and robots in his parents’ driveway.
He began to get job interviews in London. He showed his dinosaur movies and eventually got a job doing computer graphics. Being exposed to professionals during this period, he began to learn about schedules and budgets. One day, he explained, “being a bit cheeky,” he started closing the door to the meeting room and explaining to clients that they shouldn’t be paying 100,000 pounds to this company because he could do the job for a lot less from his computer at home.
One day one of the clients said “Yes,” and Edwards recalled that he made more money in one month than he had in the previous year. Moving on to a new job he eventually became known as the kid at the BBC who does titles from his bedroom.
He shared that he began playing a dangerous game: comparing what he had accomplished at his age to what his favorite directors – Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas – had accomplished at the same age. He began to feel desperate.
At the BBC, he said, they just wouldn’t see him as anything else than a graphics guy. He tried offering to do graphics for free if they would let him direct. They countered by offering him twice as much money for the graphics. He told them that it wasn’t the money; he really wanted to direct.
Eventually, they told him that although he couldn’t direct the show he wanted, they would let him direct an episode for a show he said was on a digital channel at midnight that no one watched. The show had practically no budget, but, Edwards made it look like it cost “a quarter million dollars.” This led to several BBC projects, peaking with a Heroes and Villains episode, “Attila the Hun.”
Edwards next effort was to try and make a film on his own. “What happened in my life was that my fear of failure met head on with my fear of never trying. I didn’t want to be that old person who had chickened out on life. I had a great idea. I figured with the new low-cost video I could make a found-video monster movie — Blair Witch meets War of the Worlds. Then someone sent me a link to Cloverfield. Damn you J.J. Abrams.”
Edwards kept trying and rethought his story, coming up with the script for Monsters. He raised the money, directed it, and got it to a film festival.
“I joke about it now,” he said, “but the film festival screening was the most nerve wracking moment in my life. My whole life was riding on this moment. About an hour into the film the tape broke. They got it back together, the film finished and afterwards I got cards from a couple of producers. Suddenly a wave of anticlimax hit me. I killed myself for two business cards? I thought, ‘What were you expecting Gareth? Unicorns?’”
But, after the film there was another man standing there. Edwards recalled that he introduced himself, saying, “I’m an agent and I represent directors.” Edwards was recruited by the same agent who represented Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. A long series of Hollywood meetings followed and eventually Legendary Pictures said they wanted to make any project he came up with.
Edwards said, “I started crying. It was really embarrassing, but all my life I’d been waiting for someone to say something like that.” That led to his second feature: Godzilla.
“After that,” Edwards said, smiling, “I did a low budget passion project called Star Wars.”
Edwards recalled a moment during the filming of Rogue One when Toby Hefferman, his assistant director, said that he really had to stop the meeting for a minute. Hefferman said, “This is the best meeting I’ve ever been in during my entire life; Do you realize we’re being paid to sit here and talk about Stormtroopers?”
Edwards summed up, saying, “The promise of digital technology was not about dinosaurs and robots, but that everyone can now make films. There has never been a better time to be a filmmaker. It didn’t turn out for me like it said in this book.” He held up the Steven Spielberg book again. “I’m no Steven Spielberg,” Edwards said. “I’m me. We are all different.”
Edwards concluded: “I gave myself one cameo in Rogue One. A guy who runs down a corridor and pulls a lever that saves the entire ship. That was me. So, never, ever listen to someone that tells you something is impossible, because you can grow up to join the rebel alliance and defeat the Death Star.”