As costs spiral upward for production infrastructure, visual effects and good old fashioned star wattage, blockbuster budgets tend to be one of the closely guarded secrets in Hollywood. Yet in the weeks and months leading to the release of “The Creator,” due Sept. 29, cowriter and director Gareth Edwards has not stopped talking — if somewhat apologetically — about its $80 million price tag, a pittance for filmmaking at the scale of his globe-trotting, cast-of-hundreds sci-fi opus.
“I’m a bit embarrassed it was $80 million,” Edwards tells Variety. “We should’ve done it for less.”
As the director of the 2014 version of “Godzilla” and the “Star Wars” prequel “Rogue One,” Edwards has not only worked with bigger budgets (a reported $160 million and $220 million) but served at the behest of their respective parent companies, Legendary Pictures and Lucasfilm, who exerted a significant amount of control over the creative process. Though he (almost studiously) exudes gratitude for those opportunities, Edwards aspired to recreate storytelling on their scale while retaining the latitude he enjoyed on his ultra-low-budget 2010 debut “Monsters,” requiring him to merge the two filmmaking models — philosophically and especially practically.
“When you first make a movie, you have to kind of make it by hook or by crook,” Edwards says. “Typically, everyone’s first film is a kind of a no-budget feature. And then if you’re very lucky like I was, you get teleported into an amazing situation where you get to do one of these big Hollywood films that you’ve always dreamt of being able to do. But I find that there’s advantages and disadvantages to both.”
Locating that sweet spot between the two meant reuniting with Oscar-winning cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Dune”) after the two collaborated on “Rogue One,” and who was long intrigued by the director’s combination of technical know-how and scrappy ingenuity. “I wanted to meet Gareth because of ‘Monsters’,” Fraser says. “It was made with a lot of doggedness and a lot of determination.”
During their work on the prequel, Fraser recognized a kindred spirit in Edwards who liked doing things simply — not necessarily cheaply, but with fewer resources. “Basically his perfect world would be him, a couple of actors, and that’s it,” Fraser observes. Upon reuniting for “The Creator,” the duo began testing camera equipment systems that would enable them to generate the intended look for the film, which was meant to be set against a more lived-in and organic backdrop than even the immersive canon of the “Star Wars” universe. The film follows an ex-special forces agent (John David Washington) tasked with destroying a weapon built to tip the scales against humanity in a decades-long war; he discovers that his target is not a bomb or other destructive machine but an AI being that takes the form of a young child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles).
Before launching the production to shoot on location across the globe, Edwards filmed a proof-of-concept reel where he captured actors and extras on real environments without preparing them in advance to accommodate digital replacement technology, instead adding visual effects almost improvisationally afterward. “We wanted to do it not in a traditional system and it was really important that we stuck with that, because sometimes in filmmaking you make small compromises, and before you know it, your small compromises become big compromises,” says Fraser. “So we worked for a number of years just doing testing and talking and looking at the way we could actually achieve this.”
Although they planned extensively to prevent the need for compromises, they nevertheless faced unavoidable challenges when Covid-era interruptions affected Fraser’s shooting schedule on “Dune: Part Two.” An admirer of the work of Oren Soffer (“A Nightmare Wakes”), Fraser proposed enlisting his fellow cinematographer as Edwards’ in-person collaborator as he returned to the world of Arrakis for director Denis Villenueve. “Oren was there on the ground during the shoot,” Fraser says. “I was helping where I could from where I was in L.A. or London. And then we came together at the end of the shoot physically.”
“It was all in service of this overall aesthetic that was very inspired by seventies movies — specifically seventies sci-fi films — and also ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Baraka’ was a big reference as well,” says Soffer. “It wasn’t just about curating the imagery that’s in front of the camera, but it was also making sure that we were maintaining the integrity of the approach to the project that Greig and Gareth had set up — that Gareth really wanted to create a film with the ethos of ‘Monsters,’ but on a larger scale.”
Achieving this meant shooting sumptuous natural landscapes in far-flung locales like Thailand or Tibet and building futuristic temples digitally in post-production. But Edwards indicated that the production faced two major challenges in achieving that larger scale: the world building and the depiction of AI. The filmmaker’s pedigree in visual effects enabled him to anticipate how best to implement imagery that would expand the narrative and conceptual canvas without substantially making shots or sequences more expensive.
“Essentially, if you make sure everything in the immediate 10 or 20 meters [of the frame] is for real and that the stuff that you’re going to invent is in the distance,” he says. “The way parallax works, the brain can’t tell motion beyond about 20 meters. It’s like putting digital matte paintings behind your foreground. That’s a really good bang for your buck.”
When time came to map out the footprint of AI characters in the film, and in each frame, Edwards similarly took a more intuitive approach that built on the footage he captured of not just principal actors, but extras as well. “I didn’t want to put dots on anybody or have any of those motion capture suits, because that way, we weren’t wedded to those people having to be robots,” he says. “Once the film was cut, I could pick people [in the shot] and say, ‘Make that person a robot’.”
Though he acknowledges that making completely random people in a frame AI undersells the spectacle of the idea, Edwards suggests the result is a more cohesive and integrated reality for the main characters to navigate. “It feels sacrilegious to make someone a robot who’s just kind of sat in the background doing nothing,” he says. “But once you start doing that a few times, you start to think everybody else in the background is probably a robot, too, and it has this strange perception of filling out the world.”
To further fill out that world, Edwards enlisted as his production designer James Clyne, a concept artist and illustrator whose previous work includes environmental architecture on everything from “Avatar” to “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” In spite of this wealth of experience, Clyne likened the process on “The Creator” to “building a two-story house from the top down.”
“Typically, concept art drives the look of the film, but after we started doing this new approach, it felt more natural,” he says. “It just felt more organic and more right in the end to have him shoot these beautiful locations and then have us build on top of those locations.”
Consequently, it wasn’t until post-production that the team really drilled down into the aesthetic of the robots — what their clothing and their actual technology looked like. Edwards decision to reverse-engineer from the beginning freed up more resources towards the end of the process for them to tinker with the intangibles that wouldn’t be showstopper elements on screen but sold the reality of their world. “We kept a little bit of that money towards the end so we had some more ability to be a little bit free with it post-shoot,” Clyne says.
It’s a consideration he didn’t have to make on past projects where the mythology (much less the audiovisual language) automatically oriented viewers when they sat down in theaters. “When an audience member sees a ‘Star Wars’ movie, if there was no sound or anything, they knew that they were looking at,” says Clyne. “For ‘The Creator,’ our zone was budgetary — how much can we push the look of everything and make it kind of big and the scale huge and at the same time keep the budget down? And it pushed everybody to give their best.”
Visual effects supervisor Jay Cooper indicated that Edwards’ strategy was something that he’d inadvertently been preparing for over the course of his 25-year career working on Star Wars, Marvel Cinematic Universe films and more at Industrial Light and Magic. “There’s so many times that we work where the photography is not exactly what we want or we come out of production with less than ideal circumstances that we’re really good at sort of figuring it out later,” Cooper says. “For this, we just had to expand out our toolset so that we start from a place of knowing that we’re going to have less information.”
Contrary to the way that a film like this is typically made, which involves coming up with a number of primary self-contained locations in which to set the action, Cooper suggests that the impact of working in reverse on “The Creator” — shooting in real locations and environments later building them out digitally — is self-evident. “If you look at the movie, the places that were most successful are places where the location informs what the build became later. And that’s something that you can’t really anticipate,” he says. “Mission creep is always one of the things that gets scary for visual effects, because you don’t necessarily know what you’re in for, but here, the movie is successful even before you put in the visual effects.”
Blue and green screen have become understandable — and tremendously helpful — tools in filmmaking of all genres. But Cooper says that one reason that their team tried to limit their use on “The Creator” was because it obligated them to use visual effects in a grander (and costlier) way than they might once the film began to take shape in the editing room. “Not every single shot where you’re looking at the same location do we do the same level of enhancement,” he reveals. “Once you throw up a blue screen, you’re on the hook to do it — and that’s not always needed. You want it for the [establishing shot], you want it for when it’s featured, but you don’t really need it when it’s out of focus in the back frame, so choosing which hills to die on became a very important component of the movie.”
Edwards wholeheartedly agres. “Normally, you show concept art, you’ve sort of designed the world, and then the decision becomes to build those sets, probably with a lot of green screen,” he says. “But when you actually analyze the final film, sometimes you only saw like five percent of that set. You didn’t shoot all of it in the final movie, and so it feels like there’s a lot of waste.” Though a custom set offers a filmmaker a self-contained and controllable environment on which to shoot, the price of building it inflates the project’s budget, whether or not it gets fully used in the final cut of the film. By comparison, Edwards eliminated those costs at the beginning of production not just to keep the budget at a number that he wouldn’t have to apologize for later (well, not quite as much, anyway), but also so he and his collaborators would have more money in the final stages of the process to enhance the images they knew would appear on screen.
“We really tried to approach things from much more of a common pot of money and then seeing how we could best deploy our resources to get the best movie possible,” Cooper says. “It’s decidedly non-sexy to talk about doing these things for a certain price, but to the extent that it’s really hard to make an original property and not have Tom Cruise in your movie, it is something that’s incredibly important to the process. You have to find a way to navigate building these really cool sci-fi worlds without breaking the budget.”
Though at $80 million they achieved a series of ambitious goals without breaking their budget, Fraser and Soffer are unsure yet if “The Creator” is a revolutionary new standard for the way all blockbuster films should be made. “We leapt up a number of steps in terms of the evolution of filmmaking, but it doesn’t mean that all films should be made this way,” Fraser says. “It’s hard to replicate,” admits Soffer. “You need a director who has Gareth’s tenacity and boldness and also good taste and vision to execute it. But it’s a very unique way of working, all in service of creating a final film that feels immersive and authentic, especially in a sci-fi setting where it can feel very fantastical and very removed from reality.”
Meanwhile, if there are lessons Edwards himself took away from this process, it’s that an unconventional approach to big-scale filmmaking is not only appropriate but more effective when rather than complementing one another, money and creativity run the risk of working at cross purposes.
“I don’t know, I feel like the equal question is, why do other films cost so much?” he says. “My way of explaining it is that basically having no money, as crazy as it sounds, is one of the most creative scenarios, in that you have so much freedom and you can be so organic, but what you can’t do is have a giant epic spectacle. Vice versa, when you do a Hollywood movie, everything that was easy becomes hard, and everything that was hard becomes easy. So it’s trying to find that sweet spot, that sort of holy grail level, where you get all the advantages of an independent film, a small, tiny movie, and all the advantages of a giant blockbuster.”