The Creator Director Gareth Edwards On Finding The Heart Of His Sci-Fi Fairy Tale [Exclusive Interview]


As I've talked about before on /Film, "The Creator" is a movie that gives us an epic, emotionally brutal sci-fi story that is markedly different (and better) than most genre films being released today. The movie sees the United States in an all-out war with the AI community, who have sought refuge in Southeast Asia.

We see this conflict unfold through the eyes of a military veteran, Joshua (John David Washington) and the AI child he comes across (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). And while the story in the film is deeply personal, it also depicts the immense and brutal power of the United States via NOMAD, a massive military spaceship capable of bombing AI strongholds to oblivion.

Creating NOMAD was a long process for director Gareth Edwards and his team. "There was, I mean, hundreds of designs, probably," Edwards told me in a recent interview, where he also added that he and production designer James Clyne finally settled on a ship that both looked like "it was a bird of prey and an all-seeing eye in the sky."

Edwards and I also touched on other aspects of the film, including an anime Easter egg and how Joe Dante's films inspired a key aspect of "The Creator."

'Halfway through the film, they're facing 180 degrees from where they originally were'

One of the things I was really struck by in the movie, as you've mentioned, is that this story is almost a fairy tale. When you were approaching shooting, did that fairy tale lens play a role in how you shot things?

Yeah. I mean, every story ... when you watch a movie, it's full of a million details, and it's overwhelming when you try to make a film. There's so much stuff you have to put in it. So you're always trying to simplify and simplify and go, "What's the heart of the movie?"

For me, one of the breakthrough things that happened in terms of writing, that I always lean on now, is a lot of people see stories as a straight line with a beginning, middle, and end. And I see them more as a circle, and there's a lot of theories about this. The idea that when your character goes on a journey through the movie, it's like a clock: It orbits around, and the central character ends up basically changing their perspective. Halfway through the film, they're facing 180 degrees from where they originally were. So all little tricks like that, that I lean on, the fairy tales I've used throughout the years, and it's all that mythical storytelling that George Lucas first did, with [Joseph Campbell's] "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" and stuff.

'Not having any music and having just the sounds was really difficult'

Another thing that really struck me about the film was NOMAD [the U.S. military spaceship that battles against the AI]. It plays a very visceral role in the film, and it has a presence, it has a look, it has a sound. When you were putting together the concept of NOMAD, what were your inspirations for creating that and bringing it to the screen?

Whenever you do a design, you're always trying to merge different ideas together. And for NOMAD, the two that we were definitely looking into — and we have to thank the pandemic, weirdly, for this, because we got an extra year and a half to design stuff — and so it was a bird of prey and an all-seeing eye in the sky, always looking at everybody. So we kept playing with those two shapes and merging them in a way until it just felt right. And there was, I mean, hundreds of designs, probably — very rough ones that would take about five minutes. But I drove James Clyne, who was the production designer, I drove him crazy, and we got to know each other very well. For about four years we were on Zooms where I was watching his desktop when he designed pretty much most of the film. It's pretty incredible.

And what about the sound of NOMAD?

I got to work with Erik [Aadahl] and Ethan [Van der Ryn], who did "Godzilla," where I had such an amazing experience with them. And Eric had been to [Southeast Asia, where "The Creator" was largely filmed] on a trip and taken a sound recording device with him and had banked all this material that he was waiting for the perfect film to use it on. And the thing about Erik and Ethan, what I love about them, is that there's always a dance, is probably the nice way to say it, between music and sound, and it's never a fight. And when we cut the film, [editor] Joe Walker, who did "Dune," he did the original assembly of the film and he didn't use any music. So when we watched the first version of the movie, it was nearly five hours and there was just sound. There was no music whatsoever.

And it really exposes you, because music can hide problems in the storytelling. It can make you feel things and get you out of jail. So not having any music and having just the sounds was really difficult. But it's kind of the way they used to make films in the '70s: They would cut a movie together and never really have much music. And then finally, someone like John Williams comes in and it all gets elevated. So we were like, "Maybe this is the way to approach this. Maybe let's not put any music in for ages." And we got the film down to two hours-and-something, and hadn't put any music in, and we worked just really hard on the story and on the structure and the pacing. And it was super interesting. Part of me thinks that I would do that again, because it puts a lot of pressure on the sound design, but then you're not hiding behind music to save the storytelling, if you know what I mean.

'Is anyone even going to notice this?'

Another thing I noticed that supports the story, is that Alphie [the AI child played by Madeleine Yuna Voyles] watches a lot of television, and among other things we see her watch a NOMAD anime on TV.

Yeah! I'm glad you spotted that.

So I guess this is a two-parter: One, what was your approach to having all the TV that Alphie was watching? What did you want to convey with that? And two, how did that NOMAD anime come into being?

That NOMAD anime was not easy, because we shot with real cartoons, and I thought it'd be a good little trick to occupy Madeline whilst we were shooting scenes — she could just watch cartoons. That's easy money, right? I didn't need to do that, because she's an amazing actress. Then I always felt like, "We'll replace that cartoon at some point, we'll replace it." And then it was one of the last things we did in the whole of post-production, was like, "Oh my God, the cartoon. We haven't got the rights to the thing that we used." But we used anime on the set, and it was like, "Where are we going to find someone who can do all these designs [of NOMAD] and make it look like anime?" And I'm glad you spotted that detail, because we moved heaven and earth to make that happen, and these great animators came in at the last minute and got the film over the finish line.

And I was like, "Is anyone even going to notice this?" I thought it was something you'd have to watch two or three times to go, "Wait a minute. That's the stuff in the world." But yeah, I love all that stuff. I mean, my favorite moments are in Joe Dante films where they've got a TV on in the corner of the room, and something very scary and terrible is happening over here, but the music's like a Warner Bros. cartoon or something. I love that kind of contrast.

"The Creator" premieres in theaters on September 29, 2023.

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