6 Filmmaking Tips From Gareth Edwards

The Rogue One and Godzilla director on just doing it.

Three features in, and Gareth Edwards has already successfully rebooted a major movie franchise and made a unique installment of the biggest film series on the planet. He’s not exactly a new guy in the industry, though, having put in many years as a visual effects artist while also helming shorts and TV episodes. However, since creating his breakout DIY sci-fi film Monsters on his home computer six years ago, he’s been a big deal and quickly landed the golden gig of the first Star Wars sidequel, Rogue One.

In his short period of success so far, Edwards has stuck to some major principals, regardless of the budget. He’s one of the guys who seems to agree with Yoda – “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” – though he’s not always encouraging to everyone, because he admits filmmaking is very hard work. But as he told us in 2010, if you want it, don’t kid yourself or make excuses, just make a movie. And if do so, he has additional advice, including the six tips below that he appears to believe the most in.

All You Need Is a Computer

With Monsters, Edwards seemed to prove that all one needed to make movie nowadays is a computer. It used to take a lot more. Twenty years ago the idea became that you just need a camera, because they had gotten so cheap. But post-production still entailed a lot of people and money. Now you really can do everything yourself.

But this tip is primarily for people who want to do special effects with no budget. A computer is not in fact all that’s needed to make a movie. In 2010, he acknowledged this misconception about his achievement in an interview for the BAFTA website:

I bought my first computer around 1996/97 and I thought that within a year I’d be able to go and make a movie. In fact, it took me closer to 12 years. My whole career in visual effects was really born out of my failed attempt at doing Hollywood-scale stuff from home.

When I finally picked up a camera and shot Monsters it was, for me, the most liberating thing in the world, what I call ‘real-time rendering’. I could move the camera and suddenly the image would also move. Just amazing.

Visual effects is a great route into filmmaking but it can also be a long and painful way to learn what makes a good or bad image. As a cameraman you realise almost straight away if you’ve got a bad composition. If you make a mistake doing VFX you can lose perhaps a day at a time.

Regarding the tip that a computer is all you need to make the effects, talent or experience or not, is most adorably relayed in this 2014 Into Film interview clip:

Of course, things are different when you’re working on a giant blockbuster. Here’s what he told /Film this month about the difference working on Rogue One versus Monsters:

I found there are a lot of advantages to being on a small budget and having a small crew. You get some very intimate performances and naturalistic cinematography. And then you do a massive Hollywood film and it’s the other side of the spectrum. You have to plan so far in advance, six months ahead sometimes. But it’s epic! And you have the resources to do things in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have done from home at a computer.

The irony is that George Lucas’s advice to Edwards for Star Wars, which the Rogue One director declined to accept, was also all you need is a computer. From a French talk show, via ComicBook.com:

He joked a lot about how we should do more in the computer, and not build so much.We didn’t take his advice. We tried to shoot as much in-camera as possible.”

Get What You Need

Edwards not only showed what could be done with just a computer but what could be done cheaply overall. Promoting Monsters at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010, he gave AskMen.com a bunch of financial filmmaking tips, most of which have to do with buying, not renting, only what you need. He suggest not being distracted by bells and whistles:

“Because of these new depth-of-field cameras that are coming out with video, you don’t need all these elements to make things look cinematic,”says Edwards, who used the Sony EX3, a mid-range camera between commercial and professional.

It suited Edward’s production just fine, producing stunning visuals that audiences will see when Monsters comes out. It also eliminated the need for a film crew to manage lighting and camera movements, since the video technology doesn’t require such bells and whistles.

Edwards can still relate to guys who want to wield the latest and most advanced technology.

“If something’s got two more buttons than it had before, then they’ll buy the new one. They want the new phone or the new camera or something that’s just a little bit better.”

Edwards’ advice: Spend less on the little gimmicks you don’t need and buy what’s affordable, functional and necessary.

He also added this sexist comment:

“Women are stupid when there’s a bargain,” says Edwards, with an observation that he acknowledges is sweeping. “They’ll suddenly want what’s on sale even if they didn’t before.”

Misbehave

As long as we’re generalizing, aren’t Englishmen supposed to be all proper and well-mannered? Edwards’ belief in just doing it meant doing it his way and not worrying if it would lead to anything bigger. Of course, he did wind up advancing, and to a degree he was allowed to continue doing things the way he wanted. But here’s what he said back in 2010 to Spooky Dan:

I think the way things are supposed to work, is that you ‘behave’ yourself on your first movie, then if people like it then you get to do a slightly bigger budget film where you ‘behave’ yourself again, then if people like that, you get to do an even bigger budget film where you have to ‘behave’ even more… then finally, years and years later, you might be trusted enough to have a go at making a film about what you want, the way you want to. I just figured, screw that, let’s make that film now, if people hate it then at least I’ll know now and haven’t wasted my life trying to climb the ladder… When we set out to do this, everyone involved agreed that the film wouldn’t be OK, it would either be great, or complete shit…

Don’t Bluff

It may sound like Edwards is best on his own, doing everything himself, but just as he admits he actually did have to spend a decade getting good at effects work he also owns up that he can’t do everything well alone. From a 2010 interview for The New Current:

You learn from your mistakes, that’s how you get better. I’ve learnt not to over-plan so much and also to accept ideas from others without having to sacrifice my own vision. As a Director you must not only have confidence in yourself and your ideas but know when to say “I don’t know” and not to bluff your way through something.

He added this about filmmaking not being a solo operation when asked specifically for advice for students at the New York Film Academy – London:

I think as a general piece of advice for aspiring directors, they should attempt to create an atmosphere in which creative work can be done. If you do that, half your work is done because the whole crew then feel free to contribute. When filming it’s not just you, it’s everybody else as well. Except of course you must learn when to say no, you mustn’t disturb your own vision.

Recently, he’s been talking more and more about collaboration given that a Star Wars movie entails a lot of people’s contributions. He told the Los Angeles Times this month:

Making “Star Wars” is a team sport, really. You can’t make these massive movies completely on your own. Even from the costumes to the guns to the ships to the VFX, it’s a real team effort.

And honestly, if anyone takes credit for all of it, it should be George Lucas. We’re just borrowing it. George gave it to the world and it’s like this precious thing you get to hold for a moment and do your thing with it and then you have to give it back. “Star Wars” doesn’t belong to you. You borrow it from the world.

Here is is in 2014 on working solo versus working with a big studio and crew:

Never Give Up

Even though it took him a while to make his first real feature film, Edwards shot to the top ranks of Hollywood directors fairly quickly, first for Godzilla and then Rogue One. But one thing he often tells new filmmakers is it can take a long time to break out and to have patience and never give up. Before getting to the advice above, he had this response for the NYFA students:

A great piece of advice someone gave to me was “if you need advice from me then you’re not going to make it.” I think he was trying to say that anyone who wants to succeed will do it anyway without any instruction on how to do it. There’s no set way of doing things and everyone has their own process. Never give up, there’s no easy way into this industry and quite often you will feel like you’re wasting your time.

He reiterates the advice in a 2014 Facebook Q&A (“Never give up, and make a film that you want to see.”) and in this Godzilla promo interview clip from 2014, stating that “the secret of success is not how little you get knocked down but how often you get back up.”

Take It One Step At a Time

Once you do break through and make it, you should still take things patiently, as in one step and one movie and one decision and one shot at a time. From a 2014 Indie Film Place interview on directing a movie as big as Godzilla:

You can only take it one shot at a time, one moment at a time…The amount of decisions you have to make when you do a big movie like this – I don’t know how many, but you could probably do the math, it must be like 100,000. If you listed them all it would be so intimidating, but it’s like a marathon or climbing a mountain: one thing at a time. It’s like, the next thing is, talking about Godzilla’s foot with the visual effects guys and you have an hour’s conversation about something like that. And the next thing is, casting a pilot in one shot and you watch all those then. It’s insane and it makes you realize how much information is in a film and how many different ideas end up in films. You’ve got to methodically work through all of those decisions and that’s what it takes years to do these kind of movies.

What We Learned

Gareth Edwards has built himself up by doing things himself and having the freedom to do things his own way. Like many other filmmakers, much of his advice is related to that attitude of going for it and not wasting time on the old fashioned traditional channels. Success may come quickly or over time, but there’s no rush and those who really want it to happen just need to keep working towards it, confidently but honestly and carefully.

More to Read: