In Gareth Edwards’ The Creator, artificial intelligence detonates a nuclear explosion in 2055 Los Angeles. Soldier Joshua Taylor (John David Washington) loses an arm, a leg and his family to the blast. A decade later Taylor is undercover and living with pregnant wife Maya (Gemma Chan) in ‘New Asia’ and a raid ends with her being killed by NOMAD – America’s satellite weapon in the sky. A further five years later Taylor works in a scrapyard until Colonel Jean Howell (Allison Janney) turns up and offers him a gig way behind enemy lines back in Asia. Maya is apparently still alive, helping rebels hide a weapon that could destroy NOMAD, ensuring victory for the East and AI over humankind.
Having previously made Monsters (2010), Godzilla (2014) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Edwards is an established sci-fi world-builder. The Creator has an impressive lived-in future-world visual aesthetic that blends top-grade CGI and the natural world in seamless fashion (filming took place in eight countries including Nepal, Cambodia and Thailand). Edwards’ story, which he ended up co-scripting with Chris Weitz, who also co-wrote Rogue One, is a fast and furious one – all tense character beats and spectacular action sequences.
We sat down with Edwards to find out how his robot vision came about, which films inspired him and why Washington makes a great hero.
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Where and when did you first get the idea for the film?
The first scene from the movie that I had, I was driving. It was after Star Wars. I needed a break and we decided to visit my girlfriend’s parents in Iowa from LA. It’s a four-day drive. At some point, I was probably a bit antisocial and just put some music on. I was listening to probably Hans Zimmer or something. I was looking out the window and all this farmland was going by.
I wanted to do a film about robots next. I was just toying with the idea. Then this factory goes past – it has what looked like a Japanese logo. I was like, “I wonder what they’re doing in there, maybe robots.” Imagine being a robot and you stepped outside into this farmland and you saw the sky and the grass for the first time. What would that feel like? That’s a cool little scene in a movie, but not my movie. I don’t know where that goes.
Then about a moment later, I thought “You know what it could be? It could be that people are coming to kill the robots and one of them escapes. Yeah, that could be it.” You know what else? It could be like [manga series] Lone Wolf and Cub and… then it’s a little kid.” Suddenly it just grew. By the time we got to her parents’ house, I had the movie in my head. That’s quite rare. Normally it’s months and months and months, so I felt like maybe I should do this.
You had a holiday to Asia that inspired you as well. How so?
I hate writing. It’s like the world’s worst homework to sit and type a screenplay. To get the first draft out, the only way I can do it is I have to go away somewhere and not return until I’ve finished as punishment. I picked a really nice place to go. I was, like, “I’m going to be stuck there,” so I went to Thailand. While I was there and I was writing this robot thing, a good friend of mine, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who did Kong: Skull Island (2017), he’s like, “Hey, I’m in Vietnam. Come over.” I go, and I’m thinking of this robot movie the whole time, and I’m seeing this imagery. My experience of Vietnam prior to this was through the movies like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Platoon (1986).
I’m looking at all this crazy war imagery in terms of how I’m recalling it. I’m picturing everything with robots in it. You’re always looking for that thing that’s not quite been done in science fiction. The little gap on the Blu-ray shelf. James Cameron did this brilliant thing of taking the Vietnam war and putting it into space with Aliens (1986), and then doing it a little bit with Avatar (2009).
I felt, this is interesting, you could take the science fiction thing and bring it to the paddy fields of Vietnam. I’ve not seen that. Picturing that kind of warfare but with robots. I just got really excited and thought someone’s going to do this one day, and I’m going to be really jealous of them. I was trying to race them to the finish line really.
What was it specifically about AI that interested you?
I wanted to do a robot movie, so I was throwing that in just because I like the idea. Then once you do that, to do it justice, you have to explore the problems with AI a little bit. Or you start to imagine being the characters and how they might feel. To them, from their perspective, we are pretty bad. We’re enslaving them. We don’t treat them as equals.
There’s quite a classic story there in terms of oppressing a race. It was quite straightforward, and it wasn’t meant to be anything other than an allegory or metaphor. But then suddenly, cut to four years later and 2023, and AI is a thing.
I think it’s given the film a bit more power, because we spent the whole of pre-production trying to do studio notes of why would you ban AI? AI would be an amazing thing. Why would it get banned? I was trying to invent all these reasons why. Now suddenly, the default setting of everyone coming to the movie is like, “AI is bad and it is going to destroy us.” There’s this strange power that it has given to the film that’s really good, in terms of the journey of the story.
What drives you to make films of this scale?
It’s no more expensive to make an absolutely epic movie than it is to make a very small movie. The first film I did was this film called Monsters, and it was 250 grand. It was quite epic in its scope in that it was all through Central America and quite an odyssey – a bit like this film, to be honest. The goal was always to combine that freedom of filmmaking with the scope of a giant blockbuster. I’m a kid of the eighties growing up with all the obvious classics and, like anybody, trying to emulate their heroes. It’s just James Cameron, Spielberg and Ridley Scott; they’re all people. If you were a quarter as good as them, you could die happy. You’re always trying to reach for the things they did and be ambitious.
Was the Vietnam allegory on your mind when you were writing?
Yeah. I explored quite a few options of how to divide the world. Everything I tried, it was never as simple and as clear as East and West. If you go into any situation like that, we are the good guys; they’re the bad guys. But as you explore anything from another person’s point of view, they’re the good guys; we are the bad guys. That’s the most interesting drama, when there’s two trains heading for each other. You look at it from this train and there’s no reason they would stop. They’re totally right, they’ve got to go. You look at it from this train like, “Why are you doing this?” They’re totally right too. There’s this train wreck going to happen and you can’t take your eyes away because how’s it going to resolve? I like that. When there’s just a simple black-and-white goodie and baddie, it’s like, “Well, let’s just kill the baddie,” that’s the end.
What other science fiction films and filmmakers have inspired you?
There’s loads. Someone who doesn’t get enough of a mention is Chris Cunningham, the genius music video and commercials director. You can’t make a film like this and not have been influenced by him. Also, Baraka (1992) by Ron Fricke. That’s a massive inspiration for this film. I saw Baraka when I was maybe 19. It’s like if God made a film. I always thought if there was a little storyline in that, and add in some science fiction, that would be the greatest film ever made. You wouldn’t be able to beat it. That was a real goal.
What is it that attracts you to the sci-fi genre?
Some filmmakers make westerns, some people make films set in England. I just really like science fiction. I find the question strange when people say, “Why do you make science fiction films?” It’s more like, “Why doesn’t everyone else make science fiction films?” It’s the best genre. If you’re going to make stuff up, just go all the way and really invent things.
You’ve got John David Washington leading. What is it that made him right for this role?
He was really committed to going to the middle of nowhere with no red carpet treatment, going to the Himalayas and Cambodia and everywhere else. With a lot of these roles, actors want to play heroes because they’re very conscious of their image, and they don’t want to seem weak. I’m a bit bored of people showing no crack in the armour or no vulnerability. I wanted the idea that if we were left alone with this character, and people went out of the room, he would break down. He’s broken. He’s struggling. He was up for doing that all the time. He wasn’t self-conscious. He was very committed and let go completely. That’s when I think you get the naturalism and the magic.
The Creator is in cinemas, including BFI IMAX, from 28 September 2023.
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