'The Creator' and Its War Between Humans and Artificial Intelligence
Director Gareth Edwards also talks about cinematic influences and the robot design inspiration.
From filmmaker Gareth Edwards (Rogue One, Godzilla, Monsters), the sci-fi action thriller The Creator (due out in theaters and on IMAX on September 29th) is set in a future that finds the human race and artificial intelligence at war, and one man, an ex-special forces agent named Joshua (John David Washington), caught in between with no clear answers. Grieving after the disappearance of his wife (Gemma Chan) and on a mission to hunt down and kill the Creator that designed the advanced AI, Joshua discovers that the young Alphie (Madeleine Yuma Voyles) has the potential to alter mankind and the world.
After a recent IMAX screening of three scenes from the film, director/co-writer Edwards took part in a Q&A, in which he discussed why he finds the sci-fi genre so appealing, how The Creator evolved into what it is now, the journey in getting an epic original idea into production, shooting in 80 locations with relatively little green screen, how relevant this story about AI has become, wanting to use a different approach to shooting the film, the importance of casting, shooting the combat scenes, cinematic influences, robot design inspiration, getting Hans Zimmer on board to compose the music, and how science fiction provides and opportunity for social commentary.
Question: This is your fourth film, which also happens to be your fourth science fiction film. What is it about this genre that you just keep coming back to?
GARETH EDWARDS: Are there other genres? I’ve heard that there are films without robots in them. I don’t see it as, I do science fiction. I think the best science fiction is a blend of genres. My first film (Monsters), I see as a love story meets science fiction. My second film, which was Godzilla, is a disaster movie meets science fiction movie. Star Wars (Rogue One) is a war movie meets science fiction.
How did The Creator come about? When and where did inspiration hit you for this?
EDWARDS: It was 7:32pm on a Tuesday. No. There were numerous things that happened, the most obvious one was that we had just finished Rogue One. My girlfriend’s family lives in Iowa, and we drove across America to go visit them. As we were driving through the Midwest, and there were all these farmlands with tall grass, I was just looking out the window. I had my headphones on, and I wasn’t trying to think of an idea for a film, but I was getting a little bit inspired. I just saw this factory in the middle of this tall grass and I remember it having a Japanese logo on it, and I thought, “Oh, I wonder what they’re making in there.” Because of my tendencies, I was like, “Oh, it’s probably robots, right?” And then, I thought, “Okay, imagine you were a robot built in a factory, and then, suddenly, for the first time ever, you got to step outside into the field and look around and see the sky. What would that be like?” That felt like a really good moment in a movie, but I didn’t know what that movie was. I threw it away, like whatever. And then, it tapped me on the shoulder and went, “Oh, it could be this,” and these ideas started coming. As we carried on with the journey, by the time we pulled up at the house, I had the whole movie mapped out in my head, which has never happened. I was like, “Okay, maybe this might be my next thing.”
This is an original concept that you’re working with here. How did you get New Regency on board as a producer?
EDWARDS: I do need to shout out to New Regency because, as you probably noticed in cinema recently, there are very few original films being made and that’s because everyone’s gotten very gun shy, and the franchises and IP s keep getting regurgitated a little bit. Hats off to New Regency for basically having the balls to take a big swing and do something like this. Some of my closest friends are concept artists, so I asked all my friends, “I’ll pay you, but could you do some artwork for this idea that I’ve got,” and just started building up this library of imagery until I had about 50 images. I didn’t tell my agent. I kept it very secret because I didn’t want to put any pressure on it. I just went into New Regency and laid out all the artwork, and I talked them through the idea, beat by beat, which I hate doing. I hate being a car salesman. I just want to hit play on the movie. That’s my favorite thing to do. Trying to sell it is not my fun thing. So, you look at all that imagery and it’s incredibly ambitious, and the natural reaction is, “This is a $300 million film. There’s no way we can really do this. We’d love to do it, but we can’t really do it.” And I was like, “No, we’re gonna do it very differently. We’re gonna film it with this very small crew and we’re gonna essentially reverse engineer the whole movie. In theory, what you normally do is you have all this design work and people say that you can’t find these locations, so you’re gonna have to build sets in a studio against a green screen, and it will cost a fortune. We were like, “No, what we want to do is go shoot the movie in real locations, in real parts of the world, that look closest to what these images are. And then, afterwards, when the film is fully edited, get the production designer and other concept artists to paint over those frames and put the sci-fi on top.” And everyone was like, “That sounds great.” Basically, we had to go try to prove it to them.
How many locations did you shoot in?
EDWARDS: On some of the other films I’ve done, you’re lucky to get away from the studio and go to a proper location a handful of times. On this, we went to 80 locations, and we didn’t really use any green screen. There was occasionally a little bit, here and there, but very little. If you keep the crew small enough, the theory was that the cost of building a set, which is typically $200,000, apparently, you can fly everyone to anywhere in the world for that kind of money. And so, we were like, “Let’s keep the crew small and go to these amazing locations.” And so, we went to Nepal, the Himalayas, active volcanoes in Indonesia, temples in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Tokyo. And then, we did a little bit at Pinewood, using the Volume for some non-green screen, LED screen, environment stuff.
Your antagonist in this is artificial intelligence. Did you know how relevant that would be?
EDWARDS: The trick with AI is that there’s a sweet spot window before the robo-apocalypse and not after, which is in November or maybe December. We got lucky [with our release date]. I tried to avoid putting a date. I didn’t want to write a date for the movie because even [Stanley] Kubrick gets it wrong. At some point, you have to pick a date, so I did some math and I picked 2070. Now, I feel like an idiot because I should have gone for 2023, with everything that’s unfolded in the last few months, or year. It’s scarily weird. When we first pitched the movie to the studio, this idea of war with AI, everyone wants to know the backstory. They’re like, “Hang on, why would we be at war with AI?” We were like, “It’s been banned because it went wrong.” “But why would you ban AI? It’s gonna be great.” There were all these ideas that you have to set up that, that maybe humanity would reject this thing and not be that cool about it. And the way it’s played out, the set up of our movie, is pretty much the last few months.
How would you set up this story?
EDWARDS: I would say that the world is divided in two. Essentially, something terrible happened in America and AI got banned. It’s completely banned in the West, but in Asia, there was no such problem, so they carried on developing it until it was near human like. So, there’s this war going on, to wipe out AI. Public enemy number one, the person that everybody is after, is The Creator. From the Western perspective, it’s the Osama bin Laden of our story. But from Asia and the AI’s perspective, it’s like God.
When it came to cutting edge technology, what were some of the tools and new innovations that you were able to take advantage of, that didn’t exist when you made Rogue One in 2016?
EDWARDS: I think camera technology and filmmaking technology has come a long way, even in the last few years. Something we did on this film, that was really important, was that I wanted it to feel as realistic as possible, so I needed the actors and me to have total freedom on set. We would always be able to shoot in 360 degrees. The biggest thing working against you when you try to do that in a film is that you have lights, and the second you want to move the camera, you can suddenly see the lights and you spend 20 minutes moving them, so it takes forever to shoot a scene. So, the way we worked was with really sensitive camera equipment. We could use the LED lights that are very lightweight. You have a boom operator holding a pole with the microphone on it, so why can’t you have a person holding a pole with the lights on it. So, we had a best boy running around holding the light by hand. If the actor suddenly got up and did something and went over here, and then suddenly there was a better shot, I could move and the lighting could be readjusted. What would normally take 10 minutes to change was taking four seconds, so we could do 25-minute takes, where we’d play out the scene three or four times. There was an atmosphere of naturalism and realism that I really wanted to get, where it isn’t so prescribed, and you’re not putting marks on the ground and telling actors to stand there. It wasn’t that kind of movie.
What led you to cast John David Washington and Ken Watanabe?
EDWARDS: We were casting the film during the pandemic, so it was really hard to meet anybody. Fortunately, JD lived in L.A. and I heard through his agents, “Hey, he’d meet you any time you want. Just go for a meal.” So, I did. I went and met him during the pandemic, and he walked in with his mask on, but it was a Star Wars mask. It had the Star Wars logo on it. I initially thought, “Oh, no, he’s doing this because of Rogue One.” And then, he sat down and admitted to being a massive Star Wars fan. He was like, “I’ve been wearing this mask, every single day for like a year. It’s been for the whole pandemic. I thought about not wearing it to this meeting, but then it felt false. So, I thought it’d be a good icebreaker.” We hit it off, straight away. And then, Ken is the only actor that I’ve worked with twice. I always want to do something new, so for the longest time, I didn’t want to think about Ken for this role. And then, the second he turned up on set, I felt like such an idiot. It was obviously supposed to be Ken, from the beginning. I love Kurosawa films. Those are my big inspirations. And every time you hold the camera up and Ken’s in the shot, it feels like this strange hybrid of Kurosawa meets Star Wars, which was exactly what we were going for. He gives you goosebumps. There’s something about that guy. He’s just got this face. The reason he’s so successful, internationally, is not really about what he says. He can convey so much with just his looks. He’s so good.
How did you find your Alphie?
EDWARDS: We basically did an open casting call, all around the world. We got hundreds of videos, but I didn’t have to watch all of them. They sent me the top 70, and then I went to meet 10 kids. The first one was Madeleine [Yuna Voyles], who plays Alphie. She came in and did this scene, and we were all nearly in tears at the end. I thought to myself, “This is weird and phenomenal. Maybe her mum was just brilliant at prepping her to get really upset, just before she came in and there was some little trick going on.” So, we chatted for a bit and we did some of the scenes, and then right at the end, I was a bit cruel. I was like, “Can we try just one more thing?” I wanted to see if it was repeatable. I was like, “Can we do another scene?” So, I explained a different scene and we just improvised it, and she was even more heartbreaking. I don’t know what we would have done, if we hadn’t found the right kid. We got really lucky. The movie lives and dies [with her performance]. I hate movies about little kids because they can tend to be so annoying. My biggest fear was that we were gonna get one of those really annoying kid movie kids, so it was the biggest relief when she was beyond her years. It’s like she’s reincarnated, or something.
How was Madeleine working with John David, and vice versa?
EDWARDS: She’s quite method. Well, I can’t tell if she’s method or not because we only knew each other during the filmmaking process and she kept everybody at arm’s reach. I was allowed in a little bit, but her and John David were inseparable. He became her surrogate brother or father figure, I’m not sure which. I thought I was gonna have to trick her. When we did all the scenes, I was like, “I need this to be like a documentary, so we can pull this performance out of this girl without her having to act.” And she could act her pants off. She was amazing at it. It was a director’s dream. You could just tell her what Alphie was thinking and this amazing performance would come out. You’d look at the other actors and be like, “Why can’t you all be like this? What’s your problem?“
How did filming the combat scenes differ from Rogue One?
EDWARDS: We went to real exterior locations. We went to locations that were the closest thing we could find to what the artwork suggested it should be. When we were in Thailand, we needed to find a really technologically advanced factory, or something like that, and we looked everywhere. There were car manufacturing plants that were nervous about us filming. Eventually, we found a particle accelerator, which was the most advanced thing, probably in the whole of Thailand. We were like, “Please, could you let us film? It looked amazing.” We went to visit, and they were like, “There’s no way you’re gonna be allowed to film here.” They asked, “What do you want to do?” And we said, “Well, there will be people with guns shooting and explosions.” It was a multi-multimillion dollar facility with all these leading cutting-edge scientists, and they were like, “It’s not gonna happen. Let it go.” And then, at the very last minute, someone was like, “What filmmaker is doing this?” They were like, “It’s this guy who lives in the States.” They were like, “Well, what films has he done?” And they said, “Oh, he did this Star Wars film, called Rogue One.” And they were like, “Can we be in it?” And we were like, “Sure, whatever.” And so, everybody running around in that scene are nuclear physicists. They were amazing.
Didn’t you use a lot of local talent, in front of and behind the camera?
EDWARDS: Yeah. And we had a rule where I wanted to be able to look and not see video village, with the monitor and the chairs. I didn’t want to see that anywhere. I wanted it to feel like we were doing a student film, to some extent. The beach scene where Gemma is running and there’s all that crossfire, the restrictions of the pandemic were just starting to lift and Thailand was opening up to tourists. They were like, “You can film on this beach, but you can’t close it.” We were like, “Oh, my God, how are we gonna do that scene?” I don’t know what happens normally in Thailand, at night on these beaches, but we didn’t close that beach. If you look carefully in the background, you can see bars and tourists just carrying on, but not one person came over and went, “What are you doing?” There were just four of us with a camera, running around. It didn’t look as big, massive movie. It all ends up on the screen. We tried to just be very efficient with it.
What are your cinematic influences for this film? What movies would you recommend as companion pieces?
EDWARDS: I have this superstition, since my first film, where I put up posters in the edit suite that inspired the film I’m doing. Around the edit suite on this one, one that you might not know would be Baraka, which I think is one of the greatest movies ever made. And then, there was Lone Wolf and Cub, which is a Japanese manga series. There were the really obvious ones, like Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner. In terms of the dynamic, maybe there was a little bit of Rain Man. It’s a journey with someone normal and someone who’s a little bit special, different, or however you want to say it. And there, there was Paper Moon.
What was your inspiration for the robot designs?
EDWARDS: The way we tried to quickly summarize the design and aesthetic of the movie was that it’s a little bit retro futuristic. Imagine that Apple Mac hadn’t won the tech war and the Sony Walkman had, so everything has that eighties Walkman/Nintendo feel. We looked at all the product design from that era and tried to put that on the robots. The tricky thing with designing robot heads was trying to pull from sources. We did a whole pass, at one point, where we took insects and insect heads and tried to make it as if that insect had been made by Sony. We took products and tried to turn them into organic looking heads. We took things like film projectors and vacuum cleaners, and then just messed around. We would take things and put them together, and then delete pieces, and we just kept experimenting. It was like evolution, in real life. It was like DNA got merged together with other DNA, trying to create something better than the previous thing.
Who are some of the directors and writers that you look up to and get inspiration from?
EDWARDS: The obvious ones are Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott. That’s the high benchmark of what we were trying to do. I’m not saying we got anywhere close to achieving it, but the goal of the movie was to try to go back to that style and type of film that we grew up loving, and give it that vibe and aesthetic again. The film was shot on 1970s anamorphic lenses. I hate writing. It’s like doing homework. The worst thing in the world is having to write a screenplay, so the only way I can really bring myself to do it is to lock myself somewhere nice. I find a nice hotel, and I say that I’m not allowed to leave until I’ve finished. I stayed there for a month. I went to Thailand, to the exact place on that beach. I didn’t realize that I was getting inspired for the movie. I just picked this nice resort. While I was there, a filmmaker friend was in Vietnam and said, “Come over and we’ll do a little trip.” So, I went around Vietnam. You can’t go around that country and not think of all the imagery from films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. But I was writing this science fiction film, so everything in my mind was robots and spaceships. You’d see Buddhist monks going to temples, and I’d picture a robot Buddhist monk. I spent the whole time going, “Oh, my God, what is this movie?” Blade Runner meets Apocalypse Now is the fastest way to [describe] it to people.
What was the biggest challenge in filming this movie?
EDWARDS: I wouldn’t say there was a particular thing It was more just the duration of it. We started filming in January 2022, and we finished in June. There were six months of nonstop 40 degree heat (in Celsius, which is 104 degrees Fahrenheit), dying every day. Looking back, it’s a dream that we got to do that, but there was a point where you wanted to collapse and you’d only done seven days of filming. The first cut of this movie was five hours long. We had so much great, cool material. Everything that’s in this film is all the best stuff of that material. The editing process was basically a game of Jenga, where we would pull things out and see if we missed it, or if it fell apart. We were like, “When we finally get this down to two hours, if there’s anything anyone misses or wants to put back in, you’ll be allowed to do it.” We put five shots back in. There were five little moments. That old adage of less is more is right, most of the time.
What are the best values of humanity that you hope this movie ultimately illustrates?
EDWARDS: I hope empathy for others. That’s a strong value that I think is very important. When this film began, obviously I didn’t know that AI was gonna do what it ended up doing, this last year. AI was really just in the fairy tale of this story. AI was the people who are different to us that we want to get rid of, or naturally have conflicts with. But the second you make them AI, all kinds of fascinating things start to happen. As you write that script, you start to think, “Are they real? What if you didn’t like what they were doing? Can you turn them off? What if they don’t want to be turned off?” All this stuff started to play out, which became as strong as the premise. What I’m most proud of in the film is that we hung onto that. There are things in the movie that we just got very lucky with. If it came out in November, after we were killed in the robo-apocalypse, it wouldn’t be that good. But thankfully, it’s out on September 29th.
What was it like to have Hans Zimmer do the music?
EDWARDS: When it came to who was gonna do the music for the film, out of the 25 most played tracks on everyone’s iPhone, 14 of the tracks were Hans Zimmer tracks. I was like, “I don’t know how, but we’ve got to get Hans Zimmer.” Joe Walker, who is the editor on Dune, put the assembly of the film together, and he had worked with Hans a lot. He was like, “I’ll talk to Hans. He’ll do it.” I was like, “Really?” We ended up in this strange situation, where I had to do a Zoom call with Hans, while I was in the middle of nowhere. We were going to meet the head of the military in Thailand to get permission to film in Black Hawks for a sequence. It was this massive deal meeting that took months and months to organize, and it just happened to be the same moment that Hans was available to do Zoom. We had to pull off the road and I went into a hotel in the middle of nowhere because they had a wifi signal. They said, “You’ve gotta leave in 30 minutes because the whole military is waiting for us.” And so, I was looking at this clock, and he started talking about his anecdotes about The Dark Knight and Terrence Malick. All my life, I’ve wanted to talk to him about these films, and I had to be like, “Hans, I have to go. I’m really sorry, but I have to leave now.” We showed him the little test we did for the studio, and he was like, “Okay, I’m in.”
How did you approach collaborating with your cinematographer, Greig Fraser?
EDWARDS: I worked with Greig on Rogue One, and while we were making this, he had to go and work on Dune 2, as well. His protégé, Oren Soffer, ended up being our DoP through a lot of the Thailand shoot. The most important thing, when you have a DoP is that you have exactly the same taste. The less you have to talk about what looks good and bad, and their instincts are your instincts, the easier it goes. We were all totally on the same page. Greig’s very rebellious, despite how that might look because he’s doing these big movies. In the build up to this film, I got to go around to one of those virtual reality studios, and they had this poster on the wall with how to make a movie. It was just every part of the process. I was looking at it and thinking, “What a strange thing to have? Why have they got this poster?” The guy who ran the thing came up to me and said, “I see you looking at the poster. That’s a hundred years old.” We haven’t changed how films are made in one hundred years. We still do it, exactly the same way. With all these new digital tools and technology, there are other ways to make films, and people like Greig and I really want to do things differently because that’s how you make a different type of movie. The process is as important as the screenplay, to some extent.
Would you mind talking about the opportunity and the power of science fiction for social commentary and reflection?
EDWARDS: Oh, my God, that’s probably why I like science fiction. There is that chance that you can sneak it under the radar. My favorite TV show growing up was The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling wrote a lot of those shows and the reason he did science fiction was because he could get it under the radar of the censors and say things you’re not allowed to normally say out loud. If you sit down and start to type, and you try to work out a film and you go, “I want to make a film about this that’s got this social commentary to it,” it’s gonna be a rubbish film. You get attracted to an idea. There’s something very primal about it that pulls you. There’s something that needs to be said about this subject matter, and then, halfway through writing a film, you start to realize what that thing is. It’s like a child. It tells you what they want to be when they grow up. You learn what it is, and then you try to help it. Science fiction does it the best because we all go through our lives having certain beliefs, but they never really get tested because you can get to the end of your life and you’re never really challenged. You just do everything that you’re supposed to do. But science fiction says, “What if the world had this different thing about it?” Now, that think you thought was true starts to be false, and you start to question things. I love that kind of storytelling. That’s the most interesting sort. I hope our film does a little bit of that.
The Creator is in theaters on September 29th.
Christina Radish is the Senior Entertainment Reporter at Collider. Having worked at Collider for over a decade (since 2009), her primary focus is on film and television interviews with talent both in front of and behind the camera. She is a theme park fanatic, which has lead to covering various land and ride openings, and a huge music fan, for which she judges life by the time before Pearl Jam and the time after. She is also a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Television Critics Association.Gareth EdwardsThe CreatorJohn David WashingtonGemma ChanMadeleine Yuma VoylesHans ZimmerQuestion: This is your fourth film, which also happens to be your fourth science fiction film. What is it about this genre that you just keep coming back to? How did The Creator come about? When and where did inspiration hit you for this?This is an original concept that you’re working with here. How did you get New Regency on board as a producer?How many locations did you shoot in? Your antagonist in this is artificial intelligence. Did you know how relevant that would be?How would you set up this story? When it came to cutting edge technology, what were some of the tools and new innovations that you were able to take advantage of, that didn’t exist when you made Rogue One in 2016?What led you to cast John David Washington and Ken Watanabe? How did you find your Alphie? How was Madeleine working with John David, and vice versa? How did filming the combat scenes differ from Rogue One?Didn’t you use a lot of local talent, in front of and behind the camera? What are your cinematic influences for this film? What movies would you recommend as companion pieces? What was your inspiration for the robot designs?Who are some of the directors and writers that you look up to and get inspiration from?What was the biggest challenge in filming this movie?What are the best values of humanity that you hope this movie ultimately illustrates?What was it like to have Hans Zimmer do the music? How did you approach collaborating with your cinematographer, Greig Fraser? Would you mind talking about the opportunity and the power of science fiction for social commentary and reflection?