Felony debuted at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival and is now finally getting a release here in Australia. I spoke to the writer-star of the film, Joel Edgerton. You can listen to the full interview by clicking here.
Matt: How’s it going?
Joel: So far, so good. I’m personally well but we just had the Australian premiere at the closing night of the Melbourne Film Festival so the film is off to a lovely start.
Matt: Well I know it screened at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Did you get a different response from the Aussie audience as opposed to what you got overseas?
Joel: I think I was in no fit state to gauge what the audience response was in Toronto. The first viewing for any film that I’m involved with is always so terrifying. The film was very well received in Toronto though. We got some amazing write ups from the New York Times, Variety and some other publications that made me think that it must have gone down well.
There was something wonderful about the Melbourne screening the other night because it was a home audience and I could get rid of my initial anxiety and enjoy the film for what it was. It’s a great film that I’m very proud of. I felt very lucky.
Matt: Felony is a film that asks moral questions of a lot of its characters. Where did the idea come from? Was there a particular event that inspired it?
Joel: I remember a particular conversation years ago before I wrote this movie about trying to cast your mind forward into a scenario where you’ve done something wrong and wondering if you would then do the right or wrong thing in the aftermath. As much as I love to think that I’m a good person, I can’t promise you that I would do the right thing if I was in this character’s shoes until I’ve actually been through that experience. Thankfully I haven’t and hopefully I won’t.
The real interesting crime in this film is not only does my character hit this child and cause an accident under the influence of alcohol… but in the aftermath he chooses to lie about it. Being no witnesses, he decides to say that he came across the accident rather than him causing it. That to me is the part of the film that fascinates me. What drives humans that we keep reading about in the newspaper doing these hit and run accidents? What causes us to tell these lies or to choose to run away? Yes, it’s fear but what are the ramifications for that person and those around them?
Matt: One part of the film I found particularly intriguing is the accident itself. We only see things from your perspective and it all happens rather innocuously. We’re not even sure if it’s the car that veered into the boy or the boy that veered into the car. The fact that he’s not wearing a helmet and there’s fog on the windscreen adds a further layer. Did a lot of thought go into shooting it that particular way?
Joel: Yeah. We were shooting that scene with the mindset that we wanted to see it from the perspective of three different characters – myself and then the older and younger detective when they arrive. What’s interesting to me is that I’ve seen movies before where a character kills someone and then runs home and essentially hides under their bed. What we were looking to do was something more subtle. Malcolm isn’t sure how intoxicated he is and when he hits the child, it’s just a kind of nudge. He performs his duty of care and sticks around until there’s an ambulance, which is a good act, but then finds himself wittingly or unwittingly saying that he’s not sure how the child came to harm. That’s where the real drama starts. The subtlety is that it’s not a definite action where you go “oh, he’s killed a kid, this is bad.” There’s more to it than that.
Matt: It’s a very complex issue – this idea if a good person does a bad thing, is there more room for forgiveness? It’s a film that asks questions but is there a particular response you’re hoping to see from audiences? Or are you leaving it open ended and letting people come up with their own conclusions?
Joel: I want this to be a crowd participation movie. I joke that in the old days when you leave a kid’s party you used to get a bag of lollies to take home. There’s something in this movie that I want the discussion to continue after the credits roll. You bring your moral code and your experience in life up until this point and tell me whether you think this man deserves to go to jail… or whether this man should let his punishment exist in his own conscience.
There’s also this grand idea in the film that it asks questions about guilt and remorse. Do they become intensified when you realize that you may be caught or there maybe witnesses? As Tom’s character says – “is it easier for time and the world to swallow events if you’re not being judged?” To me, this has been a lament to get to the bottom of something for me which is that I believe the reason people tell lies is because we’re scared of not being liked and loved. We don’t want people to think that we’re bad.
Matt: There are so many ways that you can end a story like this. How easy was it to come up with the finale that we see on screen?
Joel: I’ve seen so many thrillers in my life and it’s one of my favourite genres and yes, we wanted to make a tense thriller… but in a different way, I didn’t want characters to be running around with guns at the end of this movie. I wanted it to be a climax of ideas and emotions and yet still feel like great entertainment. So I knew where I wanted that character to end up.
Matt: When you wrote the screenplay, did you always see yourself in the role of Malcolm Toohey?
Joel: Yeah, it was my way of ensuring that I have a job (laughs). It was always something that I wanted to explore and that’s why I started writing the screenplay. Funnily enough, when you see the movie, you’ll realize that the greatest role in the film has been written for Tom Wilkinson. His character is so interesting and so dangerous and so funny. He becomes a delectable part of the film.
Matt: Well how did you get Tom on board? He’s such a fantastic actor and I remember him from such films as In The Bedroom and Michael Clayton.
Joel: He was the person who was most on my mind when I wrote the film. I crossed my fingers and sent him the script through his manager and hoped that (A) he would read it, and (B) that he liked it. We got such a quick response from him. Tom actually loves staying home in London and the last thing he wanted to do was travel all the way to Australia… but he said this is one of the best scripts that I’ve ever read and that he couldn’t not do it. I was so flattered. He was such a great person on set from start to finish because he loved the material so much.
Matt: This is the second time this year we’ve seen you credited as a writer – first with David Michod’s The Rover and now here with Felony. Are there other writing projects that you’re currently trying to get funding for?
Joel: David and I are collaborating on something at the moment that we’ll hopefully make next year. I’ve also written a project that I want to direct which will hopefully be the next thing that I do. So yeah, I’m always writing something and that’s as much a part of my life now as all the acting stuff. The acting stuff beats a louder drum and gets more attention but back in my room in the evenings and in between takes, I’m back in my room tapping away on my computer hoping to create the next thing.
Matt: I was going to lead into that – making the transition to directing. I’ve spoken to a lot of actors who just don’t really want to do it because there’s so much time and effort that is required to direct as opposed to just acting. But it’s clearly something that you want to do?
Joel: A part of me wants to experiment with it to see if it is something that I want to keep doing in the future. I may do it and find it all to be too much responsibility and hate it but at least I would have answered that question for myself. I suspect, as I have when I’ve directed shorter films, that I’m really going to take to it and love it. It just engages you so much more than being an actor can. As an actor, you’re often just waiting around on set for hours waiting for lights to be set up. There’s a responsibility on yourself to fill that time somehow.
Matt: And when are we going to see you next on screen? What acting projects have you got coming up?
Joel: The next thing you’ll see me in is Exodus which is coming out around Christmas. It’s a Ridley Scott movie with Christian Bale. After that I’ve got a western called Jane Got A Gun which is another outing with the director who made Warrior, Gavin O’Connor, and also stars Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor. It’s an old school western which comes out in February or March.
Matt: Well it sounds like they both have a fantastic cast so I’m extremely jealous!
Joel: (laughs) Yeah, when I was on set doing Jane Got A Gun, I was playing Natalie’s ex-boyfriend and there’s a bit of romance. I was doing some texting back to friends at home saying “just thought I’d let you know what I’m doing today…”
Matt: (laughs) Thanks Joel for speaking with us this morning.