SXSW Panel: Gareth Edwards Keynote

Star Wars, Monsters, and the drive to tell a story

The non-geek world may recognize Brit director Gareth Edwards as the man who helmed the second-best Star Wars movie ever made – George Lucas’ original film being the obvious first – but there was a time when he wondered if he was wasting his life on his childhood dream of being a film director.

Gareth Edwards (photo by Jana Birchum)

In his powerful, funny, and above all inspiring Keynote address, Edwards recounted, step by step, how he went from for-hire VFX artist to his awesome 2010 feature debut Monsters and from there into a galaxy far, far away.

“I grew up with the Steven Spielberg story, quite literally,” Edwards recounted. “I had a book called The Steven Spielberg Story, and it was the only thing I had as guidance. This was before the internet, and so this book was my bible. There was a chapter inside about how he got to make films, and there’s a little checklist, which is essentially: He made cheap films with his father’s camera, he went to university, then he made a professional short film and he sent it to Hollywood producers, and he got given a contract directing for Universal Studios. So I thought, 'Well, that’s what I’m going to do.' And that’s what I did.”

Except instead of a studio contract, Edwards received a “very polite rejection letter,” an outcome Spielberg never encountered.

“So I was like, ‘Fuck! What am I going to do now?’” Edwards continued. “I was 21 years old, I had just finished film school and I felt like I had already wasted my life, my goals, and everything. [But then I discovered] this brand-new thing called computer animation. Jurassic Park had just come out in the cinema and it was very clear, even back then, that this was going to be the future of filmmaking. So I got a home computer and began learning the software. I was doing things like animating dinosaurs and robots in my parents' driveway. I would go to job interviews in London trying to get directing work and they would watch my short films and be very unimpressed, but then suddenly these robots and dinosaurs would turn up at the end. They’d ask me ‘What are these?’ and I would tell them, ‘Oh, just something I did on the computer at home.’ This was 1997, and they were like, ‘You can’t do that at home.’ And I’d tell them 'Yeah, you can. It’s just a home computer. It’s Windows 95.' They were paying hundreds of thousands of pounds in Soho to do similar effects and here I am doing the same thing on a $2,000 home computer. And I was like, ‘That’s your problem, but I can do it.’”

Fast forward 10 years of working CGI on programs like the History Channel’s Attila the Hun, and Edwards had made a lucrative, if unfulfilling, job as a VFX hired gun.

“I turned 30, and for my birthday my girlfriend asked me where I’d always wanted to go. And that was Tunisia, where they shot Star Wars. So we went to North Africa and [we went to see] Obi-Wan Kenobi’s house … I put on my headphones and find some John Williams track and I just started walking around Obi-Wan Kenobi’s house. Remember, this is where he told Luke Skywalker what his destiny was, his fate for the rest of his life. So I’m walking around Obi-Wan’s house, and I had this sort of epiphany, a very emotional moment for me and the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had. It really inspired me that Star Wars – that I grew up as a kid loving and wanting to join the rebel alliance – was this tangible thing that actually existed. I ended up going to Luke Skywalker’s house, drinking blue milk, doing all the geeky things you’d do.”

Enter the prosumer video revolution: “Suddenly, I was able to do with visual effects what I’d wanted to with film all my life. I wanted to tell stories, and why do you tell stories? Well, there’s a lot of answers to that but I believe that what’s going on is that – as a race – we’re kind of immortal, we reproduce and we have children, these little clones of ourselves, but the one thing you can’t copy over or reproduce is experience. The human body is the hardware, and I feel like the stories are the software that you sort of loan into the new child. And so stories have to be these sort of bite-sized life lessons that you can sort of carry in your pocket. And they’re always about how, you know, the hero went over the hills to that place you’ve never been to and he got the girl, killed the bad guy, and brought back the reward for the village. We always gravitate to happy endings and stories where the person succeeds because we want to know how to do that when it’s our turn. Someone once said that ‘The worst thing to happen to storytelling was the written word,’ and that’s how stories evolved, with all the boring bits cut out and what everyone wanted to hear. I really believe that.”

Film Keynote: Gareth Edwards

Monday, March 13, Austin Convention Center

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