Sandy George talks to Joel Edgerton about his new film, Felony, which premieres at Toronto.

Sydney-based Joel Edgerton wrote, plays the lead and is a producer for the new Australian film Felony, which is premiering at Toronto today as a special presentation. The Solution Entertainment Group handles international sales with CAA repping US rights.

How would you explain in shorthand, say to your grandmother, what Felony is about?

If I was to be esoteric, and my grandmother was a bit, I’d say it’s about growing up and seeing that the world is not just black and white but grey as well. If my grandmother was more bricks and mortar I’d say it’s about a police officer who hits a kid in his car and lies about it.

Why did you want to tell this story?

As with The Square (Edgerton’s first produced feature screenplay, directed by his brother Nash Edgerton), I was inspired by reading newspaper articles about hit-and-run car accidents. I realised that as much as I could tell you that I would do the right thing in a similar situation, I couldn’t with complete truth until I’d walked in those shoes.

I wanted to write a thriller that felt redemptive but also had a very relatable scenario. I’m interested in real human dilemmas; in this film, in how we compel ourselves back to telling the truth after we’ve told a lie, whether punishment and forgiveness is most potent when it’s from you, and whether a person feels more or less guilty when there is a threat of being exposed.

I call it a compression thriller in that the ethics and ideas and points of view become the danger.

Who were your main collaborators on Felony?

I wrote the script on my own. Though Kieran Darcy-Smith and David Michôd, from Blue-Tongue, ran their eyes over it. (This pair, the Edgerton brothers, Luke Doolan, their ‘American buddy’ Spencer Susser and latest addition Mirrah Foulkes make up the Sydney-based film collective Blue-Tongue Films.)

When I saw Noise, it had a real impact on me and I thought: ‘I’ve got to get Matt Saville to direct Felony’. He is so mature as a filmmaker. It must have been 2007 or 2008 and I’d never even met him and he said ‘no’ for a couple of reasons, one being that he’d done a movie with police in it. My feeble response was ‘They were uniformed police and these are detectives’!

I knew Matt could bring atmosphere to a screen, choose shots appropriate to the subtext, rather than just shooting the script. I dragged my feet around to other people but couldn’t bring myself to lock in anyone else. Thankfully, about two months later, Matt called back.

Officially, how is Blue-Tongue Films involved on Felony?

Blue-Tongue is just a bunch of people making stuff but part of our agreement is that if one or more of us is involved in a project, we say it’s a co-production. We have a bank account and an office but you’re not going to walk in and be met by a receptionist.

We are a filmmaking gang, a non-violent filmmaking gang. Some of our films are violent but we’re not! We are by choice disorganised. We know if we tried to formalise it any more, we would kill it so we choose to be just people who swap scripts and are very honest with each other about the work.

You have made short films. Did you think about directing Felony yourself?

It was too complicated for me. I needed to bite off something simpler for my first feature. Plus I wanted to play the character of Malcolm and he was too big a part of the movie for me to also direct.

How did you, Rosemary Blight from Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Michael Benaroya from Benaroya Pictures in the US split the producing role?

Rose is unequivocally the producer. Matt and I spoke to a few producers but it was clear that she should be the one. Noise and Clubland were in Sundance the same year and she and Matt rubbed shoulders and their brains fused a bit. Matt and I knocking on her door and then there was three of us.

As my profile started to rise in the US it gave us a bit of weight with CAA (Edgerton’s US agent), which has a vested interest in me, and an independent film vision. They like to act like cupid between clients with projects with no money, and people with money but no projects.

Rose has her own separate connections and I had a relationship with Michael Benaroya, who came up with the gap financing, because we had been talking about another project together.

In the last three years you’ve acted in Animal Kingdom, Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby to name a few. Which brought the most benefits?

Animal Kingdom was the one that changed the scenery. It had more impact for me in America than so many other movies I’d done. I felt like the tide shifted a little bit. People were watching and listening and saying ‘we like what you’re doing’.

So when I told CAA I wanted to make Felony in Australia, the gate wasn’t locked. In fact someone was there opening the gate for me, especially because I could say ‘We’ve got Tom Wilkinson interested and great young actors including Jai Courtney’, who satisfied the business people because he’s got a few runs on the board.

There’s two words – show and business – and for the longest time all you see is the word ‘show’ and you rail against the people underneath the word ‘business’. But there’s value in embracing both words.

Are you comfortable with one foot in Australia and another in the US? What can you imagine for yourself in five years?

I’ve never looked too far into the future, try not to have expectations and have happily stumbled into great experiences. I prefer to live in Australia because I feel more relaxed here, though I love California because I’ve got great friends there and there’s so much going on because it’s such a big watering hole. It’s friendly, it’s vicious, and there’s great opportunities to succeed.

It used to be that young actors tried to make a mark in Australia then took those accolades to the US but now they’re cutting out the middle man and just going in truckloads straight to LA. And of course if you write a screenplay here and get $2.50 and get $20 there, where are you going to take your ideas? Whether Australians there want to come home and make stuff just depends on how interested they are. It’s sometimes harder to get movies made here, but you have greater scope in be interesting in the story you’re telling.

I have a strong sense of pride talking to you about a project that has my fingerprints all over it from start to finish. It’s better than being on a big movie where I’m just one cog in a wheel. There is a lot of responsibility and pressure that goes with creating movies yourself but it’s a lot more interesting and exciting. I wouldn’t want to be doing project after project like that. And I’m lucky I also get to sit in a trailer and make movies I don’t have to worry about.

I just finished Jane Got A Gun with Gavin O’Connor and I’m going to be working on Midnight Special with Geoff Nichols, who I think he is one of the most interesting and exciting directors around, and I’m likely to do Exodus with Ridley Scott.