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The Creator producer on making a sci-fi studio blockbuster at a fraction of the price

Movies like The Creator are not typically made anymore. It’s an original sci-fi concept, a rarity in a world dominated by franchises and IP. The Creator is an ambitious sci-fi epic that plays like a tentpole film at a fraction of the price. Most films of this size and scale would cost north of $200 million. The Creator, however, carries a budget of $80 million. Yet, it’s a beautiful film with visuals that put the effects of big-budget projects to shame.

Below, producer Jim Spencer explains the origins of his relationship with The Creator’s writer-director, Gareth Edwards, and dives into the unique process of how they made this film. Their goal: to make The Creator feel like a blockbuster for significantly less money than the going rate. Spencer also shares a proof of concept that helped greenlight The Creator and if he feels an added pressure to deliver since the critical and financial result will impact the future of original films at this scope.

John David Washington wears a spacesuit in The Creator.
Oren Soffer / 20th Century Studios

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Digital Trends: How are you feeling?

Jim Spencer: I’m feeling good. I’ll tell you how I feel even more on Monday [after opening weekend], but feeling really good. We’ve had some great screenings. We’ve had some nice reviews. People seem to be reacting very well to it. We obviously set out to try and buck the system a little bit and make a big movie for not a comparatively huge amount of money. That seems to be being picked up on quite a lot.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of The Creator, I want to start with your relationship with Gareth. Do you remember the first time you met him and what that was like?

I remember very well the first time I met him. Gareth and I have known each other for about 20 years, so we go back quite a bit. We originally met when I was line-producing a TV show. It was at the very early advent of VFX. Basically, I had to take the director to this meeting with the VFX guy, Gareth. He’s like, “You can come and meet me at my house, and I can show you some stuff.” I was like, “OK. That’s fantastic,” and we went and met at his house.

I didn’t know that he was in a sort of flatshare, so we actually ended up sitting on his bed. [laughs] Me and the director, side by side, sitting on his bed while Gareth was showing us some stuff on his laptop. That definitely sticks in my mind. Yeah, we’ve known each other for a very long time.

You worked on a few TV movies together, which led to Monsters. When that came out and became a hit, and you saw it doing well with audiences and critics, did you start to think things were about to change?

Yeah. I mean, it did. What happened was that he obviously got picked up very quickly. He went on to Godzilla really, really quite quickly off the back of Monsters. I wasn’t with him. We had a sabbatical from each other for Godzilla and Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story, and then we picked up again on this one. We’ve always stayed in touch.

With Monsters, we were trying to do similar things to what we’ve done on The Creator with a lot less money. We’d always talked, say, on the Monsters set, if someone had given us $1 million and we made something that looked like $10 million, we could persuade someone to give us a bit more money. Could we make something that looked like a tentpole movie? Hopefully, that’s what we’ve achieved here.

Alphie touches a robotic bomb in The Creator.
20th Century Studios

I definitely think you did. Your movie costs less than $100 million, and it looks beautiful. Then you look at some of the $200 million blockbusters, and they’re garbage. They don’t look good whatsoever. Is that a testament to the people behind the scenes? Why does this movie look so great?

Of course, it’s a testament to a huge amount of people behind the scenes who worked incredibly hard and did a great job. But it’s also a testament to having a leader in Gareth who is happy to approach filmmaking in a certain way. Also, that doesn’t work for every movie, right? It works incredibly well for us, and it sits very much hand in hand with his more naturalistic style of filmmaking. From the out, he was determined to reverse engineer the movie. We’d always thought, “Let’s go and shoot it for the smallest amount of money possible.”

Basically, all of the production design is effectively done in post. It’s a very, very different way of looking at it. That also comes from someone who has such a clear vision of what he’s looking to achieve, so that’s kind of bewildering quite often for people. [Laughs] He can be shooting for an actor or for a crewmember. If they’re standing around, he’s off filming something, maybe at a slightly odd frame, because he’s already seeing something he’s going to be putting there later on.

The Creator | Official Trailer

The visuals are truly outstanding. I was reading that [The Creator] started out as a short film you made under the guise of location scouting. Could you share details about that short film and what went into it?

Yeah, for sure. At the end of 2019, Gareth and I had been talking with New Regency. We explained what we were hoping to achieve, but we knew that there were going to be some questions asked about our methodology in terms of what we were hoping to shoot on these incredibly small cameras. In terms of the VFX, we wanted to take a very nontraditional approach. We didn’t want to have people with tracking markers. We wanted to be able to shoot very naturalistic performances, both from the cast, but also when we have background as well.

We decided the best way to do that would be to kill two birds with one stone and go out to Asia, [and] start location scouting for the movie, which was incredibly successful. We actually just shot constantly while we were there, and that gave us the ability to come back and cut together this 10-minute sizzle reel.

We then spoke to ILM [Industrial Light and Magic]. Is it going to be possible if we want people to be simulants, can we pick and choose someone? Then, are they going to be able to have this design effectively with a negative space in your head? And they could, so we’ve been incredibly fortunate in terms of the technology and the advances in technology now that you don’t need to have the course or the tracking. Metadata makes things a lot easier, but it is possible to do without it.

That gave Gareth so much more scope in the cut because you can then pick and choose who you want to be a simulant. Also, we could then scale it. If you had a frame and you didn’t want every person you know to be a simulant, you could pick and choose the people you did want to be. We then cut together this thing, posted it, showed the studio, and said, “Look, this is what we think we can do.” It was useful on two accounts.

Do you think the film gets made without that proof of concept?

Uh, that’s a question for New Regency, if they were happy to buy into what we were doing. Look, they have been incredible partners on this. It’s a huge leap of faith. Even $80 million is a tremendous amount of money to say we’re going to shoot effectively on these, like, little Sony FX3 three cameras. It’s like an SLR, albeit we had these beautiful vintage lenses on them. That’s kind of interesting.

[The studio] gave us quite a lot of scope while we were away. We’re shooting on a beach in Thailand, and I was walking up to the location one day. We were in the middle of shooting, and these guys were on the open part of the beach. They were like, “Oh, yeah. I think someone’s shooting a pop promo.” [laughs] No one had any idea what we were up to. They just gave us so much freedom to capture that more naturalistic world.

John David Washington looks at a young kid leaned against his shoulder in The Creator.
20th Century Studios / 20th Century Studios

There’s always pressure when films come out. They have to deliver. I get there’s a bottom line to hit. I’m sure people are saying it’s nice to see an original concept sci-fi film. Do you feel added pressure to deliver? You’re almost a torchbearer because this is a chance to show that audiences want these types of movies, and if it does well, you can make more. 

Well, that’s incredibly kind of you to say so. I’d love to think that we are. Look, the reality is in all moviemaking – you can be into rom-coms or dramas or sci-fi – the audience has to vote with their feet. That’s the reality. We make the movies we believe in and that we loved seeing when we were younger. You can only hope and believe that people are going to follow you. So, yeah, I certainly hope so.

The Creator is now in theaters.

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