Will Smith, Joel Edgerton and Nooni Rapace talk about racism and the lessons they learnt making the new Netflix film
Once upon a time, any film starring Will Smith would have been an instant hit – think “Bad Boys”, the “Men in Black” franchise and “Hitch”. In recent years, though, he’s starred in a series of movies – “Concussion” and “Collateral Beauty” to name but two – that have failed to make more than a minor splash.
Through it all, the actor has kept smiling and remained gracious with his fans, as evidenced recently by his recent appearance on a freezing day in Tokyo to promote his latest outing – the much-hyped new Netflix series “Bright”.
Arriving on the red carpet, he was happy to stop and chat with fans who called his name, posing with them for those all-important selfies and signing so many autographs that his hand must have been about to fall off. He was back for the promo events the day after too, cracking jokes throughout the press conference and allowing everyone to relax and enjoy the event.
“Bright” is an action fantasy set in a futuristic world where humans, elves and orcs live in separate societal classes. Elves are the most powerful, followed by humans and then orcs. Smith plays LAPD police officer Daryl Ward who is paired, somewhat reluctantly, with Officer Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc to serve on the force. While on a routine night patrol, the pair is forced to face up to an event that will alter the future of their world as they know it. Battling both their own personal differences as well as an onslaught of enemies, they must work together to protect a young female elf (Noomi Rapace) and a thought-to-be-forgotten relic, which, in the wrong hands, could destroy everything.
At US$90 million (Bt2.92 billion), the most expensive Netflix project to date, “Bright” reunites Smith with “Suicide Squad” director David Ayers, the latter working for the first time with the streaming service.
“The idea of the film and the relationships on which it focuses are very interesting. The elves make up the top echelon of society – they are the rich and powerful – while the orcs are at the bottom of the pecking order – everybody looks down on them. Humans sit somewhere between the two. For me as an African-American police officer, a human who despises the orcs because of their race, it was a very different social paradigm. I’ve learnt a lot looking at the racial and class divides. And in terms of the chemistry between Joel and I, it was very close to a one of those classic Hollywood romances. He would put that warped makeup on and it would just do something inside of me,” says the actor with a smile.
“I felt like the whole script was saying something about bullying, the way we bully each other as cultures and religions and as racial groups. I love the responsibility of playing the person who represents everybody who is judged, bullied and mistreated when all they want is to be judged on their actions and merits not the colour of their skin or the societal group they belong to,” adds Edgerton.
The heavy Orc make up means that viewers never get to see the real face of the Australian actor though to many he would be instantly recognisable from his roles in “Zero Dark Thirty”, “The Great Gatsby” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings”.
“He’s an amazing actor. He’s actually a lot like Jacoby. He has a good soul and a quiet strength about him that you can really feel,” says director Ayers about choosing Edgerton to play Jakoby.
Rapace too thoroughly approves of the way that the series addresses racial problems and how we divide people into different groups depending on their religion or skin colour.
“We're living in a world where we are very quick to judge each other. A car hits a person and immediately people say ‘it’s a terrorist attack’. We put a label on everything much too quickly and that’s really dangerous. We should be more tolerant with each other and accept each other and try to find a way to live in harmony,” says the Swedish actress who became known internationally through the original version of the “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and who most recently starred in the hit movie “What Happened to Monday?” in which she plays septuplets.
Yet despite the actors’ comments, it would be wrong to think of “Bright” as a documentary on social norms. It is in fact a highly entertaining film that combines various film genres from buddy cop to action fantasy.
“The story is like a fairy tale or allegory and the fantasy elements allow you to say more than you can with a straight drama. Let’s face it, if a regular drama addressed the racism issues, everyone would pick it apart and find fault with it. Not so with ‘Bright’; it’s a fun and entertaining film that delivers a message,” Ayers says.
Making the movie for a streaming service give Ayers some much-needed freedom with the storyline and allowed the show to be given an “R” rating – something he says would be been impossible had it been made for a studio.
“When you do a studio movie, you spend a lot of time rewriting, rewriting and rewriting again until the producers are happy with the script. A lot of the time, the end result is simpler, less daring, less edgy. But working with Netflix, I was able to keep the strong and edgy tone that I had in the script. I got to make my movie, not their movie,” says the director.
Ayer adds that he learned a lot from making “Suicide Squad” and brought that experience to “Bright”.
“The basics of making a movie – the script, the actors, the camera – never change. I had to own everything that happened with “Suicide Squad” and it really taught me lessons as a director. I learned about large-scale action in computer imagery and makeup and I was able to bring those lessons into “Bright”. Making “Bright” was wonderful for me because Netflix is very nourishing to filmmakers and really let me have my voice,” he adds.
Smith adds that you couldn't even make a movie like “Bright” at a studio because the large budget would result in changing the entire creative process to make the movie PG-13, “They're not gonna make a hundred-million-dollar R rated movie,” adds Smith.
The director says he embraced all the criticism from the audience and social media about “Suicide Squad”.
“Social media gives everybody a voice, including people with something bad to say, but I've always found that if you engage them directly and talk to them that you can change it. You can make it more positive, you can make the discussion positive and maybe sometimes they're right and you can learn from their comments,” says the director.
But even though Netflix gives him more freedom than he’s enjoyed in the past, Ayers says he still wants to work in the studio system.
“Netflix has shown me that there’s also a new place to go to and that’s great as it opens up the options,” he says.
“And with only six studios left in Hollywood and that will soon be five with Disney buying Fox Studios – it will be even more difficult in the future. In the meantime there is no difference between streaming and the studio system. Both use large format cameras and sophisticated lenses.”
With many elements in “Bright” offering the potential for a sequel, Ayers says he’d be delighted to return if Netflix gives the green light.
“If the audience wants more after this year, I’d love to come back, to work with Will and Joel again. I don’t know how happy Joel will be about going through three hours of makeup though,” he laughs.
And in a postscript, Netflix announced on Wednesday that there will indeed be a sequel to “Bright” and with the same cast, so sounds like Edgerton will be spending three hours per shoot in makeup.