Our Favorites 2021: Nash Edgerton on Keeping Cinema’s Best Running Joke Alive in “Shark”

We looked to those in the film community who went to great lengths to bring joy to audiences this year and a reason to be optimistic for the future in Our Favorites series. We will be highlighting their efforts throughout this week.

It’s fitting that in spite of being the capstone to one of cinema’s great trilogies, the release of “Shark” has been relatively quiet when its writer/director and star Nash Edgerton delights in sneaking up on people. For those who first caught “Spider” or “Bear” in the shorts section of a festival or online where they were destined to become viral sensations, the arrival of a third adventure involving the dating adventures of Jack (Edgerton), a prankster at heart who always takes his practical jokes one step too far, is akin to George Lucas deciding to return to Tattooine after 20 years away or Terrence Malick getting back behind the camera for “The Thin Red Line” as a seemingly improbable turn of events for a filmmaker who found success in features (“The Square,” “Gringo”) and television (“Mr. Inbetween”), though he doesn’t see it that way.

“I love the short format,” says Edgerton of his first short in eight years. “There’s a handful of filmmakers that make feature films but then still go back to the short format – I’ve noticed Spike Jonze still makes a lot of short films – It’s its own sort of filmmaking and ‘Shark’ felt like the most ambitious short film I’d ever tried to make, with the water and the visual effects, and also trying to do all that and perform in the film as well, it’s definitely a challenge. But they’re fun to make because there’s no pressure from anyone else about what it has to be other than from myself.”

Which is to say there was a lot of pressure when Edgerton felt compelled to top himself after Jack’s previous escapades involved speeding cars (“Spider”) and bicycling along the side of a steep mountain (“Bear”), often executed with the degree of difficulty one could only expect of someone who came up in the industry as a stuntman. With co-writer David Michôd, Edgerton hasn’t wavered from the simple formula in which Jack attempts to charm a new girlfriend with a seemingly innocent prank goes horribly awry, but the black comedies have become increasingly elaborate and sophisticated, constantly surprising in their ingenuity and utilizing cast (Mirrah Foulkes in “Spider,” Teresa Palmer in “Bear”) and crew (future “Babadook” production designer Alex Holmes and “Top of the Lake” cinematographer Adam Arkapaw worked on “Spider” and “Bear,” respectively) that reflect Australia’s place as one of the most exciting communities of filmmakers in the world.

At 14 minutes, “Shark” is epic in scope, nearly the length of “Spider” and “Bear” put together to accommodate the fact that Jack has finally met his equal with a diabolical mind for mischief in Rose Byrne’s Sofie. First falling for each other in that den for torture – a dentist’s office, the two flirt with danger as Jack has with each of his girlfriends, though this one ends in deeper waters than he’s ever been in before and with all the skills he’s accrued in the decade since making “Bear,” Edgerton delivers a punchline for the ages, satisfying not only for the film at hand but for the series as a whole. Set to make a splash next month at Sundance after premiering first at the Toronto Film Festival and then at Edgerton’s native Sydney Film Fest, the film is a formidable threat to compete for Best Live-Action Short at the 2022 Oscars and has just been made available to watch on Hulu alongside “Spider” and “Bear,” and to mark the occasion, the filmmaker generously took the time to talk about finally seeing through his best laid plans for Jack, the endurance required to play the lovable rogue and the tactics required to capture real jump scares.

Have you and David Michôd kept up a file of ideas over the years? How does one of these come about?

We’re friends and we hang out, and we started talking about what this could be. I had an idea for it a number of years ago, but because it’s so ambitious, I was struggling to pull the money together to do it because financing shorts, it’s either your credit card or you’re getting sponsorship. You’re always cobbling random bits of money together to make a short. And every time I’ve done one, it’s been a different way to do it. After I made season two [of “Mr. Inbetween”], FX asked me what other stuff I wanted to do. And I just said, “Look, there’s this short film I’ve been trying to make for a number of years. I don’t know if you guys put money towards short films,” but I told them it was a sequel to “Spider” and “Bear,” which they’d seen and loved, so they said, “Oh, actually we do fund short films sometimes” because they have the “Cake” series.

When the opportunity came to make it with FX, then Dave and I started talking seriously. I had the basis of the idea and then we started talking about pranks that we’ve either been involved in or had done to us. A lot of those that happen in the film are ones that we’ve had done to us or been involved in. I got married on April Fools’ Day because [my wife] thought that that suited me because I like pranking, and I’ll tell you, the thing in the dentist’s [office], I did to a dentist in LA. Any time I’ve been back there since, she definitely remembers me. She’s like, “No one has ever done that to me before.”

No one’s safe around you! And I’ve heard “Spider” was actually inspired by a prank you used to pull on your mom… [SPOILERS BLURRED]

Yeah, the toy spider I used to do to my mom as a kid. And I still do it, hence the scene in [“Shark”] with the spider on the dinner plate, under the napkin. I do that to my mom at least once a year, and it works every time on her.

Obviously on film too. Did you know after “Spider” this could be such a malleable formula?

“Spider” was way more popular than I ever imagined. It played so many festivals and it just was received so well. It’s still something people talk to me about. Greig Fraser, who shot it and has gone on to shoot “Rogue One” and “Dune“ and “The Batman,” tells me he still gets people excited talking to him about “Spider.” No matter how big of a thing he shoots, he’ll still have people go, “Oh, you shot ‘Spider,’” so “Spider” did more than any of us imagined and when I came up with the idea for “Bear,” I hadn’t really seen many sequels to short films. The only one I was aware of were Don Hertzfeldt’s animations, but I hadn’t seen any live-action sequels, so I was like, “Can I make something that’s a sequel, that works on its own? And can I make something that lives up to the reaction that ‘Spider’ got?” That was the challenge for me and people were constantly going, “Did they stay together or what was going to happen? Did she live?” And in my mind I was like, “Even if she lived, there’s no way they’re staying together after that.” [laughs]

And then I was like, “Would he learn his lesson?” And I was like, “Nah, he wouldn’t. He would date someone else and probably mess them up too.” So when Dave and I were talking about doing a third one, we were like, “Wouldn’t it be great if he met someone that actually got his sense of humor? How would that go if they were just into pranking as much as each other? And maybe that she’s better at it than he is.”

It’s always been a such a juicy role for an actress, playing opposite Jack. At what point do you get someone involved to be your on-screen partner?

With “Shark,” once I had the script and I was ready to make it, I reached out to Rose, who had been in one of my earlier shorts and we’ve been friends for a long time. The Australian filmmaking community’s relatively small. And she has such a great sense of humor and I thought it’d be fun for us to play together, and she was really into it.

Meanwhile, you’re putting yourself in the most awkward situations imaginable as an actor – do you ever think what did I write myself into?

Yeah, when I was in the water for “Shark,” way out in those wide shots, I’m like, “Oh, this is going to be ironic if there’s [actually] something out here.” And David was on set, and just kept encouraging me to go further out. It started getting dark and I’m like, “What if there is a shark in here?” “Bear,” I shot in the summer and it took a long time to get in and out of the bear suit, so I wore it all day. I was directing with that suit on one of the days for 12 hours, and it was so hot and cumbersome to move around in. I think I’d spent the first day just in my underwear because the whole first day [the character Jack] is just in his underwear in the house, so I’m like, “How are people going to take me seriously when I’m wearing no pants?”

Obviously, you’ve got great actors, including yourself, but the sense of surprise is always so real – do you do anything to get those reactions? [SPOILERS BLURRED]

For sure. That moment in the kitchen [in “Shark”]… when I’m performing in front of cameras, I usually have either my brother or one of my friends be my eyes for me and initially, I was trying two different ways in the kitchen, that either Sophie gets freaked out when she closes the fridge door and he’s standing there in the mask, or the other idea we had was that she knows he’s coming so she doesn’t get surprised by it. What I didn’t know was going to happen is, my brother told Rose that when I walk away down the hall, to jump out and scare me, which I thought was great. I definitely didn’t know that was coming.

The locations are obviously such a big part of it too. Are places in mind from the start?

Definitely. It was funny, after doing “Spider,“ when I started thinking about if I did a sequel, I wanted to put it in a different environment, because I like [the idea that] people aren’t safe from this guy, no matter what the environment. So I thought of the location before I thought of what was going to happen and I liked the idea of getting out in the wilderness. “Shark,” there’s something about that animal just felt like it was the right next one to go “Spider,” “Bear,” “Shark,” and then automatically, I was like, “Well, obviously it has to be in the water.”

Is it true you had Lord Howe Island to yourself for “Shark” because of the pandemic?

Pretty much. It had been locked down until a couple of weeks before we shot. They’d only just reopened, so that’s how we were able to get over there. And someone who was working on “Mr Inbetween” used to live on Lord Howe Island and that’s how I found out about that it was a viable option and in terms of the pandemic, it was far away from everything like that. There were no cases on Lord Howe Island. No one had been there and we only had as many crew [members] as we could fit on that boat. The wedding scene was the trickiest, but all the extras were families, so they were separate little groups of people. That was the first thing I shot after the pandemic had started. And there was lot of mask wearing and temperature checking and COVID tests, et cetera.

There’s also a great Ben Lee song at the end of this – how did he get involved?

I’ve known Ben a long time. I’ve directed four of his music videos, so that’s how I met him originally, and he started doing a bit of music on my short films and did some of the soundtrack on my first film “The Square,” so he did the song on “Spider” and Ione [Skye], his wife, sang on it, and then when I was making “Bear,” I was like, “Everyone liked that song so much, I feel like I should ask them if they would do another song,” and then it just made sense to ask him for the third one as well. I just like how each of those songs feel like they suit the films in a great way.

They really do and it must be special to have this trilogy of films together with a sense of completion as well as markers of your own career. What’s it like having them out there?

It’s awesome to hear that the films, especially “Spider” and “Bear,” still live on. As a filmmaker, you make stuff to get seen and it’s amazing how much those films have been passed around. At one stage, there was some young Spanish kids that remade “Spider” as a little student film. And then some French kids filmed a bunch of people watching the film, and made a film of their reactions. There’s been some fun things that have come from making these films.

“Shark,” “Spider” and “Bear” are now streaming on Hulu and “Shark” and “Spider” will screen in person theatrically and virtually at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20th as part of Shorts Program 1.