By Noah Howard
The Daily had the opportunity to sit down with “Annihilation” writer/director Alex Garland and discuss his newest film. Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Noah Howard (NH): The film has a badass female crew that goes in, but I know you’ve said in interviews that you didn’t really focus on gender. I also read in an interview that you didn’t want to do virtue signaling, so I was wondering why you chose to have an all-female cast.
Alex Garland (AG): It’s based on a novel, and yes, I find the whole virtue signaling thing complex, and I’d rather just avoid it, but also it’s not something I can take any credit for because I was adapting a novel. I think in essence I had just done a film, “Ex Machina,” that, as part of its set of concerns, is concerned with gender, and there was a conversation within it about gender. In this what I was interested in doing was almost the absence of a discussion, that that was in itself a statement of sorts. There’s one real reference to it, and then it’s pointed out that they’re scientists.
NH: How did you get your actresses in that mindset to deal with the unknown on set?
AG: I didn’t really do anything. I approach film in a very particular kind of way. I’m not interested in the pyramid structure with the director at the top. I see it as a collective, a group of people making a film, and all the different people are really very autonomous. In loose terms it’s an anarchy-based way of making a film, in that anarchy is not chaos, but that the people involved are all working toward a collective goal and have a lot of autonomy. For example, when we do a lineup and then rehearsal, and then it’s time to shoot, after I’d choose the lens and show how the camera would move, I’d say to the DP [director of photography], “Rob, how do you want to shoot it?” And that’s broadly the same throughout. That is also true of the actors. When you see the performances, they aren’t performances that I have coaxed out of them or told them what to do, they are what they brought to the film.
NH: A majority of your body of work is completely original stories. Compared to that, what was it like balancing the expectations of this fairly popular book against your own style and sense of creative control?
AG: It’s a mixture because you feel anxiety, because you don’t want to let down readers of the book who love the book, and I’m a reader of the book and I love the book. So it’s partly that, and it’s partly just feeling pleased and excited to be involved in such a strange project and such an interesting and original project. The two things that really struck me about the book were the originality and the atmosphere, and I thought that that was how I would orient my responsibilities, I will try to be true to the book’s originality and its atmosphere. In a literal sense, I did not see how I could do a beat-by-beat adaptation of the book because the book is a dreamlike, strange, trippy experience to read and is, in that respect, subjective.
NH: Here, you and your team have to represent all this visually. I can’t imagine how challenging that must’ve been.
AG: It was challenging. It was really tough. There’s a funny kind of contract that exists in books between an author and a reader, sort of a 50/50, the imagination of the reader is filling in an enormous amount of the gaps. I used to work as a novelist years ago and I’m familiar with that transaction and that relationship. In a film, at some point you need something to stick a camera in front of, you actually have a bottle on a table, the camera needs to be pointing at it, and if it’s not you don’t have a bottle on a table in the narrative. In a book that exists in a surrealist zone, that presents near-endless challenges.
NH: This is kind of a generic question but someone has to ask it. The eerie visual style is arguably the film’s biggest selling point. What’re the largest inspirations for the look of the film, either overall, or in specific moments like with the particles colliding?
AG: Whenever you ask people about influences, I’d be very wary of their answers, because usually what they say is stuff that they like rather than stuff that actually influenced them. They say it unconsciously, it’s not like they’re trying to mislead you, but the actual influences are often not what they seem to be. And then a year later, or two years later, someone says “you know that scene, what it really makes me think of is X” and you think “Shit, that’s what it was.” You suddenly realize what the influence actually is. Basically what I’m saying is don’t trust my answer. That said, where we consciously drew influences from always was from nature. We looked at light refraction as a starting point, we looked at the stranger forms that exist in nature, the very strange forms you get in a shell and a fern, and we looked at what literal mutations look like (tumors and so on).
NH: Judging from your body of work it seems you prefer genre material.
AG: I love genre.
NH: Specifically, why?
AG: I like genre because you’ve got limited bandwidth in a story in some respects. What genre allows you to do is to use shorthand in lots of areas. That gets you a lot of mileage quite quickly, and then you’ve got space to subvert, do something strange, do something unsettling. If you’re given a bunch of paradigms, which genre does, then that gives you a bunch of things you can break or use to your advantage. I like all the free gifts.
NH: What are some of the limitations of working within the genre space?
AG: If there are limitations, they’re not limitations that concern me or that I’m aware of. I think one of the limitations has nothing to do with making it or the finished project, but more perception. Genre is seen as less worthy, but I couldn’t give a fuck. I’m just doing the stuff I’m interested in for as long as I’m allowed to do it. So far it’s been nearly 25 years, and I’ll keep doing it as long as I can, until I stop getting the money or I die.
NH: You carried Andrew Whitehurst on VFX and Glenn Freemantle on Sound Design over from “Ex Machina” to “Annihilation.” On such a VFX and soundscape heavy film, what was it like working with them, and do you see yourself continuing?
AG: I think I’ve worked on seven movies with Glenn and, in that thing I talked about, working as a collective, a lot of these people I’ve been working with for twenty years. It’s the easiest thing in the world. You’re trusting someone you know is very good and you like very much, and you like their company, their talent. It’s straightforward. Andrew, we’ve worked on two movies together. Andrew is ferociously intelligent. He is a seriously smart guy. What I get from people like Andrew, and from all the people I work with really, is something that makes me feel relaxed, because I know if they’re applying their talent and their intellect to the project than I know they’re elevating it and making it more interesting. I have to say out of literally everybody working on the film the person who had the most difficult job was Andrew, and that would include me. I think he knocked it out of the park. So what was it like to work with him, it was terrific.
Contact Noah Howard at noah364 ‘at’ stanford.edu.