After years of writing the screenplays for intelligent, provocative sci-fi films like Never Let Me Go, Sunshine and 28 Days Later, Alex Garland made the leap into directing in 2014 with Ex Machina, his stunning tale of artificial intelligence that has been hailed (rightly) as one of the best genre films of the 21st century. To follow up that sleeper hit, Garland decided to adapt the best-selling novel Annihilation, the first book in author Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi/horror/surrealism hybrid known as the Southern Reach Trilogy.
The material is in many ways perfect for Garland to adapt and direct, and he’s done an outstanding job. The story concerns a mysterious phenomenon that has landed on Earth and infested a region of North American coastline that has become known as “Area X.” Anything that passes beyond its border, known as the Shimmer, is subject to the enigmatic forces that are mutating or distorting all life that lies within, including plants, animals and humans.
When a military expedition vanishes inside, leaving only one member (Oscar Isaac) to return alive, a team of five female researchers — one of whom (Natalie Portman) is married to the surviving soldier — enter Area X to learn what happened to the other soldiers and what is behind the terrifying and seemingly unstoppable force there.
Garland has made changes to the source material while keeping its eerie atmosphere and underlying existential dread intact, creating one of the most unique sci-fi films you’ll see this or any other year. Den of Geek sat down with Garland recently in Los Angeles to discuss adapting the book, creating the look and tone of the film, whether he’s up for the sequels and his ambitious next venture.
Den of Geek: When you read the book, what was your reaction? What did you think it was about and what potential did you see?
Alex Garland: There were definitely two things. One of them was that it’s very original. Very often when you encounter stories, you know the story already. There’s a lot of stories that are just repeated again and again and again, and we sort of repeat them in a sort of ritualistic manner. What Jeff had written, seemed to sit outside everything else. That was very, very striking and seductive.
The real thing was the atmosphere. It had this incredibly strong atmosphere, and you couldn’t quite put your finger on it. It was sort of weirdly like having a dream while you were reading it. It was that quality that in the end, when you’re doing an adaptation, you think, “What am I really adapting here?” I thought, “What I’m really adapting is the atmosphere.” It was something like that.
The film very much captures the atmosphere of the book. You made some substantial changes along the way, but it still feels like Annihilation.
I hope so, because otherwise I feel like I betrayed Jeff’s work, and I don’t want to do that.
What were the immediate sort of concrete challenges that you saw in adapting it?
That’s a good question. I’m not even sure I asked myself that question. I had an answer of sorts, which is, “You are adapting the atmosphere? Okay, then this is what you have to be true to.” Past that, the challenges end up being the same challenges with any story. How do you integrate the themes? How do you move from one space into another?
Also, I knew, in a weird way, what I knew I had most clearly in my mind, was the ending, like the last 30 minutes, and the strangeness of the ending, which is also a key feature of Jeff’s novel. How do you create strangeness? How do you really truly create strangeness? Firstly, it needs to be unusual, but also there’s another thing, which is that if you start strange, you have a kind of in-built problem, which is that people get acclimated to strangeness quite quickly.
In the end, the way I approached that was to take some of the domestic elements of Jeff’s book, the home life, and put it at the beginning, and make it a progression upwards to that, while also doing what Jeff does, which is to return. The phrasing that we had on set and in pre-production was, “It’s a journey from suburbia to psychedelia.” A lot of that was in service really of the ending.
What did you sort of take from your first experience directing Ex Machina, to apply to this?
Nothing. Just nothing. I’ve been working for about 20 years. I’ve worked on lots of different movies, and they’re always only really like themselves. There are some lessons you learn, like if it starts raining, don’t panic. Now the scene’s a rainy scene. You thought it was going to be sunny, but it’s not, it’s raining. Don’t freak out, it’s cool. Just work around it. That kind of thing. I mean one of the things was actually, what Annihilation was most like was not Ex Machina as a process, it was much more like Dredd, which was the film I’d (written and produced) before Ex Machina. In Dredd, like Annihilation, what we had was a bigger budget. It was actually pretty much the same level budget for both films, but with a much broader canvas.
In fact, in Ex Machina, which was a much cheaper film, we had more resources available to us, because it was a contained cast in a contained location, and a contained story. On a day by day level, Ex Machina was a kind of easier film to make than Annihilation and Dredd, because really, Annihilation and Dredd were both kind of, in many respects, sort of guerrilla filmmaking, where you’re trying to grab stuff, because of the pace of shooting and what you have to get in the timeframe.
Were you inspired by anything for the visual look of the film, outside of the way Jeff described Area X and the way he described the Southern Reach?
Well, the process is I write a script and then I sort of disseminate it amongst the collective of people I work with, some of whom I’ve worked with on every film, including people in the production design team, which is crucial for the look of something. Really what happens is, from that point, a conversation starts, and an interchange of ideas. Some of those people, including me, will be taking their cues from the book, and some of them from the script.
In the end, a lot of it was from nature. We found images that we found atmospherically relevant. One I remember was of a vapor trail behind an airplane, and in the sort of vortices, light was reflecting through the water droplets and creating rainbow shapes. That became relevant to how we created the look of the Shimmer. Another was a tree that was covered in thousands, hundreds of thousands of spider webs. The spider webs in the branches made the tree like a tree, but not a tree, and that sort of became the crystal trees at the end of the film. It was that kind of thing.
In the second book, we learn that Natalie’s character is of Asian descent, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is half Native American, so the issue of whitewashing has been brought up online. What’s your comment or response on all of that?
Well, I understand the concern. I mean I get it, but I read the first book, Jeff was still writing books two and three. I adapted the first book and cast it. Without being psychic or being able to read the future, I wouldn’t have been able to know, you know. I’m not inclined towards whitewashing as a person, and nobody ever mentioned anything like that to me. I’m not really sure what to say beyond that. But it’s a fair question.
Would you want to film the next two books (Authority and Acceptance)?
Definitely not. I always made that very clear from the get go. I read Annihilation, I loved Annihilation. I understand film studios like the idea of sequels and franchises, but I don’t. It’s not that I have a problem with other people doing it, I’m just saying I don’t like it for myself. A film takes about three years. At the end of the three years, I’m done with it. I want to try and do something new. I really truly understand why people do that kind of stuff and do franchises, and spend their life doing franchises, that’s cool. For me, life is short. It’s probably going to be much too short because I smoke. I just want to keep fucking doing different stuff.
The next thing you’re doing is this FX series, right?
It occurred to me that all these new areas for TV content might be something that you might be really comfortable working in.
Firstly, yep, I agree, it’s a really great medium. There’s great stuff in it, there has been for a long time. I mean you can choose your own starting point. I think a lot of people say The Sopranos really changed everything. You could also say Hill Street Blues actually changed a lot. Whatever, it’s a great medium because you get to do long form narrative.
I think, in some respects, television/streaming services/small screen, whatever you want to call it, seems to be more comfortable with difficult, adult, complex, morally ambiguous stories. I’m thinking Fargo or Breaking Bad, or whatever. If I think about Breaking Bad, I sort of think, like in the 1970s, I would think Taxi Driver as having that kind of complex moral protagonist or protagonist with complex morality. Now, its natural home, in some ways, feels like it’s television, and Breaking Bad is the contemporary equivalent of Taxi Driver in some respects. Also, the long form thing is very attractive, being able to spend 8 hours, or 12 hours, or 24 hours, telling a story, that’s cool. I’m going to give it a crack and see if I can cope.
The thing I’m working on is for FX. It’s eight hours, eight part series, and it’s called Devs, as in shorthand for developers. It’s about the tech community in Silicon Valley.
Is it science fiction?
It is speculative. It is closer to something like Never Let Me Go or Ex Machina. Never Let Me Go takes cloning, which is something that can be done with a sheep, or actually lots of animals now, but was famously done with Dolly the Sheep. Ex Machina takes artificial intelligence and sort of extrapolates out from that. This one is specifically about big data and massive processing power — the combination of the ability of big data and big processing power, and some of the implications of that for us.
You hope to direct all eight hours, but you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to do that.
That is exactly right. I’ve written all of it. It’s done and its green lit. What keeps happening is people keep warning me, “You don’t want to direct all eight man, that’s a bad idea.” At the moment, I’m thinking I’m going to direct all eight, but I could get talked out of it by common sense or reality or something.
Do you know what your next feature film is?
No, I do one project at a time. There is actually a feature script I’ve written, but it’s not something I’d work on. My focus is Devs for FX. That will probably take me into, I would imagine if it happens, provided no weird shit happens, it’ll probably take me into like halfway through next year or something like that. TV turnaround seems to be quicker than film.
Annihilation is now playing.