Garland, via Verge

English filmmaker Alex Garland has the right to demonstrate a bit of creative ego. After finding success with his debut novel The Beach at age 26, he moved to screenwriting, scripting the genre favorites 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd. He seamlessly transitioned to directing with Ex Machina, a cerebral, thought-provoking look at artificial intelligence, personal agency, and what it means to be human. But at a Beverly Hills interview about his newest film, Annihilation, he came across as confident but surprisingly humble. He characterizes his successes as the result of creative collaboration — a far cry from the solitary writing that launched his career.

Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Annihilation follows a biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman) who joins a group of woman on an excursion to a mysterious place called Area X, which may be experiencing a disruption of alien origin. Like Ex Machina before it, it’s a thoughtful, disturbing film wrapped in an accessible science fiction premise, and it comfortably carves out a unique take on VanderMeer’s source material. I chatted with Garland about adapting the novel, humanity’s need to self-destruct, his upcoming television project, and why he considers auteur theory “bullshit.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

There’s a lot to dig into with Annihilation, but the obvious starting point is Jeff VanderMeer’s book. What drew you to the material in the first place?

It’s super original. So many stories are retellings of other stories in a really self-conscious way, to the extent that I almost feel like it’s ritualistic. Like, you see the beats of that particular story starting, and you think, “Wow. We’re doing this again. It’s happening again.” What is the ritual? Where’s the comfort? What’s the need [this is addressing]? Particularly because so many of them are not comforting; they’re kind of disturbing. It’s just a weird thing. And Jeff’s book seems to just sit totally outside that, which I thought was really interesting. But that in itself is not a reason to adapt it, I think. It was really the atmosphere. It was just the feeling of reading it was so strange. It’s got a very strong dreamlike aspect. Reading it is like being in a dream, in a weird way. I thought, “That’s really interesting, and I’d like to have a try.”

You’ve written novels, and you’ve tackled film adaptations. What’s your process in terms of finding the story you want to tell within a piece of source material?

It’s partly instinct, but it’s also partly a reaction against the thing I just did. I’m always pushing back against the last thing I did in some way, and some of that is restlessness and a sense of limited time. I understand in rational ways why people work on long franchises. I understand the financial benefits. I get the carrot at the end of the stick that leads them to it. But in truth, I can’t understand internally why they do it because you then have to spend another three years of your limited life doing the same thing when you don’t have to. And it’s too existential. I just can’t get my head around it.

When you signed up for this, was it just for the first book?

I think I signed up for the others, but I always said at the same time, “Look, I’m signing it, but I’m never going to do it.” I was always very transparent. I think in a way, the only protection I have in these things is to be very, very transparent and clear, and to say, “Here’s the script. I am going to shoot the script, so it’s not going to change dramatically later. If you don’t like it, don’t finance it because that is the thing.” And I try not to kid anyone because all the problems I’ve ever had in films tend to be that you suddenly discover at a certain point that one group of people is making one film, and another group is making another, and then you’ve got a mega tension you can never quite resolve. So I try to make it all as clear as possible.

What were you trying to pull out of the material thematically?

I think the main thematic preoccupation probably belongs primarily to the film, which is really about self-destruction. It’s about the nature of self-destruction in a literal sense: cells have life cycles and stars have life cycles and plants and the universe and us. You, me, everyone. But also psychological forms of self-destruction.

It was born out of a funny kind of preoccupation I started to have, that everybody is self-destructive, which is a strange thing to notice. I think a lot of self-destruction is very obvious. [Gestures to cigarettes on the table.] That’s an obvious self-destruction, right? And if a friend of yours is a heroin addict or an alcoholic, that’s an obvious kind of self-destruction. But there are also… You’ve also got friends, or people you encounter, who are super comfortable in their own skin, and very self-possessed, and feel like they have understood some sort of secret to existence that you’re not party to. And then you start to see, no, that’s not quite right. It’s more complicated than that. And fissures and fault lines appear, and between the fissures and the fault lines, you see bits of behavior that doesn’t really make sense — like they’re dismantling things in their lives for no good reason.

And it’s a key part in the film, which is that there’s an act of destruction of a marriage that the film does not explain, because it is important that these things are not explainable in those terms. You know? Somebody dismantling their marriage or their job or their friendship or something might have some superficial reasons why they think they’re doing it, but that’s not why they’re doing it. So, the film is looking at that and presenting a thesis as to why that’s the case, but it’s doing it by inference. I think, broadly speaking, the film is inferring stuff rather than stating it.

That reminds me of Ex Machina, actually. Both films ask complex questions but aren’t as concerned with providing answers.

Not explicitly.

Many movies are afraid to take that approach. Why is it an approach you like, and what does it give an audience?

To be honest, I think what it really gives the audience is… well, to an extent, I would hope it gives them respect. That they don’t need to be spoon-fed. But it also creates a requirement, which is that the film is not going to do everything. It is a sort of… the audience member is a participant in the narrative, and if the inferences are going to be understood, and the connections are going to be felt — even if they’re different inferences and different feelings — they are going to be brought by the audience member. It’s like you have to join the party. And so, I think the ideal audience member for a film like that, and other films like it, is one with an open mind who’s not there just to be entertained for two hours. There’s a two-way process they’re willing to engage in.

Area X can stand in as a metaphor for a lot of things, which reminded me a bit of the way Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! works. Was there ever any pressure to make the film safer or more conventional?

Not about that, because there’s a kind of top-line narrative that can explain it. Which is, like, “a weird thing has happened. Is it extraterrestrial or is it radiating a strange effect?” There you go. There’s also a sort of metaphorical element to it, a sort of unknowable expanding existential thing. But the top-line narrative can satisfy the people who are not interested in the metaphorical side. So, not really. [The pressure was] more to do with stuff like making the protagonist less morally complex. That kind of thing.

That’s such an odd request. Her moral complexity is really central to the entire film.

Precisely. That’s why you can’t cut it without filleting the movie.

Ex Machina was extremely polished, even though it was a relatively lower-budgeted film. Here, you had more money—

I had less because the film cost more money. Say, it cost two and a half times more, but I was trying to do seven times more. So on a day-to-day level, we actually had fewer resources. This was a more guerrilla bit of filmmaking than Ex Machina, and it had much more in common with a film like Dredd, actually, which is the one I did before Ex Machina, which is constantly like a dog straining against the leash of its own budget.

Annihilation has some dazzling visuals, and one of the most upsetting creatures I’ve ever seen in a film. How many of those designs were coming from the book, and how much was it you and your team just running wild?

In a way, that question is, “Whose idea was it?” Right? And the problem with working in a collaborative medium is that you can never really say whose idea it was, because all ideas start to be the product of a conversation, and the actual defining point of the idea might come from one person at one time, but they wouldn’t have had it without the preceding conversations. Part of debunking the mythology of filmmaking is that we tend to want to locate it often in one person. And it’s not one person. It’s a collective, and it is a collaboration.

Where does it come from? Ultimately, if you keep going down the evolutionary chain, it comes from the book, because the book is the source material, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in the book or not; that’s sort of the genesis of it. And so there’s stuff that’s in the film that isn’t in the book, but that stuff wouldn’t exist if the book didn’t exist, so what are you going to do? I find the attribution stuff really complex, and it’s one of the reasons I’m constantly in interviews shrugging off auteur theory, because I think it’s bullshit. At least it certainly is for me.

Not many filmmakers would cop to that in an interview.

Well, maybe some of them were auteurs, you know? If someone says Wes Anderson is an auteur, I’ll believe it 100 percent. Fine. He’s an auteur, but I’m not. And so it’s just all part of the big friendly conversation. Some of these people, we’ve been working together 20 years. We know each other really well. We’re in sync with each other’s sensibilities, particularly in the production design team, which is crucial to the stuff you’re talking about.

Going back to the idea of franchises, you’re doing an eight-part TV series for FX next.

I’m going to try. I’ve written it, yeah.

That’s not the multiyear franchise commitment you were talking about, but it is going to give you the chance to play with some longer-form storytelling.

It’s like the weird expansion / contraction of Ex Machina to Annihilation. You’ve got two and a half weeks to shoot an hour of drama instead of six weeks to shoot an hour of drama. And you’ve got three weeks to cut it instead of 12. But you also get to tell an eight-hour drama instead of a one hour, 40-[minute] drama. So, there’s expansions and contractions, and some of them are helpful, and some of them are scary, but overall, I’d really like to try it, because I’ve just seen such beautiful, challenging, adult material done on the small screen. Most recently, Handmaid’s Tale, which blew my mind. I’m really looking forward to the second season.

And also, I worry that there may be a mismatch between the stuff I do and opening weekends. I think the two things might not fit very neatly, and there’s always… I think I kind of trick people a bit. I don’t mean to, but I think I do, and I think it’s because I work within genre, and it makes it feel like it’s more mainstream than it is. It has a gloss of being mainstream, but actually, it’s much more spiky and awkward than that. And the time that the cutting-edge resolution of that awkward thing comes is on an opening weekend, and the sheer finances involved. And I thought maybe in TV, I’d be kind of relieved of that tension.

Paramount is distributing Annihilation in the US, but Netflix is handling it internationally. Does that route relieve some of that openingweekend pressure? How do you feel about some audiences only seeing the movie on TV rather than in theaters?

I think it’s a product of exactly the anxiety we were just speaking about, clearly. I mean, I’d be a fucking bullshitter if I said it was anything other than that. I think that clearly I don’t have any personal issue with the small screen, because the bit of film narrative I just name-checked was on the small screen, and I’m going to try and do it next. So I’ve got no problem with it at all. I would say that it would be good to know that you’re doing it for the small screen before you do it, not after, because you would shoot it differently, you would do the VFX differently, you’d do the sound design differently. There are all sorts of things you would just go about in a different way. So I’ve got no problem with the medium. I love the medium. It’s more just horses for courses.