The brainy 47-year-old son of a British political cartoonist, Alex Garland made his name with novels “The Beach” and “The Tesseract” before moving on to a tortuous relationship with Hollywood. After Leonardo DiCaprio starred in Danny Boyle’s movie version of “The Beach” (Fox), Garland turned to screenwriting on two original grim visions of the future for Boyle and Fox Searchlight, zombiefest “28 Days Later” and sci-fi space trip “Sunshine,” both starring Cillian Murphy, followed by 2012 comic-book flop “Dredd” (Lionsgate).
Backed by Focus Features, Garland’s stunning directorial debut “Ex Machina,” a tense sci-fi three-hander starring Oscar Isaac as a genius robot designer, Alicia Vikander as his wily femme bot, and Domnhall Gleeson as the gullible man who falls for her, was inexplicably rejected for theatrical release and was taken on by A24. Focus president Peter Schlessel lost his job when the movie scored $25 million domestic and two Oscar nominations (including Garland’s screenplay and a win for VFX).
Skydance Media and Paramount backed Garland’s next film, the $55-million “Annihilation,” which ran into a management change at the studio. Paramount dumped the movie in 2,012 theaters on February 22 without much fanfare and sold off most foreign distribution rights to Netflix. So far the well-reviewed sci-fi fantasy adventure starring Oscar Isaac as the only government operative to emerge from “The Shimmer,” a hostile encroaching alien environment, and Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny as volunteers who go back in, has earned just $38 million in North America.
On Saturday, Garland, who is in San Francisco working on FX series pilot “Devs,” participated in a wide-ranging conversation with USC professor Tara McPherson at SF FILM’s Creativity Summit. Check the highlights, in alphabetical order, below.
“Annihilation” is “a loose adaptation” of “The Southern Reach” trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, said Garland. His career also includes a faithful adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” while British comic book “Dredd” focused on the lead character played by Karl Urban.
“By the time I had done those, I understood that when you do an adaptation you have to make a decision about what is the thing you are adapting,” he said. “If the first one was a neurotic, slavish adaptation, the second one was zeroed in on a character. And the most defining thing about [the novel “Annihilation’] was its atmosphere; the specifics of plot were not as crucial. Tone was very important. I didn’t reread the book, which was a dreamlike, slightly hallucinatory novel. I did an adaptation of my memory of the novel, a slightly odd conceit.”
The theme that fascinated Garland was “the nature of self destruction,” he said. “I have five people enter an existential space that’s getting bigger and closer. All of them have self-destructive tendencies. Is it that only self-destructive people enter, or are we are all self-destructive? Almost nobody commits suicide, but everybody is self-destructive. When I realized that everyone I knew had self-destructive impulses, that interested me. It has something to do with the relationship between construction and destruction. Anyway, as an atheist, my belief system as to how we happen to be here is: Evolution is a product of mutation. It all makes sense. There’s a changing and a breaking.”
One way Garland distances himself from the difference between what he intended to write and public reaction is to see audiences as participants who bring their own perspectives.
“All narratives presented to audiences are doing a 50/50 deal,” he said. “Half of the narrative, in a way, is provided by an audience member and their subjective agenda and how they feel about the world … it is important to give audiences credit. There is something frustrating about the number of films so explicit in themselves … there is nothing to think about when you leave the cinema, nothing to discuss. I find that makes the films truly forgettable in a literal way. What are you remembering or continuing to turn over? Anyway, it’s not good to treat audiences with contempt in a continuous, reflexive way. How could that be a good thing?”
Garland began as a comic-book artist, and views filmmaking as a group effort “with the shared sensibilities of the people I’m working with. We have a shared intention, everybody is bringing their version of that intention. What you have is framed and shot as arranged by the DP and VFX, a group of people in concert asking themselves what is beautiful and what has been done before. I write the script and disseminate it to people, some of whom I’ve worked with for 20 years. I spread it out, see what people think.”
Garland doesn’t believe in the auteur theory “as something innately desirable or admirable. Is Wes Anderson an auteur? Yes, he is. His fingerprint is everywhere. Are there auteurs who think they are auteurs? There are very few authors.”
He especially decries the possessory credit. “A film from the name of a director is almost always untrue and always extremely offensive to the people involved in the filmmaking who are being ignored by the vanity of the director,” he said. “It is what it is. If a DP was not an important part of the creation of the aesthetic of the filming, why would production companies fight over DPs?”
He also objects to directors’ “spurious notions created about what is right and wrong,” such as whether to shoot digital or on film, or use practical effects vs. VFX. “They are used as badges of honor. It doesn’t make any sense. We are working in a medium where you use the options that are correct for that project. If ‘Ex Machina’ was shot on film, I don’t think it would make it any better.”
Garland denies any particular prescience in “Ex Machina,” which some have suggested as a window into the Facebook data-mining future. “It’s never been a secret,” he said. “We know. [What] is more interesting is not the notification what data is harvested and used by tech companies, but amnesia. We drift through it and forget. You have a president who is now more able to survive an election campaign than in a previous era. Amnesia is part of it. Nothing has consequence. It’s always worth remembering what shit we can get up with.”
“Annihilation” is focused on five women who, without much fuss or comment, don military gear and enter The Shimmer, knowing they may lose their lives. Garland refused to be engaged in a debate about gender. Like any group of people, some are more competent, flawed, or heroic than others. “‘Annihilation’ is deliberately about the absence of an argument,” he said.
Garland feels strongly that people are not born with an understanding of everything, whether it’s gender or any sort of social issue. “As you get older, you think about things more and learn more.” As for gender, “I can see an evolution in thought processes. I leave myself the right to make mistakes and get things wrong. I hope I will, like anyone else, think about those things. I’m a little bit worried about crystallizing arguments, and making it part of a thought process. What pisses me off about Twitter is the way it locates people to thoughts that may have been glancing.”
His own use of gender in his books and films is “part of a process and it isn’t fully defined at any point,” he said. “It’s a big issue at the moment because of #TimesUp and the pay gap, all of which are correct.”
He does admit to playing around in “Ex Machina” with gender and where physical objectification resides. “It poses a question to a young man character and the audience,” he said. “‘Does this female-appearing robot have an interior life?’ At a certain point, the robot makes herself look more and more like an attractive woman in her early 20s. The moment of objectification has happened. When the robot does indeed turn out to have an interior life, the audience and the young man are surprised.”
For Garland, genre is a “complicated term. You could call something science fiction, which could range from ‘Star Wars’ to ‘2001.’ They are terribly different kinds of films, there’s something problematic embedded in that.”
What is “Annihilation”? “I don’t give a shit,” he said. “It’s sort of science fiction and horror. It’s itself as much as possible. Argh.”
Still, he acknowledges that genre can be useful in a short-form, fast-moving medium like film. “Genre is shorthand,” he said. “Things that might take a long time to explain, in genre you can do quickly. People understand the tropes of that genre. These are like free gifts, in terms of how quickly you can set something up or unfold something, also establishing terrain. When people then have expectations of gifts, you can subvert the beats. I’m 47; I grew up in the transition from hippies to punks. Something about subversion I’m attracted to. One of the things genre gives me is the ability to fuck with it.”
He may have burned his bridges at the Hollywood movie studios. “They are often enthusiastic about when they decide to make the film,” he said, “because they feel virtuous: ‘Yes, we are encouraging non-franchise cinema, and have a go.’ And then you deliver it and they have a panic attack.”
He cited his last three films, “Dredd,” “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation,” as all “rejected by the studio on their delivery, or sections within the studio. The reason the studios get anxious is because you then have a very limited audience.”
Unsurprisingly, Garland is moving to television with an FX pilot order for one-season series “Devs,” a San Francisco tech story about what happens when you put big data and powerful processing power together, which he has compared to “Ex Machina.”
While acknowledging the occasional ‘Moonlight’ or ‘Get Out,” Garland said he views TV as a long-form medium. “TV is the home of adult drama,” he said. “TV is broadly much more welcoming. In the 1970s you had ‘Taxi Driver’ in the cinema, and now you have ‘Breaking Bad’ in the home. You deliver a narrative, and the people you’re delivering it to want you to do it.”