Writer-director Alex Garland’s haunting and provocative horror film “Men” is ruthlessly stripped down yet yields a seemingly infinite array of responses and interpretations from its audience; how you respond to it depends largely on what you bring to it. Garland’s combination of precise visual and sound design with ambiguous, dreamlike imagery and dialogue creates unique challenges for the audience – as well as for collaborators like editor Jake Roberts.
Roberts, who previously worked with Garland on “Devs,” a sci-fi limit series for FX that imagined the potential intersection of big tech and quantum computing, had been told that Garland was working on another television series, so when he received the stripped-down script for “Men” he was a bit surprised. “It was pitched to me as a sort of COVID-proof low-budget horror movie we could shoot during lockdown,” said Roberts in an interview with IndieWire.
Roberts was also expecting what audiences had come to expect from a Garland script over the last 20 years (“Ex Machina,” “Sunshine,” “28 Days Later”) – a complex world with a tight internal logic rooted in the deep research the writer puts into each project. “I read it and it was very unexpected, in that it didn’t have certain tropes of Alex’s – there was no logic or scientific basis. Like many people who watch the finished film, I read it waiting for certain expositional answers to come. I got to page 80 of the screenplay and realized they weren’t coming and I had to recalibrate my expectations.”
If Roberts thought he would find the answers he was looking for in conversations with his writer-director, he would soon realize he needed to recalibrate those expectations as well. “When I discussed it with Alex he wasn’t particularly interested in offering me any simple answers,” Roberts said. “In the course of nine months of working together I never got a completely straight answer as to what it meant to him.” Garland’s insistence on keeping the mysteries of the film ambiguous even for its editor helped Roberts see the movie from the audience’s perspective: “You find your own answers in what the film provokes in you. The ways in which the certain things made me uncomfortable or posed questions about my own attitudes were interesting to me.”
Roberts was also interested in working in the horror genre for the first time, though “Men” was hardly a conventional suspense film. “The narrative is extremely simple,” he said. “It had less expositional or narrative function than anything I’ve ever worked on – there’s no B story or anything like that to cut to – so it really became an exercise in tone and emotions, but those emotions are very subjective. What I would feel about a certain scene might be very different from what Alex felt about it. But he’s very collaborative and I can offer up images or juxtapositions or restructuring that he hasn’t thought of and he’s very open to it.”
Roberts felt that he and Garland were often finding their way in the dark given that the film was continually evolving – even visual effects like the dandelion seeds that provide some of the movie’s most striking images were late ideas that emerged during the editing process. Creating tension in the film’s relatively uneventful first half was particularly tricky, and Roberts had to rely on instinct and intuition because there were no test screenings to see how the film was working on an audience. “We screened it for a few intimate groups of friends and family, but because the nature of certain sequences relied so much on effects that weren’t done it felt like it was impossible to accurately gauge anything from a preview,” Roberts said.
The editor’s strategy in the early scenes was to cut against the natural rhythms of the material, an approach that creates a palpable sense of menace even when virtually nothing is happening. “By holding a shot just a few beats beyond what would be the natural place to cut, you create a slight question in the audience’s mind,” Roberts said. “Why are we lingering here?” Roberts and Garland also made extensive use of angles shot from unknown points of view, increasing the film’s voyeuristic quality. “To a certain extent you’re aided by the genre,” Roberts added. “People know it’s horror, so they’re waiting for it to take a turn at some point. If it was packaged as a romantic comedy it wouldn’t have the same effect even if the sequences were in exactly the same form as they’re in now.”
In spite of Roberts’ enthusiasm about the horror genre, he consciously avoided revisiting any of the classics to prepare for “Men.” “I’ve spent a lifetime watching films and internalizing their lessons,” Roberts said, “but I don’t go and look for specific examples because then you have to either copy or reject them. It’s more an intuitive sense of how to unsettle the viewer by focusing on mundane or commonplace details and placing them in a context that makes them a little more ominous.”
Roberts was aided by the film’s music and sound design, which like many other aspects of the film evolved organically throughout production and post-production. The eerie musical echo that calls back to Harper (Jessie Buckley), for example, was initially just written as a yell, but Garland changed it to a melody as a response to his lead performer’s specific talents (the piano in the house became a more important element of the story as well). The decision was then made to make the singer of the echo be a man imitating a woman’s voice, adding to the eeriness while also engaging with the film’s core ideas. “A man singing like a woman was both more unusual tonally and more interesting in terms of the overarching themes of the film,” Roberts said, adding that the song that opens and closes “Men” is sung by a woman (Lesley Duncan) at the beginning and a man (Elton John) at the end.
Ideas like the echo or the unnerving shots of nature that recur throughout the film were all, as Roberts put it, “born out of the ongoing creative process that carries all the way through. There’s a lot of interest in exploration, and Alex and I don’t really need to talk about it. If something works we just move on to the next thing that doesn’t, or that we don’t like as much. I didn’t press Alex on his motivations. So weirdly, as long as the process is and as collaborative as it is, my response to it remains relatively private and personal.”