Original-Cin Q&A: Ex Machina/Annihilation director Alex Garland writes his own career arc

By Bonnie Laufer

A born writer, Alex Garland’s first foray into publishing came at age 26, when he wrote the book, The Beach (which Danny Boyle soon turned into a Leonardo DiCaprio movie).

Boyle then ushered Garland into script-writing, commissioning screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine. In 2015, Garland moved to directing and gave us the critically acclaimed sci-fi thriller Ex Machina with Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson.

His latest film Annihilation, is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s best-selling novel and centers around  a group of soldiers who enter an environmental disaster zone. Only one re-emerges, Kane (Oscar Isaac) barely alive.

In an attempt to save his life, his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist, volunteers for a fact-finding mission into the zone, led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Original-Cin’s Bonnie Laufer spoke with writer/director Alex Garland about Annihilation during a promotional stop in Toronto.


ORIGINAL-CIN: Welcome back to Toronto and congratulations on the film. There's really only one way to describe Annihilation and that's trippy.

ALEX GARLAND: “Yes, I agree. It's very trippy. I don't know about your readership and how explicit I can be in my description but let's just leave it at trippy. I like that.  I like taking trips as well.” (laughs)

Read our review of Annihilation

OC: You read Jeff Vandermeer's book Annihilation many years ago, before he wrote two more books to finish his trilogy. What was it that that got you thinking it would be a good project for the big screen?

GARLAND: “It was two things. I've been re-working stories for over a quarter of a century and I am well used to the fact that most stories, including stories that I have written, are in effect re-tellings of other stories. It's a weird thing. It's sort of ritualistic, almost, I think. It's like a set of strange reassurances of what scares us or comforts us, and this story for me felt sort of outside that box. So just as a storyteller, that was immediately seductive and very interesting to me. It was incredibly powerful and unlike anything I've ever done before.”

OC: So as a storyteller this was a place you really wanted to share visually.

GARLAND: “Exactly. It was also very much about the atmosphere. The novel has a very powerful atmosphere and in the end I was thinking, ‘What am I adapting here? I am adapting the atmosphere.’”

OC: The novel and the film has such strong characters. I love the fact that it focuses on five women, but at the end of the day they are five scientists who need to solve a problem that could affect the world. When you were writing the screenplay, were you thinking about the actresses you cast to be in the lead roles?”

GARLAND: “No, not at all. Actually the actor I kept thinking about was Viola Davis.”

OC: Wow! That would have been an entirely different movie.

GARLAND: “Yes, but that often happens, I am used to that. When writing a script you think of something to help you that you know probably won't work out. Does that make any sense? I'll often write with someone in mind, knowing I probably won't be able to get them so I have to change things completely to make it work for someone else.”

OC: So, how and why did you decide to go with Natalie Portman? There's a beautiful scene where there's some choreography that is needed and we know that she is also a dancer. Did that influence any of your decision?

GARLAND: “I went with Natalie specifically because of a thing that she can do, which is to have an enormous amount of control and poise. She also has a sense of certainty governed by intelligence. But she also has fault lines and inside those fault lines there is raw pain which offsets all of that control. It was about being able to hold those two states at the same time and to have something really very raw, which the character is required to do. She balanced these so well and it was wonderful to watch her work.

“In other words, with some actors you can feel their brokenness. It's like straining on a leash trying to get out. And what Natalie can do is make it feel as if control is really running the show, but there are these breaks that can suddenly explode out. “

OC: The forest that the characters enter into is covered in what is called the shimmer. Can you discuss that and how you went about creating the visual effects for the film?

GARLAND: “The shimmer is a completely unknowable thing. Whatever lies on the other side is effectively a secret so every attempt to find out what is inside is by sending in teams of people or robots or drones but anything that has gone in hasn't come out. So really in away, the most important thing about the shimmer and the thing that is causing it is that it’s unknowable and its intentions are unknowable. I worked very closely with my design, sound and music teams and slowly we inched out way towards what you see on screen.”

OC: Was it a huge challenge for you to adapt this particular story?

GARLAND: “Yes and no... but in the end, yes. “( laughs)

OC: Now that you've had some time to look back on it…

GARLAND: “It was really hard. I think my biggest challenge to date.”

OC: There's a scene in the forest where the ladies come face to face with a very frightening mutated bear. Before all of the effects that were added, it was pretty much you charging at the actors with a bear head on a stick. Was that fun?

GARLAND: “We can debate whether that was fun or not, but it was something that I had to do to get the reactions that I needed. What it ended up being was that it was important to get right. That scene had a lot of embedded risks in it because we were doing something quite odd, particularly because it had to do with the sound design and whether what we were doing was right or not. It was a hell of a dice roll. “

 Annihilation  will open in theatres but will also be coming to Netflix. The deal between the streaming service and Paramount will see the film available to view 16 days after its international release in the US, Canada and China on 23 February.