'Annihilation' director Alex Garland on dreaming up the year's most exhilarating, terrifying sci-fi film

Natalie Portman and writer-director Alex Garland on the set of <em>Annihilation</em>. (Photo: Paramount/Skydance)
Natalie Portman and writer-director Alex Garland on the set of Annihilation. (Photo: Paramount/Skydance)

The filmmaker talks the power of his female cast, his ‘striking’ source material, avoiding franchises, Netflix distribution … and the prospects of a Dredd sequel.

Over the course of five films — 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd, and Ex Machina — writer-director Alex Garland has proven himself to be cinema’s most daring and exciting sci-fi filmmaker. That reputation will only be furthered by Annihilation, his challenging and altogether exhilarating adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel (the first in his Southern Reach trilogy) about a group of scientists (Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny) tasked with exploring the Shimmer, a mysterious hot zone from which no one has ever returned, save for the comatose husband (Oscar Isaac) of Portman’s biologist. A journey into a nightmarishly hallucinatory heart of darkness, it’s a saga that begins mysteriously and then grows ever more terrifying, not only because of what its protagonists learn, but because of what their discoveries mean for human nature — and, more fundamentally, life itself. Visually and narratively bold, Garland’s latest (his second straight behind-the-camera effort) is the sort of original, inventive work that’s all too rare in today’s multiplex environment, and it’s additional proof that few are as adept at large-scale genre cinema. Ahead of Annihilation’s release this Friday, we spoke with him about his feelings regarding mankind’s self-destructive impulses, the film’s international release via Netflix, making audacious standalone movies in franchise-obsessed Hollywood, and whether we’ll ever see a sequel to Dredd.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez in <em>Annihilation</em>. (Photo: Paramount/Skydance)
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez in Annihilation. (Photo: Paramount/Skydance)

Yahoo Entertainment: Both in terms of its story and its style, Annihilation gradually becomes quite unconventional. Was it tough selling the studio on the film?
Alex Garland:
Not really, to my surprise. I was truly shocked that we got this film greenlit. When we got it greenlit, I kept saying, “Are you sure? Have you really read the script?” But the people, at that point, seemed quite up for it, and so to my immense surprise, it wasn’t that hard at that stage.

Have you found that, generally speaking, it’s tougher to get challenging standalone sci-fi projects made in the current superhero/franchise-fixated studio environment?
I think it’s not easy. In truth, I suspect one of the significant reasons we managed to get this film financed reasonably straightforwardly had a lot to do with Ex Machina. That bought a bit of trust, maybe. But that said, I’ve actually noticed there is a lot of brave stuff being made, and the thing that really sticks in my mind is The Handmaid’s Tale, which was my favorite bit of film drama that I saw last year. That is really immensely brave and very cerebral as well as being very visceral and all sorts of other things. But above all, it’s brave and it’s thoughtful sci-fi. So there are ways and means of getting it done, and there’s a bunch of people trying, and succeeding.

Annihilation is much more hallucinatory than Ex Machina, which was grounded in a semirealistic vision of future tech. Did you deliberately want to go in the opposite direction, or was it just instinct?
It’s both really. I tend to always react against the thing I’ve just done. If you jump back two films instead of one film — before Annihilation there was Ex Machina, but before Ex Machina there was Dredd. And Dredd is a film that has a huge psychedelic bit of content right at the heart of it, which is a drug called Slo-Mo, that creates a massive hallucinatory effect. And the thing is kind of violent and nihilistic and trippy. Then, if you go a film before Dredd, it’s Never Let Me Go, and Never Let Me Go is more like Ex Machina, which is a small, contained, thoughtful thing. And before Never Let Me Go was Sunshine, which was trippy again. So you see what I mean.

I think I just either alternate or react against. It’s actually one of the reasons I’ve never been into the idea of working on franchise movies — because it’s built into a franchise movie that after you’ve done it once, you have to do it again. That idea just fills me with dread.

Watch the trailer for Annihilation:

I assume, then, that there’s no Dredd 2 in the pipeline?
One of the things that I’ve done in my career — quite often, actually — is lose distributors massive amounts of money. And certainly what I did with Dredd was lose people a hell of a lot of money. Ultimately, franchise decisions are made on their profitability, and Dredd was not profitable. Therefore, you’re unlikely to see another one.

I hear, every now and then, just sort of through the grapevine really — I think they’re thinking of a TV series at the moment, predictably. But I actually don’t know more about it than that. I’ve not been contacted by any of the rights holders or anything like that. So your guess is as good as mine.

The poster for the theatrical release of <em>Dredd</em>. (Image: Lionsgate)
The poster for the theatrical release of Dredd. (Image: Lionsgate)

Annihilation is rooted, thematically, in issues of division/replication, and how those opposing processes are tied to nature, life, and evolution. Do you view human nature as caught between self-destruction and transformation, and is that idea what appealed to you about the project?
Well, I’d say that you’ve literally described and encapsulated what the film is about. That is literally what it’s about in a conscious way. The film stems from a particular thing, which was just an awareness that people are self-destructive, and sometimes they’re self-destructive in an obvious way, because they’re junkies, or they keep crashing their car when they’re drunk, or whatever it happens to be. And then oftentimes, it’s much more subtle. You can meet someone who feels almost like the opposite of a self-destructive personality — they’re super comfortable in their own skin, they’ve got a great job, everything goes brilliantly for them in life, and you feel like they’ve cracked the secret to existence somehow. But then you get to know them, and you realize, no, it’s much more complicated than that, and they have these subtly self-destructive acts — and the more you get to see them, you realize they’re actually profoundly self-destructive acts. They’re kind of dismantling friendships, or marriages, or whatever it happens to be.

Portman in <em>Annihilation</em>. (Photo: Paramount/Skydance)
Portman in Annihilation. (Photo: Paramount/Skydance)

So it came, firstly, from just observing that, and then from wondering why that would be so universal. It can’t be by coincidence. Is it because we are physically self-destructive, because we’re made of cells that have limited lifespans, and we live in a universe that has a limited lifespan, and we’re near a star that has a limited lifespan? Or is it something more psychological or metaphysical than that?

I’m not going to spoil the ending, but by Annihilation’s conclusion, the film has explained what’s taken place, and yet still maintained a sense of mystery — and that, plus the trippy visuals, made me think of 2001. Did any prior films inspire you? And how do you strike that balance between making sure no one is totally confused, and yet also not spelling everything out?
The answer to the second part of the question is you do that by inferring things more than stating them. You don’t put anything in there that’s random; everything is in there for a reason. And the reason is contained within the film, but it isn’t necessarily stated in a clear way. It’s stated via inference. So, in effect, it ends up being a kind of contract between the viewer and the engagement of the intellect — between the imagination of the viewer and the film itself. Everything is not provided on a plate; far from it. It’s a two-way interaction between the film and the person watching it.

There were a couple of films I thought about, but the one that felt the most obviously relevant was Apocalypse Now, because just in a very base structural way, you have a journey through a landscape — through a countryside — that’s getting progressively surreal, after the film begins in a kind of normality. Annihilation begins with a university professor and a home in the suburbs, and Apocalypse Now begins with a soldier being given a mission, which is what you partially expect soldiers to be given in some respect. Then they progressively move into a more and more hallucinatory and disturbed and subjective space.

The all-female squad prepares to enter the Shimmer in <em>Annihilation</em>. (Photo: Paramount/Skydance)
The all-female squad prepares to enter the Shimmer in Annihilation. (Photo: Paramount/Skydance)

What was it about Jeff VanderMeer’s novel that compelled you to adapt it? And was there any pushback to keeping the main characters all female?
There was definitely no pushback on that at all. If there was, nobody ever mentioned it to me. The process of adapting it was, I was in post-production on Ex Machina, and Scott Rudin, who was one of the producers on that film, sent me the book and said you should take a look at this. Obviously, I know that when somebody does that, there’s an agenda — like, are you interested in making it? So while I was reading it, I was having concurrent thoughts. One of them was I was just struck by the originality of the book, which is very unusual in stories, because most stories are retellings of other stories that we repeat to each other in an almost ritualistic sort of way. And this felt completely other from that. So that was very striking. The other thing was it had this extremely powerful, very strange atmosphere that in some respects was dreamlike in a literal way. Reading it was like having a dream, and I was very struck by that.

Then you ask yourself, “What is the thing I’m adapting? What are the significant aspects of the adaptation?” Previously, on a film like Dredd, the thing you are most fundamentally adapting is the character of Dredd himself; you can change all sorts of stuff around that, but if you change the character of Dredd, then you’ve broken something fundamental. In Jeff’s book, I felt that what I was adapting was the atmosphere. It was the sensation of reading it. That’s what I was shooting for.

This is your second straight directorial effort. Did the urge to direct come from a desire to control your stories from start to finish, rather than trusting others to fulfill the vision you’d realized on the page?
It’s more complicated than that, in truth. It’s more to do with a dislike of the pyramid structure in filmmaking. I don’t really like pyramid structures anywhere, but I happen to work in film, so it was film where I disliked the pyramid structure. In a weird way, it was to do with dismantling that, and creating something which is not a pyramid but is more like a mountain range — and each of the mountains in the mountain range are these autonomous groups. It could be the camera department, or the production design department, or individual members of the cast, or me, or a producer, or whoever it happened to be. It was just to do with getting rid of that really boring, top-down setup that I felt often just interfered, and shooting for something that was more like anarchy — not in the chaotic sense of anarchy, but in the collective working-together-to-a-common-goal anarchy.

Alex Garland accepts a Directors Guild award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Feature Film Director, for <em>Ex Machina</em>, Feb. 2016. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for DGA)
Alex Garland accepts a Directors Guild award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Feature Film Director, for Ex Machina, Feb. 2016. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for DGA)

Paramount is releasing Annihilation in the U.S. but having it premiere on Netflix internationally. What’s your take on that approach, and would you consider working with a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon in the future?
In a way, the differentiation for me would not be about streaming versus theatrical — it would be big screen versus small screen. I’ve got no issue with small screen; I like small screen a lot. In fact, the next thing I’m trying to do is an eight-part TV show for FX. So I’ve got no issue with that whatsoever. It’s more just what the intention is when you start doing it. A lot of the work in Annihilation was specifically designed for the big screen: the way it was shot, the production design, the visual effects, the sound design — all of those things were designed for theaters. If you were doing it for a small screen, you’d do some of it differently. So my real feeling was just that this was not the medium we were shooting for.

But past that, how many of my favorite films have I never seen on a big screen? A lot of them. So it’s a conflicting set of feelings. What I don’t want to do is say anything that would resemble setting one medium off against the other. I think they’re truly equally valid, and like I said, the next thing I’m going to try to do is on the small screen.

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: