Alex Garland knows that calling his new movie “Men” is a provocative act. “It’s quite interesting that such a short and simple word can be so laden with massive and entirely subjective meanings,” he said.
As a writer and filmmaker, Garland is drawn to subjects that demand discussion: in the parable of the winding robot”Ex-Machina(2015) and Natalie Portman’s sci-fi drama “Annihilation” (2018), he favored a bold, stark setup that sat at the intersection of a cultural flashpoint. The delicate “men” operates in a similar vein, casting Jessie Buckley as Harper, a woman coming to terms with her husband’s death and the blame he directed at her in his final moments.
Harper rents a British country house to overcome her trauma, but the local village men (all of whom are played by actor Rory Kinnear) insinuate, belittle and coax her as well. One of them even stalks her, appearing naked in her garden, but who can Harper complain to when all the men around her — or all the men, period — are, basically, the same guy?
I spoke to Garland on a video call this month while he was making “Civil war,” an A24 action epic starring Kirsten Dunst. Garland, who is 51 and British, looked a little tired. Before making ‘Ex Machina’, he only wrote screenplays for other filmmakers, including ’28 Days Later’, ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Dredd’. The more we talked, the more he wondered if he wanted to continue directing.
“I’m tired of feeling like an impostor,” he told me. “I have so many other reasons to feel like a fraudster, I don’t need to structurally add more with my work.”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Do you read reviews of your films?
Sometimes, because there’s a set of websites that I go to, and then I see – with a horrible sinking feeling – that they’ve reviewed the thing that I’ve been working on, and it would have to I am a monk not to read it. I generally try to stay away from them. The first thing I did in any type of public forum was write a book, “The beach.” I was 26 or 27 when it came out and I read it all, and I realized that I could be incredibly hurt, that it was really personal. It was a slow throwback, because I’ve been doing this for 25 years now. I think I’m probably taking a step back from all kinds of different things.
What else are you backing down from?
I think it’s partly a function of age: I know fewer and fewer people, I have an increasingly restricted circle, and I go out less and less. Everything is getting progressively quieter and smaller, I would say.
Your films reflect this attitude in a way. They have very small casts and very circumscribed locations. There’s not a lot of clutter.
That would certainly be fair to say. I find myself interested in fewer and fewer things, but the things that interest me, I may go deeper and deeper. And also, I’m not really a director, I’m a writer who directs out of convenience.
You did not expect to make this career as a director?
It wasn’t that I had a great desire to direct, it was more an anxiety related to writing: I would find it very annoying if something [in the film] felt totally wrong, or something that I felt was important was missing. But I thought that after the film I’m making right now, I should stop and go back to writing. It could be part of moving away from the world – it’s time to get away from it, I think. My temperament is not made to be a director.
Why is that?
It would probably be more honest to say that I don’t particularly like him. It’s something I have to force myself to do. It’s incredibly sociable, because you’re with a large group of people all the time – and, in my case, you have to do a lot of role-playing. At the end of the day, you feel a bit cheated and exhausted.
Because you have to become some kind of showman?
Yes exactly. I’ll find myself in front of a group of extras saying, “Okay, so what’s happening now is dah, dah, dahraising my voice and encouraging and intense. It’s just incredibly performative. Every time I watch a chat show and see the host engaging in witty banter with a guest, I look at him and think, “What if he’s really feeling down right now?” Here’s the requirement for a joke, here’s the requirement for being interested in something you’re not interested in, and inside you feel incredibly dark and existential. It always makes me shiver – I almost can’t watch these programs because I feel it so badly. And my version of being a talk show host is on a film set.
Still, I think you would want to be on set overseeing the physical realization of your worlds and themes.
Oh yes, but that’s the limit. There are many directors where the set is where they need and want to be more than any other place, and as soon as the movie is done they plan to be in that space again with as little delay as possible. And it’s not me.
I’ve seen some directors reach old age, and it’s like they have to keep directing to live. Sometimes another movie is placed in front of them before they even finish the last one.
No question. Immediately, as you were saying that, I had a Rolodex of names come to mind, and I thought, “That’s exactly who he’s talking about.” But there’s also another type of director who suddenly stops, people like Peter Weir and Alan Parker. They must have walked away from something, and maybe they’re just fed up.
Is this the shortest amount of time between you on two film sets? You shot “Men” in the middle of last year and started “Civil War” shortly after.
Yes, the last day of post-production on “Men” was 48 hours before the first day of principal photography on “Civil War”. Literally, it was a Saturday and a Monday.
I remember talking to Kirsten Dunst after she was cast in “Civil War,” and she said she was thrilled to finally get to play “the boy role” in a movie.
I hope she feels satisfied with the process, but you never know. I don’t think it’s just me who finds it difficult. Film sets are strange places. They are Calvinist, punishing spaces of abstinence. People work really, really hard – like exhausted people – and you see it on everyone’s face at the end of the day. There may be elements of addiction in there, but it’s like I have alarm bells ringing in my head all the time, thinking, “You have to stop doing this.
Was “Men” so hard to do?
“Men” was really difficult. The subject takes you, and you have to live with it, but it was also technically difficult. We had a very short shoot and we were trying to do a lot of things very quickly. I’ve often worried about Rory in particular, because the last few weeks of filming he’s naked in the middle of the night, and it’s freezing cold. A huge part of filmmaking is actually logistics, and it’s like management work. How do you run this number of things inside this many hours? Concretely, how do you do it?
It’s the kind of movie that will leave people arguing about its intent and what it’s trying to say. You once told me that with “Ex Machina”, you wanted at least 50% of the film to be subject to the viewer’s interpretation.
Over the years I have consciously put more and more into the hands of the viewer. There’s probably another element to that too, if I’m being honest, is that it makes the viewer complicit. That’s another reason to back off, because there’s a part of me that’s really subversive and aggressive and kinda [messing] with people. Sometimes I felt with “Men” that I had gone so far as to border on delinquency.
What kind of reaction did you have to the film?
I have good friends who I really respect who I showed “Men” to and their convincing rendition – “I know what this movie says, it says this” – is 180 degrees different than I thought it was.
When this happens, does it look like a successful experience?
No, it just seems inevitable. When we watch a movie, we have these responses that, from a rational point of view, we know are subjective, but we treat them as if they are objective, and that’s how it is. I have such distrust of my own answers and the answers of others as reliable – they can vary from day to day. So when I propose something, I don’t expect everyone to agree. I expect people to disagree, and I see it mostly as a reflection on them.
What are some of the things your friends have said about it?
“Who is the protagonist? “Is it what a woman thinks or what a man thinks?” It is people’s certainty that I find the strangest: “It means thisit means that.” I find myself less and less sure of everything.
Even your own work?
Oh, I’m not sure about that. It’s just a bunch of compulsions.