Alex Garland knows that naming his new movie “Men” is a provocative act. “It is interesting that such a short and simple word can have huge and wholly subjective meanings,” he said.
As a writer and filmmaker, Garland is drawn to topics that demand discussion: in like the quirky robot “Ex Machina” (2015) and Natalie Portman’s sci-fi drama “Annihilation” (2018), he favored a stark, bold setting that sat at the intersection of a cultural flashpoint. Deceitful “Men” runs along the same lines, casting Jesse Buckley as Harper, a woman who comes to terms with her husband’s death and the blame he’s placed on her in his last moments.
Harper rents a British country house to work through her trauma, but the men of the local village (all played by actor Rory Kinnear) allude to and belittle her as well. Someone even stalks her, posing naked in her front yard, but with whom can Harper register a complaint when all the men around her—or all the men, deep down, are the same?
I spoke to Garland on a video call this month while he was in the middle of directing “Civil War,” the A24 action epic starring Kirsten Dunst. Garland, 51, a Briton, looked a bit exhausted. Before directing “Ex Machina,” he only wrote screenplays for other filmmakers to direct — including “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” and “Dredd.” The more we talked, he wondered if he wanted to continue directing at all.
“I’m tired of feeling cheated,” he told me. “I have many other reasons to feel cheated, and I need to add them in a structural way with my job.”
Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Do you read reviews of your films?
Sometimes, because there will be a bunch of sites I go to, and then I’ll see – with a horrible and overwhelmed feeling – that they’ve reviewed the thing I’ve worked on, and I must be a monk that you don’t read it. I try extensively to stay away from them. The first thing I did in any kind of public forum was write a book, “The Beach”. I was 26 or 27 years old when I went out and read the whole thing, and I realized I could have been unbelievably injured, and that it was really personal. It was a slow step back, because I’ve been doing it for 25 years. I think I would probably back off on all sorts of different things.
What else are you undoing?
I think this is partly due to age: I know fewer and fewer people, I have a smaller and smaller circle, I go out less and less. I say that everything is gradually getting quieter and smaller.
Your films somewhat reflect this situation. They have very small teams and very limited sites. There is not much clutter.
It would certainly be fair to say. I find myself interested in less and less things, but the things that I care about, I may delve into them more and more. Also, I’m not really a film director, I’m a writer who comes out of style.
Didn’t you expect to get this career as a director?
It wasn’t so much a desire to direct, I generated more than writing-based anxiety: I would find it very annoying if something [in the film] I felt completely wrong, or that something I felt important was missing. But I was thinking that after the movie I’m directing at the moment, I should stop and just get back to writing. This might be part of getting away from the world – it’s time to get away from it, I guess. I’m not temperamentally suited to being a film director.
why is that?
It would be honest, probably, to say I don’t particularly enjoy it. It’s something I have to force myself to do. It’s incredibly social, because you’ve been with a large group of people the whole time – and in my case, you have to do a lot of role playing. At the end of the day, you feel a little scammed and overwhelmed.
Because you have to become some kind of showman?
Yes, exactly. I’ll find myself standing in front of a bunch of extras and saying, “Well, what’s going on now is Dah, dah, dah“I raise my voice and be encouraging and intense. It feels incredibly performing. When I watch a talk show, and I see the host engage in witty banter with a guest, I look at them and think, ‘What if they’re really depressed right now?'” Here’s the joking condition, here’s the condition that you’re interested in something you’re not interested inAnd inside you feel incredibly depressing and existential. I always get goosebumps – I almost can’t watch those shows because I feel so strong. And my version of being a talk show host is to stand on a movie set.
However, I think you want to be prepared to oversee the physical perception of your worlds and subjects.
Oh yeah, but that’s the limit. There are many directors where the set is where they need and want to be more than anywhere else, and once the film is finished, they plan to get back into that space again as soon as possible. And that’s not just me.
I’ve seen some directors get older, and it’s almost as if they have to keep directing in order to live. Sometimes another movie is put in front of them even before they have finished the last movie.
no doubt. Immediately, as I said, a Rolodex of names popped into my head, and I was thinking, “That’s exactly what he’s talking about.” But there are also other kind of directors who have stopped abruptly, people like Peter Weir and Alan Parker. They must have been shying away from something, and probably tired of it.
Is this the shortest amount of time that separates you in two movie sets? I shot “Men” in the middle of last year and the “Civil War” began soon after.
Yes, the last day of post-production for “Men” was 48 hours before the first day of principal photography for “Civil War.” Literally, it was Saturday and Monday.
I remember talking to Kirsten Dunst after she was cast in “Civil War,” and she said she was excited that she was finally able to play “the boy” in a movie.
I hope you feel happy with the process, but you never know. I don’t think it’s hard on my own. Movie sets strange places. They are Calvinists, punishing chastity spaces. People work really hard – like the drop down is so exhausting – and you see it on everyone’s faces at the end of the day. There can be elements of addiction in that, but it’s like, I have an alarm bell in my head that’s ringing all the time, thinking, “You need to stop doing this.”
Was making ‘men’ so hard?
Guys was really hard. It’s all up to you, and you have to live with it, but it was also difficult on a technical level. We had a very short shot, and we were trying to get a lot done very quickly. I’ve often worried about Rory in particular, because in the past few weeks of filming, he’s been naked in the middle of the night, and freezing cold. A huge amount of filmmaking is actually logistical, and it’s more like a managerial job. how to implement This is amazing The number of things inside This is amazing Several hours? Literally, how do you do that?
It’s the kind of movie that will leave people arguing about his intention, and about what he’s trying to say. She once told me that with “Ex Machina,” I wanted at least 50 percent of the film to be subject to scenes interpretation.
Over the years, I’ve been consciously putting more and more into the viewer’s hands. There’s probably another element to that as well, if I’m being honest, which is that it makes the viewer complicit. This is another reason to hold back, because there is a part of me that is really subversive and aggressive and is kind of [messing] with people. At times, with “the guys” I’ve felt like I’ve gone so far that it comes to delinquent limits.
What kind of reaction did you get for the movie?
I have good friends that I really respect who I show The Guys, and their compelling explanation – “I know what this movie says, it says This is amazing“- 180 degrees different than I thought.
When that happens, does it feel like a successful experience?
No, it’s just an inevitable feeling. When we watch a movie, we have these responses that on a rational level, we know are subjective, but we treat them as if they were objective, which is just the case. I have distrust of my own responses and the responses of others as reliable – they can vary on a day-to-day level. So when I present something, I don’t expect everyone to agree on it. I have a complete expectation that people will disagree, and I see it primarily as a reflection of them.
What are some of the things your friends said about her?
“Who is the protagonist?” “Is this about what a woman thinks, or is it about what a man thinks?” Certainly people find the strangest thing about it: “That means This is amazingthis means who – which. “I find myself less certain about everything.
Even your own business?
Oh, I’m not sure about that. This is just a set of compulsions.