If there’s one thing for certain about Annihilation: it’s that it’s going to be really, really weird. It was an absolute certainty when I stepped on set last year and saw production stills of psychedelic mutations – plants shaped like people, decaying bodies merging into swimming pool tile, tentacle-looking black ‘growths’ filling every nook of a lighthouse… The imagery was more than spectacular – it was truly otherworldly. So it comes as no surprise that over a year later, Annihilation has run up against some studio hesitation, a recent Hollywood Reporter article suggesting less than desired test screening results prompted the nervous studio to release the film internationally on Netflix only (Annihilation, though, will still be released theatrically in the US). This news – while disheartening – actually fulfills the promise of the film I saw being shot: a singularly odd and bold exploration into alien mutation, genetics and marital dysfunction. The fact that Annihilation didn’t please every audience member at the Burbank 16 only makes the film seem all the more intriguing and singular.
Annihilation, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, follows five women (including Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tessa Thompson) as they journey into an environmental disaster zone where something otherworldly changes the genetic make-up of everything within. The film marks something of a departure for filmmaker Alex Garland – whereas his first feature, Ex Machina, was grounded in practical (albeit-distant) tech & science, Annihilation is far more rooted in the surreal. As Garland himself is wont to say – Annihilation, at its essence, is a “journey from Suburbia to Psychedelia.”
In my interview with Alex Garland, presented below, he discusses the surreal oddity of Annihilation, re-writing the script, breaking through sci-fi tropes and his thoughts on the international Direct-to-Netflix release. For the full interview, read below.
(Of note: a small portion of the interview was conducted on set; the rest conducted two days ago via phoner)
I just watched the new trailer, which looks great. How involved are you in the marketing materials and trailer?
ALEX GARLAND: I’m not really involved at all. I know some directors get very involved in trailers and posters. Some even cut their own. I stay completely away from it. I just see my job as making a film. I don’t trust my own judgment with trailers and posters because so many times I’ve seen a trailer and thought that looks fantastic and then the film bombs. Or I see a trailer and think that looks like a pile of shit and then the film does amazing. So I have no judgment. I just stay away.
Jumping back to the beginning — how did the book [Annihilation] come to your attention?
GARLAND: I had a story I’d wanted to tell for a while and I’d been discussing it with [producer] Scott [Rudin]. Then Scott said I should read this book, Annihilation. So I did and I could see how the novel and my particular fixation would dovetail.
What spoke to you about the book?
GARLAND: I thought it was really beautiful and strange and also genuinely original. Really original material is quite hard to find. It’s subjective but I just felt truly surprised and engaged. I found the process reading it to be a powerful experience.
Was there any theme in the book that spoke to you in particular?
GARLAND: It was partly this feeling of originality, but if there were something apart from that, it would be the atmosphere. It has a really particular dreamlike atmosphere and I found that really fascinating.
It looks like you’ve made a number of changes from the book to the film. What were those key changes?
GARLAND: It’s just a different set of preoccupations. I’ve worked on some very faithful adaptations that are like holding a mirror up to the source material. Never Let You Go – which I adapted a few years ago – was really a very faithful adaptation… I did another adaptation, Dredd, which was a semi-faithful adaptation. It was very faithful to a character but less faithful to the world. This is probably more of a free for all. It’s a very dreamlike, very beautiful novel and it worked well for my purposes. I loved what [author] Jeff [VanderMeer] had done but one thing I know… Years ago I used to work as a novelist and I know that novels & films are independent of each other.
The book is fairly open-ended. Does the movie answer any of the questions the book raises?
GARLAND: The movie has its own questions. Some of which… the fundamental questions that the film poses, it does answer. When I wrote this – I knew there was going to be a trilogy [of books] but I hadn’t read the other two books. They hadn’t been written so I saw this as a contained thing. I tend to think of stories as contained things, not necessarily requiring further stories. The novel, though, was written very consciously as the first part. It’s a short novel. Jeff very clearly had the intention that he would be unfolding the story as it went along. I had the intention of completing the story.
Now that there are two more [books], do you want to continue that story along with him?
GARLAND: I’m more interested in contained stories.
How similar was the initial draft of Annihilation to the eventual production draft?
GARLAND: I think probably like eighty percent or something like that… I’ve written [scripts] where things have changed hugely. The first draft of Ex Machina is extremely different than the finished film. That would be like 10% of the original draft stayed into the shooting script. On this, though, it was seventy-five or eighty percent…
What changed on Annihilation?
GARLAND: It was partly to do with how the conceit of the story is set up and it was partly to do with how the ending, approximately the last thirty or thirty-five minutes are executed.
Did you ever send a draft to Jeff VanderMeer? Or ask for his opinion?
GARLAND: Oh yeah.
What did he say?
GARLAND: Well – the film and the book are in some ways very closely related, but in other respects very different from each other. The truth is – you’d have to ask Jeff what he really felt, but what I felt was as a writer, [he] understood how and why the two things were different. He was very open minded about giving us creative permission as filmmakers to just go ahead and do the best we could.
How much impact did Jeff have after you sent him a rough script?
GARLAND: I always talk to people and listen to what they have to say. So he had that imprint and we discussed it quite a lot. We’d have two, three-hour phone conversations going through it all. And he’d say, ‘Tell me why you’ve done this? What’s the justification for doing this or that?’ So for example – a bit like the film Stalker – the characters in Jeff’s novel don’t have names and I, for tonal reasons, thought I’m going to have to give them names. In a film with this kind of execution, it would be slightly too arch if they’re saying, ‘Hey, Biologist, come check this out’ It makes it too other. This film is weird enough…
When Natalie, Jennifer and the rest of the cast join the film, do you polish the script to suit the actors?
GARLAND: What we do – and I always do this – is we do a two week rehearsal period. The rehearsal period is not actually to do with affecting performance, but it’s to do with making sure everybody gets why a scene exists and why the lines are the way they are. Then the actors have absolute open permission to say I’m not really sure about this line, it doesn’t really fit in my mouth, it doesn’t really feel right to me. Then with all of us sitting around the table, we work on it. We change it right then and there and put it in the script. There’s a lot of openness. As long as the meaning and the intention stay the same, it’s not really a problem for me. Really what you’re doing is you’re handing over the ownership of the character to the actor. So if the actor has a way they want their character to do something, you have to listen to that and make sure it’s accommodated.