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Interview: Alex Garland

Alex Garland’s first novel The Beach was adapted into a feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Garland then worked with the director of that film, Danny Boyle, on the movies 28 Days Later and Sunshine, for which Garland wrote the screenplays. He also wrote the screenplays for the recent films Never Let Me Go, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Dredd, based on the British comic book character Judge Dredd. Garland also wrote and directed the new science fiction thriller Ex Machina.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.

I mentioned that this is a show for fantasy and science fiction book fans primarily, so growing up, what were some fantasy and science fiction books that were favorites of yours and got you into the field?

The guy I kind of reach for typically when I think of that is J.G. Ballard. There are books that exist in this kind of floating state between all sorts of different genres, and in some respects they’re just themselves. Some of them are quite overtly science fiction and some of them aren’t. They’re in a sort of edge area. And some of them are very grounded in a sense, like Empire of the Sun for example. So, Ballard, and then John Wyndham. I read a lot of John Wyndham when I was a kid. And Ray Bradbury. And then inevitably there’d be these people like Heinlein, and Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke that you would kind of encounter by the book jackets as much as anything else. I’m talking about, like, the late ’70s and early ’80s. You’d find these in school or in shops. There would be these amazing covers, and the cover would drag you in. And sometimes the spaceship on the cover would not in any way appear in the novel, but it got you reading. If I was going to pick out a book that made a lot of impact on me and I read several times, it would probably be The Day of the Triffids.

That’s a great book. John Wyndham.

John Wyndham, yeah.

Did you have friends who were into science fiction, or were you just discovering it on your own?

No, pretty much on my own. Except nudged at times by both parents, but I guess it was my dad that got me to read. I think it was my mom that got me to read Ray Bradbury, and it was my dad that got me to read John Wyndham. So, it was at home. But, with friends, no. I mean, I’m in my mid-forties, and there’s been a huge culture shift over my lifetime about how some of these things are seen, like video games, and science fiction, and stuff like that. When I was growing up with those things, they were much more fringe: comic books and stuff like that. They’ve become incredibly mainstream. There’s some part of me that’s still surprised that comic book movies dominate the horizon to the extent they do, because I remember slightly hiding the fact that I read comic books when I was a kid.

You did the screenplay for the Dredd movie, so I know you’ve read the Dredd comic book.

Oh, I grew up on Dredd. 2000 AD. Actually, if you said books and comic books, I would have brought 2000 AD into it because 2000 AD was a massive influence on a lot of people. There’s a lot of British writers and film makers and comic book artists, you name it, where you see this amazingly long shadow that 2000 AD cast within the UK.

What other comic books were you reading growing up?

2000 AD was the main one. There was a spinoff one called Starlord, which I used to read as well. Then the comic book I got into was, here, Heavy Metal or Métal Hurlant. It was very rarely—just to be honest about it, it was very rarely the writing that pulled me in. It was the artwork.

Chicks in chainmail or…?

Did you say “chicks in chainmail”? [laughter] No, it wasn’t that, because my dad is a cartoonist, so I grew up around drawing and comic books. When I say it was the artwork, I mean it really was the artwork. So, I’d look at Moebius, and I would think, wow. And the wow would have nothing to do with chicks in chainmail. It would be the way he was drawing a figure or the sort of atmosphere created by the strange landscape he was drawing or the strange objects in the landscape. I was very, very aware of how beautifully drawn they were. I really used to look at that and copy those drawings. So, genuinely, it was more that. They were fantastic draftsmen and quite weird draftsmen. You used to get some quite interesting and strange artists in 2000 AD, but they were even more strange and out there in Métal Hurlant or Heavy Metal.

And then, as a result of Alan Moore and a few writers, but particularly Alan Moore, who then went from 2000 AD over the Atlantic and started writing, say, DC Comics—some of them DC, some Marvel. Alan Moore started writing Swamp Thing and so I picked up Swamp Thing as he started writing it. I was completely blown away. That felt like next level stuff to me. Likewise Watchmen. That then opened up DC and Marvel to me, but kind of late. I wasn’t reading that stuff so much when I was ten or eleven, it was when I was in my teens, I guess.

I heard you say that you initially wanted to be a cartoonist or a comic book artist or something?

Yeah, it was kind of an assumption, I think. Just because of what my dad did, just growing up around comic books, and some, again, really brilliant draftsmen. So, there were these guys, Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Elder. I think these two are probably lost in time, these names now, but a lot of comic book artists would probably know them. Dad loved these guys, particularly Kurtzman and Elder, and, also from then, Robert Crumb, a lot of the underground comic book artists like Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb, [he was] incredibly influenced by those guys. Because there’s another whole separate sort of lineage of American comics, nothing to do with DC and Marvel, Action or anything like that, which was from Mad Magazine in its early incarnation, not that Mad that existed by the ’70s. If I went down to the corner shop and bought a copy of Mad Magazine, it was not really related to the Mad Magazine of the ’50s and ’60s, which is what I grew up reading in anthologies that my dad had collected.

But then you actually ended up becoming a novelist initially.

Yeah, because when I was about twenty-one, I was drawing comic books, and then writing the stories, mainly because I didn’t know a writer. This was a completely self-contained exercise. I didn’t really know other people that were into comic books . . . I mean, a few, kind of, but not really. So, I was like a sort of one-man band. I was writing, and drawing, and coloring, and lettering, and all that kind of stuff. I think a lot of people start out that way. By the time I was in my early twenties, I learned that I was not as good at drawing, and I never would get as good at drawing as I needed to get, because I understood enough about drawing to see my precise limitations. So, I ditched the pictures and just stuck with the words.

Given how much of your work is involved with science fiction stuff, your first novel, The Beach, actually was not science fiction.

None of the novels I wrote were SF. I wrote three novels and none of them were SF.

Was that a conscious choice at all? Or did you think at all about not writing any science fiction?

No, it’s like horses for courses, I think. You write the story in the medium to which it seems best suited.

I’d got really into backpacking when I was about seventeen and spent years and years to-ing and fro-ing between the UK and Asia, mainly Southeast Asia. I accumulated lots of stories, and the comic books I’d started writing and drawing were comic books about Southeast Asia, because you write about what you know, typically, I think initially, in the early days. Either you write about what you know, or you retell a story that you loved as a kid. It’s one or the other, you know? So, I wrote about backpacking, and I did comic books about backpacking. I remember one, it was the point I consciously decided, “I’m going to stop doing this.” I did either sixty-two or sixty-four pages, which was the length of a Tintin comic book. I love Tintin. I thought, “Tintin manages to tell a whole narrative within sixty-two pages, so that’s a reasonable thing to aim for.” Then I spent a long, long time writing and drawing it, particularly a long time drawing it. And then gave it to my dad to read. I literally handed it over to him and said, “Here, look, I just finished this comic book.” Then I went away to go and make a coffee or something, and by the time I’d got back, he’d finished it. I realized it took about seven minutes to read, and I thought, “Wow, that took me like a year, and it takes seven minutes to read.” And I just thought, “I’ve got to stop drawing.”

I know that you did the screenplay adaptation for Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, but I hadn’t realized you guys were actually friends in real life, was that during your period as a novelist? How did you first meet him?

When I moved from comic books to novels, I hadn’t spent my teenage years trying to figure out how to write prose. Many, many novelists, that’s what they’ve done because they figured it out quite early, that that’s what they wanted, but I hadn’t done that. And I hadn’t gone to college to learn creative writing, which could also help. So, I really was in a kind of . . . not exactly a backward position, but I was only just off the blocks. I really had to figure stuff out. I didn’t know very basic stuff, like, literally, how you attribute dialogue. I didn’t know how you did it.

There were a few writers who I took off the shelves simply to, on a technical level, look at how they did it. One of them was Ishiguro, another one was Ballard. Ballard often would not do any attribution of dialogue. It would just be by proximity of the last person mentioned that you would figure out who was speaking. And Graham Greene, I think it was, would do “he said, she said” every line, and that fascinated me, because it didn’t feel like repetition. The word “said,” why didn’t it feel like repetition? Why does your brain not register it? Very mechanical things like that. And I ended up modeling a section of the dialogue in this first book I was writing, The Beach, on a section of dialogue in Ishiguro’s work because I’d been looking at it to see how he did it, and I modeled it in a self-conscious way. I wrote this book, it got published.

It’s this kind of thing you get asked, sub-editors or commissioning editors at newspapers are constantly trawling for new people to drop into their paper to feed the incredibly voracious writing rate that those mediums required, so I got asked, “Will you write about your favorite book? You’re a new novelist. What’s your favorite book?” So I did it about an Ishiguro novel and mentioned that I had stolen this thing, and he then wrote me a nice letter, and we had coffee, and became pals. I don’t know many writers, but he’s one of the only ones I know. I’m a big fan, and it’s kind of weird to work on someone’s stuff when you also have learned a great deal as well. It’s a complicated relationship.

When we interviewed him, he actually ended up interviewing me for half the time about science fiction and what could he learn about science fiction from me.

Yeah, because he’s so curious.

He actually just emailed me yesterday to continue the conversation. But he said in an interview I saw that you and he had been having this conversation too about science fiction, and he said he wouldn’t have written Never Let Me Go, probably, were it not for these conversations with you talking about how science fiction could be used to make a serious message.

I have no idea if that’s true because the thing about Ishiguro is that (A) he is very intellectually curious and (B) he’s genuinely very generous. I’m not just saying that.

As a young writer, I sometimes used to encounter older writers, and you’d get often this incredible vibe of hostility. They didn’t like you. They don’t want young writers coming up. They’re not into that. And with him, it was exactly the opposite. You’re quite tuned into that in your mid-twenties, if some bloke who is fifteen years older than you is looking at you with a bit of contempt or dislike, you pick up on it. You also pick up on the absence of it. He’s a very sort of generous bloke.

So, I don’t know if what he just said is true, but we did use to talk a lot about SF, and I think I just came from a position—I’m like this about every genre, really—I’ve got no irony about it. I just like it. There’s nothing stepped back too analytical about it. SF gives these incredible permissions to talk about whatever you want, and it’s not embarrassed about big ideas.

In other genres, including literary fiction and adult film drama, in other words, the sort of grown-up ends of those mediums, there’s a kind of embarrassment with big ideas that I find really kind of lame. If I’ve got any area of slight wariness about a genre, it’s actually literary fiction and adult drama. It’s because they’re so concerned with their status. What they don’t want is self-consciously big ideas, because they’re all so educated, the people working in those fields, and they’re so worried about looking sophomoric or pretentious. They’re kind of stuck in a paralysis with this thing, and so they repeat these endless same stories about microcosm human relationships in a marriage, or whatever it happens to be.

So, that was the kind of conversation Ishiguro and I would have, I suppose. But I honestly think he’s configured this in his mind, and it wasn’t really like that. He’d have written that book anyway, because he sits outside the mainstream within literary fiction. He does stuff that the other guys just don’t do, and he’s always been like that. Right from the get-go. I can’t appropriate that.

It’s always struck me that, in fiction, if you publish one book of a certain type, you’re expected to keep writing that type of book forever.

By who though?

Well, by your publisher, for example.

I suppose there is some truth in that. It sounds so stupid when you say it, but I think it’s actually true. It’s such an idiotic requirement. Like, why on Earth would you state something like that? Why be restrictive? It makes no sense to me.

But, I remember when I wrote this first book, The Beach. It’s all about backpackers and a kind of attempt at a utopian society in Southeast Asia. And then I wrote my second book, called The Tesseract, which took as its title a kind of four-dimensional cube, a hypercube. And the blood drained from the publisher’s face as I handed this over. It’s got largely Filipino characters, set in the Philippines, and doesn’t have any of the kind of mainstream appeal that The Beach turned out to have, rather surprisingly, from my point of view.

Anyway, then I was sitting down to write another book, mulling it over, and I got sat down by someone here in New York, actually not very far from where we’re sitting now, who said, “You know what? I think it’s great that you tried something different, but maybe you should start something again about young people in a foreign location, and maybe they’re trying to set something up again.” And in other words, trying to get me to rewrite The Beach again, and I remember thinking, “I now have no respect for you, and I can never work with you again.” So, yes, that does happen, but it’s pathetic.

In film that doesn’t seem to be the case; that James Cameron can start out making Terminator and then he can make Titanic and nobody says like, “No, you’re just a robot director.” Or Ridley Scott.

So, you think it’s located particularly in books?

It seems that way to me, yeah.

You’re probably right, because you’ve thought about it, and I haven’t. Well, I guess it would depend, wouldn’t it? So, let’s say James Cameron said that he was going to do a kind of eight-million-dollar adult drama about three generations in a family learning to love each other again after some seismic event, which is the classic terms of that kind of drama. I think people would definitely raise eyebrows.

I’m partly saying that just to be contrarian with you, that’s all. I don’t really know if I believe that or not. But, it would be heavily commented on in some respects, whereas making Avatar Two and Three, people might get excited about it, but they feel like, yes, this was always somehow on the horizon or in his future. But, you know what, I’ll just concede it. I’m automatically contrarian. I shouldn’t be. It’s really irritating.

Well, no, I mean because I certainly don’t think filmmaking is pure in this way. I’ve actually heard you say that you’ve gone in to meetings with development people who said idea movies don’t work ever, something to that effect.

Yeah, categorically, quite explicitly. In fact, right before I started working on an explicit ideas movie. I was saying, “This is the film I want to work on.” And they were saying, “That won’t work because it’s an ideas movie.”

Which film was that?

Ex Machina.

Okay.

In a very visceral way, not in a contrarian way, not the way I was just doing then with you, but in a sort of visceral way, I just thought, “That’s bullshit, and I don’t believe in it.”

And so were they saying that it wouldn’t sell tickets? What exactly was their . . .

Yes, they were saying that, but they were also saying it just won’t work on a creative level. Ideas movies fail, because film is economical and reductive and therefore can’t explore things in a complex way. But more to the point, I think what they were really saying is that at the heart of a film, you can’t have an idea. They really believe that.

In a way, it’s unfair of me to present their argument because I disagree with it so strongly, that I’d only ever make them sound stupid in the repetition of it. All I remember was that what came into my head immediately, sort of almost before they’d finished the sentence, was A Clockwork Orange. Because A Clockwork Orange is, from my point of view, an ideas movie. There’s a really sophisticated set of ideas in that film, and when I leave the film, I’m not thinking about visceral moments. I’m thinking about the ideas that it provoked. So, from my point of view, that makes it an ideas movie. But, like I said, you see, what they do is they’d say, “No, no, that’s, like, about teenage gangs in an SF setting. And that’s what people dig and the ideas are the texture.” I guess something like that.

What are some other things you would say are idea movies in science fiction? Like 2001?

2001 is definitely an ideas movie. In a way, I think The Thin Red Line is an ideas movie. That is to say, what happens with these things is that you quickly get into an area of debate whether something is an ideas movie or not. But, for me, The Thin Red Line is an ideas movie. There is a narrative of sorts, but again, what happens is when the film is over, I start thinking about what the film provoked rather than narrative beats or a dilemma that a character was in: “Will they get out of the trap or not?” or “Wasn’t that funny when they said X?” I’m actually thinking about something much more abstract than that, so in those terms, I guess it’s an ideas movie. The Tree of Life is an ideas movie. It just is, isn’t it? But they’d say, “Yeah, The Tree of Life is an ideas movie, and it’s lousy.” That’s what they’d say because they would have an objective response to it. They’d say, “I get it is, but I don’t like it.” But I do like The Tree of Life.

I can imagine a more robust form of that argument just being: A book can deal with ideas, a novel can deal with ideas, in a much more robust way than a film can, so express the ideas in a book.

In its best medium.

In its best medium, right.

And then I’d say, “Well, it probably depends on the idea. And it depends on the way you want to explore the idea.” If you want to explore it in a forensic way, then what you said is probably true, because just in terms of information, you can get much more information into a novel. Rather, you can get explicit information into a novel that allows you, in a concrete way, to see exactly what the sentence is at least attempting to say, within reason. In film, the ideas are more often alluded to. In the film I just worked on, which is an ideas movie, I would say some of the ideas are very explicitly put out there and literally discussed, and others of them are there by illustration or by inference, just maybe simply in the presentation of a thing. Of a robot that looks like a woman, but isn’t a woman, but maybe it is a woman. There’s an idea contained within that. There is, in fact, a brief discussion about it. But, broadly speaking, in a novel, you would be able to have much more full and forensic-type explanations or discussions.

Film relies much more on inference, but that’s its strength, too. I’ve often thought, as someone who has worked in books and film, about what you can do in a film by doing a close-up, or even a mid-shot, of a glance where somebody notices something, and how easy it is to pack massive amounts of information into that glance in terms of what the character has just seen, or what they haven’t seen. And in a book, how you can never quite throw the moment away, and yet contain as much within it as you can with film. The thing I like most about film is probably that thing. It has this terrific way of being able to load moments that it’s also throwing away, and that’s harder in a novel.

To be contrarian about that, for a second though . . .

Cool. [Laughter]

In a book you can actually get inside someone’s head and just tell the reader what they’re thinking or inhabit their consciousness.

Absolutely.

In a film, everything that the character is thinking has to be conveyed through their facial expression or body language.

Or a bit of voiceover, yeah.

One thing that strikes me a lot about movies is that the character is deceiving other characters in the scene, but they have to be doing it in a way that’s obvious enough that the audience sees through them, whereas, why don’t the characters in the scene see through them?

Well, it’s funny you should say that, because actually in Ex Machina, the characters are often simultaneously deceiving the audience and the other characters. One of the conversations with the actors, prior to shooting, was about making sure that we didn’t telegraph in the way that film often does, in exactly the way you said, that you abandon that relationship. Now, that’s problematic in some ways, because it makes character motivation more ambiguous, but in other ways, that’s also a strength. That may be something I’m pulling from novels, I don’t know, but I didn’t think I was. I thought it was a more explicit version of show-don’t-tell. It was taking show-don’t-tell to a sort of extremist degree, or something like that. But interestingly, there are many, many times in Ex Machina where a lot of effort is made to not have a complicit understanding, or an implicit understanding, between the audience and a character.

This is absolutely a movie that just layers deception all around. It’s a hard movie to talk about without spoiling it, and I actually . . .

We don’t have to talk about it. I wasn’t trying to artfully bring it around to the reason I’m out in New York, trying to promote this bloody film. I mean, I really, truly wasn’t. We can carry on talking about whatever you want.

Oh no, it’s a terrific movie. I’m happy to talk about it, but I’m just pointing out . . . the less you know about it the better, and I actually had people warn me not to watch the trailers before I saw the movie, and I think that was a really good decision.

I agree. When I saw that trailer, I felt quite alarmed, but that’s not untypical of people who work on films when they see trailers, because of what information is contained within it. In a more blanket way, in the order I structure it in my head, the best way to see a film is knowing nothing about it. On the rare occasions that you do get see films like that, it’s fantastic having a narrative unfold in front of you that you have not been frontloaded about. It doesn’t happen very often to me, maybe because of the area in which I work, but it does still happen sometimes, particularly with older movies that you catch on TV or something, and it’s such a pleasure. Then probably the second best, which is everything I fight against, in some respects, but probably the second best is for everyone to say it’s terrible, so that you go in there thinking it’s going to be rubbish and then are open-minded. When everyone has told you it’s good, then you’re in that sort of, “Well, prove it” type mode as the lights go down. “Right, here we go movie. Prove it.”

Are there any science fiction movies you can think of specifically that you watched expecting them to be terrible and then you said afterward, “Actually, that was pretty good.”

Probably lots. 2010, actually. I remember people were very rude about 2010 because it came after 2001, so it was that sort of default state. I mean at the time of 2001, lots of people said it was no good, but by then the world had decided it was a masterpiece, so then 2010 is a sacrilege. I remember thinking, “I’m really digging this movie.” So that one.

There’s a Roger Zelazny quote, he’s an author that I really like, where he said, “Critics only ever say two things about you. They say, ‘This guy is no good.’ Then after you have been around for a while, they say, ‘This guy has really lost it.’”

[Laughter] That’s brilliant. That’s very funny. I’ll tell you a film that I saw that I knew nothing about and was blown away. One of my favorite ever film-watching experiences was Starship Troopers, the first one. I just knew nothing. It was hardly promoted in the UK. I don’t know why I went in there. Maybe it’s because it said “Starship” or something. I have no idea. I didn’t know the source material. And a few minutes in, I was thinking, “Oh my god, this is the best film I’ve ever seen.” And I consciously enjoyed every second of the film from it beginning to it ending, and then walked out totally exhilarated. So, 2010 for they undercut it, and Starship Troopers for I didn’t know what to expect. And they were both great.

One thing I was really curious to ask you about, so I listened to an interview with you on the Inquiring Minds podcast, and the host, Indre Viskontas, she mentioned a scene in the movie that you thought you had cut out, and she described this scene.

And it was cut out.

Yeah, and I have no recollection of the scene whatsoever.

I’ll tell you what that’s about. I found out later by email, but at the moment that I did that interview, I was in a semi-comatose state. My brain was barely functioning in all sorts of different respects just through repetition of talking about this bloody film, and moving around too quickly from city to city and all that kind of thing.

I’ve often had this happen before, that is, a scene I wrote and then cut. I don’t trust my memory. I really don’t. There are things I can remember clearly, and if somebody tells me, “That’s not what happened,” my immediate response is not actually to say, “No, no, that’s definitely what happened,” but actually to say, “Oh, maybe it didn’t.”

I’ve just had it demonstrated in an empirical way so many times that my memory is not to be trusted. I thought there were two people there, but actually there were six. Like, really way off stuff like that. So, when she said that to me, I remember feeling really confused, but even within the interview, I then sort of said, “Okay, all right, well, I’ll go along with that, but it’s kind of weird because I don’t remember it.” This is a film I worked on as hard as I’ve ever worked on anything in my life, and suddenly I’m doubting whether something is in it or not. Now, I just find that interesting from a memory/brain point-of-view, I guess.

What actually happened was, when I wrote this script, there was a whole bunch of things in it, some of it was to do with science, and some of it was to do with gender politics, and I sent the script to various people to check it, partly because I know my limitations. I know that I can attempt to understand something and fail to understand it. And I know that I can think I’m doing something one way, but because of other unconscious things, I’m actually doing it another way, so I distrust myself in the same way as that memory thing. It’s actually completely related.

So, I wanted to test this stuff on a bunch of people, and get them to respond and talk about it, and correct me if I’d gotten something quite wrong. One of those people is a friend of the person that was interviewing me in that podcast, and I had separately sent that person the dialogue. I think the person on the podcast was interested in talking about that point because that was a philosophical science-based thing, and that particular section of the film is about free will, and so they wanted the dialogue because they couldn’t remember it. So, my friend, who I had tested some of the politics on, sent that section, which included this other stuff that we didn’t shoot. The whole thing was really confusing for me, but what it stems from is the testing process of the film and self-doubt, I guess.

When you sent it to these beta-readers, in a sense, did you get a pretty accurate sense of how audiences were going to react to the movie?

No.

Did something blindside you subsequently?

Oh, yeah. I’ve never not been blindsided. I’ve never, ever not been blindsided every single time I’ve worked on a story. The only thing I can anticipate is that I will get blindsided. I had a hunch about some of the areas where it would come from, but some of the specifics, I encountered them, and I would think, “Are you kidding?” But, at the same time, I’m also thinking, “Eh, I know how this happens. I know what subjective response is. I know how, in some respects, even very structured narratives are very formless in the way they exist in people’s heads, and in terms of what they attribute to those narratives, in terms of what exists or doesn’t exist.” So, it’s both surprising and unsurprising, I suppose.

Without giving spoilers, is there anything you can say about some of the reactions that surprised you?

It’s hard to talk about because, it’s like, I don’t want to defend myself. I don’t want to unwittingly get myself into the position of defending myself. I feel like I figured out in my terms what this movie was about, and then I did that to the best of my ability, and then I checked it with people who I respect, and then shot and cut the film, and actually retested it with that same group of people, and then said, “Did the translation of what you saw in the script make it through to the film?” Now, at that point, on some level, I feel acquitted. I feel satisfied. I can’t accommodate for every subjective response and for the agenda of the person arriving at the narrative. It’s accusations that I have a political position that is in fact the exact opposite of the political position that I have . . . or that I’ve completely misunderstood something about sentience where the inference I’m making would be in agreement with the person that is making that critique. It’s that kind of thing.

Speaking of subjectivity, when you talk about showing the film to an audience and then showing it again to that same audience, I’ve noticed this with stories I’ve workshopped. Once somebody has experienced it in one form, they’re kind of polluted forever. You can’t show them a revised version of it and get a clean response out of it.

So true.

People will often prefer the original version, even if the revised version is objectively better, just because that’s the first one that they encountered and they kind of get attached to that.

It’s very true. It’s actually something that comes up in filmmaking a lot, in terms of people submitting scripts to financers too soon. Often people will approach me and say, “We want to send this now.” And I’ll look at it to give advice or whatever context it is, and I always think, “You want to go too fast. Just slow down, because you’re only going to get one shot. If these people turn this down, you’re not going to be able to go back to them.” You might be able to, in a technical sense. You can literally send it again, but the decision is essentially made. It also, in a funny way, applies to assembly cuts in films, very early clumsy edits of stuff. If you show that rough cut, which will be a very clumsy, ugly thing to look at, and very unfinessed, people who like it will still like the finished film, and people who don’t like it still won’t like the finished film. The big fundamentals are just entrenched into it in some kind of way. I mean, unless you really significantly . . . like they did in The Thin Red Line, you lose your protagonist, Adrien Brody, and create a new one in the edit. Maybe that might do it, but that’s an extreme example. Broadly speaking, I think that’s what it’s like.

You’re doing an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.

Trying to, yeah, that would be a better way of putting it.

I interviewed Jeff about that book in 2014. I read the first two. I really loved them. Do you want to talk about what attracted you to that project or what you’re hoping to do with it?

Just to put it in a truthful, accurate context, Scott Rudin, the producer, said, “You should read this book.” I read the book. I thought it was brilliant. I really loved it and thought, “Okay, I think I’ve got a handle on a way to adapt this.” Then I adapted it, and it’s now in with a studio who are going to make a decision about whether they want to pay for it. So, it’s in a kind of fifty/fifty state. It could be eighty/twenty against, it could be eighty/twenty for, it could be fifty/fifty. I’ve got no idea. It’s just in a sort of unknown state where it hasn’t landed yet, one way or the other. So that is what’s going on with that.

In terms of my approach to it, I’ve done different kinds of adaptations. Never Let Me Go, apart from a sort of philosophical aspect in the presentation of the narrative in terms of a subtext—which is in that subjective realm we were just talking about—it’s like holding a mirror up to the novel within the parameters of a film. Not being able to show everything a book does because you’d end up with an eight-hour film. So, within that caveat, it’s like holding up a mirror to the book, I would say, in some crucial respects.

It’s the closest film I’ve ever worked on to being an auteur movie, and the auteur was Ishiguro because we referred so tightly to the tone and everything, dialogue, narrative. Then Dredd, and in the case of Dredd, which is based on the 2000 AD character Judge Dredd, there’s a very faithful, I would argue, and tested as well, actually, representation of the character in aspects, but also something which is very different from the comic book in other respects. The comic book has aliens and robots and a level of futurism that, on our budget, we couldn’t begin to do, so we just looked the other way. We look at a tower block with no aliens and robots and implicitly there are no aliens and robots in this universe. I don’t want to be disingenuous about it; we just sort of changed those terms.

Annihilation is somewhere between these states, I think, in terms of the way I’ve approached it. It’s definitely not holding up a mirror to the novel. But it’s true to my subjective response to the novel. It’s true to what I responded to and got out of the novel. And that was partly to do with some narrative aspects of this group of women entering into this strange sealed-off zone and finding something that . . . well, I don’t want to talk too much because there’s a plot point embedded within it. I think that’s wrong, forget the film, just for people who might want to read the book. But, also, a tone. There is a tone in there that, to me, related to what I used to feel reading certain kind of Ballard novels. It’s not in any way derivative, this novel, it’s actually very much its own thing, but it made me feel something like what I used to feel reading The Drowned World or The Crystal World, Ballard novels that took a strange central conceit and then just kind of exist within them, like the world is turning to crystal. There’s a sort of dream-state aspect to that that I found incredibly alluring and hypnotic, and it’s that that’s pulled me in to Annihilation, I think. The premise and the atmosphere and a very particular thing about the ending as well. These are the things that really sucked me into that book.

I’ve read the first two books in the Annihilation trilogy—I didn’t read the third one because it wasn’t out yet when I interviewed Jeff—but I’ve been told that he actually wraps things up very nicely. I always thought that the TV show Lost would have been the best show ever made if they had an ending in mind when they started it. So I was wondering, do you see Annihilation as something that is going to actually fulfill that promise of having this really bizarre, weird setup, and it’s actually going to pay it off in the end?

I actually wrote the screenplay before reading the later stuff, and then was really interested that there were some really quite strange connections that get repeated. What’s interesting about that is it shows what is unconsciously embedded within the novel in the way it makes your mind work. I find that really strange and fascinating. But also, the way I go into these things is it’s hard enough to get one movie made properly, and so my goal is to try to make this film. I really want to make Annihilation. I really want to try to do it. And what I want to try to do is make one good film. That would be my ambition, and then after that, who knows? It probably wouldn’t be me attached anyways.

Unfortunately, we’re all out of time, but we’ve been speaking with Alex Garland. His movie is called Ex Machina, and everyone should go check it out. It’s one of the smartest science fiction movies, and we should all support smart science fiction movies. Alex, thank you so much.

Thanks, man. Much appreciated. Thank you.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.