Oscar-nominated writer, producer and director Alex Garland talked about his ‘anarchist’ approach to filmmaking and his experience of writing for games in a masterclass with new students at the NFTS.
Alex, who became the NFTS’s first Associate Director last month, entered the film industry as a writer after his first novel, The Beach, was made into a film in the late 1990s. He has since written the screenplays for films such as 28 Days Later and Sunshine and made his directorial debut with Ex-Machina in 2014.
(Still from The Beach)
In a session hosted by NFTS director, Jon Wardle, Alex told the new first year intake that it was the experience of seeing The Beach turned into a film that made him want to work in the industry. He said: “As soon as I saw that film being made…I went to the set and thought ‘God, this is what I want’. What I saw was the collegiate aspect and I was attracted to that. Working with like-minded people is fun. The collaboration makes it enjoyable to me, novel writing is an isolated pursuit.”
It was that sense of collaboration that has stuck with Alex throughout his career and influenced what he described as his ‘anarchist’ approach to filmmaking. “There’s an old culture of film making – the cult of the director as dictator,” he continued. “That wasn’t my experience. Film making is self-evidently collaborative.”
(Still from Ex Machina)
He illustrated the point with a story from the making of Ex-Machina: “A female-appearing robot dresses herself in a white dress and walks out of the room. The white dress was chosen by the actress and the costume designer and I had no involvement in that. She walks past a painting by Klimt of a woman in a white dress, which is actually a painting of the sister of Wittgenstein (a philosopher referenced earlier in the film). I didn’t know that Michelle Day, the set decorator, had selected and hung that painting. It is a reference to the script and the costume. Rob Hardy (the Director of Photography) shot it beautifully. I was not involved at all in any of that…but when people noticed these details, I got the credit. And for one reason, on the credits it says the film was directed by me.”
Alex also talked about his experience co-writing a video game, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, for games company Ninja Theory, describing games as “the equal of any other medium”.
“Why wouldn’t they be? A game like Bioshock has a really beautifully constructed narrative. I’d always thought that games had this staggering latent potential.”
As well as novels, films and games, Alex has also written for TV and talked about a shift in demand in recent years towards complex, and sometimes difficult, characters and stories: “In the 70s we had Taxi Driver and now we have Breaking Bad. In both the protagonist, the hero, was morally flawed and complex. That’s hard, but not impossible, in cinema these days but TV is overtly opening its arms to that. Bring us that kind of complexity, we want it.”
Alex was speaking to new students at the NFTS part of Springboard Week, which marks the start of the new academic year at the school. Other speakers during the week included award-winning director, writer and producer Peter Kosminsky (The State; Wolf Hall), sound designer and editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now; The Godfather) and acclaimed BBC Miniseries, Three Girls director Philippa Lowethorpe and editor Una Ni Dhonghaile, who is an NFTS graduate.
Alex Garland’s new film, Annihilation, is released on Netflix later this month.
If you would like to experience masterclasses like these, sign up to one of our upcoming open days to find out more –www.nfts.co.uk/opendays