Alex Garland, the NFTS Associate Director and award-winning screenwriter and director of Ex Machina and Annihilation spent the morning at the School sharing some of his insights with students.

Alex Garland

In a Q&A with NFTS director Jon Wardle, Alex told students about his forthcoming TV series, Devs. All eight episodes of the series for FX are written and directed by Alex, and he is currently in the edit.  “It’s like shooting four Indie films back to back!” Alex said of the seven-month shoot. “It’s a mix between a sprint and a marathon.  You have to get through more set ups in a day than on a film and it carries on for longer.” He told students he believed it was vital to be disciplined about shooting hours in a day so that cast and crew could have evenings free, to keep a work-life balance.  Adding, “I find that by finishing at 6pm every day the crew work hard and efficiently through the day.”  

'28 Days Later'

Discussing moving from feature films to TV, Alex likened it to transitioning from writing novels to writing films.  He said, “When I moved from novel writing to screenplay writing with 28 Days Later… it took me about four or five screenplays to learn things, and I think the same is true of moving from film to TV.  There’re obvious things like ending each episode on a ‘what’s going to happen next?’ but there’s also much subtler stuff.  I remember something a physicist said – ‘The larger the searchlight, the larger the circumference of the unknown.’ That’s so true.  It makes me dizzy to think of all the things I don’t know!”

Alex Garland with Jon Wardle

Alex emphasised the collaborative nature of filmmaking, and the importance of being open to listening to everyone and learning from them: “I would say everyone in the Industry needs humility.  Confidence that they have something to contribute, plus humility. All the disciplines are collaborative.  I think it’s ridiculous to take that possessory credit ‘A film by…’ to try and take that sole authorship.  I’m anti-auteur, I know too much about what a cinematographer does, what an editor does, what a production designer does.” 

Alex Garland on set of 'Ex Machina'

He advised students that the key to successful filmmaking is that the team need to be in agreement and absolutely clear about what the film is they’re making.  “Problems come up if people think they’re making different things, so I sit down very early in a production and say this is the plan, this is what we’re going to do.  I make sure all departments sit down and talk together.”

Asked by a student about his writing process, Alex cited the advice of novelist Ian McEwan - “He said ‘writers need to remember to live’.  You can easily spend your life in an imaginary world, I always like to have lived experience in something.  Even if it’s set on a spaceship like Sunshine, there’ll be things in it from real world lived experience.”   Reflecting, “Otherwise you can find yourself making films about films, homages to films someone loved when they were growing up, that’s fine if it’s your thing, but I like to learn about new things by going out into the world.”

Alex Garland in recent NFTS masterclass

Discussing notes on his scripts, Alex told students that he has friends and colleagues who read and comment on them, and that the trick was to try and hear what is behind the comments they make.  “Very often people will make their comment in the form of a suggestion.  Often the suggestion is terrible, but pay attention to the thing that’s triggering it.  For instance, someone said there weren’t enough close-ups on a particular character, that we were wide on them too often.  Now they didn’t really mean they wanted more close-ups, what they meant was they don’t know enough about what’s going on with that character.”

'Enslaved: Odyssey to the West'

One of the students asked Alex about the Video Game he wrote, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and if it was something he’d do again.  Alex enthused “I’m a big video game fan, I’ve grown up with them and think they’re an amazing narrative art form.” Another asked about what he looks for in an editor and Alex said, “I look someone who’s good at their job, but also someone who’s friendly, because you’ll be with them for a long time and there will be times that are difficult.  As a director you’re constantly confronted by things you got wrong – shots you didn’t get, so you want someone who’s an ally who can work through those things with you.”  Adding, “I don’t work with prima donnas and fascists.  I work with people who are collegiate.”

'Ex Machina'

Discussing the working relationship he has with DoP Rob Hardy and the joy of finding someone on the same wavelength, Alex advised students “One of the great things that you can get out of film school is finding people in other areas who you click with.  If you find people like that treasure it, it’s a great thing and you can work together and support one another for years.”

Once you have your team and your actors, Alex told students that the way he likes to work is “to find out first what someone else wants to do – let the actors show you how they were thinking of doing something first.  You can make a mistake by imposing what you want to do too early.  Because once you’ve said ‘let’s do it this way’ it’s hard for an actor, or whoever, to overcome the instinct to want to please you and do it the way you said and makes it harder for them to suggest things –which may well be better.  You hire people because they’re good at their job – let them show you!”

Alex Garland delivers insightful masterclass for NFTS students

Asked about diversity and inclusion in the film Industry Alex said, “It’s obvious that diversity is important, you want everyone’s voices.  I do think the Industry is changing, maybe not as quickly as we’d like, but it is happening.  But I find the ‘virtue signalling’ fantastically irritating when it’s used to sell a film.  Just do it.  Don’t make a song and dance about it.  Just do it.”