NFTS Associate Director, Alex Garland and NFTS Governor, Andrew Macdonald thrilled students with a special screening of their acclaimed new film Annihilation – one of the very few UK showings of the film on a cinema screen. The screening was followed by a Q&A with Oscar nominated writer-director Alex and BAFTA winning producer Andrew, in conversation with NFTS Director, Jon Wardle.
Alex and Andrew have worked together for over twenty years. Starting when Alex adapted his own novel The Beach into a screenplay, which was directed by Danny Boyle and produced by Andrew. Since then their films together include 28 Days Later…, Never Let Me Go, Sunshine and Ex Machina – Alex’s Oscar nominated directing debut.
Jon began by asking the pair how they came to make Annihilation. “Scott Rudin (producer of films such as No Country for Old Men) sent the book to Alex, saying he wanted to adapt it” Andrew explained. “It’s a slightly dreamlike novel,” Alex said, “When you’re doing an adaptation you try to figure out what it is you’re trying to adapt. Andrew and I have done two adaptations together before – Never Let Me Go and Dredd, with this one it was the atmosphere I thought was the most important thing, so I wrote the screenplay from my memory of the book. I discovered my memory of the book was quite specific – and sometimes quite wrong!” he added.
Andrew said it gave the project a head start that Scott had brought the book to them – rather than something written on spec that they were trying to persuade people to buy into. But Alex still advised the students to take the risk of writing things on spec if they could – “As a filmmaker I’m very script centric. If you’re a ‘director for hire’ you’re disempowered. If you can write or create a project you’re in a stronger creative position. Writing on spec is risky, but creative power comes from it.”
Jon asked about the depth of impact the film seems to have on people – referring to an article someone wrote about how it illuminated their own experience of suffering from depression. Alex agreed, “If you don’t know why you’re doing something you put in imagery that is inconsequential and I think audiences smell that. It’s important for a film to have a thesis and to know what it’s about. If it’s just fireworks and eye-candy – personally, I’m not interested. I want there to be an idea contained within it. The film is about self-destruction on a cellular, psychological and philosophical level. Everyone I’ve ever met, once I got to know them past a certain point, they’re self-destructive in some way, everyone is, and I wanted to explore that.”
Discussing some of the striking imagery of the film, Alex talked about being aware that some things in the film risked looking silly rather than nightmarish. “I’m a huge believer in taking risks. We were doing something that could have looked incredibly stupid, but I think we get away with it partly because of the supremely talented crafts-people and also because of the central argument that is contained in the film, it’s got heart, and so audiences go with that.”
Jon asked about the way score and sound design are used to contribute to the mesmerising atmosphere of the film. “Very often composers are brought in for a six to eight-week stint at the end of post-production”, Alex said, “but composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow worked on that film for a year, and they really worked on it.”
It was similar with the VFX Alex said: “We talked to VFX Supervisor Andrew Whitehurst from the get-go, he’s one of my key collaborators, and he’s very committed on an emotional level.”
Andrew told students that they’d decided to make the film in the UK, filming around woods near the Queen’s estate in Windsor and at Pinewood. “It meant we could work with the same people we’d worked with before, including on Ex Machina, which was great, and Paramount were very supportive”, Andrew said, adding - “If you have a plan and you deliver, people are happy!”
The team were filming at Pinewood the same time as The Last Jedi and Andrew and Alex paid tribute to how helpful director Rian Johnson and producer Ram Bergman were in relation to actor Oscar Isaac working on both films at the same time. “They were very friendly and supportive,” Alex said, “there would have been many, many producers and directors who would have just said ‘no’, but they are from an Indie filmmaking background and attitude and they were very friendly about lending him to us, so Oscar would simply walk over from The Last Jedi set to ours.”
Discussing the producer-director relationship Andrew advised students “You need to be in service to the script, and also to the director to a degree.” Alex adding, “The producer and director should be on the same side. Ultimately everyone, producer, director, DoP, actors… needs to be in agreement about the film they are going to make. The key thing about film is that its collaborative. That is what makes it a special medium. If you’re not shoulder to shoulder, you’ll collapse.” Alex continued, “I started out writing novels – because nothing could stop you, you didn’t need money to be able to do it, Andrew bought my novel The Beach and the second I walked on set I knew that was what I wanted to do. I had a deal to write two more books and I gave the money back. I wrote the screenplay for 28 Days Later… for Andrew instead. It was the collaborative aspect that I loved. I love talking to cameramen, actors, everyone – clearly in filmmaking authorship is shared.”
Alex concluded “It’s all so unlikely, filmmaking, the things everyone sets out to do – if you stopped to think about it you wouldn’t do it, but you have to keep taking the risk.”