Alex Garland knows that calling his new film “Men” is a provocative act. “It’s quite interesting that such a short, simple word can be so freighted with massive and entirely subjective meanings,” he said.
As a writer and filmmaker, Garland is drawn to subjects that demand discussion: In the twisty robot parable “Ex Machina” (2015) and the Natalie Portman sci-fi drama “Annihilation” (2018), he favored a bold, stark setup that sat at the intersection of a cultural flash point. The tricky “Men” operates in a similar vein, casting Jessie Buckley as Harper, a woman coming to terms with her husband’s death and the blame he levied at her in his final moments.
Harper rents a British country house to work through her trauma, but the men of the local village (all of whom are played by the actor Rory Kinnear) insinuate, belittle and wheedle her, too. One of them even stalks her, appearing naked in her front yard, but whom can Harper register a complaint with when all of the men around her — or all men, period — are, deep down, the same guy?
I spoke to Garland on a video call this month while he was in the middle of directing “Civil War,” an A24 action epic starring Kirsten Dunst. Garland, who is 51 and British, sounded a bit weary. Before making “Ex Machina,” he only wrote screenplays for other filmmakers to direct — including “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” and “Dredd.” The more we spoke, the more he questioned whether he wanted to continue directing at all.
“I’m tired of feeling like a fraud,” he told me. “I’ve got so many other reasons to feel like a fraud, I don’t need to add to it in a structural way with my job.”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Do you read reviews of your films?
Sometimes, because there’ll be a set of websites that I go to, and then I will see — with a horrible, sinking feeling — that they’ve reviewed the thing I worked on, and I’d have to be a monk to not read it. I broadly try to keep away from them. The first thing I did in any kind of public forum was write a book, “The Beach.” I was 26 or 27 when it came out and read everything, and I realized that I could get incredibly wounded, that it was really personal. It was a slow stepping back, because it’s now 25 years that I’ve been doing this. I think I’m probably stepping back from all sorts of different things.
What else are you stepping back from?
I think it is partly a function of getting older: I know less and less people, I have a smaller and smaller circle, and I go out less and less. Everything’s just getting progressively quieter and smaller, I’d say.
Your films kind of reflect that attitude. They have very small casts and very circumscribed locations. There isn’t much clutter.
That would definitely be fair to say. I find my myself interested in less and less things, but the things I’m interested in, I might go deeper and deeper into. And also, I’m not really a film director, I’m a writer who directs out of convenience.
You didn’t expect to have this career as a director?
It wasn’t that I had any great urge to direct, it was more born out of anxiety based on writing: I’d find it very agitating if something [in the film] felt totally wrong to me, or something that I felt was important was absent. But I have been thinking that after the film I’m directing at the moment, I should stop and go back to just writing. That might be part of the reversing away from the world — it’s time to get away from it, I think. I’m not temperamentally suited to being a film director.
Why is that?
It would be more honest, probably, to say I don’t particularly enjoy it. It’s something I have to force myself to do. It’s incredibly sociable, because you are with a large group of people the whole time — and, in my case, having to do a lot of role play. At the end of the day, you feel a bit fraudulent and exhausted.
Because you have to become sort of a showman?
Yeah, exactly. I will find myself standing in front of a group of extras saying, “All right, so what’s happening now is dah, dah, dah,” raising my voice and being encouraging and intense. It just feels incredibly performative. Whenever I watch a chat show, and I see the host engaging in witty banter with a guest, I look at them and think, “What if they’re feeling really depressed right now?” Here’s the requirement for a quip, here’s the requirement to be interested in something you’re not interested in, and inside you’re feeling incredibly bleak and existential. It always makes me shudder — I almost can’t watch those programs because I feel that so strongly. And my version of being a talk-show host is standing on a film set.
Still, I would think that you’d want to be on set to supervise the physical realization of your worlds and themes.
Oh yeah, but that’s the limit of it. There are many directors where the set is where they need and want to be more than any other place, and as soon as the film is finished, they’re scheming to be in that space again with as short a delay as possible. And that’s just not me.
I’ve seen some directors reach old age, and it’s as though they have to keep directing in order to live. Sometimes, there’s another film placed in front of them even before they’ve finished the last one.
No question. Immediately, as you said that, I had a Rolodex of names appear in my head, and I was thinking, “That’s exactly who he’s talking about.” But there’s also another kind of director who suddenly stops, people like Peter Weir and Alan Parker. They must have been walking away from something, and maybe they just tired of it.
Is this the shortest period of time between you being on two movie sets? You shot “Men” in the middle of last year and started “Civil War” not long after.
Yeah, the last day of postproduction on “Men” was 48 hours before the first day of principal photography on “Civil War.” Literally, it was a Saturday and a Monday.
I remember speaking to Kirsten Dunst after she was cast in “Civil War,” and she said she was excited that she finally got to play “the boy part” in a movie.
I hope she feels happy with the process, but you never know. I don’t think it’s just me that finds it difficult. Film sets are strange places. They’re Calvinist, punishing spaces of abstinence. People work really, really hard — like drop-down exhausted hard — and you see it on everyone’s faces at the end of the day. There can be elements of addiction in that, but it’s like, I’ve got an alarm bell in my head ringing the whole time, thinking, “You need to stop doing this.”
Was “Men” that arduous to make?
“Men” was really difficult. The subject matter gets into you, and you have to live with it, but it was also difficult on a technical level. We had a very short shoot, and we were trying to get a lot done very quickly. I often worried about Rory particularly, because the last few weeks of the shoot, he’s naked in the middle of the night, and it’s freezing cold. An enormous amount of filmmaking is actually logistics, and it’s like a managerial job. How do you execute this number of things within this many hours? Literally, how do you do it?
It’s the sort of movie that will leave people arguing about its intent, and about what it’s trying to say. You once told me that with “Ex Machina,” you wanted at least 50 percent of the film to be subject to the viewer’s interpretation.
Over the years, I have been consciously putting more and more into the hands of the viewer. There’s probably another element to it, too, if I’m honest, which is that it’s making the viewer complicit. This is another reason to pull back, because there’s a part of me which is really subversive and aggressive and is kind of [messing] with people. At times, I felt with “Men” that I’ve gone so far that it’s borderline delinquent.
What kind of reaction have you gotten to the film?
I’ve got good friends who I really respect who I’ve shown “Men” to, and their convinced interpretation — “I know what this film is saying, it’s saying this” — is 180 degrees different from what I thought it was.
When that happens, does that feel like a successful experiment?
No, it just feels inevitable. When we’re watching a film, we have these responses that on a rational level, we know are subjective, but we treat them as if they’re objective, and that’s just the way it is. I have such distrust in my own responses and other people’s responses as being reliable — they could vary on a day-by-day level. So when I offer something up, I have no expectation that everybody’s going to agree on it. I have a full expectation that people will disagree, and I see it primarily as a reflection on them.
What are some of the things your friends said about it?
“Who’s the protagonist?” “Is this about what a woman thinks, or is it about what a man thinks?” It’s people’s certainty that I find strangest: “This means this, this means that.” I find myself getting less and less certain about everything.
Even your own work?
Oh, I have no certainty about that. That’s just a bunch of compulsions.