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Interview: Writer-Director Alex Garland Talks ‘Civil War’ and How It Was Inspired by Outrage Over the Precarious State of Journalism Today

April 12, 2024Ben MK

Best known for such movies as Ex Machina, Annihilation and Men, Alex Garland is no stranger to making thought-provoking films. Whether it's a horror movie that doubles as a scathing commentary on toxic masculinity or sleek sci-fi thrillers about artificial intelligence and fantastical alien visitors, Garland's films have a knack for staying with audiences long after they've left the cinema. It's a filmography that would make any other director or screenwriter green with envy. And with his latest, the gritty action thriller Civil War, the 53-year-old writer-director is doubling down on what he does best, in this tale of a divided America at war with itself that also has something to say about the nature of humanity and the current U.S. political climate.

I caught up with Alex Garland to chat about Civil War, what it has in common with his other movies, and how he set out to make it as grounded as possible. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

A common thread that runs through all of your films, whether it's those you've written or those you've directed as well, is the sense of existential dread that the characters have to reckon with. Can you talk about why that's such a powerful theme for you to explore and how Civil War expands on it?

Garland: Existentialism is a theory. It sort of came from the idea that it's universally shared, in a way — that there's a sense of angst that is common, and then they gave a name to it and looked for the reasons for it. I like the world very much, and I'm not misanthropic, but the world is also strange and disturbing. And I think, in some ways, writing is an act of processing. So I'm processing things that are concerning me. And sometimes that might be, I'm thinking, "Why are we treating tech leaders as if they're geniuses, when really what they are are entrepreneurs?" Or "What does certain kinds of A.I. imply, not just about machines, but also about us?" In this particular case, I was really alarmed, you could call it existential, and actually angry with two things.

One was the contempt that was being shown to journalists, which I thought was incredibly short-sighted, stupid, and also dangerous, because journalists have a societal role, which is to protect you against corrupt governments. And I kept wondering, "If Watergate happened now, would it have succeeded?" Two journalists from the Washington Post brought down Nixon, who was a crook. Would that happen now? Probably, almost maybe manifestly not. That creates an existential feeling in me, and also a feeling of anger.

And also divided countries, divided states — what's the engine, where does populism lead, is extremism dangerous, particularly if it's not being mitigated by journalism? Yeah, it's really dangerous. It's not like a cozy, fun, playful, acerbic podcast that can play fast and loose without consequence. People can get hurt, people can get killed, people's lives can be made miserable. We have these systems of governments and the Fourth Estate, the press, to guard against something. If we dismantle the guard, then we're unguarded.

Can you talk about the evolution of the story? Did you always envision it from a journalist's point-of-view?

Garland: It was always from the point of view of the journalist, and it was a growing sense of frustration, which I was just talking about. But I would say I feel almost embarrassed sometimes when I write a story that then gets called prescient. And it's not true. One thing is the situation now was pretty much identical four years ago; it just might be slightly worse, but it was essentially identical in most meaningful terms. Why did I choose, in this case, [to make] this particular film? Honestly, it was generated by anger. And then thinking I need to control the anger, I need to modulate it, I need to make it thoughtful, I need to make it precise, I need to not be alienating. One of things that happens when people get angry, in a way, is they shout. And whoever they're shouting at stops listening. It just turns into a punch-up or a shouting match, and I wanted to avoid that.

Civil War is the latest of your movies to feature female protagonists. What was it about Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny that made them the perfect choices to play the leads, Lee and Jessie?

Garland: It was different in both cases. Cailee, I've worked with before. We worked on a TV show called Devs with several of the actors, [including] Stephen McKinley Henderson. So I knew Cailee and I knew Stephen well, and in a funny way I was writing to them, because I know what they're like together. With Kirsten, I didn't know her, but I sort of knew her in the same way that you sort of know her. Which is she's been around since she was a child actor, and in a literal way, I've watched her grow up, you've watched her grow up, we all have. And what that means, number one, is you're very familiar with her as an actor — what her abilities are, that she's got range, that she can contain, in something like Melancholia, something really soulful and sad. It's not all Spider-Man, as it were. There's lots of shades, lots of dimensions in her. But there's also a lot of lived experience. And in the case of a war photographer, you need that, you need to believe that. And not all actors have it.

Can you also talk about some of the influences that went into the making of Civil War?

Garland: Really, its cues come more from non-fiction than from fiction. Obviously, it's a fiction story, but its point of reference are things like news footage, documentaries, and lived experience. And, in fact, we were really careful to avoid some kinds of film grammar at times. I could give an example, but film has, over decades, created a grammar about what happens when someone gets shot. You've seen many films that have big fountains of blood and people flying backwards as if they're snapped on a cable, and there's something essentially cinematic happening there in the grammar. And if you were ever unfortunate to see someone get shot, quite often what you see is just someone falling down, as if the lights have been switched off and they just fold and collapse. So more than anything, we were using people's experience of the world, in one way or another, to form the look of the film.

One of the most intense scenes in the film features Jesse Plemons. What was it like shooting that scene?

Garland: We shot it in a particular kind of way. If you walked onto a film set, what you often see is an actor, or two actors or three actors, and then this massive semi-circle of people who are really crowding them. Like the lens might be, if it's a clean shot, in front of the actor, and they are hovering behind the eye line to the other actor. And, of course, [for] actors that's their job and they're very good at blocking that kind of stuff out, but it does often interfere someway somehow. So with this particular scene, we pulled everything back as far as we could. It's shot largely on long lenses — lenses designed to see something further away and make it feel closer. And so we took all of the structures as far back as we could and shot on the longest lenses we could in order to get the cameras and the sound equipment and everything away from the cast, and put them in a kind of bubble of intensity.

Last but not least, what do you personally want audiences to take away from Civil War?

Garland: That’s up to them. Here's one of the realities about language or communication — there's no real guarantee that you and I will agree, not just on what we're saying to each other, but agree on what is actually being said. It's in the nature of stories, it's in the nature of communication, I don't worry about it too much. I try to tell the story as truthfully as I can to my own criteria. I also try deliberately to leave space for the audience, because I'm not trying to cut them out of the process, because they cannot be cut out of the process. I could attempt to ask every question clearly and answer it all clearly, and you will still get different interpretations. So I choose to lean into that because I find it interesting. People have different interpretations, but I don't find it invalid.

Civil War is in theaters now.

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