New PlayStation.Blog Q&A reveals the surprising gaming legacy of the director of Annihilation and Ex Machina.
By the time you’re reading this, PlayStation Plus members in the US should have a special treat awaiting them — a new seven-minute clip from the upcoming sci-fi film Annihilation, based on the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Head to PlayStation Store on your PS4 to watch it!
In honor of this auspicious event, I reached out to director Alex Garland, who last directed 2014’s seminal A.I. tale Ex Machina, to learn more about his journey from novelist to screenwriter to gaming storyteller to film director.
PlayStation.Blog: You’ve worked in novels (The Beach), writing films (Sunshine, 28 Days Later), and videogames (Enslaved, DmC). Then you shifted to directing with Ex Machina and now Annihilation. Is there a consistent thread to your career?
Alex Garland // Director, Annihilation: Not in any kind of artistic or themic way. It’s really just about what I feel really interested in. I like reading, I like watching movies, I love playing games… so the opportunity to work in those areas, I just feel lucky. So when someone like Ninja Theory gets in touch with me, I’m like “absolutely, I’m there.” So it’s not artistic, really, it’s just curiosity — and good luck, I guess.
PSB: Onto Annihilation, not the easiest book to translate to film. What attracted you to it?
AG: It was just the originality of it. It wasn’t like anything I had read. That immediately pushed a button in me. Every now and then, people offer up source material of one sort or another. And most of it is kind of … same-y. It belongs to other projects more than it belongs to itself.
Annihilation the book just felt totally fresh and totally original. And that brought me into it. The sheer freshness of it.
PSB: The setup of Annihilation – a psychologist, an anthropologist, a biologist, and a surveyor walk into a mysterious quarantined zone – almost sounds like the setup for an RPG. Was that part of the appeal?
AG: It would be a really cool RPG. I’d love to see that actually, I’d love to play it.
I know what you mean though. I didn’t see it in those terms, in all honesty, I read the book and in the back of my mind on one level I’m thinking “how on Earth do you make this into a film?” But mainly I was just caught up in the book itself.
PSB: What was the most challenging thing to adapt from the book to the film?
AG: To me, the defining thing about it was how it’s all so dreamlike. It hits you on a different level. And so responding to that atmosphere was kind of complicated. If it was an A-B-C storyline, we could just cut and paste. But you can’t cut and paste atmosphere.
PSB: The book often describes things in the environment with surrealist or dreamlike language. How did you approach adapting that into a visual style?
AG: Well, the same way I always do — gather a group of people who I work with. I pretty much work in a collective. People come and go, things change, but some of these people I’ve worked with for 10 years.
So the first thing is, I just write a script. And then we sit around and talk about how to actually bring this to life. It’s the group all pitching in their ideas, what they respond to. That group includes the director of photography, the visual effects supervisor, the production designer — all people who are incredibly visual.
PSB: I sometimes hear Annihilation described as having a new-Lovecraft-type or “weird fiction” influence. Do you agree or disagree?
AG: I know of the term “weird fiction.” I’ve actually never read any Lovecraft so I can’t talk with any authority about it. The thing with Lovecraft, it’s interesting… he’s like Conrad, you know? Heart of Darkness. Where, even if you don’t know the source material, you’ve probably encountered it somewhere else. I think Lovecraft is like that. He obviously casts a very long shadow. So you encounter his influence whether you read his stuff or not.
PSB: Where there other influences you drew upon?
AG: Sort of… actually, a weird one. Apocalypse Now, actually. Because it’s a journey through a landscape that is getting progressively strange. There’s an element of that. But to some extent, what we tried to do is push those [other influences] out of our minds so we’re not repeating things from other movies, or books, or games, or whatever. We’re trying to come up with stuff from a more personal space.
PSB: You’ve done a lot of work in gaming as well with Ninja Theory, working on Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and DmC: Devil May Cry. Are you still interested in tackling gaming-related projects?
AG: Oh, definitely, definitely. I’d love to. I love playing games and I enjoyed the process of working on them. Essentially, I see my job as being a writer. So I’d need to be working on a game that required a writer, which not all games do.
My favorite narrative games are probably Bioshock and The Last of Us. I’d love an opportunity to work on a game like that, that was trying to push and explore narrative within the game.
PSB: Two of my favorites. Have you ever met Ken Levine?
AG: I have, actually. I saw he was giving a lecture in London, and I went to it just to hear him speak. And I was lucky enough to meet him briefly. Fascinating guy. And a fascinating world he created.
And there’s another guy — Mark Laidlaw. I’ve had a long correspondence with him over email. He was the Half-Life writer, and I love those games. Me and Mark have been chatting over email for, well, it must be 15 years by now.
PSB: Small world. What do you enjoy about working with the gaming medium?
AG: It just has this absolutely massive, massive potential. And I think that sometimes that potential gets realized — probably the best example is The Last of Us. Do you remember the indie game Braid from a few years ago?
PSB: Yep! Jonathan Blow.
AG: Right. That game actually has a really beautiful narrative construct, and a twist that turns the whole thing on its head at the end of the game. When I encounter games like that, it just makes me so aware of the incredible potential. I’m fascinated by it, I’m incredibly drawn to it.
But just because I’m drawn to it doesn’t mean I’m any good at it. Just as a medium… it’s so young, it’s in such a state of infancy, or I guess adolescence at this point. But it’s clearly got such a long journey left. So it’s really attractive to me for that reason.
PSB: You mentioned Bioshock and The Last of Us… What are some other games you feel that have managed to explore the full narrative potential of the medium?
AG: The first game where I remember being completely whacked from a totally narrative sense was Ico. The game just before Shadow of the Colossus. Really good storytelling in Portal and Portal 2, and Dear Esther as well.
PSB: Thanks for a great interview!