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Alex Garland on Civil War, Jonathan Glazer, and ‘right or left’ politics

Alex Garland asks challenging questions in his films – and also in person, too. I learn this when Garland interrupts me to take umbrage with a throwaway comment regarding Men, his polarising 2022 horror about gender dynamics. As a setup to asking about the research process for his new feature Civil War, I mention that with Men, no one really expected him to be an expert on men and women.

“Why can’t you be an expert on men and women?” Garland interjects, sat across me in The Soho Hotel in late March. “I’m 53. I’ve been around loads of men and women. Tonnes. In fact, more men and women than civil wars.” He explains his belief that anyone should be allowed to write anything, and that others can judge the material for themselves. “You shouldn’t stop the person doing it. That has its own chilling effect.” He pauses to laugh. “I’ll stop being mean. I’ll start being friendlier.”

As an interviewee, Garland is both enthralling and tricky. His answers are deep, thoughtful, and enunciated clearly like one of his characters in Devs. However, the British author-turned-screenwriter-turned-director specialises in open-ended films that are best left unexplained. Ex Machina allows audiences to make their own verdict on AI, Annihilation is vague about the universe’s fate, and Men ends with – spoiler! – Rory Kinnear repeatedly giving birth to himself. “It’s a test on me as much as anyone else,” says Garland. “I’m trying to figure stuff out, but also then see how people respond.”

While Garland wrote the script before the 2020 presidential election, he concedes that his largely American crew and cast were probably thinking of January 6 during the shoot. “I could detect it around the set,” says Garland. “It gave a greater sense of anger… maybe it felt less speculative.” As for the film’s release in 2024, the year of Trump’s possible re-election, the director puts the timing down to COVID. Civil War was written before Men, but only the latter was small enough to be shot during lockdown. Eager to shoot Civil War as soon as possible, he started principal photography two days after finishing postproduction on Men. On the minimal gap, he sighs, “That was dumb, wasn’t it?”

As a screenwriter, Garland previously penned the gun-heavy sci-fi Dredd and an unproduced film version of Halo: one a comic-book thriller, the other a videogame adaptation. Was there much to unlearn for Civil War? “Absolutely,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to accidentally make a pro-war film, and this is intended as an anti-war film. It’s not showing civil war as fun, desirable, or leading to a good outcome.” He refers back to our discussion about experts. “Nobody can say, ‘You’re not allowed to write this thing.’ But there’s a responsibility to be as thoughtful as possible.” Garland thus fretted over the action. “Are people being relaxed, witty, and kind of cool? Or are they terrified and confused? Does the gunfire sound seductive or intimidating? Does the music wind you up, or seduce you with its beauty?”

“All it would take is a bit of reasoned discussion to understand what is meant by [left and right-wing politics], in a species that is particularly bad at having words that everybody universally accepts the meaning of. That’s not fucking rocket science” – Alex Garland

Is Garland concerned that viewers might take the wrong lessons from Civil War? After all, Jonathan Glazer had to win an Oscar in order to do a speech illuminating his thoughts behind Zone of Interest. “It honestly doesn’t concern me,” says Garland, before changing his mind. “It sort of concerns me but it’s so fundamentally part of the deal, not just of making movies but of human interaction.” He explains that laws are written to be clear, yet even those sentences can be dissected by judges. “While it’s frustrating to see an interpretation that’s stupid, I also think there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s how humans communicate. Even within [Jonathan Glazer’s speech], there are people making different interpretations of that same speech which contains very few words. What can one do?”

When Civil War premiered at SXSW, something similar happened when numerous articles were spun out of a quote in which Garland said that “left and right are ideological arguments about how to run a state” and are neither “good and bad”. Clearly still frustrated, he tells me, “I would just say to people: before you start getting angry, let’s figure out if our definitions of left and right are the same thing.” To Garland, it involves the free market. “Low taxation to stimulate economic growth, or high taxation to help disadvantaged people via educational welfare. That’s what I mean by left-wing and right-wing.

“Now, other people would conflate other issues into that definition that, to me, wouldn’t be part of left-wing and right-wing ideology. They’re more current things that tend to glom around one side rather than the other. I could easily find an example in any of those issues where you would find a left-wing person who agreed with that right-wing position, or vice-versa. But you can’t really find a left-wing person who believes in the power of the free market.

“So a lot of those disputes would be reflective, subjective responses to do with what they hear when they hear the words left and right, in comparison to what I mean when we say left and right. All it would take is a bit of reasoned discussion to understand what is meant by these words, in a species that is particularly bad at having words that everybody universally accepts the meaning of. And you know what? That’s not fucking rocket science. What I just said is not fucking rocket science. It is blindingly obvious.”

As well as writing a 28 Days Later sequel for Danny Boyle, Garland is months away from co-directing another feature, Warfare, with Ray Mendoza, the military advisor on Civil War. After clearing up that it’s not quite set during the Iraq War in 2007 like in online reports, Garland says, “Ray is the director, and it’s Ray’s story. It’s a very simple concept but has something very complex and nuanced that surrounds it.” In a typical Alex Garland fashion, he calls it vastly different from Civil War, then adds, “I don’t want to get too much into it.”

Civil War opens in UK and Irish cinemas on April 12

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  • Source of information and images “dazeddigital”

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