In his twenty years spent circling the film industry, Alex Garland has filled almost as many creative roles.
He’s written novels that celebrated his arrival as a wunderkind storyteller which later became a movie (The Beach,) adapted other novels (Never Let Me Go) and comic books (Dredd) into screenplays, and written original screenplays of his own (28 Days Later). Now, with Ex Machina, he’s sitting in the director’s chair and calling the shots on his own production.
That’s a somewhat common progression in Hollywood. When it happens, a standard narrative commonly emerges in the media: A freshly-minted filmmaker typically goes around giving interviews about how his or her new position gives them the much-needed clout to protect their own material. But Garland, who spoke to me this week on the eve of his film’s Boston release, rejects all those talking points; up and down his press tour, as he admits he’s gone to great lengths in rejecting sole authorship of his latest work.
“We [tend to] overstate the role of the director,” he claimed, with his eye cast toward the way we all write about movies. “It’s essentially an ‘anti-auteur’ argument from my point-of-view.”
The “auteur theory” of which he speaks was established by the French film critics of the 1950s as a way of ascribing artistry to the filmmakers they admired most (see: Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks—men who had seen their work passed off as mere “entertainment” during general releases). But, much to Garlands’ chagrin, the standards concerning who we grant that title to have lowered considerably. Now all you have to do is direct a Batman movie, and Hollywood will trip over itself calling you a visionary.
I chatted with Garland on the inherent vice of that theory as he tore down its contemporary usage. The way he tells it, most claims to artistic ownership of a film boil down to marketing plots and ego trips. In other words, they’re total bullshit.
I’ve seen you speak about your dislike of the auteur theory before.
I do think some auteurs exist. But we can’t treat it like a blanket … I myself am not an auteur. And I’m not even interested in auteurship. It’s also true of all the other films I’ve worked on. It’s not me saying “I’ve worked with a bunch of auteurs, and now I want to work co-operative.” Because it’s been co-operative throughout my working life. The auteurs are, by far, the minority.
If you give a shit about things like DoPs [directors of photography,] and you see a trailer of a film shot by Anthony Dod Mantle [Dredd, Rush] you’ll quickly realize that what you’re reacting to in the trailer is not the director. It’s Anthony. And then you often see people write that “the director mounted the camera.” That’s a line that you see written in film criticism a lot! “The director mounts the camera.” Or, also, “The director extracts the performance from an actor.” And I think: I know that actor. Nobody extracted that performance from them—that’s their performance. That’s why they’re paid the big bucks. What I find baffling is that then, in a public forum, we all forget that exists. And we go back to writing the name of the film, and including the director’s name after it in brackets, as if that’s who actually crafted it [singlehandedly.] I find the whole thing baffling.
So where does this line of thinking come from—and how does it survive mostly unchallenged.
Well I think it comes from 50s French film critics. And then it got picked up by the Director’s Guild of America—and then it became a great marketing technique. Because what you can do is say “A Film by…”
It reminds me of the banking industry before 2007. They had all this inherited wisdom … you’d have some stockbroker in the 1960s who said “Look, you can do things like this, and massage things like this.” By the time it got to the 1990s, this had become not a complex house of cards ready to fall down at any moment—but rather, a solid infrastructure of wisdom about how the economy works. And that lead us down a rabbit hole. It’s a disconnect from reality, both there and in the way we talk about making films—I think they’re similar. The difference is that the banking system is quantifiable: “If we stop making money, then the debts are going to get called in. Things get exposed, then collapses.”
But there’s no equivalent to that regarding the way we talk about filmmaking. Because things can just keep ambling along—they’re not going to collapse. It’s all theoretical, not empirical. For instance, what I’m saying may be true in most instances [of filmmaking,] but then not true in another. The truest thing you can say is that “Filmmaking is usually collaborative, but there’s no definitive approach.” And if you’re not on the production, it’s almost impossible to know what that approach was.
There are filmmakers, like Wes Anderson, who’ve worked with the same photographers their whole career—who’s even to say where their aesthetic came from. So it could be the filmmaker, could be the photographer.
Right. And I do sound like I have a massive agenda. But I feel uncomfortable sitting here, and answering questions [as if I did everything myself,] because it feels genuinely disrespectful to people who I’ve worked with, on five different films. And I’ve seen directors do that in the past. And so I sit here, saying the same shit…
Please, go on.
I’m not trying to make a blanket statement. The whole point is to say: Don’t make blanket statements! But if you’re going to default to a position, instead of defaulting to the director, default to the [concept of] collaboration. Some auteurs will get burned by that … maybe. But don’t worry about them. They’re doing fine.
Right. Which wasn’t antithetical to the original auteur theory anyway—those critics were merely trying to assign artistry to a select few filmmakers.
Yes, and not only that: They were doing it to protect the art form, and support the art form. But if we wanted to get deep into film theory, I would say that what was set up to protect [the art form] has subsequently become damaging. Specifically because of its use as a marketing tool. Whenever something is primarily useful as a marketing tool, it creates a false power structure, one that doesn’t actually reflect how things are done. And you get tensions as a result of that—and the tensions are not creatively helpful. They’re just a diversion. I’ve seen it. I’d stand by that statement. Pretty fucking hard. And if you care about the medium, then I think there’s a reason to correct some of this bullshit.