The writer and director of ‘Annihilation’ shares advice on how to make a successful sci-fi film.
Over the years, Alex Garland has become known for writing and directing science fiction stories that make audiences question the future of technology and humanity. He started his career writing novels such as “The Beach” and “The Tesseract” then made his screenwriting debut with 28 Days Later in 2002. Since then, he’s gone on to write and direct the critically acclaimed film Ex Machina, and now the sci-fi adaptation Annihilation.
In recent years, Garland has begun sharing advice for others to follow in his success. Below we’ve collected some of his tips that can be helpful whether you’re a screenwriter or a director or both.
Your First Draft Will Be Crap
As hard as you may try to make your first draft a perfect script, chances are it will still need a lot of work. In a Reddit AMA from 2016, Garland was asked about his writing process. In his answer, he suggested others do as he does and use a first draft as a starting point rather than viewing it as a completed project. He says:
“Since writing ‘Sunshine,’ my method has been the same… Open a new file, and write down the story beats (perhaps 15 separate lines). Then I start writing. As I reach a story beat, I delete it. Then at the end, I have a complete script, and all beats deleted. No character, no backstory, and (almost always) no treatments. [I] don’t like that stuff, because stuff that works on a treatment often doesn’t work in a script. Best way to find out is just to cut to the chase. Key is to get to a first draft ASAP. It will be crap, probably, but it doesn’t matter. You then have something to work with. And you just keep rewriting until you feel done with it.”
Self-Criticism is Good
Speaking of knowing your work is crap, on the journey to finishing your story, questioning your vision is inevitable. That being said, Garland sees this as a positive rather than a negative quality for a writer. He told The Open University:
“One thing I’d say is, expect to feel that what you’re writing isn’t good and isn’t working and don’t be put off by that. I think a self-critical facility is really important and all that is is a self-critical facility. It doesn’t mean that what you’re writing is bad, it means that you’re questioning it and that’s good. A lot of people I think harbor some kind of ambition to write a novel — they say, ‘One day I’m going to write a novel,’ and they maybe find the first three pages quite easy, and then they hit a kind of brick wall and they think that that brick wall means that they’re not a writer. And it doesn’t. That brick wall is just what happens when you’re writing, then you work through it and then a little bit later you find another brick wall, and that’s what the whole thing is from start to finish.”
Amidst all of the excitement that comes with starting your first film, rushing to finish something that will sell to studios can be tempting. However Garland advises taking your time, or you might blow your chances. He told LightSpeed magazine in 2016:
“It’s actually something that comes up in filmmaking a lot, in terms of people submitting scripts to financiers too soon. Often people will approach me and say, ‘We want to send this now.’ And I’ll look at it to give advice or whatever context it is, and I always think, ‘You want to go too fast. Just slow down, because you’re only going to get one shot. If these people turn this down, you’re not going to be able to go back to them.’ You might be able to, in a technical sense. You can literally send it again, but the decision is essentially made. It also, in a funny way, applies to assembly cuts in films, very early clumsy edits of stuff. If you show that rough cut, which will be a very clumsy, ugly thing to look at, and very un-finessed, people who like it will still like the finished film, and people who don’t like it still won’t like the finished film. The big fundamentals are just entrenched into it in some kind of way. I mean, unless you really significantly. . . like they did in ‘The Thin Red Line,’ you lose your protagonist, Adrien Brody, and create a new one in the edit. Maybe that might do it, but that’s an extreme example. Broadly speaking, I think that’s what it’s like.”
Don’t Disregard the Script
While a director’s job often leans more toward the visual side of filmmaking, Garland says there are major problems that come with forgetting about the script. In an interview with CineFix in 2015, Garland said:
“I would say—and I don’t say this from a position of any kind of self-aggrandizing sort of knowledge or anything like that, it’s just an opinion—don’t disregard the script. Too often there is too much disregard for the script. And television has been showing the way in terms of adult drama, in terms of what is capable in drama, and one of the reasons it has been doing that is because the scripts are better. The scripts of ‘The Wire’ are fantastic; the scripts of ‘Breaking Bad,’ the scripts of ‘Mad Men,’ the scripts of ‘The Sopranos,’ the scripts of ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ You could keep going on. They’re incredibly well written. Film sometimes neglects that and it does it to its detriment. But partly because we’re all chasing this sort of… you know people are supposed to want to be the director. That’s the sort of coded thing is being the director, and it’s not helpful. You need good writers and you need good cinematographers and so on.”
Watch the interview below.
Befriend a Producer
A finished script, however, is only half the battle. Once you’re done, you need to find the means to get your film made. That’s where producers come into the picture. Garland told Interview magazine in 2015:
“The key relationship for writers in film is producers, because those are the first two people involved and the ones who work on it intensely in a private way without the big machinery of film. So I wrote a script. Film allows me to play out this writing compulsion I’ve now developed. But it’s more anonymous in some respects, or most respects, than novel writing. I wrote a first draft of ‘28 Days Later,’ and I showed it to this guy Andrew Macdonald, who is a producer and is the producer I’ve continued to work with since, and he said, ‘There’s something in this but, look, it’s formatted all wrong and these scenes are way overwritten.’ He gave me a script and said, ‘This is what a script looks like.’ It was a bit like novel writing in the very early days, where I would be looking at it in a mechanical, structural way — you know, interior, exterior, all the stuff like that — but also economy, where you can come out of a scene and where you can come in and all sorts of things that play differently than they do in books. There’s one massive problem with coming from writing novels into screenplays that I’ve discovered over the years, which is that you’ve got too much facility on the page. In novels, you can persuade people of things that work that don’t really work.”
Be On the Same Page
While Garland believes that compromise is necessary for filmmaking, he also notes the importance of being on the same page with your crew, and everyone else involved with the project, so that the compromises made are effective. He told Collider in 2015:
“Having strong powerful voices makes it better, as long as you’re not fighting. The basic thing is, at the outset you’ve all got to be making the same movie. The trouble I’ve had on previous films is that at a certain point key people are making different movies at the same time. That’s a nightmare when that happens. If everybody is making the same movie, you can have sort of trouble, you can have disagreements, you can have strong discussions or whatever the right phrasing is, but everybody is ultimately pulling for the same goal. The key is, from my point of view, in any way, is to really get agreement, but then to get passionate strong voices in each of the key roles; the DP, the production designer, the actors. All of them possessing the thing, owning it. Not executing someone else’s wishes but executing their wishes to make the same movie.”
Watch the interview below.
What We Learned
Filmmaking is a collaborative medium. No one can get a film made on their own. A director must surround themselves with a talented crew who are not only working toward the same goal but who are also unafraid to question their vision. Recognizing the power of great writing is also essential to creating a successful movie.
If you are a writer, taking your time with a script and understanding that you will go through several drafts before you have a finished product is to your benefit in the long run. Rushing to get something done may hurt your chances of starting your career in the industry. Like many writers, you may have some self-doubt along the way, but if you use that to push yourself forward rather than to discourage yourself, you will see your work improve with each new draft.