Back in the ’90s, Alex Garland was in his mid-20s and collecting unemployment when he penned his massive bestseller The Beach, which then became an even bigger Leonardo DiCaprio film. Shocked by his success – as he says, “suddenly you’re pretending to be a novelist” – Garland then went on to write other books (most notably The Tesseract, which also was adapted for the screen). But still, Garland thought, “This isn’t what I intended with my life.” In fact, he says, “it was actually kind of a relief” to stop writing books. “I’m in no way belittling the profession, but I could see I was incompatible with it.” What came out of his writing was a strong connection to film, and Garland has been screenwriting ever since (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go). His latest move is to direct his own writing projects, with Ex Machina – which snagged a PGA Award nomination and the much-anticipated Annihilation, an adaption of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, which is due to start pre-production in the next month. By all accounts, his first turn at directing was a huge success, but he’s popular on a personal level too: Alicia Vikander describes him as “one of the most brilliant men, but also one of the most gentle, warm and kind people.”

How was getting the freedom to direct your own writing for the first time with Ex Machina?

I’ll probably sound disingenuous, but it was incredibly similar to the previous filmmaking experience that I’d had. I was largely working with the same group of people I’d worked with before, and that would go from HODs to producers, right down to the broader crew. There were a lot of people I’ve worked with for 15 years, and so on a day-by-day basis it was the same as it had always been, you know? You’d be in a little group which you’d been in for two and-a-half years before that, and two and-a-half years before that again, and so on, saying, ‘what are we going to do about the weather? Do we think we can get a shot or should we move on now?’ So, nothing really changed.

You’re such a self-deprecating Brit! You also designed the robot yourself and did the storyboards yourself?

I did some of the boards and I did some of the design, but there was another guy called Jock, who’s a British comic book artist as well. I know this sounds…I’m now just falling into your self-deprecating thing, but I can’t take credit for it. It was just a group of people, but I can talk about what we were aiming for. The key issue we had with Ava was that she had to look completely like a machine. She couldn’t look like an actress wearing a robot suit, because that would then leave room in the narrative for the possibility that she is actually not a machine. But at the same time it had to be something that as soon as you’d established her as a machine, you then moved away from it and almost started to make people forget she was a machine. That was a paradox we had to figure our way around. And the other thing was just that there have been an awful lot of robots in films prior to this one, so it was easy to unconsciously fall into the design cues of all the movies. Because we were a cheap movie by the standards of a lot of movies, one of the ways we saved money was by fully understanding what Ava looked like before we started shooting, so it wasn’t a sort of ‘fix it in post’-type approach. It was, ‘we are aiming this shot very deliberately and very carefully,’ so everything was very intentional I suppose.

Alicia Vikander Alex Garland Domhnall Gleeson ex machina
“She couldn’t look like an actress wearing a robot suit, because that would then leave room in the narrative for the possibility that she is actually not a machine,” Garland says of planning Alicia Vikander’s robot look for Ex Machina, pictured with Domhnall Gleeson

How did the idea for Ex Machina come to you?

I’d been thinking about it for ages and I was in pre-production on the previous movie that I worked on, Dredd. It was a very difficult film actually, and it was a difficult shoot, and pre-production was difficult, and the whole thing was difficult, and Ex Machina was a kind of escape for me. I came up with the story and got it down very, very quick while we were in prep on Dredd I think to avoid thinking about Dredd is probably the reality of it.

What appeals to you about the dystopian themes that often appear in your work?

I don’t know. I can see by now, I’m now in my mid-40s and I’ve written a bunch of narratives, and I can see there are repeating themes, and in a weird way, once I recognize them I then don’t look at them too hard. It’s a sort of an unconscious compulsion and I’m happy just to go with it I guess.

You’re directing Annihilation and now that you’ve done writing and directing your own projects does it feel like there’s no going back to writing for other directors?

No, no, I could definitely write a script and not direct it. I could easily imagine doing that. You know, there’s pluses and minuses basically, and in a way it depends on the project. The issues I’ve had in the past were when I’d had a very specific idea of what something was and then if it started to move away from that–conflict would start. If everybody’s in sync and on the same page, which does happen sometimes, then I could easily imagine someone else directing for sure.

How did you come to be involved with Annihilation? Had you read the book before?

No. I was cutting Ex Machina and had a particular story that I was interested in telling, and I was talking to one of the producers of Ex Machina, Scott Rudin, about it and kind of laying out what I wanted to do and what interested me about it, and he said, ‘you should read this book, Annihilation,’ which he had found. It was nothing to do with me. He just put it in front of me and there was a perfect kind of dovetail to something that I was interested in doing and something that existed in this book. The thing in some respects was already set up and I came onto it after the book had been found by Scott.

Annihilation is part of a trilogy – does doing all of them appeal? Perhaps you can’t answer that right now?

No, no, it’s not that at all. I’m not superstitious about those things. All it is, is a few years ago when I was working on Dredd I had that conceived as a trilogy, and I now think having attempted to do that, and the thing was effectively stopped from being a trilogy because it just was a disaster at the box office, I think the thing to do is focus on the film you’re making, and not really think about sequels and trilogies. So, my focus is to make this film right and that’s the thing that’s in my horizon.

And you’ve got Natalie Portman and Gina Rodriguez starring

Right. We’re going to be shooting most of it in the UK, but probably not all of it. If everything goes to plan we start prep in three weeks and shoot in May.