Civil War director Alex Garland: ‘Journalists are seen with contempt by a lot of people now. I really object to that’

Kirsten Dunst leads a posse of gallant reporters in the film-maker’s dystopian adventure set in a divided United States

“It was a difficult film to anticipate how people would react,” Alex Garland says of Civil War. “Normally you have a hunch, or you have a hope. With this I didn’t have a hunch or a hope. I just had no idea.”

It has gone down a storm so far. The buzz at the premiere at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, was close to deafening. Early reviews have been breathless in their enthusiasm. But there remains a feeling of unease around the dystopian adventure.

Garland, an English novelist who broke into directing with Ex Machina and Annihilation, has, in a presidential-election year, dared to take on the political divisions that, if you believe the grimmest Cassandras, have driven the United States closer to dissolution that at any time since the real civil war.

The script leaves many origins of its imagined conflict vague. But we discern that the president, now in a telltale “third term”, is some sort of authoritarian. A loyalist army holds much of the east and midwest while “western forces” are aiming for separatism. Our eyes are with a posse of gallant journalists played by Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura and Stephen McKinley Henderson.


So let’s ask this straight up. The film is imagining what might happen if Donald Trump were to exceed worst expectations on re-election? Right? I’m betting Garland will reject that simplistic interpretation. Pull it apart for me.

“Um, yeah, okay, I’ll pull it apart,” he says with a wry smile. “But it’s a complex answer. I don’t know how much you want a complex answer.”

We’re a broadsheet newspaper. We can handle it.

“So it begins with the origin of the story – why it exists – and it had two parts to it,” he says. “One of them has to do with the nature of journalism – the nature of reporting without bias. The way many media institutions have clear bias. Some very, very big media institutions have clear bias. What does that do to journalists who are writing straightforward accounts? Are they trusted or not?

“We’re making a film about reporters – and making the film like a reporter. It is showing things and removing its own bias. I grew up around journalists – my dad was a cartoonist. They had strong opinions, but when it came to the work there was a kind of purity.”

As you may have already gathered, Alex Garland can talk. He has a calm, thoughtful manner, but when he gets his teeth stuck in, the mastication continues for some time. He is, indeed, the son of the veteran political cartoonist Nicholas Garland. He went to school in Hampstead, in north London, before taking an art-history degree at the University of Manchester. Sudden fame came when The Beach, his first novel, became a sensation.

Clearly that upbringing among top-flight journalists – Dad drew for the Daily Telegraph, Private Eye and the Spectator – has informed his work on Civil War. Fair enough. But we haven’t yet got to the second part of his explanation. He admits that the film is, to an extent, also about the current divisions.

“It’s not that we’re not talking to each other. We are talking to each other. But we’re not hearing each other,” he says. “Something strange has happened to discourse. I wanted to find a way to tell a story that allowed for discourse. I’m not going to shut down that discourse. To take that one step further, I don’t like the idea of zeroing in on individuals, because I think this is a wider phenomenon.

“In my country we have serious problem with polarised, populist, divisive politics, which carries within it extremism. And extremism has got far closer in my lifetime than I thought was going to be possible as someone who was born in 1970.”

I am interested in the levels of ambiguity he allows in Civil War. The road to the conflict represented could have begun in many different places.

“The president depicted in the film is a three-term president who has dismantled one of the legal organisations that could threaten him,” he says. There is indeed a reference to the president disbanding the FBI, an agency that has caused Trump to fulminate.

“He is killing their own citizens. And is that ambiguous? Or what? It might seem a bit ambiguous if you stop and think about it. But one thing you could not call ambiguous is that – that fascist behaviour.”

No argument there. But that is not quite what I am getting at. The film certainly identifies its president as a malign force. In one brilliantly tense sequence we run up against some of his rural, racist supporters.

Garland has, however, toyed with our expectations of how such a dispute might play out. The successionist western forces comprise an alliance between California and Texas. We know that those two polities – combined population 70 million – are wildly diverse places, but, for the purposes of reductive politicking, they are often characterised as, respectively, liberal and right-wing heartlands. Was Garland deliberately sowing confusion here?

“It was a conscious decision,” Garland says. “It stops people making an easy judgment call on what are the forces at play here. It’s more complicated. To anybody who knows the notional political positions of those two superpowerful states within America, it could also raise a question. I should stop unpacking it, because otherwise I’ll dismantle the film. But you’re saying: ‘these two politically polarised states have decided that a fascist president is a greater threat to what they believe in than what their polarised politics tells them.’ The film doesn’t say that. It infers it. This is a conversation.”

None of this would matter if the film were not so effective as a propulsive action drama. Civil War is likely to excite left, right and nonvoters. As much as anything else, it is a thrilling journalism yarn in the vein of Oliver Stone’s Salvador and Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire. There is a lot of boozing and drug taking. The journos make some questionable calls. But the film does see them as heroes of the old school. Slinging cameras as the combatants sling submachine guns. All that stuff.

“I understand what you’re saying, and I understand the implication,” he says. “And I think that’s fair. When I was a little boy my godfather was a foreign correspondent. My brother’s godfather was a foreign correspondent. My dad really loved these guys. They would come back – this was the early 1970s – from places like Vietnam and Cambodia. As a tiny little boy I probably idolised them. They were funny and kind of glamorous. They were very, very clever, impressive people. Their colleagues were impressive people too.”

Is he romanticising a bit?

“Yeah, probably. But journalists are seen, to my surprise, with contempt by a lot of people now,” he says. “I really object to that. I really feel it’s like saying: ‘I don’t like doctors.’ What are you going to do without doctors? The BBC is one of the few places that at least tries to hold on to a lack of bias. It’s incredible it has been so quickly and so commonly seen as an enemy that might be met with violence. That pisses me off.”

The default position in some corners of social media is that politicians and journalists are all pond scum.

“Yeah. Okay, people can complain about that and get angry. Fair enough,” Garland says. “And you’re exactly right: it is the same about politicians. It’s important to remember there are some very reasonable politicians. They might be being drowned out by unreasonable politicians – in my country we have Boris Johnson, for Christ’s sake, a manifest liar.”

After leaving university Garland spent some time drawing comic books, but the shadow of his father’s celebrity in an adjacent area surely loomed large. He turned to novels. The success of The Beach rather unnerved him. Following a young drifter who encounters a community of expats in a remote corner of Thailand, that 1996 novel seemed to catch a hitherto untapped flavour of mid-Gen X hedonism. It was reprinted 25 times in its first year. Every sandal-wearer had a copy. Eventually it became a Danny Boyle film with Leonardo DiCaprio.

“I always hoped to be a foreign correspondent,” Garland says. “I quickly found out in my early 20s I just couldn’t write nonfiction. I tried. I mainly read nonfiction. But I got frozen every time I tried to do it. Somehow, when it was fiction, I just felt I was able to get to the next sentence – and then the sentence after that. And that became a novel. But I hadn’t spent my teenage years thinking: I want to be a novelist. It wasn’t a plan. It was a surprising byproduct of a failed plan. When I became successful I wasn’t prepared for what that meant. Among other things, I wasn’t ready to be a novelist. I set about writing another novel and thought, I don’t want to do this. I have to sit in a room on my own for two years. And that sucks.”

He did publish two more successful novels, The Tesseract and The Coma, but it seems his heart wasn’t quite in it.

“I had an advance for further books. I paid the advance back. I said: ‘I’m not doing this any more.’ And I started writing 28 Days Later, a zombie film.”

That 2002 feature, directed by Boyle, brought new energy to the zombie genre and, along the way, helped propel one Cillian Murphy towards the mainstream. Garland explains how he favoured the “collegiate” nature of film-making. He preferred to be part of a crowd. The philosophical sci-fi Ex Machina came out in 2015. Featuring complex special effects (which won an unexpected Oscar), the film is not the sort of talky chamber piece one might expect from a first-timer. Where had he picked up the technical expertise?

“Partly by osmosis. Look, someone like Wes Anderson is an auteur director,” he says. “He is controlling the film on many levels. In a totality. But most films are not made like that. The films I make are not made like that. You have very brilliant VFX [visual-effects] supervisors, a DOP [director of photography], a sound designer. And so it goes on. I have also seen films that were out of control – and were being kept in control by the experience of the crew. Still these days when I see the ‘A film by’ credit some part of me twitches.”

Garland has a cinematic voice. His subsequent films Annihilation, Men and, now, Civil War have a common strangeness. But I can see why he baulks at the credit.

“It’s much easier to say ‘made by’ rather than acknowledging a disparate team of people. Just because that doesn’t fit on the poster.”

Civil War is on general release