A few nights ago, I was lucky enough to see Annihilation on the big screen at Hampstead’s Everyman Cinema (Yes, it was a different beast in that format). What was even better was afterwards I witnessed a Q&A with director Alex Garland and composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. Unlike other Q&A’s I’ve seen, this one was brutally honest about all the issues surrounding it as well as giving a greatest depth as to how much work went into this masterpiece.
Spoilers for the film below
Starting off with the thing we all wanted to know, what did the studio not like about the film? Alex Garland revealed there were two scenes they wanted gone. Firstly, they didn’t want Lena (Natalie Portman) to cheat on her husband. He went on to say as there was no typical reason for her to do it (i.e. abusive husband or a loveless marriage) in their eyes. The affair is the entire reason Lena goes into the shimmer, as she feels guilty for pushing Kane (Oscar Isaac) away and by taking this out you lose an entire aspect of the film. Also, the theme of ‘Annihilation’ is self-destruction and having Lena be the one who causes her marriage to be put on the ropes only adds to that.
The more shocking revelation was that the studio wanted to get rid of the entire lighthouse scene involving Lena and her double. What makes this so bonkers is that, that scene is pure cinematic perfection. The score, the “dance” between the two, the visuals, everything is just spot on. Garland said how films always end up in some kind of show down, whether it be a physical fight or a courtroom case, there’s always a tendency for films to build towards it. ‘Annihilation’ doesn’t do this and test audiences didn’t like this. Garland said test audiences tend to pick films apart and cause there to be a panic to change, even when there’s no need. Garland spoke highly of filming this scene, saying it was the best he’s ever worked on, which is why he refused to cut it. This gained a huge round of applause from the audience.
Speaking of that scene, one of the biggest surprises of the night was when Garland told us that Natalie Portman didn’t actually take part in most of that scene due to her pregnancy. Now, we all know visuals effects can pretty much do anything, but it’s still remarkable it’s not noticeable in the slightest. Garland himself even said he’s amazed they got away with it.
Now, while Garland spoke a lot, Barrow and Salisbury also gave a massive insight into why the music was such a key element in ‘Annihilation’ compared to other films. They explained how they were brought on a year before filming even begun to discuss how the score would play out. Usually, a composer would be brought on near the end of a shoot for 6-8 weeks. It gives greater understanding as to why the score was so essential within the film and seeing it on the big screen really demonstrated it better than any standard TV could.
The final scene in the lighthouse has a score that can only be described as a “mind fuck” (Barrow said this himself) and there’s even more of a reason it stands out. The music that came before was purposefully rather subdued and calm and gradually got more and more mad. That was a key choice as it correlates with the film’s plot descending into a more bizarre tale. While it would’ve been a memorable sound regardless, it’s just another step the filmmakers took into making this film as good as it could be.
At the end of the Q&A, the floor was open for the audience to ask question and I took full advantage of this. In my review of ‘Annihilation’, I said I thought if the film had been more male oriented the studio would’ve looked past their issues of it and given it a cinematic release. The night before, I had posed this question to Mark Kermode at his monthly MK3D show at the BFI and he agreed. So when Garland said he didn’t think this was the case, I was somewhat shocked at first, but, as with all of his answers that night, he explained his reasoning with excellence and logic. He explained that studios are now desperate to get more female led films, pointing to the fact that in 2017 the three biggest earning films were lead by women. He also stated that while he had issues during his time, he doesn’t want to give the impression that all studios are bad. In the simplest terms, Garland believed that even with a male cast, the same issues would’ve persisted.
One other brilliant moment that came out of the Q&A was when Garland went into detail of how he said to the studio what his vision for ‘Annihilation’ was and that it was going to look as crazy as he described it. He acknowledged that being given $40 million was no small feat, but felt strongly that he hadn’t mislead them in anyway and was completely upright and honest about how he was going to spend it. He said that the moment they heard this and agreed to hand over the money, they were in. One bad test audience later and suddenly this wasn’t the case. Garland explained that they did the thing all studios do which was suggest they make a cut and see which one audiences prefer. Garland said no. Another round of applause happened after that story.
‘Annihilation’ is an modern classic in my opinion and this Q&A only added to that belief. Listening to the passion and drive the three filmmakers had for it, followed by a determination and grit to not cave into studio demands was really eye opening and a pleasure to hear. When I watch ‘Annihilation’ for a third time (which will probably be rather soon), all of this new information will defiantly be on my mind, and I have no doubt it’ll add to my enjoyment of the film as a whole. Whatever comes next for these guys, if it’s half as good as their work on this, it’ll be something special.
You can hear the entire Q&A on Edith Bowman’s podcast Soundtracking soon. It’s well worth a listen to gain even more insight into the film and to hear a few funny antidotes about the three guests being in a car outside Paddington station and Geoff’s reaction to being on set with the bear.
Also, Everyman Cinemas are doing a few more screenings of ‘Annihilation’ and I would recommend going to see it on the big screen, even if you’ve seen it on Netflix already. You can book tickets here.