Alex Garland confronts the horrors of past, present in 'Men'
It wasn't Jessie Buckley's audition but an observation she made that got her the leading role in " Men."
When speaking to filmmaker Alex Garland about his heady idea to grapple with masculinity and its foundational myths and virulent cycles within a folk horror construct, Buckley caught him off guard: She started talking about the metallic taste of blood and how the character might feel about it. It was strange and unusual and perfect, he thought.
"It was quite an abstract way of thinking. It was also a very clear way of thinking," Garland said. "It wasn't trying to second guess either me or an invisible person who might be observing and judging the conversation. It was very unfettered and very instinctive and it just spoke to me. I thought, 'Oh we're going to be able to work together.'"
For "Men" to work, or at least not be conservative or boring, which are his greatest fears, he knew he'd have to take big, weird swings. After all, "Men," which opens in exclusively theaters on Friday, is a film which draws on the ancient imagery and symbolism of the Green Man, a historic symbol of rebirth and regeneration, and the Sheela-na-gig, a carving of a naked woman with exaggerated female anatomy.
He knew Buckley was a great actor, but it was a meeting of sensibilities that made her right. She'd do a primal scream in a church that would end up becoming a note in the actual score, throw out ideas of her own and try wild things that she knew would probably end up on the cutting room floor.
"Alex sets a place where everything is possible," said Buckley.
Garland had been thinking about the concept for many years. He wrote the first draft sometime after writing "Sunshine" and would go back to it time and time again. Sometimes themes would even find their way into his other films like "Ex Machina" and "Annihilation." Though toxic masculinity is a contemporary phrase, the concept is anything but and Garland wanted to make something that acknowledged that.
But "Men" didn't come together until he distilled it down to its simplest form: A woman, Harper (Buckley), has just had a traumatic experience and personal loss and retreats to the English countryside for a stay in a 500-year-old estate. There she encounters a variety of men, all of whom are played by Rory Kinnear. There's an aggressive child, a misogynistic vicar, a kind homeowner, a police officer, a barkeeper, some townies and a drifter who appears to be following her. As the film progresses, her personal safety and search for peace come under attack in ways both subtle and not.
Whenever Kinnear would come on set as a different character, Buckley said there was always a shift in the air. When the homeowner Geoffrey was there, it was "party time." When the vicar came, "there was an iciness." Kinnear isn't method, so it wasn't anything he was doing per se, but it was a visceral experience for the actors and crew. It helped that they kept it light between the intense takes.
"Rory is probably the funniest person I've ever worked with, which was a complete tonic," Buckley said. "If it was someone who was incredibly serious and heavy with it, it would have been completely different."
Garland looked to many of his frequent collaborators to help bring the world of "Men" to life, like production designer Mark Digby, set decorator Michelle Day and cinematographer Rob Hardy. Garland feels like he's always asked to present a kind of lie to the world as the public face of a film and he wants to give credit where it's due.
"Everybody overdignifies directors," Garland said. "I'm constantly being given credit for things I have nothing do with. So many things that feel directorial in the film are Michelle Day. Sometimes people will talk about the way I framed a shot, but it's Rob Hardy who framed the shot. There's a phrase that often gets used: 'So and so coaxed a performance out of such and such actor.' I don't think I've ever coaxed a performance out of anyone in my life."
But, Buckley noted, someone does need to lead.
"You need somebody to set that tone," Buckley said. "I've worked with directors that don't do that. They don't create a space where there is a collective conscience."
Garland does just that, she said. It's this synthesis that audiences have come to love about the films and shows that bear Garland's name. The ideas and images in his stories, even the ones he just wrote, are guaranteed to rattle around in your head for days. And there's often a significant song that he does admit he has a hand in picking.
"Men" begins and ends with two different version of Lesley Duncan's "Love Song," from 1969. At the beginning, it's Duncan's version. At the end, it's the Elton John cover from "Tumbleweed Connection." And it became a sort of metaphor for the film.
"I liked its brazenness. The lyrics are the kind of lyrics that almost embarrass people," Garland said. "They're so straightforward and they're so simple and they're so true that it actually makes people feel slightly uncomfortable. Or it makes a certain kind of person uncomfortable.
"There's a lot in this film that is oppositional to people being coy and not just engaging with something," he continued. "The whole film is a Sheela-na-gig. And I know it embarrasses some people. I know that song embarrasses some people. I know the film embarrasses some people. But there is a kind of subtext to it that just says 'Get over yourself.'"