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Annihilation: Author Jeff VanderMeer On Transformations From Book To Screen (Exclusive Interview)

Annihilation will be one of the most wondrous beautiful films you’ll see on the big screen.

Book fans have been anticipating the adaptation of The Southern Reach series first novel by Jeff VanderMeer for quite some time. After the word that Alex Garland (Ex Machina) was to helm Annihilation—the anticipation simply grew many folds.

The film has an all-star cast with Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Oscar Isaac.

The film is about a biologist who joins an all-female expedition into the unknown beyond “The Shimmer” to only discover the laws of nature had been altered.

LRM interviewed author Jeff Vandermeer earlier this month via phone. Ironically, we talked about the evolution and transformation from Jeff’s vision in his novel to Alex Garland’s film spectacle of Annihilation.

Annihilation is playing nationwide on tomorrow and with preview screenings tonight.

Read our interview transcript below.

LRM: I’ve read your book, Annihilation, and I’m so excited to speak with you.

Jeff VanderMeer: No kidding. I’m working on a new novel and I’m learning to talk to people again.

LRM: That’s terrific! I’ve just came across your Twitter account right now.

Jeff VanderMeer: It’s more active than it had lately. [Laughs]

LRM: No kidding. I’ve reading your Tweet about a ninja and a cat.

Jeff VanderMeer: I was about to mention that to you. I’m really excited about it! [Laughs] Ninjas and cats. [Laughs] It was a very good movie too. I watched it and it was a really good movie. I couldn’t believe it. [Laughs]

LRM: Now I’m going to have to look for this movie called Neko Ninja for myself. [Chuckles] Now we’re here to talk about your movie, of course, Annihilation.

Jeff VanderMeer: Well, not my movie. It’s Alex Garland’s movie.

LRM: Exactly. For the past few months, I’ve been trying to track down a copy of your book Annihilation. I wanted to read the book before the movie. And I recently watched the movie and I thought to myself, “Is this the same thing?” Was that your reaction when you saw it?

Jeff VanderMeer: No. First of all, there’s what I call acts of translation. There are the acts of translation of the book to the movie. There’s a moment feature in the book with a bear that combines with the boar. It’s one of those compaction that needed to occur when you’re making a movie in comparison to something more sprawling like a book.

The moss village scene is quite mesmerizing. It’s very much like the book. We’re very lucky enough to get on the set to see them filming that. It’s remarkable on how close to the abandoned Florida village that they’re able to get. And it’s all the way down to the mailboxes with lichen on them. It’s like our own misbegotten mailboxes in North Florida.

I thought it was really great that they could share DNA and still be surprised by the movie.

LRM: But, there are quite a few noticeable changes from the book to the movie. How did Alex Garland worked with you in regards to the script and the changes?

Jeff VanderMeer: I just wanted to give him the freedom to write the screenplay he wanted to write. I’ve seen Ex Machina and realized he had a really interesting point of view. That was a movie that gets better and better and better. The third act was amazing. It’s remarkable. As a junkie for science fiction and fantasy films, that’s usually where these films fall apart. It was such a great movie.

There were some initial phone calls. We talked about things like the boar versus a bear. I wanted him to feel like he had the freedom to do the translations that he needed to make it from a book to the movie. It’s to create something unique in its own right.

LRM: Was there any moment in which he pitched ideas to you and you had to put your foot down? That you wanted to say, “I like it to be closer to my book?”

Jeff VanderMeer: I don’t really work that way. As somebody who has done a Halo tie-in novel and a Predator tie-novel, I felt really great in those situations. There are different kinds of translations obviously. They gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to in those universes.

I really didn’t think of it in that way. I really wanted to see the interest in film. I didn’t want to see a faithful film. Another thing is that there’s a lot of interiority in Annihilation. There are a lot of things being setup for later in the series. So it doesn’t really makes sense to keep some of that stuff [for the film].

LRM: Were you kind of reserved on that fact that the movie concluded itself whereas your book continued on with a series?

Jeff VanderMeer: It’s weird. I could see it somehow some readers could see it that way that there will be too much closure with the movie. I’m glad there’s closure in the movie and not wondering on what’s going on. [Laughs] By actually I think that the second book pivots rather radically they could do a continuation if they wanted. Of course, there will be acts of translation. I don’t see it as out of the question.

LRM: I love that answer. One of the things as a person who actually did read the book—I loved the fact that you created your characters without any names. It’s just referred to everyone with their occupations. However, as a drastic change from the book, this movie Annihilation, presented names. What did you think about that particular change?

Jeff VanderMeer: [Laughs] Well, that was one of the things that was rather a little difficult for me. [Laughs] I tried to put names in the novel. Original few pages, they just moved by their functions. Every time I put a name on them, for me, it was harder to get to know them where I needed that kind of distance for whatever reason. But, I didn’t go with names.

For Alex Garland, to get to know them better, he had to give them names. It’s different on the page to see the biologist and others than to hear them be called out by their functions in the film. It doesn’t bother me since they’re not calling out their names throughout the film anyways.

LRM: With you sitting through the movie and you had to be a critic, how would you judge this movie? With the plot? With the visuals? What did you like the best about this film?

Jeff VanderMeer: The film is very accurate in tone and texture of the books. Some of the transformations of the animals and the landscapes are very faithful to the books. There are segments of the third act that I think Garland has this knack of being able to go from strength to strength. The movies he made are strong all the way through. The third act has some rather amazing moments in it that are transcendent. He mixed the horrific and beauty that are true to the series.

I remembered the scene filming on set with Tessa Thompson that I wished I thought for the book. I’ve seen the rough cut of the film and I’ll be seeing the final version at the premiere. It is interesting to see the rough cut, having to written the book and visiting the set. It’ll be much more immersive when I’ll see it at the premiere.

LRM: How was that experience visiting the set? Was it everything you pictured as you walked on to the set?

Jeff VanderMeer: It was pretty brilliant. They created this Florida village. They couldn’t have done it better even if they airlifted houses and buildings from Florida. It really looked like Florida to me. [Chuckles] The energy was amazing. We were able to see two scenes being shot. They shot it sequentially that gave it an illusion they’re on an expedition. There were such a comradery between them. It’s amazing to see such energy. There is intensity to watch these scenes being shot. It was quite extraordinary.

There were quite some visual imagination. They had storyboard the beats of imagination. They had a whole room covered with images. If you went from right to left, you can see this act one, act two and act three. They had photographs. They had things created themselves image-wise. With all these visual markers, it captured the tone and texture.

And what’s the most amazing about that, there were at least a dozen of those images were taken out from the world—they were inspirations from me with the book. They couldn’t have clearly known that. If they have gone to that parallel evolution point by having to read and to understand the language of the book.

LRM: How proud are you that your first book is being made into a movie? I remembered seeing a clip over a year ago at CinemaCon and the crowd cheered with anticipation.

Jeff VanderMeer: The whole experience is surreal. Whenever I go through the process for the first time, I like to listen and learn. I also wanted to stay very grounded. [Laughs] As you can imagine, this is much more intense per se than a little average book tour. I’ve spent a lot of time being excited about things. I’ve spent a lot of times in my backyard feeding my birds and working on my other work and novels. I’m trying to enjoy it while working on new material.

LRM: I want to talk a little bit about the origins of your book series here. I understand that you went through a wilderness expedition yourself to get inspired for the book. Are you an outdoorsman?

Jeff VanderMeer: Yeah, I always had a pretty close connection to nature. I grew up on the Fiji Islands. My parents were in the Peace Corps. They were always surrounded by wilderness. It was amazing with the beaches and what not.

Being in Florida as I have now, especially in North Florida which is unspoiled, I do a lot of hiking out there. Some of the things in the book are real to me. There’s a part in the book with a wild boar charging the expedition. They had a lot of time thinking on what they wanted to do in a long distance away. It actually happened to me when I was out hiking. It was kind of ridiculous. I was hiking with someone who had a walking stick and I had a small gutting knife. That was it. There was this giant, enraged looking like a deranged huge giant German Shepherd, creature was charging us from a distance. We had no place to go, because there was water on both sides of this trail. We had a long time to think, because it was charging from so far away. We had this ridiculous conversation on what to do with this thing charging at us. We just finally stood there and hoped that we could kill it. At the last second, it veered off into the water. That’s actually when we knew we were panicking rather than having a rational discussion. It never occurred to us that pigs could actually swim and that was even an option.

Things like that happens on a regular basis when you’re out hiking. I’ve had encounters with alligators. I’ve seen a panther out there. You’ll get a real awareness when you’re out there alone into the natural world.

LRM: Thank goodness that was your experience. I almost thought you actually went into a haunted lighthouse, creepy tunnel or something.

Jeff VanderMeer: [Laughs] The lighthouse. [Laughs] That’s another thing that’s interesting—you can’t get to the inside of the lighthouse at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, which is the inspiration for the novel. Your writer brain goes in weird directions when you can’t get into a place. What’s actually in there? That’s where the inspiration for this actually came from.

LRM: You mentioned earlier in this interview that you are writing a new book. I’m actually a bit excited. Can you talk a little about it? Give us a little teaser.

Jeff VanderMeer: Yeah, I’m working on a book called Hummingbird Salamander, which already had been optioned by Netflix. It’s an ecological thriller set in the present day. I call it as the present day plus ten seconds. It’s about a woman who find two taxidermized animals in a storage locker. She was given a key to it by a dead woman who she thought she didn’t know. The two taxidermized animals were the two rarest animals in the world—actually was involved in the illegal wildlife trade. It lead her down into a rabbit hole into things like ecoterrorism and bioterrorism. It allowed me to closely and more directly into the environmental things up to this point.

LRM: How excited are you with the idea that it could possibly be made into a Netflix feature?

Jeff VanderMeer: I’m really excited actually. I am a Netflix binger. [Laughs] They have a lot of really amazing series on there. There’s quite a bit of stuff under option right now. I’m really excited about the feature.

LRM: One last question for you, Jeff. Do you recommend people to read the book before watching this film? Or to go ahead and enjoy the film first?

Jeff VanderMeer: Of course, I recommend people to read the book. [Laughs]

LRM: Great answer. Thank you very much, Jeff. I really appreciate this conversation. Now I’m going to have to look for this ninja and cat movie.

Jeff VanderMeer: You have to look for that. Apparently, there’s a series connected to that cat and ninja movie too. [Laughs] Thank you.

Annihilation is playing nationwide on tomorrow and with preview screenings tonight.

Source: Exclusive to LRM Online

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