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Alex Garland on how Attack on Titan shaped his horror movie Men: ‘I’ve got to run faster’

‘I’m just blown away by that show. It’s so complex on so many levels.’

A promo image from the Attack on Titan game Wings of Freedom, with a skinless Titan grabbing something in the foreground of the picture Image: Koei Tecmo
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

In a Q&A after the world premiere of the startling new horror movie Men, writer-director Alex Garland (Annihilation, Ex Machina) caused a minor social media sensation when he said he’d taken some inspiration from the anime series Attack on Titan, which he was still in the process of watching. The post-apocalyptic sci-fi horror series has had a huge impact on the anime industry, but no one was expecting the creator of such singular live-action American movies to cite the show as having an impact on his work. After the film’s premiere, Polygon spoke with Garland about how he came to watch Attack on Titan and what it’s meant to him.

“I was watching it with my daughter, who brought me into it saying, ‘Dad, you really should watch this,’” Garland tells us. “I’m just blown away by that show. It’s so complex on so many levels, but in the Titans themselves, it did something really interesting — it takes human forms and makes slight changes that take things to the edge of ridiculous, but does it with real courage and confidence.

“So it hovers on this strange space between something absurdist and something actually really frightening. I was just really, really impressed. And I thought, on some level, I’m being too — too lazy, maybe. I don’t know what the right word is. But I’m just not anything like as good as that, and I’ve got to get better. So it made me reinvestigate Men and rethink about it. That’s the nice stuff about other people’s good work — it sort of lifts everyone a bit, you know?”

Garland is quick to point out that there’s no specific image or idea in Men that directly echoes Attack on Titan — he says he first started working on the script about 15 years ago and has been steadily rewriting and revising it since then. The film centers on a woman named Harper (Jessie Buckley) who takes a trip to the English countryside to escape a recent trauma and encounters a series of men who all want something from her, all have the same face, and all show a willingness to assault her out of frustration if they don’t get what they want. Graphic male nudity does play an unnerving part in the movie, but Garland says the inspirations from anime weren’t nearly that specific.

Harper (Jessie Buckley) stands in the middle of a huge open chapel space in Alex Garland’s Men. Photo: Kevin Baker/A24

“The truth is that any time you see something really good, it encourages you to just try harder, think harder, do better,” he says. “What Attack on Titan did was, it gave me a kind of jolt. And when you get a jolt, you get a chance to step outside what you’ve been working on and thinking about, and kind of clear your head and start again and think not What was the idea I originally had? but What is right for the film?

Garland is a little concerned that people might overstate how much impact the anime series had on his work: “It would be getting something wrong to put too much attention on it in a big way,” he says. “Because for me, a film is a really fluid thing, which is taking in all sorts of things from all sorts of places — and most importantly, people — the whole way through.”

With that in mind, he dodges any specific question about where he was in the process of writing or making the film when he had his inspiration. “There are Attack on Titan-like changes that continued to occur through the shooting process, or through the editing process,” he says. “Or it might be to do with playing the piano, the use of a poem, or whatever it happens to be. It’s just simply the whole film is in a kind of constant fluid state, partly because it’s the product of a group of people working together who are having a role in a conversation. All I’m really saying is that at one point, one of the voices that came up and contributed to one thing at one moment was Attack on Titan.”

He says ultimately, the anime series was just so impressive to him that it pushed him away from any complacency that might have crept into his filmmaking. “You know, it’s difficult — when you see other people’s stuff and it’s really good, you’ve sort of got two choices,” he says. “One is to get intimidated by it and think, Should I be doing this at all? And the other is to think, No, I’ve got to run faster. And I tried to respond by running faster.”

Men opens in theaters on May 20, 2022.


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