Director Alex Garland on ‘Civil War’: “Of Course It’s a Political Film”

Garland and the cast of 'Civil War' spoke about the process—and stress—of creating a film about the country at war with itself.

Cailee Spaeny in Civil War. Murray Close

A buzzing crowd packed the IMAX theater at AMC Lincoln Square this past Monday night for a super-sized preview of Alex Garland’s Civil War, an incendiary look at a dystopic United States tearing itself apart. Don McLean’s crooning elegiac voice from 1971 filtered through the speakers as pre-show entrance music. “Bye-Bye, Miss American Pie” indeed. 

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“I’m not actually very good at public speaking,” said writer-director Garland with a self-deprecating smile as he introduced the Upper West Side screening, one of 50 such IMAX sneak peeks that distributor A24 arranged that night around the country before the film opens nationwide on April 12.

“Someone from A24 said, ‘I just want to warn you, there’s 150 journalists in this audience tonight. Be upbeat.’ So that’s what this is,” Garland added, pointing at himself with a wan shrug. 

His political provocation—full of blood-in-the-street images like a flag-toting suicide bomber detonating herself amid a riot in downtown Brooklyn, the Lincoln Memorial crumbling from a rocket launcher hit, a dump truck of dead Americans emptied into a mass grave, and the president literally clinging to the Resolute Desk as soldiers drag him away—is a $50 million gamble for New York-based indie studio A24, the most they’ve ever spent on any production.

Mounting such an audacious and potentially divisive action-drama is a bold statement from a bold company whose early reputation was forged with visionary works like Garland’s 2014 A.I. paranoid thriller Ex Machina. The British auteur is in the company’s DNA, a relationship they continued with 2022’s surreal shocker Men and now Civil War.

The director and cast of Civil War (from left): writer/director Alex Garland, NIck Offerman, Cailee Spaeny, Wagner Moura, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and JoJo T. Gibbs at the Los Angeles Premiere at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on April 02, 2024 in Los Angeles. Getty Images for A24

“I wrote this four years ago,” said Garland in a Q&A after the screening, where film critic Tomris Laffly moderated a discussion with the director and his cast, including Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, and Wagner Moura. “It’s not like there was any prescience on my part. Lots of people were concerned about division, polarization, populist politics that leads to extremism.”

More than anything, Garland was unsettled with the state of journalism—or journalism’s impact on the world around it. “There was something strange about the press,” he said. “They were writing very good stories—analytical and thoughtful and balanced and all sorts of things. But they had no traction. They didn’t seem to stop anything from happening.” 

So he wanted to make Civil War a movie about reportage—specifically in combat zones, and how that boots-on-the-ground view is all about bearing witness to the brutally logical consequences of political conflict. “We don’t ask,” says Dunst’s character, a photojournalist named Lee Smith. “We record so others ask.” 

“Buy a helmet and some Kevlar”: Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny in Civil War. Murray Close

To help with context and inspiration for their roles, Garland made sure that the cast watched Chris Martin’s film Under the Wire, a 2018 documentary about Marie Colvin, the eyepatch-wearing foreign correspondent who was killed in a bombardment during the Syrian civil war. He also added Elem Klimov’s seminal 1985 anti-war film Come and See for a further shell-shocked dollop of man’s inhumanity to man.

Dunst’s grim-faced Lee is an intrepid figure, showered with accolades but haunted by flashbacks of the deadly places and harrowing images that define her career. Her posse includes Joel (Moura), a journalist who loves the rush of being embedded in the action; Sammy (Stephen Mckinley Henderson), a veteran correspondent who files for “what’s left of The New York Times”; and Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a novice photographer hungry to learn the ropes from a hesitant Lee. 

In the film, Lee shoots on a digital camera, capturing the horrors of a war-torn America through her Leica lens. But Jessie uses a traditional 35mm SLR camera, specifically the Nikon FE2, per Garland’s instructions. “So that’s what I started learning on,” said Spaeny. “And I went to darkrooms in L.A., I learned to develop that myself. And I shot every photo you see me take in the movie. Whether it was a good photo or not, no one knows!” 

“You were wasting real film!” Dunst ribbed her co-star. “Very expensive.”

The first thing Lee does is give Jessie her yellow vest to remind combatants that they’re press. After that? “Buy a helmet and some Kevlar,” she advises. So begins their 857-mile journey from New York City to Washington, D.C., having to re-route away from decimated highways blocked with car wreckage and onto alternate routes that take them out to Pittsburgh, then through West Virginia en route to the nation’s capital where they hope to get a planned interview with the president—if they’re not shot on site first as so-called enemies of the people. 

A decimated highway blocked with car wreckage in Civil War. Courtesy of A24

Garland shot the film chronologically, so the cast could experience the emotional and psychological build throughout their journey. And as they moved closer to the front lines, the street fighting, explosions, and gunfire got worse. And more visceral. “The last two weeks were very intense,” Dunst explained. “It was very immersive the way we did it, and the way we shot it felt as real as possible. We didn’t use the half-round or quarter-round blanks that you usually use in a film. We used full-round. So there were very loud explosions. And that stuff gets in your body.” 

Garland wanted that trauma to be an essential part of his film. If it’s true, as François Truffaut once famously said, that every film about war ends up being pro-war, then Garland was intent on avoiding anything that might glorify the action. “I didn’t want to accidentally make Triumph of the Will,” he said, referring to Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous and aesthetically breathtaking piece of Nazi agitprop.

He was especially sensitive to music selection. “Apocalypse Now is absolute masterful filmmaking in terms of the photography and the editing and everything,” he said. “You add the Doors to it: what it is, is primarily seductive. It’s not repelling you. It’s pulling you into a dark romance. So we were very careful about the music choices.”

The combat zones in Civil War include downtown Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. Courtesy of A24

His needle drops, including a healthy dollop of synth-punk band Suicide, are jolting and disorienting. “We discovered that contemporary music never works,” said Garland. “Because it dated it in a particular way and broke some of the spell that the film is trying to cast.” One remarkably dark sequence uses De La Soul’s bouncy rap song “Say No Go” during a horrific execution scene. The dissonance—joy, repulsion, celebration, rage, despair—is a shocking subversion of expectations.

Civil War doesn’t ever mention political parties, viewpoints, or beliefs. So is Garland being coy by not naming names? “I’ve been doing interviews, and sometimes people say, ‘This isn’t a political film,’’’ he said. “And I think, ‘What on earth you’re talking about? Of course it’s a political film.’ This president, I would say, is manifestly a fascist. He has dismantled the FBI, which legally threatens him. He’s killing his own citizens with airstrikes. And he’s a third-term president, so he’s dismantling the Constitution. I’m not sure how much clearer those dots can be drawn in terms of their implications. I’m starting to get irritated by the question.”

He trusts in the intelligence of his audience: he’s not going to spoon-feed them reams of backstory or be arrogant enough to offer them answers. “I don’t need to tell anybody why this civil war occurred,” he said. “Because I think, in conversation over a beer, everybody would know why the civil war occurred.” 

What’s more important to Garland is showing how internal strife can lead to utter devastation—a sentiment literally voiced in the film. “Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning back home,” Lee says at one point. “But here we are.”

 

Director Alex Garland on ‘Civil War’: “Of Course It’s a Political Film”