Kirsten Dunst and Alex Garland on Civil War: “I don’t feel any need to add to the number of films that spell everything out”

American society has broken down into civil war in Alex Garland’s provocative new near-future thriller. People are going to read it in many different ways, he tells us, when we sit down with Garland and star Kirsten Dunst.

11 April 2024

By Lou Thomas

Civil War (2024)

With his latest feature Civil War, writer-director Alex Garland offers viewers an American election-year provocation wrapped up in a nuanced study of the risk-taking lives of war reporters.

In a near-future United States ravaged by a conflict in which the ‘Western Forces’ of Texas and California are among groups fighting for control, photojournalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst) hopes to get the last interview with the president (Nick Offerman) at the White House in the final days of his tenure. Much to Lee’s chagrin, young snapper Jessie – Cailee Spaeny, fresh from her star-making turn as Priscilla Presley in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (2023) – tags along on the dangerous trip to Washington DC, alongside hard-bitten reporter Joel (Wagner Moura) and veteran Sammy (the reliably excellent Stephen McKinley Henderson).

As the journalists travel from New York City, they encounter – and remember – a succession of horrific situations amid haunting images of a war that has taken its toll on the American people and their disputed land. Sporadic violence, extreme tension and sombre reflection abound, until the film erupts into an almighty war film in its ferocious final act, filmed over two weeks at the end of the shoot. Having made folk-horror yarn Men (2022), following sci-fi tales Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018) and his uncredited direction on Dredd (2012), Garland here proves himself an adept marshal of large-scale action.

In a central London hotel on the day of the film’s UK premiere, Garland and Dunst told us how the idea for the film came about.

Alex, could you tell us about how you started writing Civil War?

Alex Garland: Covid landed, I got sick very early on and zoned out for six to eight weeks. Came out and the world felt very different. I missed a lot of the buildup [escalation of the pandemic across the world] and was then in that funny state of a really paranoid retirement thinking, “What do I do?” Once I could walk up a flight of stairs properly again, I started writing.

Kirsten, how did you get involved?

Kirsten Dunst: While he was writing I was just making a child. And so the script came to me, it was a quick thing. They [Dunst’s agents] were like, “You need to read this script immediately.” I felt on the edge of my seat reading the material. I’d never read or played anything like this before. I Zoomed with Alex the next day and then waited a little bit. I wanted to play Lee very badly.

Alex: When I write stories I usually work in genre, but I’m reacting to something that is going on in the world at that moment – something to do with technology breaking through, some shift in public mood or something globally political, which is, I think, where this one comes from. So it’s from looking, thinking, fretting, just like everybody else is doing. My form of processing is to write a screenplay.

Did you research any war reporters?

Alex: I grew up around journalists. My dad worked as a cartoonist on a paper, and his friends were primarily journalists. A lot of them were foreign correspondents. If there was conflict in, say, South-east Asia in the early 70s, they would be covering. My godfather was a foreign correspondent. My younger brother’s godfather was a foreign correspondent. These guys were just around the whole time. So no research for me, more just thinking about people I knew.

Kirsten: What spoke to me the most was a documentary that we all watched together called Under the Wire (2018) about [Sunday Times war correspondent] Marie Colvin. She was just there for the people; there was no affectation whatsoever. In that documentary you see very first hand their bond together, against the horrors of war.

Civil War (2024)

Do you know the story of Kevin Carter? He was the photographer who took a famous picture of a baby in Ayod, Sudan (now South Sudan) with a vulture behind it.

Alex: He was part of that gang of South African photographers [The Bang-Bang Club]? There was a lot of debate about that photo and the ethics of it. I wondered if you had come across that story, because this film tackles some of those issues. [The photo won Carter the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1994, but four months later he killed himself, partly – it’s been claimed – because of his professional guilt. The story is the subject of the Manic Street Preachers’ song ‘Kevin Carter’.]

The question posed by that photo is experienced by combat journalists in places of conflict again and again and again. It just got zeroed in around that particular [photo]. If you see someone who’s badly wounded – in that case it was a starving child – do you take the photograph and then help them? Or do you help them because they’re a human being and of secondary importance to your capturing of the photo at that moment? And what is happening at the moment where you slightly adjust in order to frame? What are you doing to the image and the messaging as you bring the vulture so it’s not stacking up, but there’s some separation? Or whatever the decision making was behind that photo. It’s an ethical problem. It’s exemplified in that photo, but it’s very, very common.

One thing that jumps out early on in the film is that you’ve got Texas and California working together as the Western Forces. Broadly, in real-life, they’re politically opposed. By having them work together against the incumbent president in the film, what are you trying to say?

Alex: I’m posing a question. What you call an incumbent president is also specified as a three-term president who’s attacking their own citizens and has disbanded the FBI. So the question is, at what point do political differences become less important than fighting a fascist dictator?

People may read that as this guy’s British and doesn’t understand the political orientation of those states. They can read it any number of different ways. I don’t bother to give little pointers here and there to say, “No, it’s okay, this is what I think.” I rely on the audience’s interest in asking and thinking about questions while understanding that there are people who do not like doing that.

My general position is that film is a broad church – a space for lots of different kinds of filmmaking. That’s the space I sit in. Other people want all questions clearly answered. And there’s separate pews allocated in the church for those people. In fact, it turns out it’s almost every pew. I don’t feel any particular need to add to the number of films that spell everything out. There’s enough of them.

Kirsten, coming at it from an American’s point of view, do you feel any different or is that in line with your thinking?

Kirsten: It wasn’t a shock to me when I read it, because I was in the film when I was reading it. It didn’t surprise me. It went with the other things that were unexplained in the film. Those are two very powerful states, so I could see why.

Civil War (2024)

Some of the images in the film are quite harrowing. After a day on set, seeing enactments of people on fire, getting hung and shot, what do you do when you come off set to unwind from that?

Kirsten: Some of the things felt very real when I first saw them, like the mass grave scene was very unsettling to drive up on, to go rehearse. But ultimately there’s a craft service table over there. And I came home, and I have two young boys, so I then had to be mom and not think about Lee so much.

Alex: What Kirsten’s just said is basically true. That said, I do try to make sets as 360 as possible and to have an element of realism in them. For example, you could fire guns which have a smaller load in the blank, so the explosion they make is quieter, the muzzle flash is smaller. But there’s something about how loud guns are and the funny air pressure changes that happen around them that can almost feel like you’re being tapped.

If you surround the environment with that, something real starts to creep into it: people flinch, people move away, or just little textural realities come into it. I would expect there is some kind of consequence to that. If right now I got a 50-calibre machine gun firing blanks and just started firing it in this room, and then carried on doing that for the next two hours, you would walk out having some kind of effect, I pretty much guarantee it.

What you said earlier about reacting to events around the world, within the film you are reminded of things like the 6 January attack on the Capitol. To what extent did real events influence the way the film turned out?

Kirsten: When we were rehearsing, the war between Ukraine and Russia started. So reading the news, it felt like it was a good reason to make this film.

Alex: Whenever you make something which is speaking to something that’s happening now, it can give it a false look of being prescient because everyone knows a film must have been made a while ago.

This is always the case with anything I’ve done that superficially looks prescient: if you go back four years, you’ll see exactly the same environment and exactly the same questions. The anxieties represented in the film are in the ether.

Civil War is at BFI IMAX from 11 April and on general release from 12 April.