Interview: Annihilation Stunt Coordinator Jo McLaren Breaks Down the Lighthouse Scene

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Jo McLaren has done stunts for films like Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and worked as a stunt coordinator on a wide variety of projects from Doctor Who, to Paddington 2, to Alex Garland’s Annihilation, a science fiction film full of horror, mutation, and psychological terror.

Annihilation centers around four military scientists entering a zone called “The Shimmer,” a mysterious place where memory, minds, and bodies are distorted as everything in The Shimmer is constantly being refracted and mutated—creations like an alligator-shark or a bear with the voice of screaming woman roam this beautiful and terrifying place. To create movement and action in a place where nothing and everything is familiar was a unique challenge for this film, a project McLaren calls “a fantastic journey.”

“When you start creating the action with something unusual like this—it’s not a bear as we know it, it’s not an alligator as we know it, the DNA is changed—how does that make that creature move?” she says to me over the phone. “What changes in its movement from what we would know normally as a bear or an alligator, but still keeping those characteristics?”

If you weren’t familiar with the Jeff VanderMeer book, your initial expectation of Annihilation might be closer to the conventional sci-fi/action movie: explosions, thrilling fights, etc. Viewers know, however, that’s not the case in Garland’s film, which more often lingers in psychological horror and the strange. “We had to be as far removed from superhero action as possible,” says McLaren, who emphasized making all the reactions and motions natural and “how people from the outside world would react in that situation.”

The action of Annihilation is grounded in a character-based approach, and McLaren coordinated scenes to speak to the character’s backgrounds. For instance, Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, has military training, so you’ll see her “in command of her weapon and being tactical as opposed to then looking at the action of the scientists who—holding a weapon and the action would be very different for them.”  She explains the need to “look at [characters] physically and their physical background—are they trained or do they have no training?”

“It was great for us as a stunt department to be challenged in not creating massive stunts but making them matter, making the action matter to enhance the story.”

We talk about a few scenes in particular: the alligator, the bear, and the lighthouse.

The Alligator

“With the alligator scene and the bear attack we worked closely with Alex’s vision, with the design element. With the alligator attack, we wanted it to be intense and scary—Alex didn’t want to see it. When she’s in that disused mobile home, it’s terrifying when she’s just dragged underneath the water.

“It was creating that illusion of what is under there, what has just dragged her down. But then that action making sense, when the audience realizes what it is that had dragged her down—the alligator. Stunt-wise, it was really interesting because it was always thinking outside the box with every element of it from the bear attack, to the alligator, to the going through the Shimmer, to when she’s taken in the cars and prepped to go into the shimmer, to the last scene in the light house.”

The Bear

McLaren says she was most looking forward to seeing the intense bear attack on screen, which was filmed with a stuntman doing creature work. “We had some incredible visual effects”, she says. “They’re such talented people who created the heads.”

“I thought it was great, I thought the bear looked pretty scary. […] Sometimes you’re so immersed that you watch the final cut and kind of think, ‘Oh, I know this happened here and this happened here,’ but there was still so much as filmmakers that surprised us in the final cut.”

The Lighthouse

“It was creating something terrifying, but beautiful, intimidating—thinking outside the box there. Alex wanted it to be like a ballet, but not a ballet. Like a fight, but not a fight. Something new, something where the audience had to try and work out what was going on, what Lena the character had to work out what was going on and figuring out it was mirroring her and then, how she would get out of that, how she would escape.

“So we worked with some great dancers and choreographers and it was a mixture of their choreography and putting in the sort of stunt beats—not making it dance-y, making it what the humanoid would do, how would lena react to that humanoid. And doing that whole mimicking and reversing—so it was reversing the action from each of them, so it was a journey. That whole end piece was a journey for everybody on that production, for the artist, for the actresses, for the art department for stunts, for visual effects, it was a discovery. And for Alex as well, it was discovering the final image that you see. And I think it’s beautiful but it’s intense, it’s so intense. I think it’s a fantastic last scene.”

McLaren also talks to me about the athleticism and talent of stunt performers, and how there should be more recognition for them. She explains that in the U.K., there’s a high amount of training required to be accepted into the British stunt register, and speaks highly of the skill level. “I know that there’s a movement for stunts to be recognized by the Academy Awards. We’re one of the very few on-screen departments that are not recognized in any way so I think that would be an improvement—some recognition for some of the amazingly talented stunt performers, stunt coordinators out there that put together what you see on-screen.”

When we talk about how things progressing in the industry, McLaren points to a high level of safety as well as increasing equality. “I think the women are playing now, as important a role as the men,” she says. “It used to be—still to some respects—a very male-dominated industry, especially at stunt-coordinating level. I love the fact that now we are given some opportunity. There’s still a way to go, but that we can actually do the same work that is improving and a real forward movement in Hollywood with women taking on important roles. The equality there is definitely getting better.”

Annihilation is available on digital now and will debut a Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD on May 29, 2018, which includes over an hour of bonus content. If you want to take a deeper look into these scenes, the set design, and visual effects, it’s definitely worth checking out.

(images: Paramount Pictures)

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