UTG INTERVIEW: Writer/Director Alex Garland Talks ‘Ex Machina’ And The Auteur Theory

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The Beach, 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, Dredd, Sunshine. These may all be sci-fi titles that you have seen or heard of in the past ten years. Alex Garland is the man who helped shepherd them to completion. Not only is he the writer on all of those aforementioned products, he is also a consultant on how those films ended up looking.

Starting out as a cartoonist, Garland turned his eye toward writing. When his book, The Beach, got optioned, Garland’s gaze turned towards filmmaking. Since The Beach, Garland has succeeded in bringing some great genre cinema to the cinematic fold. Dredd, for instance, is a hard-hitting and exploitative throwback film with ties to its delightfully violent source material. Not to mention that the film looks visually stunning.

With his directorial debut, Ex Machina, Garland dug deep and brought up some troubling issues via a sci-fi platform. Are humans able to be fooled by robot counterparts? Is there such thing as a male or female consciousness? These are all questions brought up and studied by Garland’s new foray into contemplative sci-fi with influences from Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick, to name a few.

Ex Machina is the story of Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a young computer programmer who is put to the test when he wins a free trip to his boss’ secluded refuge. Upon arrival, he meets his megalomaniac of a boss named Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and is introduced to his new top-secret project, a robot named Ava that has her own consciousness. Caleb is spun into a web of deceit and lies when he must determine whether Ava is perfect artificial intelligence or not. The more that’s revealed about Nathan, the deeper into the dangerous rabbit hole Caleb goes.

We got to sit down and talk with Garland about Ex Machina. Check it out below and check back for our official review of the film on Friday.

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UTG: Referring to the canon of science fiction films that already exists, what were your motives in depicting the main robot, Ava, as a woman?

Alex Garland: Well, it all depends on the story, the agendas, and so forth. I know with sci-fi, you get these large sort of tropes and beats. You do with all genres and all forms of storytelling including melodrama and literary. I almost don’t feel equipped to speak to it [the question] as a whole. I suppose I could just speak about what my interests were. My interests began with where gender resides. It’s about the extent to which we can establish what’s going on in someone else’s mind or something else’s mind. What obstacles may exist to that? Where would we exceed and where would we might fail? I then began to get interested in where gender resides. Is there such a thing as male or female consciousness? Is consciousness just a thing? Say there is such a thing as a male or female consciousness, which lots of people do, then I immediately wonder how you demonstrate that. What is the thing that a man would think but a woman wouldn’t under the same circumstances? And vice versa.

There’s a lot of different issues that get conflated into this one issue of gender that you brought up by talking obliquely about the whole canon. Tech companies, why are they so male? You can keep going and keep going. Some of it is implicit and some of it is directly addressed in the film. So there would be a conversation like, “Why did you give her a gender?” Does sexuality play a part in developing a consciousness? I could go on and on. This is maybe what I should have said: when I sat down to write this, I thought in this case and the issues that are being addressed, I am going to be thoughtful. I’m really going to think them through and test them on myself to the best of my ability. Of course, that gets limited by all the blind spots and parameters that one has. I will also test it on people I know. People that have particular interests in the ideas that I’m raising here. Some of which are political and some philosophical or broadly to do with artificial intelligence.

UTG: Race seems to be a big issue that you are dealing with in the film. For instance, there were robots of multiple races in Oscar Issac’s character’s closet.

Garland: What would that imply? If he opens closets and they’re [robots] of different races, does that imply racism?

UTG: There were two white men making women in the film, is it some sort of commentary on the character’s predilections? Because his character is consistently making racial remarks.

Garland: It’s a little bit more gamey and tricky than that. He does talk about race right in the middle, there’s some kind of key fulcrum conversation where lots of these things get addressed. But, he uses race to kind of wind this guy [Domnhall Gleeson’s character, Caleb] up. He’ll deliberately misquote him. What he’s doing at that moment is being racist, he’s kind of pushing buttons in this young guy to get him going. The game that Oscar Isaac’s character is playing is: are you seeing [Isaac] or are you seeing a predatory misogynistic, implicitly violent, bullying alpha male to be something from which this machine needs to be rescued for the process of this experiment? Then there’s a secondary question: is he pretending to be what he actually is? Which we often do, we caricature the thing about ourselves that does exist. I have to say that in terms of the races of the women inside of the closets, there isn’t an embedded point in there that I was aware of or knew that I was making. Sometimes you do things unconsciously, unwittingly, or stupidly, I guess. The only one I was aware of making was to do with this mute, very complicit Asian-appearing robot. Like what kind of tropes would surround that? When [Isaac] treats that Asian robot in the way that he treats her, I think it should be ambivalent abount where is it actually him? Or is it intended to be unpleasant?

UTG: Do you think that it will play differently for American audiences compared to a British audience? We tend to look at issues of gender and race seriously.

Garland: Not where gender is concerned, I think that would play similarly. The short answer is: I don’t know. I think not where gender is concerned. Issues around feminism are very current. I think that is broadly true from both sides of the Atlantic. I’m not American, so that assumption is kind of difficult for me to ascertain. Where race is concerned, that is possible because of the explicitly different history in both countries. There’s a similar history and then there’s a divergent point where the two separate before reconnecting. I’m talking about slavery, where Britain was involved in but abandoned earlier on. It doesn’t have quite the same currency, that particular racial issue, as it does in the UK. When Nathan [Isaac] appears that he might be being racist to [Gleeson’s character], to the point where he can bristle and react, that is one character aimed at another character. It is also slightly aimed at the audience. I’ve been in screenings where there has been quite a bit of laughter up until that certain point [a dialogue scene between Nathan and Caleb that takes a serious turn]. The second he starts talking about “black chicks,” the room goes silent. That was calculated. If you calculate to do something like that, you are putting it there to provoke some sort of conversation. I had to emphasize to the best of my ability that I was being thoughtful. That if you are going to do that [have tonal shifts], that you don’t do it in a glib way or in a way that would stand out.

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UTG: I see shades of Frankenstein and Blade Runner in this – were there certain genre films that you considered when making the film?

Garland: I started work as a novelist and there are some similarities between that and screenwriting. There are some differences, too. When you write a book, you can’t assume that every reader has read every book that you allude to. In film, you pretty much can. I could say that there are allusions or uses of things like Blade Runner or say, Apocalypse Now. In the case of Apocalypse Now, I’m pretty sure that everyone watching this film has seen it, but they wouldn’t necessarily have read Heart of Darkness [the novel based on the production of the film]. In the case of Blade Runner, I was assuming that people had already seen it. I thought I made a pretty fair assumption. I’ve seen it several times. To the extent I was aware I was using it, it had to do with things like misdirection. I would assume that a similarly literate audience would catch that quite quickly. Like the test on which Caleb questions if he is a machine or not or Oscar is a machine. I knew audiences would [make assumptions] and they’re nudged to go there in the way that Domnhall Gleeson’s character has strange symmetrical scars on his back. Gently nudging the audience in that way will result in misdirection, covering up what’s actually going on in the film. The twist in some respects is that there is no twist. I am kind of curious- what kinds of connections between those films did you find, other than the ones I just talked about?

UTG: As far as Blade Runner goes, the scene where Gleeson opens up his arm because he’s questioning if he’s a robot or not.

Garland: He’s done the same thing that the audience hopefully would have done. To question if, “Holy shit, maybe I’m a robot.”

UTG: Well, he also wins the proverbial “golden ticket” to join Oscar’s Nathan for a weekend.

Garland: Yeah, that’s Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. On the helicopter flight, the pilot used to turn around and say, “So you won the golden ticket.” I cut it because it felt out of place.

UTG: I know that the artist, Jock, did concept art for the film.

Garland: Yeah, he’s a really great bloke.

UTG: When you are writing or making a film, do you have these certain visuals in your head? Or do you just go straight into storyboarding?

Garland: I do have visuals in my head. My longterm background is drawing comic books. My dad was a cartoonist, so I grew up around comic books. I thought that would be my job and so I spent my life up until my early 20s thinking that’s what I want to do. You used to get a bit of paid work, not much. For my dad, I had a very clear sense to which the job entailed. I could see what my failings were, like what my dad could do that I couldn’t. That’s a good training in film. The grammar in comic books has a lot of similarities with film in terms of imagery. I sketch things out sometimes when I think like that. I don’t actually [storyboard] it, but I draw particular images.

UTG: When I saw Jock’s concept art, it looked like it was pretty close to what Ava ended up looking like.

Garland: Me and Jock were bouncing drawings backwards and forwards. We already knew each other very well since we worked together on Dredd. The first that Jock and I ran into had to do with robots in film history. They cast very long shadows. A lot of people haven’t seen Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but they know Maria’s (the robot’s) iconography. If you have a sort of metallic looking breastplate, you immediately think of Metropolis. Even if it’s just a poster. The very first image that Jock sent me had this gold-ish hue, like C-3PO. From that moment, it was actually learning about what she [Ava[ didn’t look like. The first three weeks we were doing this, it was about what she didn’t look like. Chris Cunningham and Björk’s video called “All is Full of Love,” had this beautiful bit of imagery in it. A bit like Metropolis or the connection between Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness. A lot of people haven’t seen that video, but they recognize the imagery. The first time Ava walks onto screen, the first thing you think about is another movie and that is exactly what you don’t want to happen at that moment. You want the audience to be in the same place and sharing the same experience that Domnhall Gleeson’s character is having without referencing to anything else. It took us a little while to develop that.

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UTG: Was it that visual style that made you get behind the camera to ensure it came out exactly as you wanted it?

Garland: Uh, no. I had been very involved in previous films. The implicit thing you are saying here is that the director is the visionary and runs everything. That’s not true in every film. I’m not anywhere near the kind of auteur type. I’m not really interested in auteurship. To an extent, I see my job as a writer. That’s what I think my job is. What I’m doing is filmmaking, but I am one of a group of people who are filmmaking. This includes the DOP, production designer, director, writer, and producer. You could just keep going down the list of all the HODs (heads of design). I would be taking too much credit on this film if I appropriated that. I would also be unreasonable to the other HODs on the other films if I appropriated it. I’m just trying to get rid of this pyramid structure because I never really observed it and I never really cared about it. The best thing about film for me is about this collaboration.

UTG: Yeah, but someone has to hold the reins.

Garland: They do, yeah. Is it always the director? If you’ve been observing how films are made, you must know directors don’t always do the thing that we allege them to do. Why do productions fight so hard for DOPs? The line that you get in a review like, “the way the director mounted the camera” or “the director got out of the actor,” why would we fight to get to these people if it’s the director who gets these things out of the performers? The collaboration is the biggest deal for me.

UTG: Well there’s the slippery slope: if you were to say something like “the way the director mounted the camera,” it could be the key grip or the DOP.

Garland: I’m going to give you a for instance. Woody Allen, that could be another story. He might be an auteur, I’ll entertain that idea. There’s a whole thing in Dredd, it’s about this drug. It’s a drug movie. The story revolves around this drug, “Slo-Mo.” One of the most beautiful bits of imagery in the film that helped us define the other bits of imagery in the film was where Ma-Ma (the character played by Lena Headey) is taking a bath. These droplets of water coming out of the bath start glistening, it’s a beautiful bit of imagery. That shot largely exists because of Michelle Day, a person whose name never appears on the [credits]. Normally, her name would be buried on the roll-up. She said, “I think Ma-Ma should have a bath in the middle of the room and she should get stoned in that bath. That would be the best place to get stoned. She could be in bed, but wouldn’t it be great if she was in the bath and when she was getting stoned, she could play with the water and it would look really beautiful?” Then the DOP and a bunch of other people go, “That was a terrific idea. Let’s have a conversation with Lena about it.”

Basically the shot that Miche predicts becomes something that informs a huge number of the other shots. Nobody watching the film could have any way of attributing that thing to her. We don’t present film that way and there’s no way to extrapolate from the credits “who did what?” Now, that’s one example of Miche. One of the reasons I dragged her out of the [credits] and put her in the cards (opening credits) is because she does that like fucking 50 times a movie. I think I’ve worked with her on five films. I don’t want to sound preachy, but I’m getting pissed off at this director thing. I’m bored of it. I’m really bored of it. It doesn’t seem accurate to me. I’d rather talk about Miche. There’s a bunch of other people, too. A lot of the beauty that exists in this film I can say exists because it is not mine. It’s Rob Hardy, the fantastic DOP. He’s such a clever, intuitive, and creative DOP. Look at his other films, that craft is still there. It’s nothing I did.

UTG: Were there any collaborative touchstone moments like that one in Dredd with Ex Machina?

Garland: Actually, the gaffer was very involved in those kinds of moments. The bulbs, the type of temperature of the room, the way it would diffuse down a wall. He’s a very gifted man. Focus pullers could do a shot three times and think, “I’m just going to throw [the focus] over there and see what happens.” It could end up being the best and most intuitive thing to do for the whole film. The simplest answer is that almost everything is like that Dredd moment. Everything is a collaboration and ideas often can’t even get traced back to one person. Miche could have informed that Dredd moment because she got great weed in South Africa the week before and found it was great to get stoned in a bath. How do you locate it? The only dishonest thing you can say is, “It’s all the director.” That’s the biggest bit of bullshit that you could say.

UTG: Now, was there any talk to hold the film to later in the year because your two leads are starring in the next Star Wars?

Garland: Uh, no. They got that gig three quarters of the way through post-production. Films are often cast really surprisingly soon before they go into prep. As I remember, both those guys signed on two weeks before it was announced. I guess that might have been a conversation. The conversations being had about this was, “Is there a weekend where we can come out without getting obliterated?” The reason this film is coming out at this time of the year is because of the ‘awards corridor’ and then you get a bunch of big budget films. We would be dead in that space. It’s like the tide. There’s been a big wave with Furious 7 – it sucks out, and then the tsunami arrives with Avengers 2. You’re sort of in that eye of the storm. There’s surprises, too. There was a gap earlier this year where American Sniper did incredibly well. In my world, no one anticipated that at all. They thought it would be like Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima.

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UTG: Since we brought up Star Wars, would you be interested in playing in that kind of pre-existing sandbox where the conception of what people are going to expect is already determined?

Garland: I did in a small and sort of British way with Dredd. That’s a pre-existing comic book. What you mean is, am I going to drop my hat in Star Wars? [laughter ensues] It actually isn’t something I am interested in. There are various reasons why, but I wouldn’t be suited for that at all. My sensibilities are wrong. Look at my track record. At a certain point, you have to recognize a pattern in your work. Years ago we had a hit with this movie 28 Days Later. I’m very pleased with how everything has worked out. Something in there would suggest why I’m not running a 150-minute long film.

UTG: When it comes to violence in your films, it differs from film to film. With Dredd, it’s really hard hitting and exploitative. With Ex Machina, it’s more encroaching and elegiac. How do you go about that when making a film?

Garland: My personal experience has been that you are constantly learning as you are going along. That’s number one. Number two is that you are reacting to the thing that you just did. There’s a pendulum swing here. Here’s Ex Machina which has a bit of zen and restrained violence. Then you have Dredd which is off the hook. Preceding that is Never Let Me Go which is very quiet, melancholy, and reflective. Before that was 28 Weeks Later and Sunshine, which goes back to being more reflective but goes off the rails at some point. There may be violent instances, but some are adrenalized and some are not. That’s the see-saw. In Dredd, you spend fucking months in soundstage with squibs and people going “Bang Bang Bang Bang!” You just sort of go, “I’ve had enough of that.” Then you sit in post where you are seeing blood spray and it gets a bit much.

You have to act against it. The learning side of it is like the disco scene in Ex Machina. A comparison is Never Let Me Go and Ex Machina, which have strong correlations. Then you have Ex Machina and Dredd, which don’t have a strong kind of correlation in various respects. In Ex Machina, the learning or mistake was that there’s a tonal thing that gets hit and gets hit quite successfully. I’m trying not to sound conceited here, but it hits a tone very well but it only hits that tone. It’s like a sustained cello note. There’s some strengths to that and some weaknesses. I remember during cutting, I was wondering if I could jangle it up or not. That disco scene is there to consciously interrupt the rhythms and be aggressive about it. It’s trying to get better at the job as you go along.

UTG: Any plans for a sequel to 28 Weeks Later?

Garland: Well, yeah. The thing about 28 Days Later was that it had this aggression to it, a subversion if you will. The sequel ideas that keep getting floated amongst us were a bit kind of tame and acquiescent. Actually cynical, too. It was the sort of franchise ideas. Then we came up with something that had more bite. It’s very early days in the production.


‘Ex Machina’ opens this Friday in Boston.
Interview written and conducted by: Sam Cohen – (Follow him on Twitter!)

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen is that guy you can't have a conversation with without bringing up Michael Mann. He is also incapable of separating himself from his teenage angst (looking at you, Yellowcard). Read on as he tries to formulate words about movies!
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