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Interview with Alex Garland, Director of Ex Machina

Novelist, writer, and first time director Alex Garland on Kubrick, new approaches to old tropes, and his next film Annihilation.


Ex Machina has instantly solidified itself a place among the greatest science fiction movies ever made. Director Alex Garland is no stranger to the genre, having written the original screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and adapting screenplays out of the universally adored science fiction novel Never Let Me Go and comic Dredd. Now, for the first time he has taken full control of a film, both writing and directing. We recently had a chance to sit down with him and discuss the intricacies of taking the ideas of artificial intelligence to the next level.

“The thing that makes Kubrick films different from almost everybody else’s films is their unbelievable intellectual content. It’s seriously sort of holistic.”

CUT PRINT FILMThere is this amazing scene where Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is standing in front of a Pollock painting, and he is talking about “automatic art,” and that got me thinking about this concept in terms of the movie itself. With something as structured as a film, were there any moments during the making of Ex Machina where things went in a direction you weren’t expecting — and you experienced the phenomenon of “automatic art?”

ALEX GARLAND: Well, sort of yes and no. It’s not in really big dramatic changes because you can’t do that for all sorts of different reasons. Partly because film is so prescribed in some respects. You are going shoot such and such a scene on such and such a day — you’re gonna shoot this part of a scene that day because the sun’s gonna be over there — and if you don’t get out with this scene before that happens, the sun is going to be behind the mountains and then you’re screwed. So, a lot of it is effectively prescribed.

But, within that the surprises can happen because an actor does the lines more beautifully or finds nuance that you just never imagined. The DP (Rob Hardy) [did this], there’s a shot where Oscar Isaac, they’ve just been talking, in front of the Pollock actually, talking about — there’s a line about Ghostbusters and stuff like that. And at the end of the scene Domhnall walks out, and it stays on Oscar who takes a gulp. And then the camera tilts down to a table and there’s the reflection of his face. It’s just a beautiful piece of imagery. And it was something the DP just saw and just went like that, and he captured it. I hadn’t told him to do it, it was nothing to do with me. So there are surprises of that sort when the brilliant people you are working with just elevate it in way you had not anticipated.

CUT PRINT FILM:  In the scene right before that, Nathan is discussing the idea of attraction, and how external stimuli build your personality. So, I thought about that in terms of the movie also. In Ex Machina I see influences from The Shining and Jurassic Park a little bit — but that’s just me, what I see. I was wondering what influenced you, and if that’s something you are conscious of while making the film, or something that doesn’t occur until later?

ALEX GARLAND: Well, the thing about influence is… Sorry, I’ve got to say that’s a really smart question, I really have to say that. Because it really understands what the nature of influence is. Because the way we use influence is typically to then start talking about the things we admire and our homages and that kind of thing. And actually the way influence works is very often hidden — and the things that we think are our influences… When they are present within a film it’s not actually an influence, it’s a reference. It’s saying I am deliberately referring to this thing at this moment because I feel it’s appropriate. Either sort of spiritually for the film, or to put this idea in the viewers head, or whatever it happens to be.

But, influence is more invisible and odder than that. I’ll give an example of influence that I had. It was when I did a film called 28 Days Later, which begins, apart from a little preamble, in London empty when this guy wakes up in hospital, and goes out to find that everything is different. And the world is transformed and there’s nobody there anymore. And that is basically the beginning of a 1950’s novel called The Day of the Triffids by a British sci-fi author called John Wyndham. And I’d read that as a child several times, when I was probably 11-12 years old, and then not again until I was nearly 30, and writing a zombie movie. Now that’s an influence — it sort of got itself into my mind that this was a way to start a spooky weird story in London, is somebody waking in a hospital out of a coma, into a transformed  environment.

The influences that exist in Ex Machina, I probably don’t yet know in a funny kind of way. I’m sure they are there, and I’m sure that part of it is Kubrick actually. Like you say The Shining, I think I’m aware of that Kubrick thing. And I have to say this is too long an answer, I know this. But I’m just going to offer this one thing. When people talk about things being Kubrickian, they’ve created this word and they talk about what Kubrick is. And often what they are talking about is a kind of chilly aesthetic — like a sort of reserved, a sort of arched reserved aesthetic. And I don’t think that’s what Kubrick was, lots of people do though. The thing that makes Kubrick films different from almost everybody else’s films is their unbelievable intellectual content. If you look at A Clockwork Orange, or 2001, or Lolita — and you really examine those movies in terms of the thought processes behind them. It’s seriously sort of holistic, you can pick that thing up from lots of different angles and it will stand up, and it will support a proper depth of thought behind it. And that’s what I think of when I think about Kubrick, is how smart he was. And I think that’s an influence on this film, because I thought I can’t do this thoughtlessly, I have to really think it through — everything has to be properly thought through. Whether it’s the A.I. or the gender politics, aesthetic, the music, or whatever it is.

CUT PRINT FILMAnd that really shows, because this idea at this point is a common trope, the idea of the A.I. and the robot. So going into it I was expecting the usual rhythms, and beforehand I felt very decided on the issue. And Ex Machina does this brilliant thing where it made me feel the conundrum. So I was wondering if this was something you concentrated on while writing it, and how you did that?

ALEX GARLAND: Well maybe it’s because I feel the conundrum, you know? And also, I’m a sci-fi fan and one of the things is about being aware of the tropes and using them. One of the things is… that I know the audience has seen Blade Runner, almost certainly. And even that they’d be aware of the tropes if they haven’t seen Blade Runner. So, I know that people are going to say to themselves “that Japanese woman, she’s not a woman, she’s a robot,” and also I know they’re going to say “that guy who’s come here to test the robot, I bet he’s the robot. I bet that’s the twist thats coming.” And I even nudge them in towards that, with like odd symmetrical scars on his back, or whatever it happens to be. There’s little pushes towards that for smart audiences members.

CUT PRINT FILMThere is also that line about Kyoko where Nathan says “She’s an alarm clock,” not that she’s “like” an alarm clock, but literally is one. He kind of tells the audience…

ALEX GARLAND: Yes, exactly! And what that means is the audience thinks “I know where this is going.” and they kind of relax. They just get into the flow, hopefully. And then… that’s not where the film is going. And so they can be wrong-footed when it turns out he cuts into his arm and there is blood, not machinery. And they could have enjoyed the process because they’ve stopped fussing over where it’s going to go. Do you see what I mean?

CUT PRINT FILMYeah, and then it does something I wasn’t expecting at all, where it twists again. Because up until the point where Nathan is killed, you want him to die almost. But then suddenly as it’s happening I’m yelling “no!” and it made me feel horrible. So you begin to empathize with him in that moment, which makes you go back over the whole film and question how you felt about him the entire time. 

ALEX GARLAND: Well… that might be partly because of the scene directly preceding his death. Because the scene when Nathan is most honest is the scene that precedes that. Because what Nathan has been doing is presenting himself as something misogynistic and predatory from which this machine needs to be rescued. And in the scene before that what he is saying is: “Look, c’mon let’s just talk honestly. You’re not a great coder, you’re not a bad one, you know you’re a good coder.”

And the other thing is there is a sort of twinkle in his eye at that moment. In a funny kind of way. And the other thing about Nathan — this may not work for you, but it works for me — is that Nathan says stuff that sounds bad. But if you look at it quite cold and hard, he’s actually being fair. He sounds like he’s saying something wrong but actually he’s saying something that’s right. Whereas Caleb (Gleeson) often says stuff that sounds like it’s right, but if you look at it and inspect it hard, it’s wrong. So, if you are picking up on that aspect of Nathan, maybe that’s another reason to sort of warm to him slightly. Because on some level while he’s bullshitting constantly, he’s actually also telling the truth.

CUT PRINT FILMI mean to me he’s the most interesting character in the film, because he is playing with you the whole time. And there are hints at it, like when he finishes the Oppenheimer quote, you realize this guy knows…

ALEX GARLAND: And previously he’s been misquoting him the whole time, and pretending he doesn’t know who Lewis Carrol is and all that stuff. And in fact that was just part of his act. Sort of like the god thing, about mistaking himself for a god. Often Nathan is winding Caleb up. If on a second watching of the film, if anyone ever did it, the two characters that would change the most are Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Nathan. You’d see they are coming from a different place then the first viewing. Because it’s only at the end that you know where they are really coming from.

CUT PRINT FILMI have to ask, Were you intentionally alluding to the assassination of Caesar with Nathan’s death scene?

ALEX GARLAND: With the stabbing, and Brutus, and stuff like that? No, I’m not, it’s not “now shall fall Caesar” as far as I know. Unless that was an unconscious influence.

CUT PRINT FILMI mean there are the columns, and he’s all in white, and the red carpet, and the death masks… 

ALEX GARLAND: The masks are a bunch of things. But partly they are from when I was a kid, and they still do this, there is a famous image that gets used to demonstrate evolution of a profile image of an ape and it grows until it meets homo-sapien and reaches the far end of the line. One of the things that this film is trying to do is show that our A.I. anxiety often comes because we see it as if they are on a parallel track. And them being parallel to us, maybe getting faster and faster, taking over us and leaving us behind, where we feel rivalrous with this thing. Whereas if you say they are not on a parallel track, they are on the same track. And what they really are is a continuation of us, an evolutionary continuation, then the rivalry stops making sense because they are more like our children. They’re what we are leading to, and that sequence of masks is sort of folk-art masks becoming more and more advanced and complex as they progress.

CUT PRINT FILMAre you doing Annihilation next? Because I’m a huge fan of Jeff Vandermeer and The Southern Reach Trilogy.

ALEX GARLANDI would like to do Annihilation next. I’ve written a script and I’ve submitted it to the studio. Whether I am doing Annihilation next is another matter, but I’ve written a script and if the studio says yes then I’m going to do it and if they say no, I’m not.

CUT PRINT FILMDo you have anyone in mind for the biologist?

ALEX GARLANDNo… Well, I’m starting to.

CUT PRINT FILMBecause I read that you had Domhnall Gleeson in mind while writing Ex Machina…

ALEX GARLANDI do kind of but because of where the film is at it’s… I’m not superstitious about this stuff. I don’t mind saying what I’m going to try to do. But because of how difficult it is secure actors I can’t talk about it. I do have someone in mind and I doubt you’d have a problem with it.

Ex Machina is now playing in limited release, and expands to most major cities, including Philadelphia on April 24th

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David is Senior Editor and founder of Cut Print Film. His hobbies include watching movies and then writing about them on this site. David has a B.A. in English Literature and a B.K. down the street from his house.

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