Interview: Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland talks Ex_Machina

​Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland talks Ex_Machina

DIY took part in a roundtable interview with Garland.

Warning: Contains spoilers.

Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with the sublime Ex_Machina, starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander in a claustrophobic stylish, sci-fi thriller.

After dabbling quite heavily in sci-fi with his previous projects, including the likes of Sunshine, Dredd and Never Let Me Go, Ex-Machina proves to be possibly his most satisfying film to date. 

DIY took part in a roundtable interview with Garland, who it turns out is not particularly comfortable with praise and is at great pains to ensure that the entire crew of Ex_Machina receive the accolades that they deserve. Sorry Alex, but you really are one hell of a writer/director.

You’ve written a fair few screenplays in your time. What was it about Ex_ Machina that made you take the leap into directing?

There wasn’t anything like that. Really, honestly there wasn’t. I’ve been working in film for about 15 years and my whole sense of film making, and the theory of it I suppose, is in a funny way quite anti-director. It’s all about the collaboration and, yes the director is there and they’re important but so is the DOP, the producers, the actors, the production designer, the writer and the editor and you keep going. What I’ve seen always has just been film making between a group of people and I just approached this as another bit of film making actually, with a group of people, many of them I’d worked with loads of times. Really a lot. 6 movies together. So there was no great thing about, “I know I’m going to direct it,” because I don’t really dare find directors. I really do see them as one of the people doing a job. That’s it. 

Having written for Danny Boyle for instance…

I didn’t write for Danny Boyle, seriously I didn’t. I never wrote for anybody. I wrote, like a bunch of other people, to make a film. That was all it was. It wasn’t like you’re contracted to do three drafts plus revisions, you are working on a film, you’re trying to get it over the line. The process is a group of people standing over a hole; how do we best fill it? At some point it’s the guy who’s got the concrete, another it’s the guy who’s got the spade and it’s like that.

There are writers who never want to direct. So when did you realise that this is something that you’re interested in?

Again, I just never saw it in those terms. Maybe I should say I came to film from novel writing and I see myself as a writer. What I intend to do is to come up with a bunch of characters and define what the characters say, where they say it and why they’re saying it. That includes within it themes and arguments and then what you’re doing is you’re talking to a group of other people and saying how do you make this into a film? That process is exactly the same as this process. Also I think there’s a perception from the outside about how films are made that doesn’t always correspond to the reality of how they’re made. I’ve been working in film a long time, well it feels like a long time, I’ve worked on lots of productions and I’ve seen lots of productions and the story of the production that is told at times like this is very often not the actual story of the production. I understand what you’re saying but what I’m saying is I don’t buy into that theory of film making, I don’t have much evidence of it and it is a collegiate activity between a group of people. That’s actually what I like about it so I don’t want to deny it. It’s the importance of the DOP… fucking hell man I saw a trailer for a film the other day, I can tell exactly who shot that trailer immediately. The people responding to that trailer  think they’re responding to the director, they’re not.  They’re responding to the guy that shot it, the DOP. In this film there are moments that will happen, and all the previous films I worked on, that will be attributed to me. They were nothing to do with me. I walked on to set and the person who deals with the props said: “You know what? I ‘d rather put this over here because I think it’s going to make a nice themic link to that thing”, it’s got fuck all to do with me. But that’s the beauty of it, that’s what’s actually nice about it. Sorry, I’m not having a go at you [laughs].

Writing did have ‘fuck all’ to do with you, we spoke to Murray [Shanahan - robotics expert] and he said when he first read your script he felt a lot of the science was there already…

Because I’d been reading his books [laughs].

So at what point did you become interested in writing a screenplay about Artificial Intelligence?

A long time a go. Probably when I was a kid and I had a ZX Spectrum…

I was a Commodore 64 kid. Enemies!

Back then. Now friends [laughs]. You’d write little routines in basics saying: “Hello world”, it’s an early bit of code isn’t it? And immediately you know of course the computer is not asking that question and doesn’t have any internal sense of what the world is. There’s a little bit of dialogue in the film which is about that. It’s about chess computers which act as if they want to beat you at chess but they don’t know what chess is. There’s something very interesting about that. Then of course when you start thinking about A.I.’s more and more and more inevitably when you’re talking about strong A.I.’s with self-awareness and consciousness of a sort that don’t exist, not SIRI the interesting kind of A.I., you are almost immediately talking about humans, you’re talking about consciousness. And the problems of strong A.I. are the problems of mind. So it becomes about something fundamental;  what we are, where we perceive consciousness to exist and are we right that it’s here? We think are we gonna get computers up to here [indicates a level with his hands]? Is there a misapprehension in that and actually we should be more like this [indicates a lower level with his hands]? Because we attribute our minds with things they don’t have, metaphysical things they don’t really have. I just find it interesting.

Did you feel you were portraying it as morally wrong in some ways to create an A.I.?

No. I’m on the side of Ava. The film is always actually on the side of this robot who looks like a girl but is not actually a girl. It hasn’t got a gender. I was with her. I don’t feel alarmed by the idea of a new consciousness arriving. Broadly speaking we all do it, we’re all the product, we were all new consciousnesses created by two other people. There’s nothing intrinsically more alarming about a new consciousness in a machine as there is in a child from my point of view. I’m aware that other people don’t feel that way but that is how I feel and my sympathies are with her and my issue is not with her it’s with the people that are making her. There is an ethical dimension to it. If you have a machine that, unlike the chess computer, when you say, “I want to switch you off”, if the machine says, “I don’t want you to switch me off” and it’s telling the truth, it’s not a chess computer making a reflexive move it’s actually got the same internal qualities that you and I have got, immediately there’s an ethical problem. Instantly it just arrives. There’s another thing going on, which is a separate thing but it’s involved in it and it’s to do with the objectification of girls in their early twenties. There’s a whole separate argument and discussion going on about that really. And there’s a game being played, which seems to be being played on the protagonist, [ Caleb played by] Domhnall Gleeson but it’s actually really being played on the audience because the same thing that’s happening to Domhnall is happening to the audience if the film functions, if the film works. That’s a separate issue, but if the film works then there’s a similar game being played in terms of misdirection and trust and how you feel at the end. What do you actually feel at the end? Where are your allegiances? So this girl stabs someone, traps someone else in a room and as she walks out across that room and there’s Schubert playing, are you thinking, “You fucking bitch. Look at what you just did back there”? Are you thinking that or are you actually kind of with her in some way? Oddly, you’ve forgotten about those guys almost immediately and you’re going out there with her. And that’s what I’m doing. That’s where I am. I’m with her.

Nathan is fascinating because you picture a more traditional geek but he comes in and is wearing a vest, he’s got a beard, he doesn’t speak like you’d expect, it was a bit of a subversion of the kind of typical scientist that we’re used to seeing on screen…

Yeah maybe, I’m not sure I buy into that though. I mean a lot of these tech billionaires they go to the gym and they’re vain and they’re narcissistic. Maybe overly narcissistic, maybe they kind of want to rule the world. So I don’t know if that’s true, that would be an invention of story tellers rather than a representation of reality. Possibly. Certainly I saw a couple the other day who looked like fucking tennis clothing models [laughs]. They didn’t fit that image. The thing about Nathan was, there’s a kind of Oppenheimer parallel going on - the guys who worked on the atomic bomb - there’s lots of references to that. A sense of being conflicted, doing something you really want to do but feeling destroyed about it at the same time, a sense of self disgust I guess. The thing I tried to do with Nathan, another game that’s going in, is that Caleb says things that sound like they’re true but if you look at them hard they’re not really true. And what Nathan does is he says things that sound wrong but if you look at them hard he’s actually kind of telling the truth. And the hard truths is for me I suppose what the film is sort of about. It may not be comfortable to us entirely some of these aspects about A.I.’s but if you look at them hard you find something if you give yourself over to it. You can say, “Ok I’ll be alright with it, it won’t be easy but I’ll be alright with it”, something like that.

How much do you want this to be seen as film that criticises the power that Google has?

[Laughs] that’s a good question. I think it’s a necessity to be critical of that power even if they weren’t doing anything wrong, and they may or may not be doing something wrong, I’m genuinely not sure, you have to be critical of it. You have to do it out of a cheques and balances thing. People were correctly, justifiably angry and outraged about the Snowden revelations and the NSA and so they should be. It was a fantastic thing that Snowden did, a really fantastic, brave, important thing. But it’s a democracy we are living in, broadly speaking, in these countries. More or less a reasonable democracy and we have the ability to vote out the governments that are doing these things. We may or may not exercise that ability but we do have it. I don’t think we have that ability with private corporations, they’re not elected. And you could have a capitalist argument that says as a consumer you can choose not to participate in them but I don’t believe that either because if they’re all doing it what that really means is you don’t have a phone, you don’t have a credit card, you don’t have a television, you don’t have a computer, you don’t have an iPad. That’s not realistic so what that means is put your eye on them. Do it. Put your eye on them, make them accountable, question them. Don’t let everything happen behind closed doors, force it out, get Snowden’s everywhere. That’s what it means.

Do you draw the same comparison as in 2001 between HAL and IBM and here in your film between Bluebook and Google?

I don’t know, just explain to me what you mean by that?

When 2001: A Space Odyssey came out it was when IBM was at its most powerful position in the world and with HAL and IBM you just switch the letters one place and then you have IBM and HAL.

Oh I never new that about HAL, I just thought it was a cool name! [laughs]. I don’t know, all I know is that anything really powerful…look hard at it [laughs].

Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury have composed the soundtrack which is never overwrought at any point, it’s very subtly done.

I worked with both those guys on Dredd at a certain point and for various reasons it didn’t work out. But I really loved working with them and the thing about them is they’re really talented composers, really interesting talented composers with a very, very fierce aesthetic which is fantastic, keeps you on your toes, keeps you honest. As well as that they’re not trained in all the auto-grammar of film composing, they just approach it in their own way, “What would I want to do here?” That was fantastic, a real asset to have that kind of ability matched with a kind of innocence and freshness.

It’s quite childlike in some places in Ava’s scenes…

Yeah that was childlike as a misdirection. There’s lots of misdirection in the film, one of them is to associate Ava constantly with a kind of innocence, to put her above suspicion. And little nudges. I know everyone’s watched Blade Runner so I know everyone is going to be thinking, “Oh she’s not the A.I. he’s the A.I.” And I push them towards little scars on his back and little moments to sort of nudge you in that direction. Also moments to make you not look over there, like that rather childlike, almost nursery chimes that you attach with her. It was like a kind of game doing that whilst also having a big conversation about misdirection within the film. There’s a whole thing within the film about misdirection, look over here so you don’t look over there and that’s happening to the audience at the same time. Hopefully! So what can happen with composers is, this really does happen, it’s like it’s a car chase or something or a helicopter in this instance and they say, “I’m not really going to write anything here”, because they know it’s going to get drowned out, “I’ve been here a million times, I write this brilliant bit of music and they crank up the sound design with a big revving engine and you lose all the beautiful work I did so I’m not putting any work over there, I’ll do it over here”. [Geoff and Ben] don’t think like that because they don’t have that auto-grammar built into them. And it was great because we have these long passages of no dialogue in the middle of the film, very odd construction, it put a huge pressure on their shoulders but you just say, “Run with it” and then they come up with this great stuff. And sometimes, like at the end, kill all the sound design, all of it goes, and it’s just imagery and music and that’s all it is. I loved working with them. They’re really good by the way!

How did you come to cast the film?

It’s the third time I’ve worked with Dohmnall, I know him very well so that was easy peasy. The other two principles, of course there’s Sonoya [Mizuno] as well who plays Kyoko, I’d see Alicia in A Royal Affair a Danish film. I was very struck [with her], it’s Mads Mikkelsen she’s acting against, an incredible, charismatic actor, really fantastic actor but I just watched her. Oscar, I’d seen him  in lots of things. I’d seen him in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies, he’s acting opposite Di Caprio and he’s so effortless, I just thought he was incredible. He’s absolutely amazing, he’s like supernatural actor, he’s like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, you just know immediately they’re good. One of the only tricky parts of the process was to do with financing really. We couldn’t have stars that can’t act. You can make films like that and it can work very well, really work terrifically well and it’s a great way of making sure you get the financing but this had to be actors because the weight on the actors was too extreme. If they weren’t carrying these long fucking dialogue scenes that would break easily with a performance that wasn’t at 100%. So it was a question of casting actors and that was it, find the best actors you can.

How much input did you have in the design of Ava?

I had lots of input [laughs]. There was a guy I worked with on Dredd called Jock who’s a 2000AD comic book artist, and in prep Jock and I had worked very closely working out aspects of how this city would look and how this comic book character would be adapted  for a film and stuff like that. So I contacted Jock immediately, he was the first person who worked on the film actually outside of the core producer team. Jock and I spent a few weeks sort of bouncing stuff backwards, avoiding certain kinds of design because they made you think of Metropolis or C3P0 or Bjork videos or whatever it happened to be. And then we found something in the idea of a mesh where you can see she’s a machine but sometimes the light will glance off her and suddenly you see a feminine midriff appear, and then it vanishes again. So there was something in that. Then it was a question of handing over to the VFX team run by the guy called Andrew Whitehurst, I’m not sure if I’ve ever met anyone smarter than Andrew Whitehurst. He’s kind of a genius but he’s also got a creative streak in him. Andrew took that and made it this very complex, very functional looking, but really quite beautiful rather elegant construction. 

Do you wonder about Ava and where she would be now?

I think she’s fine. Taking over the world I hope! She’s doing alright. She finds an induction plate in like a cook shop and that’s it, she’s off and running. 

When the script ends is that where you end or do you often contemplate where the characters go beyond the films?

Not really. I think Ava is fine. That’s what I think. She does great. And does what Oscar’s character anticipates she’ll do. That’s the way I see it. I miss character’s and actually of everything I’ve ever worked on I like this project more than anything else. I’ve got more wrapped up in this and feel more affection for it and when I finished cutting I immediately felt a sense of loss and normally I’m like fucking high fiving myself saying, “Thank God I don’t have to work on this any more.” But in this case I didn’t feel that.

How did you come up with disco scene?

Because a few years ago I worked on this film, Never Let Me Go and it’s a film that I really like, I’ve got lots of affection for it, but it has a kind of monotone and I thought I’ve got to smash it up sometimes.

Ex_Machina is out on 21st January.