EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”)

EXM_D006_00747-2 (1)Alex Garland is a writer who doesn’t stretch for anybody, and by extension he’s evolved into a filmmaker with a similar inelastic quality.

Though his roots lie in novels, he’s become a formidable screenwriter, having authored two scripts for Danny Boyle – “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” – an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” for Mark Romanek, and Pete Travis’ “Dredd,” the rebooted film version of the 2000 AD comic strip, Judge Dredd. He’s also seen two of his novels, The Beach and The Tesseract, turned into films with Danny Boyle and Oxide Pang Chun at the helm, respectively. Though none of his films has ever broke any kind of box office record, his critical successes has earned him a dedicated, almost cult-like following. He’s also had the benefit of working with filmmakers who value the inclusive say-so of the screenwriter, and lucky for Boyle, Romanek and Travis, Garland is definitely the kind of screenwriter who’d be advantageous to have on set. A heavily opinionated individual, but with enough assurance and humility to see the potential in an opposing point of view, Alex Garland’s almost prickly exterior encloses one of the most inventive minds in modern day science fiction, but don’t ever attribute the dynamism of the films he’s worked on to just the directors who are attached to them, nor assume that his bold new feature, “Ex Machina,” is his directorial debut. He will quickly refute both, only to spread the wealth to the hundreds, or potentially thousands, of people whose names you consciously dismiss whenever you leave a movie theater before the credits have finished rolling.

In a recent Indiewire interview that Garland did with Nigel M. Smith, Garland admitted that he’s butted heads with a number of people during his growing years in filmmaking, and it’s understandable to see why. The singular writer has had a rare kind of career where his understanding of the filmmaking process is quite possibly a large departure from what it’s like with filmmakers who aren’t Danny Boyle, Mark Romanek and Pete Travis. Adamantly against the general concept of an all-seeing, all-controlling ‘director,’ Garland sees filmmaking as unequivocal collaboration, and even if it might be sensible to consider films as extensions of a singular person – i.e. auteur theory – he’ll be the first to pounce, or “have a go at you,” to quickly extinguish that notion. He’s notably passionate about the subject, as you’ll see below in the roundtable discussion with Garland that Reel Reactions had the opportunity to be involved in earlier this week. And while it may be surprising to see how a filmmaker, whose first film on which he is the sole credited director is expanding into nationwide theaters this weekend, is so easily bothered by the generalization of the ‘director,’ it’s simultaneously a reassuring assertion, as it’s hard to imagine that there are many people who will so aggressively voice their side of this surely quite divisive argument. At the end of the day, you do wish there were more people like Garland in the film industry.

Garland also discusses the unconscious influence of the writings by Laura Mulvey, his desire to always involve a sense of humor, and the genesis of the name ‘Ava.’

RR: So one of the bigger questions I had was that there seems to be a huge noir influence, like film noir influence, in terms of Ava almost being like a femme fatale between…

AG: Oh sure, sure. Well…so here’s the thing, ok, when you offer up a story, and I learned this way back, see, I’ve been writing for a long time, more than 20 years, and the first thing I did was I wrote a book about backpacking, called The Beach. It was about young Western backpackers in Southeast Asia who were kind of treating Southeast Asia as if it were some kind of adult-themed Disneyland. And, it was supposed to be like a critique of the backpacker scene, and when it came out, some people saw it as a straight celebration of the backpacker scene, and I realized that you don’t have any control over narratives, it’s about what people bring to them. They have their own agendas, and one of the examples I always think of is lawyers and judges who spend their lives trying to get the meanings of sentences that were written to be as clear as possible, and yet they’re open to interpretation and ambiguity. So imagine the exponential level of complexity that exists within a narrative.

So here’s the thing…not from my point of view. From your point of view, that’s fine. If you want to see it that way, that’s your prerogative, that’s what you’ve brought to the narrative. I don’t see it as a femme fatale story, because I see it as a prison-break movie, if you were going to…and I just don’t see it as noir. I don’t see it as noir at all in the terms, again, that are attached to femme fatales as a conceptual thing. From my point of view, it depends on where you emotionally position yourself within the story. I position myself next to the machine. The machine is stuck in a glass box, she’s been given weird kinds of things to kind of tell her that there’s an external world that she could access, and maybe a concrete knowledge that she’s preceded by other machines and a knowledge that if she doesn’t do things right, things could end up very badly for her. And then there is this guy who is her jailer, who’s keeping her in prison. And this guy’s friend…so what’s a femme fatale? She’s gotta get out. It’s a prison-break movie. But it depends on where you choose to position yourself, so, I’m only answering that from my point of view. I’m not disagreeing with your knowledge of film history or anything; it’s not that, I’m also not saying it’s not film noir. It is for you. It’s just not for me.

RR: And I love that response! There was just a striking connection, for me, between Ava and, say, Rachael from “Blade Runner.”

AG: And “Blade Runner” is consciously and deliberately echoing film noir techniques the whole way through; shot composition, even in the music, which alludes to earlier periods of time, and so…yea, just not in my opinion here.

RR: I was also curious, what were the thoughts that went into Nathan’s version of the Turing test, and what was the inspiration for that version?

AG: Actually, exactly as it’s expressed in the film, which is that if you set up these…well there’s two things: One is, if you set up this experiment as per the “rules of the Turing test,” she’d pass. So what’s the point? The question is not, “Can she trick you into thinking that she’s a human?” even if you’re hearing a disembodied voice, or typing into a computer and getting text responses, which is how the Turing test usually works. It’s, “If you can see that she’s a machine, do you feel she’s sentient?” So it’s a kind of post-Turing test, Turing test.

That said the Turing test is misrepresented a lot of the time. The Turing test is not actually a test for sentience, it’s really a test for the Turing test. It’s to test to see if you can pass the Turing test, which is, itself, incredibly difficult to do. It’s representative of a very sophisticated A.I., but it’s not representative of self-awareness. You could pass the Turing test without…like the chess computer discussion that they have, a chess computer doesn’t know it’s a chess computer, you could pass the – a very sophisticated language program could pass the Turing test without being self-aware or sentient. Equally, a dog is sentient and self-aware and recognizes its reflection in the mirror, things like that, but could not get close to passing the Turing test. So, it’s a little bit of a red herring and it was partly to say, “Don’t get hung up on a Turing test.” Yea, so…because we are, a bit. [Laughs]

EXM_D018_02918-2 (2)RR: So you’ve had your work adapted by some really great directors, like Danny Boyle and Mark Romanek, so as someone directing for your first time here, were there any kinds of tips or techniques that you kind of drew on from them, the way they adapted your work, going forward to direct here?

I don’t think I ever wrote for anybody. That was not what I ever did, that was never how I framed it in my mind. I never see film, and I never have seen film, as very director-centric, I know we’re supposed, but I didn’t see it back then and I still don’t see it that way now. My personal experience of film is that it’s a group of people working together; it’s a collaborative exercise. I used to work in novels, and I know the difference between novels and films and it’s big. The list of people who appear in the credits were not just dragged off the street, you know, they’re doing jobs and they’re doing them to a very high level, and they are filmmakers. So I don’t like the director thing because it says, “That person’s the filmmaker and these are the people that are just facilitating their vision,” and it’s bullshit. I think that sometimes there are some directors, say Woody Allen, I’ll accept he’s an auteur, I’ve got no problem with that at all, but I’ve been working in film for about fifteen years and the one thing I can tell you about film production is that they fight very, very hard to get the DOP they want, and to get the production designer they want, and if the director was the guy “mounting the camera,” why would they fight over these people? Why would they pay them the money? So, I think I disagree with the premise of the question to an extent.

RR: I think I just meant more looking at how they had taken your work –

AG: They didn’t take my work. What you’re doing, in a completely reasonable way, and I understand where it comes from, I really do, but what you’re doing is misrepresenting the process because the thing that you’re saying happened didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen with me, and it also didn’t happen with the DOP, and it didn’t happen with the production designer, and if that director was sitting here, I don’t think he’d pretend it happened either.

RR: It’s honestly not even them specifically, it’s the way these directors ended up working with who they worked with, the other filmmakers involved, and you drew on the experience of those productions –

AG: Are you sure?

RR: To get some of the same people to work on your team.

AG: Look, I’m not trying to have a go at you, but are you sure about that? Can you demonstrate it?

RR: You brought on Domnhall Gleeson, who you had worked with on “Dredd” and “Never Let Me Go,” and…

AG: Oh sorry, I thought you were talking about just the director, sorry, go on, sorry.

RR: And you brought on the production designer, Mark Digby, he worked on…

AG: Everything I’ve ever worked on.

RR: Yes, exactly, and having never directed before –

AG: I have directed before. I have directed a feature film. It’s uncredited work.

RR: Ok, so as the first fully credited feature, as a writer and director, seeing how people had worked with your work, including the production designers, not just directors, this whole team…

AG: Ah, yes!

RR: Was there anything, seeing how those films were brought to the screen, that you wanted to bring onto this production?

AG: I understand.

RR: I phrased the question poorly.

AG: No, no, no you haven’t. I want to be clear: What you’re saying is completely reasonable, and in many cases would be true, but this is completely fair enough…and there was one thing, yes. It had to the do with the atmosphere on the set, and it was actually to be very open and clear about the collegiate aspect of it and have all of the HOD’s talking to each other. We’re all in a room and we’re all sharing stuff, and we’re all sharing ideas, and ideas can actually come from anybody. I phrased it to people and to myself as something like a version of anarchy, which I don’t mean as chaos, but I mean as people working in an autonomous way to the same end. And the way I felt about it was that as long as we all agreed on the film that we were making then it was cool. It’s friendly. I know I sound like I’m having a go at you, but I seriously am a friendly guy. [Laughs]. I promise I’m a friendly guy. Anyway, sorry man.

RR: [Laughs] Ok, so please tell me if I’m wrong, but in the film there seem to be some scenes about the objectification of women, I’m sure you’re familiar. How much did, say, Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze” [theory from “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,”] inform your writing of the script?

AG: I’m not aware of it, so I’d have to say – but that doesn’t mean I’m not affected by it, because it could be, for example, the people who I was involved with in talking to about the subject matter and showing them the script and asking them to critique it, they might have been affected by it. I am consciously not affected by it. In an analogous way, you could watch “Apocalypse Now” and be affected by Heart of Darkness but not have read Heart of Darkness. So, the short answer is, I don’t know. But what I would say is that there are a whole bunch of questions and propositions that are raised in the film, put forward, that it’s done consciously and as consciously as possible, there’s sort of a where away, and there was a responsibility I felt to be thoughtful about it. So my process was to think about it as hard as I was able, but of course one has one’s own prejudices and limitations that one is unaware of, that’s the downside of them, so then what you do is you test them on other people; I’ve got friends who I show my work to and say, “I want you to look at it hard from this angle and make sure it stands up,” and that sort of thing.

RR: How has the story changed from its initial conception to the screenplay to the final film, if at all?

AG: In some sort of fundamental respect you could say not much, or in as much as you’d be able to look at the scenes and say, “Well there’s the scene” and look at the story order and say, “Well it’s roughly the same.” Things always get changed around a tiny bit. But, in other ways, it’s changed dramatically. The reason why I’m anti-auteur theory, and I don’t give a shit about it, and I don’t want to walk toward it but rather walk away from it, is because the point about all of these pyramid structures that exist within the overall film is, when the DOP is good, or when the actors are good, and they’re given responsibility, they make it better. They elevate it. They come up with something that I didn’t think of, so to micromanage it would be a mistake, because it would be less good. So, again, the short answer is: The changes – that it’s a “better” version – to what I thought it might be is because of the people I worked with, who have their own skill sets and inspirations and talents that I don’t. That’s it.

EXM_D016_02432-2RR: I think an unexpected joy about this movie that the marketing doesn’t really touch on is that it’s a very funny film.

AG: I hope so! [Laughs]

RR: And I think that compared to the others things that I have seen that you have written, the humor seems to be the separator in this case.

AG: Hmm, well I try to always…well, maybe not “Never Let Me Go,” that’s kind of grim, but there’s usually a kind of humor in there. A dry humor. And then what happens – on that elevating front from before actually, if you give that material to someone like Oscar Isaac, he’ll fucking run with it. I mean, he’s like…he’s a very funny guy, he’s witty, and he’s a mercurial sense of humor. Domnhall Gleeson’s also hilarious, I mean really. Actually Domnhall’s like a comedian. If you put him in front of an audience it’s like stand-up. So, if there’s a gag, dry humor particularly, it can land or not land according to the delivery, and Oscar will get every bit of blood out of the stone.

RR: Was that at all part of why you chose those two cast members for those roles?

AG: No, I chose them because they’re brilliant actors. Domnhall, this is the third movie we’ve worked on together, and Oscar, I’ve seen him in a bunch of things and seen how he’s got this particular kind of confidence. He vanishes, he just vanishes. There’s this guy in one film and you think, “Ok I’ve got the measure of him,” and then he’s not there anymore, he’s in another movie and someone else is there; the name’s the same but the guy’s gone, he’s someone else. So there’s that; that’s why they got cast. One of the real pleasures in Oscar was finding out how funny he is and how good he was at dancing. I didn’t know either of that.

RR: The disco scene!

AG: Yes, precisely. [Laughs]

RR: I know that you mentioned that your emotional position was closer to Ava and I think when I was watching the movie my emotional position was closer to Caleb. Initially it felt like Ava was this kind of “other,” this “alien,” and I wondered if…and like all the robots that Nathan made, she’s obviously female, so I wondered if it was a comment on the way that men objectify women, maybe even in the tech industry especially?

AG: What it is, is so many things are conflated into the answer of that question; it’s difficult to settle on one and give a pat answer. But, one thing would be, that given some of the concerns of the film and some of the agendas of the film, it simply would have been inaccurate to the world to have reversed the genders. So that could relate to the tech industry, or, in a completely separate way, it could relate to the objectification of girls in their early 20’s. I mean, and the two are not actually connected – the tech industry is not dominated by men because of the objectification of women in their early 20’s, they’re two separate things that co-exist. And also women are not just objectified by men, they’re also objectified by women. There’s tons of stuff that sort of layer into it.

One of the things that I got most interested in, that I used to puzzle over a lot, which is presented really in the middle of the film in a conversation, has to do with gender. It’s just simply to do with gender. So where does gender reside? Is it in consciousness? Is it in a physical form? Because consciousness is not a physical form, it comes out of a physical thing – the brain – but consciousness is something else. Is there such a thing as a male consciousness and female consciousness? If so, how would you demonstrate it? Are there some things that a female would think that a man wouldn’t? Can you give an example? Could you find a man who would then contradict that because he doesn’t think it and a woman that does? So it goes on. And these are all the sort of implicit questions and – there was another thing as well which is if you flip the genders in your mind, if you give it a thought experiment, which is to flip the genders and say, “I’m not gonna care whether this is accurate to the world or care about what it represents, anything like that, I’m just gonna flip them,” I would argue that you would get a very, very misogynistic film if you did that. You’d get a misogynistic film that was not saying anything accurate about the way the world works. So, that would be another reason to not flip the genders I suppose.

But, it’s about proximity. And you might not agree with that because of where you position yourself in the film and if you position yourself with Caleb, some of those arguments may not make sense. It’s complex. But like I said, the responsibility – if you’re going to do something contentious, do it thoughtfully. And then understand that people will have their own opinions.

ExMachina_Face To Face_06152708-2RR: So we talked about the two other stars, but the big breakout person, or many might possibly perceive her to be, is Alicia Vikander. What about her, or what were the things that really convinced you to pick her for this movie?

AG: It’s the same as the other two. The thing about this film is that it’s an actor’s movie. It’s got huge requirements on the way it’s shot, and the VFX, the music, all that stuff; they’re all like ‘the legs to the table,’ or however people phrase it, but more than anything it’s an actor’s movie. So, the way acting works, and also the way film finance works, is you can get things set up with actors who are not necessarily very good actors but they’ve got a huge profile, or they’ve got enormous charisma. And there’re some kinds of films where charisma is needed to make the film, it actually works, the dazzling smile and the sort of peeky wink, and that’s all you need, right? And it’s great. But in this case it’s absolutel not what the film needs, they have to be actors; they were cast, primarily, just as actors.

I’d seen Alicia Vikander in this film called “A Royal Affair,” and she’s acting opposite a very charismatic and a very gifted actor [Mads Mikkelsen] and yet she’s carrying the movie. Now, whenever you see that, you notice it. And you don’t need to work in the film industry to notice it. I’ve never met anybody, literally nobody, who would argue that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a bad actor, you know, he’s a great actor. You just see it, and actually you see it in Alicia as well. That’s why she was cast, and then I found out during a conversation with her that she had this ballet training. She actually worked as a ballerina at a very high level from a very young age, and that’s also true of Sonoya [Mizuno] who plays Kyoko, both of them are ballerinas, and that enabled a kind of, slightly, preternatural control over physicality; it gave the machines a sort of “otherness,” which I think is, also to us, not as machines and not as ballet dancers, seductive – I don’t mean in a sort of eroticized way, seductive as in it makes you lean forward, you know, because you’re intrigued by this strange, sort of semi-perfection that none of us really have. And actually they don’t have either, because they’re humans too, but they do the performance with a supernatural quality.

RR: So I love the symbolic tool of the Jackson Pollock painting and I have my own theory about it, but I want to hear from you, how did you mean for the painting to not only speak specifically to Nathan’s character but to like millennial nature as a whole? Did you…or did anyone who worked on the film?

AG: [Laughs] That was nice. Very nice, actually, I appreciate that. The thing about the Pollock painting from my point of view, what interested me about it, is that [Pollock] was setting himself a task to do something that is kind of unconscious, and has no decisions involved, and simply whether that is possible, and that relates to everything we do. Whether we – and rather obscurely or maybe it’s pretentious, I don’t know, but it really relates to free will. You could argue, very reasonably, that this thing, which is the purest example in art you can imagine – it’s abstract, it’s fluid, it’s thoughtless in some respects – is as close as you could get to free will in some respects. A kind of automatic action. But actually, you could also argue, and I suspect I personally believe, everything within it is automatic, because he reached for the yellow paint – it wasn’t random, you know? And his hand moved a certain way and there were, on an either atomic level or quantum level in his brain, there were electric chemical responses happening and each of them was triggered by a preceding one, and if you had a complex enough way of looking at it, you’d find every single thing that we did is prescribed, essentially, either by the environment that we’re in or by ourselves, and our nature, and the things that are distinct about you and the things that are distinct about me. It felt like the Pollock painting represented that quite beautifully and felt like the right point for this rather bullying guy to put the other one on the spot.

EXM_D009_01378-2RR: Why the name Ava?

AG: It was a two-step process. One is, when I first configured this, the name was Eve, and I thought, “I can’t call her Eve because it’s too prosaic.” Too on the nose, I knew I couldn’t do that. And then I thought of Eva, but then I realized I couldn’t do Eva because my daughter’s called Eva and that’d just be too weird [Laughs] given the way the film plays out, it’s just creepy. So then, it was actually my wife who said Ava, and the thing about Ava that was perfect is that it has this sort of relationship with Eve, but it’s a step removed, and it looks like it’s an acronym, like it stands for “Automatic Vehicle…Assurance,” or something like that. I don’t know what it stands for, but it felt – it’s got a roughly Judaic-Christian type background somewhere in it.

RR: Weren’t they all biblical names?

AG: They were, but again, it’s unconscious apart from with Ava. Somebody – this is so that thing about other people bringing what they will to narratives – another journalist back in the UK, a very smart woman whom I’ve spoken with before, said “I assume Nathan is ‘this,’ and Caleb is ‘that,’” and laid out this really beautiful, elegant argument, none of which was true and I had a thought, or a moment, a test like, when I thought that I could have gone, “Yes, that’s exactly right,” but I didn’t. I took the honest route.

RR: Where did you find [composers] Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury? I’ve become an instant fan because of their work on this film.

AG: We worked together on “Dredd,” the last film I did, so I’ve worked with them before. They originally did the music for “Dredd,” we had a great time, but it didn’t quite work out, so the next time I was out, I just went straight back to them. I really get on with Geoff and Ben.

Interview by Mike Murphy

Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” will be hitting Boston theaters starting this Friday, April 17th. Check back for our review.

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