The science-fiction genre can be a hard one to embrace. As screenwriter and director Alex Garland can teach us, it is more important for the characters and ideas to resonate with the audience than the groundbreaking visual effects. Garland wrote a variety of acclaimed sci-fi films, including the zombie thriller 28 Days Later, the Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation Never Let Me Go and recent cult favorite Dredd. In all of those titles, plus his newest film – the brainy sci-fi thriller, Ex Machina – the characters trump the concept.
Ex Machina has been one of the year’s biggest art-house successes, after two weeks in limited release. It tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a tech programmer who gets the chance to test out the new work of reclusive genius and company figurehead Nathan (Oscar Isaac). That new creation is a female A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander), which soon proves to be more than it seems.
While in Toronto promoting his new film, we had the chance to catch up with Garland for an exclusive interview. We spoke about casting, the benefits of using atypical composers for Ex Machina’s music, and why he doesn’t like all the hoopla associated with becoming a director.
Check it out below, and enjoy!
One of the great successes about Ex Machina is that it’s hard to think of three other actors to fit the roles of Caleb, Nathan and Ava than Domhnall, Oscar and Alicia.
Alex Garland: I can’t either, I agree.
When you worked on the screenplay, did you have these specific actors in mind?
Alex Garland: I had Domhnall in mind. This is the third film we’ve worked on together. So I know Domhnall really well, and we’d worked together in some pretty difficult circumstances actually. You really get to know each other and you get a proper kind of bond. After two movies, you know where you’re at. When I was writing the film, I was thinking of Domhnall a lot, and I knew he’d be right.
With the other two, it was a much more old-fashioned formal process where you just watch a ton of stuff. Me and other people involved, like the producers, were just watching movies, saying, “who would be good?” Alicia, I saw her in a film called A Royal Affair and she was very striking. Oscar, I had seen him in various things. For some reason, it was a film called Body of Lies where he’s acting opposite [Leonardo] DiCaprio that really struck me. In both cases – Alicia in A Royal Affair and Oscar in Body of Lies – they’re acting opposite, in many of their scenes, very, very powerful, charismatic actors. It’s DiCaprio in one, and it’s Mads Mikkelsen in the other.
And yet, every time, my eye was going to either Oscar or Alicia. They seemed sort of possessed and comfortable in their skin in a funny kind of way, like it was their movie and they were just waiting for everyone else to notice. I thought they were just incredibly impressive. And then, when I spoke to them, they were really smart about the script and ways to elevate their characters.
Alicia Vikander has dance training, and movement is such an integral part of creating this A.I. character. This is a creation that is trying to find its own way to move. How did you two find these rhythms and behaviours?
Alex Garland: I didn’t. I really didn’t. I wrote the script. This is typical, I think, of how films are actually made. I wrote the script and cast Alicia. Alicia arrived with some really interesting ideas of how to play it that were not my ideas. They were her’s. Basically, what happens in film is a writer writes the script and actually it’s the actors who take the characters away. They own their character and the two people with the greatest connection with any given character is the writer and the actor. But it’s the actor that ultimately occupies it. As the writer, you just have to let it go and let them take it.
So it’s not about controlling a performance, it’s about finding the right person to create that performance and elevate it. Alicia had this idea, which was about movement. The idea basically was she didn’t want to do anything robotic, which is correct. She wanted to do human movement but to do it perfectly. And in the perfection, there would feel like there was something strange about it.
I don’t think she knew this but there’s an analogy in one of the worlds I’d worked in previously, which is VFX, which they call an “uncanny valley.” It’s where something is sort of right but it’s wrong and it gives it a spooky quality. I think what Alicia did was a kind of “uncanny valley” performance, in physical terms.
You’re talking about an aspect that looks correct but there’s something unseemly underneath. The production design seems like that. Nathan’s home, at the beginning, seems like a warm, inviting place. But slowly, it becomes claustrophobic and otherworldly.
Alex Garland: And intimidating. This is my favourite part of filmmaking, actually. All of these groups of people start talking to each other and the fabric of the film… everyone starts to inform everybody else. It starts to coalesce into this single thing, which is a movie. The actors are, to an extent, consciously or unconsciously, responding to the sets that they’re in and the clothes that they’re wearing. The composers are responding to the performances the actors create. And so it goes on. It’s this huge collaborative mesh.
Because my background is in novel writing, which is something you do alone, for me, this collaboration in film is the most interesting thing about it, and just on a personal level, the most enjoyable thing about it. There’s something really cool about writing a script and seeing it come to life and elevated by all these different people.
You’re right about the cohesion. The musical score is so haunting and works so well. It’s tremendous.
Alex Garland: Most of the people working on this film are very, very experienced filmmakers. They’ve done a lot of movies, they know what they’re doing. They know traps and tricks and all sorts of stuff like that. But the composers [Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury] really come from left field. One of them, his main experience is in nature documentaries, and the other is in a couple of rock bands. They’re not steeped in film grammar and what that means is they have an innocent way of approaching moments and scenes.
I’ve literally seen experienced film composers saying, I’m not going to write a bit of complex music for this car chase because it would just get drowned out and killed. I’m going to put my efforts somewhere else. In the car chase, it’ll get killed by engine noise and car squeals and gear shifts, so I’m not going to do it.
Geoff and Ben just don’t think like that because they don’t have an experience of having bits of music fucked up by engine noise. When there’s a helicopter sequence, they’ll just write a beautiful, strange, maybe quite gentle bit of music that goes under the helicopter, which encourages one to drop out the noise of the helicopter and sit with this strange, pulsing music. It was great working with them actually because they’re not film people.