Exclusive Interview: Alex Garland Talks Ex Machina

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When did you know that Ex Machina was a film you didn’t want to just write but direct?

Alex Garland: I’ve been functioning in some respects as a director for quite a long time. The division of labor that gets implied by job titles had never really… I’d never really observed it was true. For example, on Dredd… Ma-Ma, who is the antagonist, gets high in the bath. Some of the most beautiful photography in the film is while she’s getting stoned on this drug in the bath, right? The reason that exists is because the [set decorator], Michelle Day, said, “Let’s give her a bath to get stoned in. And we’ll get some great imagery of her in the bath.” And Anthony Dod Mantle, the D.O.P., said, “Yeah, we can try this.” That looks like a directorial thing. It’s not. It wasn’t in the script! It wasn’t the director’s idea. It was Michelle, it was her idea.

That is typical in my experience of how films get made. So, I don’t actually give a fuck about the director thing. I think we make much too much of it and we go on and on about it. I think there’s some auteurs out there, like Paul Thomas Anderson and Rian Johnson and the Coen Brothers. I’ll buy it, I believe it, and I’ve got not problem with it. But it’s not my working experience. My working experience is all about a collaboration. Mainly, the directing thing, partly the way I saw it on this film is that now we don’t have to pay for a director. Let’s put the money in VFX.

The three characters in Ex Machina are all reclusives in a sort of way, trying to make other people realize their genius. Caleb has that social awkwardness and Nathan is a stubborn perfectionist, and everybody’s not entirely certain of themselves. As someone who is an author and screenwriter, which is a reclusive occupation, how much of yourself is imbued in these characters?

Alex Garland: You always do, inevitably, bring a bit of yourself. It can be deceptive because you take an element and then you caricature it and you twist it. At a certain point, characters become their own thing. There’s a line you want a character to say but every time you put it in their mouth, it’s like they reject it. It’s not something now that that character would actually say. It’s very weird. It’s like they’ve become autonomous. They’re not autonomous because they’re coming out of your brain. But if they feel autonomous, you always find it slightly spooky as that happens. I guess there’s an element of that [reclusive personality] but it would be as a starting point, and then [the characters] are just off and running. They’re like some weird bit of computer code that becomes sentinent, like Ava.

When figuring out and moulding the technology in the film, how much research did you do on current experiments and developments in A.I.? And how did the story change through your research?

Alex Garland: I was doing research for years before realizing I was doing research for a story. I was reading about it, so in a way, the research informed the story, rather than coming up with the story and then researching it. Basically, the basic problem I’ve got was that I was never good at science at school. I was interested in it, but I wasn’t good. Normally, that’s not how it works with people. It’s like the subject bores them so they’re not good at it. For me, I found it interesting but I was intellectually incapable of passing exams and stuff like that. So, I’ve got a kind of distrust on my own take of these things because I know that I’m slower than I’d want to be about it.

I read about it, then I wrote the story, and then I showed the story to people who understood this stuff better than me to test it. So there was a change after that when people corrected me and helped me get my head around some of this stuff.

Who did you show your ideas to, specifically?

Alex Garland: I showed it to three people: Murray Shannahan, who’s the professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial [College], which is like [London’s] version of MIT, Gia Milinovich, who’s a writer who writes about feminism and science, and that was a very good twin interest where this film was concerned, and Adam Rutherford, who’s a geneticist but he also presents a science program on BBC Radio 4. In that science program, what he’s often doing is he’s taking complicated ideas and then presenting them in a way that laypeople like myself can understand. He’s very good at knowing whether something is being conveyed. Between those three people, I had a really good amount of bases covered in terms of where my own weaknesses might be.

Have you heard anything new about the direction of Halo, and if there have been any more developments?

Alex Garland: Halo… I was hired to write a script 13 years ago, handed it over, it got sacked, and I never heard about it again. It was years and years ago. I have no connection with that movie, I have no idea what’s going on and I haven’t spoken with to anyone involved in the potential production for, I’m guessing, 13 years or so. The only one of those kinds of projects that might have some life in it is 28 Months Later.

That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Alex for talking with us. Be sure to check out Ex Machina as it’s now playing in theatres.

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