Alex Garland has been lurking through the film world since the turn of the century, trying on all kinds of hats on all kinds of projects. His career began somewhat inauspiciously when Danny Boyle turned Garland’s 1996 Thailand travelogue nightmare into a critically flunky Leonardo DiCaprio project (though I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for The Beach, both the novel and the film.) Shortly thereafter, Garland teamed with Boyle again to greater effect; producing what was to become one of the greatest zombie features of all time in 28 Days Later…, a film that really set the stage for the success of a cultural phenomenon like The Walking Dead.
Since then, Garland has experienced various degrees of success with cult hits like Sunshine and Dredd and onward to lesser celebrated sci-fi fare like Never Let Me Go. If the reviews out so far are any indication, Ex Machina looks to be Garland’s most critically acclaimed film and, with year end top ten list potential, has the ability to really rocket his name into the stratosphere. And for good reason. Per our review:
Brilliant tech work aligns with Garland’s beautifully sour/smartly subversive writing/directing and Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander’s low-broiling performances to create what can only be described as a neo sci-fi noir near-masterpiece. Living in a time when tech and humanity cycle increasingly closer to one another in the Rolodex of life, Ex Machina – from each and every angle – pummels you with the idea of what is to come. The prospects are terrifying. [Full review]
Join me as I sit down with Alex to discuss actors vs. “movie stars,” artificial intelligence as teenage rebellion, how to maintain creative freedom on a movie, Blade Runner and replicants, 2001 and HAL, and why he doesn’t give a shit if he’s directing, writing or producing a movie.
Alex Garland: This is a tricky film to get out there. The studio felt like the right way to do it was to do a tour and go to different cities and talk to people because it’s not like this is a franchise or it’s an established property. In some ways, it’s quite difficult; there’s a lot of talking and not a lot of action so it’s sort of tricky and you have to sell it.
Off the bat, I’ll tell you that I absolutely loved it. It’s a phenomenal feature with so much going on underneath it. But let’s talk about you first of all; as an artist, you’ve gone through this very natural and yet somewhat uncommon progression of author to screenwriter to now director. What has that transformation been like for you and where do you see yourself going next?
AG: I dunno. It’s all really been from my point of view very straight forward and all basically the same thing. It’s all storytelling. I would say for me there was a big difference between writing novels and working films. The essential difference is one you do on your own and one you do with a group of people. I preferred working with a group of people and I liked the collaboration so I got pulled towards film. I don’t think I would go back to writing novels unless I couldn’t get any work, which could always happen. But in truth, I prefer working in film. The difference between writing and directing for me has been almost nonexistent. So the really big jump was between books and film.
Is that because when you are writing something you have such a clear image in your head of what it’s going to be?
AG: I think it’s because it’s basically the same thing. You write the script and then what you do is try to convey the script to other people. The basic thing is to try and get everyone agreeing to make the same film and that was my job as a writer and it’s also my job as a writer/director. In truth, the conversations that I’m having are identical. I used to have the same conversations that I’d have with actors on this film as I did with actors in previous films. I’ve often cut the movies I’ve worked on and sat in the room with the editor. The process is largely identical. It’s mainly been a new word that is attached rather than anything significant.
That being the case, what was it about Ex Machina that made you either want to be in the director’s chair or demanded you be there?
AG: I think it probably became necessary in a funny kind of way. There were just reasons why it was just more straightforward and in some respects, I think it just saved the production team from having to pay for a director. It’s as simple as that.
So did you experience a lot of push and pull with a movie like this that you said is not a franchise film and there’s not a lot of explosions and that is really heady?
AG: Not at any point in the making. Like I said, I’ve been working film for a really long time and I know some of the rules. If you want creative freedom, you have to create something cheaply. There’s a few people like Christopher Nolan who I’m sure has creative freedom but he’s got a very unusual career path where he’s proved himself on a certain level again and again. But for the rest of us, if you want to make a film with creative freedom, you make it cheaply. If you can keep it below a certain level then what you’re saying to the financiers: here’s the script, here’s the intention, here’s how much we’re going to make it for, if you pay for it up to this level and do your sums of what you’ll get from TV sales and DVDs and international…
And the toys.
AG: No toys.
I would buy an Ava toy.
AG: Fair enough. But what I mean is you can make it work and they won’t give a fuck. They’re not their leaning over your shoulder. As long as you keep it below that amount, you can just get on with it.
Having said, although you were talking about keeping the budget restrained, Ex Machina does look fantastic. A lot of the effects work is great and the sets are beautiful. How do you keep the budget within those constraints and yet keep the film looking so good?
AG: Well to be honest, part of it is just part of the weird terminology of film where we say that 15 million dollars is a low budget film but actually 15 million dollars is a lot of money. You can get a lot done with 15 million. Again, like me and the guys that I work with, we know how to get good bang for your buck. One of the key ways to do it is to shoot quickly. The point where you really hemorrhage money is in principal photography. And so one of the producers, Andrew who I’ve worked with for six movies, said to me, “If you can shoot this in six weeks, we’ll be able to do it. We’ll be able to do VFX at the same level of any film you could say.” There was a VFX company – in fact they’re the ones who’ve done the effects for the folding buildings in Inception and the collapsing football stadium in Batman 3 – it’s those guys. He said, “If you can shoot this in six weeks, we can get the top top level of VFX.”
You said in an interview with Wired that you saw the film as “pro A.I.” According to at least my interoperation of the film, we see this diametric opposition between the existence of Turring-passing A.I. and humanity. Do you see it that way in the long run?
AG: No, I don’t. I have to say that I tried to put stuff in film and some times in the past I’ve signposted it or telegraphed it too much. Here I felt that we got the balance right and there are arguments embedded within it. So I can say this and I’m not sure if you’ll have seen that or agree with it but that’s part of the thing of handing over a narrative but the way I saw it was not so much a fight or combat between humans and A.I.s. It was more about this: there’s all this anxiety about A.I.s and part of it feels to me that humans and A.I.s perceive themselves on parallel tracks. Here’s our line on the left and here’s there’s on the left. That creates a sense of rivalry. We’re afraid they’re gonna overtake and leave us behind. I tried to reconfigure this story not as parallel tracks, as rivals, but as more of parents and children. So if you move the A.I. over to your track so they’re a continuation of you, then them moving away from you is exactly what you’d want from your children. They live longer and have better lives than you so some of the paranoia dissipates. An example that I could use is the moment where Ava turns around and says to Nathan, “How does it feel to have made something that hates you?” That’s kind of like an adolescent. That’s the subtext because that’s what adolescents say to their parents.
Every teenager at some point has.
AG: So it seemed to me that it’s almost literally true. A.I.s, if were able to make them, would be a continuation, literally a new consciousness created by us. But that’s what children are. So I was trying to get it away from the parallel thing and I was trying to get it away from any religious thing, like a creation myth. Because those creationist myths tend to be cautionary tales about saying to man, “Don’t mess with God’s work.”
At the same time, I think there’s a lot of subtext to the Nathan character in terms of him struggling with this idea of taking the mantle of a God and creating the next step in evolution.
AG: I think the thing he’s mainly struggling with is sort of like the Oppenheimer thing, the guy who is often called the “father of the atomic bomb.” If you’re involved in making something – and A.I. and nuclear power are sort of analogous – there is this latent danger in them but it doesn’t stop you doing it. I think that’s the thing that really troubles Nathan. He knows how potentially problematic for him but he does it anyways.
Oscar Isaac does an absolutely phenomenal job with the role and I think at one point you stated that in the casting process what you were looking for were non “film stars.”
AG: The thing about film stars would have been -and the funny thing is that all three of these actors could turn into film stars.
And likely will.
AG: It looks like it at the moment, doesn’t it? The thing is stars can unbalance a movie like this because there’s too much baggage that comes with them. And some of them – and I don’t want to seem like I’m being rude – but some of them are not particularly good actors. They just have fantastic charisma and sometimes that’s what films really need, they need more than a nuanced acting performance. So it’s fine and there’s a certain kind of role that that would be ideal for. In this particular film, that would not have worked. The film would have just collapsed and turned to mush.
I think especially with a character like Ava, I think it works so much better with a Vikander than a Johannson because she is this unknown quantity.
AG: Yeah. She’s not gonna be unknown for much longer. She’s just phenomenal. She’s gonna be in about six movies coming out this year and some of them are gonna be really high profile.
When you said earlier that you’ve always had these conversations with your actors, what were some of those like on this film and how much did you have an idea of exactly what you wanted from them and how much did they bring to the table themselves?
AG: Almost all of it they bring, and that’s always been the case. It’s really about going through the script, which I would usually do in the rehearsal process, on this film and previous films, so you go through the script and when you get to a point of confusion like, “Why is the character saying something at this moment and not something else” and talk it through. So it’s not about dictating the performance, it’s about dictating what lies behind the performance and then the actor can choose how to perform that. There’s a lot of bullshit stated about people extracting performances from actors. Good actors, the reason they get paid the big bucks is because that’s what they do. It’s not just because they have a pretty face, it’s because they’ve got real talent and the reason you bring them in is to exploit that talent, not to micromanage it. I think one of the most commonly misunderstood things about filmmaking is something like that. And that’s what’s cool about the collaboration.
The film seems to indicate that one of the highest order of an intellectual consciousness rather than an artificial consciousness is this idea of self-preservation. Another that Nathan mentions is having a sense of humor. What are some other that you thought of and discussed during the film?
AG: The key one and what underlies all of these is being self-aware. It’s the tricky one to get your mind around and your hands around but it’s also the fundamental one. The thing about self-awareness is that it’s not directly related to intelligence. There’s something else and something mysterious about it. Dogs are clearly less intelligent than humans. We might feel all sorts of good things about them but they’re nowhere near as smart as humans. They don’t have language abilities to the same degree or the same level of emotional or intellectual sophistication. That’s just a statement of fact, they don’t have it. But they’re self aware. When a dog looks in the mirror, they know that they’re looking at a reflection of themselves, not another dog. That is the strangest and one of the most interesting things about consciousness from my point of view and it’s the key to Ava. There’s a conversation in the film about chess computers and how a chess computer acts as if it wants to win a game of chess but it doesn’t want to win a game of chess. It doesn’t want anything at all. It doesn’t know what chess is and it doesn’t know it’s a chess computer. That’s the point, it’s not self-aware.
And yet there’s this wonderful little catch 22 that you play with in the film with the fact that the more than Caleb begins to believe that Ava might be the self-actualized artificial intelligence that they’re looking for, the more than casts a dubious distrust of his own consciousness.
AG: Yes and I guess the game there is along the lines of: if you set in front of a machine that might be conscious and you say, “I want you to check this thing’s consciousness” that is quite difficult because what do you do? You say, “Are you consciousness?” It says, “Yes I am.” How do you know that’s true. It could be lying. A chess computer acts as if it’s conscious but who knows whether it really is or not. Once you realize that the machine may be acting as if it’s consciousness but may not be, you realize it’s also potentially true about that. You think I’m conscious because I’m like you, but actually I might not be. If you had to prove it, what would you do? It’s quite difficult to prove it. Then eventually, once the consciousness of the machine has been questioned and the consciousness of the person in front of you has been put into question that sort of leaves you with you. Then it turns out there are some really strange questions you can ask of yourself which is where the film takes you.
You might have to just start digging around for circuity.
AG: You might have to know if you’re metal and hydraulics.
The film deals with all these concepts of what it is to be not only human – because I feel like that’s a silly way to describe a film of this nature – but it is entered into this great pedigree of these artificial intelligence films. I think the most direct comparison is Blade Runner – which I’m a huge fan of…
AG: So am I but I don’t quite see the Blade Runner connection. It’s a different thing because the test that there is in Blade Runner that they can do is to show that these machines struggle with empathy so they don’t know how to react to the tortoise lying on its back. This is about the search for empathy and to try and find if it’s there and self-awareness is there and stuff like that. I think, from my point of view, that the best presentation that I’ve seen of an A.I. in a film is in 2001. I think HAL asks the big questions. The replicants in Blade Runner are always kind of like us. Effectively what they’re saying is, “Are our lives not as valuable just because they’re short? I’ve seen things you people couldn’t imagine.” The HAL thing represents A.I. as more of what it likely would be, which is not like us. It’s something different and other and has it’s own set of agendas. There’s a moment in Ex Machina that’s supposed to be an illustration of a moment of this, which I don’t think is quite a spoiler, but there are two machines who talk to each other but at the point that they talk to each other, we can’t contact what they’re saying because really fundamentally they’re not like us. In the same way that a dog is self-aware but we can’t get inside the brain of a dog and know what it’s like to be a dog, we also can’t get inside Ava’s brain and she can’t get inside of ours. They’re different. Similar but different. For me, the really great A.I. in cinema is HAL.
So what’s next?
AG: I just submitted a script, a few weeks ago now, which is an adaptation of a novel by Jeff VanderMeer called Annihilation which you can buy on Amazon. It’s just a very interesting, subtle, strange, quite spooky novel. It’s quite trippy.
Is that something that you would direct as well?
AG: I don’t know. I don’t really care. I know everyone else does but I don’t really give a shit.
Well we would love to see you in the director’s chair again if Ex Machina is any indication of your standard.
AG: I just like filmmaking. You could be a film maker as a DP, as an actor, as a writer, as a director. I could easily imagine writing something that someone else directed. The goal is to make movies that are thoughtful and interesting and give something to people to sort of chew on. That’s the ambition.
I’ve heard stirrings of 28 Months Later being somewhere in the works, is there any truth to that?
AG: I haven’t. I had a story idea which I handed over to the producer and the producer put a writer on it so I have nothing to do with it.
So no you, no Boyle?
AG: Me and Danny and Andrew sat down and said, “Here’s an idea, should we give it a crack?” and they said yeah, let’s give it a try. But I said that I’m not gonna write it and they said they’d get someone else.
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