FilmInterview

‘Ex Machina’ Director Alex Garland Wants You To Stop Calling Him an Auteur

Wesley Emblidge ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Executive Editor

Alex Garland and Alicia Vikander on the set of Ex Machina. Photo Credit: A24 Films.
Alex Garland and Alicia Vikander on the set of Ex Machina. Photo Credit: A24 Films.

Alex Garland is one of the more interesting names working in science fiction today, though he might disagree if you praise him too much. Directing for the first time (credited, at least) instead of just writing, the filmmaker has made a big point throughout his press tour about how he’s “anti-auteur,” emphasizing the collaborative process of making movies. It’s understandable, from a guy whose novels and screenplays have been behind movies we maybe credit too much to their directors. After Danny Boyle turned his novel The Beach into a film, the two collaborated on both 28 Days Later… and Sunshine. Garland later worked adapting other people’s work, writing the screenplays for Never Let Me Go and Dredd.

Now he’s making his official directorial debut with the original sci-fi story Ex Machina, about loney coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who goes and spends a weekend with the Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of the tech company he works with. At Nathan’s remote estate Caleb is introduced to the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), and spends the week performing a kind of Turing Test on Ava to see just how human she really is. We recently had the chance to sit down with Garland at a roundtable interview, where he expanded on his thoughts about the auteur theory and more (questions asked by Emertainment Monthly are denoted with an asterisk).

There seems to be a huge film noir influence in the movie, with Ava as almost like a femme fatale?

Okay, here’s the thing: when you offer up a story, and I learned this way back, I’ve been writing for a long time, more than 20 years, the first thing I did was wrote a book about backpacking called The Beach, and it was about young western backpackers in southeast Asia who were kind of treating it as if it was a sort 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 this straight celebration of the backpacker scene, and I realized you don’t have any control over narratives, it’s about what people bring to them, they have their own agendas. One of the examples I always think of is lawyers and judges, who spend their life trying to get the meaning 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, I don’t see it as noir at all. From my point of view it depends 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 tell her that there’s an external world that she can 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 might end up badly for her. And then there’s this guy, her jailer who’s keeping her in prison, and this guy’s friend. So what’s a femme fatale? She’s got to get out, it’s a prison break movie, but it depends 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 also felt a sort of connection between Ava and Rachael from Blade Runner, that was where I started to see that.

Blade Runner is consciously and deliberately echoing film noir techniques the whole way through it, shot composition, even in the music which eludes to earlier periods of time, but not in my opinion.

What inspired Nathan’s version of the Turing Test?

There’s two things. One is, if you set up this experiment as per the “rules” the Turing Test should pass, so what’s the point, the question is not can she trick you into thinking she’s a human 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 she’s a machine do you feel she’s sentient. So, it’s a sort 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 a test to see if you could pass the Turing Test, which itself is incredibly difficult to do. So it’s representative of a very sophisticated AI, but it’s not representative of self-awareness. You could pass the Turing Test without… like the chess computer discussion they have, a chess computer doesn’t know it’s a chess computer, a very sophisticated language program could pass the Turing Test without being self-aware, sentient. So, equally a dog is sentient and self aware and it recognizes it’s reflection in a mirror, thing 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 partially to say “don’t get hung up on the Turing Test.” Because we are.

Alex Garland and Oscar Isaac on the set of Ex Machina. Photo Credit: A24 Films.
Alex Garland and Oscar Isaac on the set of Ex Machina. Photo Credit: A24 Films.
*So you’ve had your work adapted by some really great filmmakers like Danny Boyle and Mark Romanek. As someone directing for the first time here, and there any tips or techniques you drew on from the directors you’ve worked with in the past?

I don’t think I ever wrote for anybody, that was not what I ever did, not how I framed it in my mind. I never see film, I never have seen film as being very director-centric, though I know we’re supposed to. I didn’t see it back then, I still don’t see it that way now. My personal experience with film is that it’s a group of people working together and it’s a collaborative exercise. I used to work in novels, and I know the difference between novels and film, and it’s big. The list of people that 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 are filmmakers. So I don’t like the director thing because it says “that person is the filmmaker and these other people are just facilitating their vision,” and it’s bulls***. 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 15 years and one thing I can tell you about film production is that they fight very very hard to get the director of photography they want or the production designer they want, and if the director was the guy “mounting” the camera, why would they fight to have these people, why would they pay them the money. So, I think I disagree with the premise of the question.

*I think I just meant more just looking at how they had taken your work and brought it to the screen?

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 you’re saying happened didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen with me and it didn’t happen with the DOP, and it didn’t happen with the production designer, and if that director was sat here, I don’t think he’d pretend it happened either.

*Sure, but I mean, these directors, they have a clear style and a way they work with these different collaborators, and you drew on different people from those productions to work on this project here.

Are you sure? I’m not going to have a go at you but are you sure about that?

*Well, didn’t you bring people like, Domhnall Gleeson who worked on Dredd?

Oh, no, sorry, I thought you were talking about the directors.

*I’m just saying people like the production designer Mark Digby, he worked on-

Everything I’ve ever done.

*Exactly, so as someone who has never directed before-

I have directed before. Uncredited work, but yes, I have.

*Okay, but as directing something like this, I assume a bigger project than what you worked on before, this is something you wrote, so seeing how people had worked with your work and the whole team, were there any things that you took from that, seeing how those films had been brought to screen, that you wanted to bring on to this production?

I understand. I want to be clear, what you’re saying is completely reasonable, and in many cases would be true, it’s completely fair. There was one thing, yes, and it had to do with the atmosphere on set. It was actually to be very open and clear about the collegiate aspect about it, and have all of the HOD’s talking to each other, and so we’re all in a room and we’re all sharing stuff, and we’re all sharing ideas, these 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, as long as we all agreed on the film we were making it was cool. I know I sound like I’m having a go at you, but really, I’m a friendly guy.

Tell me if I’m wrong, but in the film there definitely seems to be a theme about the objectification of women, and so if you’re familiar, how much did Laura Mulvey’s Feteshistic Gaze inform your writing of this?

I’m not aware of it, so I’d have to say… that doesn’t mean I’m not affected by it because, it could be for example the people that I was involved with and talking to about this 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, I mean in an analogist way, you could watch Apocalypse Now and be affected by Hearts of Darkness but not have read it. The short answer is I don’t know, but what I would say is that there are a whole bunch of questions and propositions which are raised in the film and put forward which is done as consciously as possible. That’s a responsibility that I thought I had to be thoughtful about it, so my process was to think about as hard as I was able, because of course one has one’s own prejudices and limitations that one is unaware of, but that’s the downside of them, and so then what you do is you test them with other people, I’ve got friends who I can show these things to and say “I want you to look at it hard from this angle, and make sure it stands up.”

How has the story changed from it’s initial inception, to your screenplay, to the film, if at all?

Well, in some sort of fundamental respect you could say not much in as much as you could look at the scenes and say “well, there’s the scene,” or look at the story order and say “it’s roughly the same”. The edit is where things change quite a bit. In other ways, dramatically, because the reason why I’m anti-auteur theory and I don’t give a s*** about it, and I’m not sort of, I don’t want to walk towards it I want to walk away from it, is because the point about all of these pyramid structures that exist within the overall film, is that when the DOP is good and 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 would be a mistake, because it would be less good. So the short answer is, the changes that make it a better version than what I thought it would be, because of the people I work with, who have their own skill sets and inspirations and talents that I don’t.

Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. Photo Credit: A24 Films.
Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. Photo Credit: A24 Films.
I think an unexpected joy about this movie that the marketing doesn’t touch on is that it’s funny, it’s a very funny movie.

I hope so! [laughs]

And it seems like, based on the other things you’ve written, this seems to be a separator in that sense.

That always – well, maybe not Never Let Me Go, because that movie’s kind of grim, but – there’s usually a kind of humor in there, a sort of dry humor. And then what happens, on that elevating front actually, you give that material to someone like Oscar Isaac, he’ll f***ing run with it, I mean, he’s a very funny guy, very witty, has a sort of mercurial sense of humor. Domhnall Gleeson’s also hilarious actually, I mean really, he’s actually like a comedian, if you put him in front of an audience it’s like standup. 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.

Was that at all a part of why you might have chose those two cast members for those roles?

No, I just chose them because they’re brilliant actors. Domhnall, this is the third movie we’ve worked on together, and Oscar I’d seen him in a bunch of things and seen how he’s got this particular kind of confidence, and he vanishes, he just vanishes. There’s this guy in one film and you think “okay, 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 is the same, but the guy’s gone. So it’s that, that’s why he was cast. One of the real pleasures of working with Oscar was finding out how funny he is, and how good he was at dancing. [laugher]

The disco scene is one of the best scenes, without question. So, I know that you mentioned your emotional position was closer to Ava, and I think for me I was closer to Caleb. Initially, it felt like Ava was this other, this sort of alien, and like, all the robots Nathan made were female, and I wondered, was that a sort of comment on the way men see women, in the tech industry especially?

What it is is, so many things have conflated into the answer to that question, that it’s difficult to settle on one and give a pat answer. But one thing would be, given some of the concerns in the film and some of the agendas of the film, it simply would’ve 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 20s. And the two are not actually connected, the tech industry is not dominated by men because of the objective fashion of women in their 20s, 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 layers into it.

One of the things that I got most interested in and I used to puzzle over a lot, which is presented really in the middle of the film, in a conversation, is to do with gender. So, where does gender reside, is it in consciousness, or is it in a physical form? Consciousness is not a physical form, it comes out of a physical thing, the brain, but consciousness is obviously something else. Is there something such as a male consciousness and a female consciousness? If so, how would you demonstrate it? Are there things a woman would think but a man wouldn’t? Can you give an example? Can you find a man who would then contradict that because he doesn’t think it, and a woman that does, and so it goes on. These are all the sort of implicit questions.

There was another thing as well, which is if you flip the genders, in your mind, if you give it a thought experiment, say “I’m not going to care if this is accurate in the world” or care about what it represents or anything like that and just 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. 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 might not make sense. It’s complex. But, like I said, the responsibility is… if you’re going to do something contentious, do it forthright. And then understand that people have their own opinions.

*So, we talked about the two other stars, but obviously the breakout star here is Alicia Vikander. I’ve loved her in movies here and there recently, but what was it that drew you to put her front and center here?

It was the same as all the others. The thing with this film is, right, it’s an actors movie. It’s got a huge requirement on the way it’s shot and the VFX, and the music, and all that stuff, these are all the legs under the table as people phrase it. But more than anything, it’s an actors 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 huge profiles and they’ve got enormous charisma. And there are some kinds of films where charisma is what’s needed to make the film, it actually works. The dazzling smile and the sort of cheeky wink, and that’s all you need, right? And in this case it’s absolutely not what the film needs, they have to be actors. So, they were cast primarily just as actors. I’d seen Alicia Vikander in this film called A Royal Affair. She’s acting across a very charismatic and very gifted actor, 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 to me that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a bad actor. You know, he’s a good actor, you just see it, and actually you see it in Alicia as well. So that’s why she was cast, I then subsequently found out in 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. Actually, that’s also true of Sonoya, who plays Kyoko, both of them were ballerinas, and that enabled a kind of slightly preternatural control over physicality that gave the machines a sort of otherness, which I think is also to us, not as machines, and not as ballet dancers, seductive not in an eroticized way I mean seductive in that it makes you lean forward, you know, because you’re intrigued by this strange sort of semi-perfection that none of us really have, that actually they don’t have, as humans, but they do the performance and it has this supernatural quality.

So why the name Ava? Was there a deeper meaning behind it at all?

Yeah, sort of. It was a two-step process. One is, when I first configured this I called her Eve, but I realized I can’t call her Eve because it’s too prosaic, too on the nose. And then I thought of Eva, and then I thought I can’t do Eva because my daughter’s called Eva, and that would just be too weird [laugher], given the way the film plays out it’s just too creepy, and so then, it was actually my wife that said Ava. And the thing about Ava that was perfect is it has a sort of relationship with Eve but it’s a step removed. And, it looks like it’s an acronym. It stands for automatic vehicle… assurance or something, I don’t know what it stands for. But you know, it’s got that sort of roughly, Judeo-Christian type background.

Ex-Machina is in limited release now. Read our review of it here.

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