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Lethal and Lovely :: 'Ex Machina' Director Alex Garland on the AI Femme Fatale

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Apr 14, 2015

Alex Garland has been involved with film for some time now. Two of his three novels -- "The Beach" and "The Tessearact" -- have been turned into films, with Danny Boyle directing "The Beach"; as a screenwriter, Garland has written several movies, including the Boyle-directed films "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine," as well as adapting the Kazuo Ishiguro novel "Never Let Me Go" for the screen. (His 2005 screenplay adaptation of the smash hit video game "Halo" remains famously unproduced.)

When writers step out from behind the keyboard to take up directorial duties behind the camera, the results can be distressing (recall the Stephen King-helmed "Maximum Overdrive?"). Fans might therefore worry when a writer whose work they love dons the director's hat. In the case of the Garland-written-and-directed feature "Ex Machina," however, there's plenty to love about the film's look, style, mood, and atmosphere -- the various qualities that come together to form an overall cinematic experience, and which, to a large degree, are credited to (or blamed on) the director... though, as became quite evident during the course of a recent interview with Garland, the newly-hatched director himself remains skeptical of attributing too much of a film's success (or failure) to the director. He prefers to see the making of movies as a deeply collaborative process.

But writing is often a lonely profession, and to cast an eye over Garland's filmography is to see a catalogue of intelligent, imaginative, and - Garlands' word, here - thoughtful movies, from the satirical zombie thrills of "28 Days Later" to the space-bound haunted house of "Sunshine," a meditative and beautiful film the best parts of which outshine its less-memorable flaws.


What should we expect of Garland's new feature, "Ex Machina," about an artificial intelligence given the shape of a lovely woman? That it will be rich with layers of meaning, for one thing; that it will have well-created characters and scrupulously mapped-out plotting, for another. Where the film ends up, and how it gets there, will engage, perhaps even terrify, some viewers; it might leave others cold, but even those uncertain of the film's narrative shape will appreciate -- if not love -- its other qualities, including its polished look and feel.

Asked about the meaning of the panoply of female AIs that has populated movie history from at least the silent classic "Metropolis," and through decades of film and television since then -- the female Terminator of "Judgement Day," the seductive walking bomb that is "Eve of Destruction," and, speaking of bombshells, the sultry Caprica Six from TV's "Battlestar Galactica," not to mention "Blade Runner's" bevy of lethal beauties -- Garland, looking a little jet lagged and clutching a cup of coffee, visibly shakes off any lingering fatigue and jumps right in, his mind sparking with ideas and associations.

"Yes, sure," Garland says. "What it means, I would imagine, is context dependent. It depends on the story, it depends on the agendas of that story... who is telling it and why.

"My interest begin with the idea of where gender resides," Garland continues. "The film, in a very reductive way but a very straightforward way, is about whether we can establish what is going on in someone else's mind, or something else's mind, and what obstacles might exist to that -- why we can succeed at doing that, maybe, or where we might fail. I then began to get very interested in where gender resides. Is there such a thing as a male and a female consciousness? Does sexuality play a part in creating consciousness?

"If you say that there is such a thing as a male and a female consciousness, as lots of people do, then I immediately started to wonder, how can you demonstrate that?" Garland mulls. "What is a thing that a man would think that a woman would not under the same circumstances, and vice versa? Lots of different issues get conflated into this one issue of gender. Some of it is implicit; some of it is quite directly addressed in the film.

"When I sat down to write this -- and I haven't always done this on film -- but I thought in this case, in the issues I'm addressing, I'm going to be thoughtful. I'm really going to think them through and test them on myself to the best of my own abilities. Of course, one is also limited by all sorts of blind spots that one has, so I'll also test this out on people I know, who I know have a particular interest in the agendas I'm raising here, some of which are political, some of which are philosophical and have to do with consciousness and AI research."


The film involves a brilliant, super-wealthy programmer named Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee from his company, a Google-like search engine called Blue Book. Nathan flies Caleb out to his remote, hi-tech home, which also serves as his workshop; this is where Nathan has created an android in the shape of a beautiful woman. He's named the android Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants Caleb to subject her to a Turing test. That is, he wants Caleb to talk to Ava and, despite her obviously mechanical appearance -- she's only given artificial skin to cover her face, hands, and feet -- render an honest opinion as to whether Ava is a conscious entity in her own respect, or whether he responses are simply the result of highly sophisticated programming.

But there are other agendas and tests going on at the same time, and while Nathan's true objectives are not immediately evident, it's soon quite apparent that Nathan is, in some way, playing with Caleb... maybe even testing him. Is Caleb the real object of Nathan's tests?

"The game that Oscar Isaac's character is constantly playing is, Are you seeing him? Or are you seeing a presentation of a predatory, misogynistic, implicitly violent, bullying alpha male who is there to be something from which this machine needs to be rescued?" Garland waxes. "And then there's a secondary question, which is: Is he pretending to be what he actually is? Which is something we often do, I think: We caricature the thing about ourselves that actually does exist."

One of the journalists in attendance asks Garland whether earlier movies that involve similar issues might have inspired his film, or found their way into the script as references.

"I started work as a novelist," Garland recounts, "and there are some similarities between screenwriting and novel writing, and the differences is that when you write a book, you can't actually assume that the reader will have read all the books that you allude to -- whereas in a film you pretty much can. I could say that there are allusions to things like 'Blade Runner' and 'Apocalypse Now,' and in the case of 'Apocalypse Now' I am pretty sure most people will have seen it. But they would not necessarily, in the case of a book, have read 'Heart of Darkness,' which is [the Conrad novel upon which 'Apocalypse Now' is based]."


Fair enough, and for that matter, a novel that nods at Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" -- the book that provided the basis for the film "Blade Runner" -- might end up going over the heads of all but hard-core sci-fi fans. But it's memories of "Blade Runner" that propel some of the subtexts at work in "Ex Machina." You can easily see Garland's point about how movies have replaced books as an essential basis for our cultural fabric.

"In the case of 'Blade Runner,' actually, I was assuming people had seen 'Blade Runner,' and to the extent I was aware of using it, it was to do with things like misdirection," Garland adds, probably thinking of long-running debates among fans of the movie as to whether Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) -- a futuristic cop who hunts down runaway synthetic human servants called "replicants" -- might have unknowingly been a replicant himself. "I would assume a semi-literate audience would make a bunch of assumptions quite quickly, such as [who might turn out to be an android], and also this test is not actually on the apparent machine, it's actually on [Caleb]," Garland elaborates. "Or, [Nathan] is a machine... or whatever. I knew audiences would go there, and they're nudged to go there, which serves as a misdirection for what's actually going on in the film."

The film's striking visuals are one of its strongest and most memorable aspects -- not least among them the look of Ava, whose beautiful human face, set against the metal and plastic of her artificial body, speaks both of human innocence and placid, machine-like clarity of thought.

"My dad was a cartoonist, and so I grew up around comic books," Garland discloses. "I spent my life up my early 20s thinking that was what I was going to do. That's a good training for film, because the grammar in comic books had a lot of similarities to the grammar in film. I do sketch stuff out sometimes -- I don't actually [story]board [a film], but I do draw particular images. Me and Jock [the artist who is credited as "Ava Concept Artist"; he also worked on films like "Children of Men" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past"] were bouncing ideas back and forth. We knew each other very well because we'd worked tightly on this movie 'Dredd' - "


At the mention of Garland's most recent previous film, there's an electric current in the room. Everyone present literally lights up. "We all love it!" one journalist declares.

"Cool," Garland says without missing a beat, and to a wave of laughter. "And I'll tell you, the first thing me and Jock ran into was to do with the other robots from film history. They case very long shadows. The interesting thing about Maria -- the one you referenced, from 'Metropolis' -- a lot of people haven't seen 'Metropolis,' but they know that iconography, and if you have a sort of metallic looking breastplate you immediately think of 'Metropolis,' even if it's just that art deco-looking poster. The first sketches that we worked on -- in fact, the very first image that Jock sent me -- there was a kind of goldish hue to the metal, kind of like C-3PO.

"From that moment, it was actually about learning what she didn't look like," Garland says. "A bit like Chris Cunningham's Bjork video ["All Is Full of Love," which features a pair a female-formed androids involved in a make out session], and again a bit like 'Metropolis'; a load of people haven't seen that video, but they've seen the imagery it creates via 'I, Robot.' "


A word here, to unpack that reference a little. "I, Robot" is a 2004 film by Alex Proyas based on the novels by Isaac Asimov. The look of the androids in that film inspired the joke that they look like Apple products, or "iRobots." And it's true that Ava does call those androids to mind, as well as sparking memories of the female android featured in Svedka Vodka ads.

"And he problem is that the first time Ava walks on top the screen, the first thing you think about is another movie," Garland goes on to day. "That's exactly what you don't want to happen! You want the audience to be in the same sort of place and having the same vibe that Caleb is having -- not referencing, stepping out, but being locked in [to the moment]. That took us a while."

It seems fair to ask, at this point, whether Garland chose this film for his directorial debut since the visuals were going to be so crucial to helping the film achieve its own identity. EDGE jus in to ask this question.

"Uhm... no," Garland says reflectively. "I've been very involved in previous films I've worked on, and I know the implicit thing in what you're saying has to do with the role of the director, that the director is the visionary who runs everything and its not true on every film. I'm not in any way an auteur type in my approach. I'm not really interested in that... I see my job as a writer, that's what I think my job is.


"Past that... what I am doing is filmmaking, but it's not that I am the filmmaker, it's that I am one of a group of people who are filmmaking. That would include a DOP [Director of Photography], and a production designer, and director, and writer, and a producer, and you could just keep on going down the list. I would be taking too much credit on this film if I appropriated that. I'm just trying to get rid of this pyramid structure thing, because I don't really buy it, I've never really observed it, and I don't even really care about it. The best think about the filmmaking to me is the collaboration."

But someone, EDGE insists, must hold the reigns and draw all those creative forces together?

"They do -- but is it always the director?" Garland counters. "If you've been observing how films are made, you must know that directors don't always do the things that we allege they do. And also, why do productions fight so hard for [talented] DOPs? If everyone, like that line you often get in reviews, 'The way the director mounted the camera,' or 'The performance the director got out of the actor,' why do we fight to get these people if it's the director who's dragging this stuff out of people, or micro-managing the whole thing? I've never seen that, I wouldn't know how to do it anyway.

"Could I give you a 'for instance?' " Garland continues. "This, for me, is the truest example of how films actually get made, in my experience. There's a whole thing in 'Dredd' where there's this drug -- iit's kind a drug movie, based around this drug called "SLO-MO" -- and there's some nice drug imagery attached to that. And there's a scene, one of the nicest bits of imagery in the film, and it's actually a scene that helped us define the other bits of drug imagery in the film, where Ma-Ma, the character played by Lena Headey, gets stoned in the bath, and she puts her hand in the bath and pulls it out and these droplets become iridescent. It's lovely, a beautiful bit of photography.

"That shot largely exists because Michelle Day, who's a name who never appears [in] the [main credits] -- though on this film I did put her on the [main credits, as Set Decorator] but normally she'd be buried in the [scrolling credits] -- said, 'I think Ma-Ma should have a bath right in the middle of her room, and she should get stoned in the bath, because that would be the best place to get stoned.' "


The room echoes with laughter.

" 'She could lie in bed, but wouldn't it be great if she was in the bath and then she was getting stoned she could play with the water and it would look really beautiful,' " Garland continues. "Then, me and the DOP and a bunch of other people all go, "That's a terrific idea, let's do that." We have a conversation with Lena, "Are you prepared to have a bath?," because an actress might not want to do that or whatever, but basically the shot that Mich [suggested] becomes something that informs a huge number of the other shots, and just wouldn't exist if she hadn't said that.

"Now, nobody watching the film could have any way of attributing that thing to her, because we don't present film that way," Garland says. "We present it as being typically the name of the film, and then a name in brackets, which is the director's name. But also, it's too complex, it's too labyrinthine. There's no way to extrapolate from the credits who did what, and when they did it, and how it happened. Now, that's one example of Mich, and one of the examples of why I dragged Mich out and put her in the [main credits] and acknowledge her, because she does this like, fifty times on a film. I've worked with her now on, I think, five films, and I don't want to sound too preachy or I've got a thing about it, but I'm getting pissed off with this director thing. I'm bored of it. It doesn't seem accurate to me. I'd rather talk about Mich, and there's a bunch of other people [to acknowledge as well]. I love the beauty that I can say exists in this film, because it's not mine. It's [cinematographer] Rob Hardy's. He's fantastic. He's such a clever, intuitive, gifted DOP."

One of the journalists in attendance asks about the colors used in "Ex Machina."

"Actually, with the color, the gaffer was very involved with that, and the kinds of bulbs and the temperature of the light, and the way if would diffuse down the wall," Garland says enthusiastically. "He's a very gifted man." Then, delving into further examples, Garland goes on to note, "Focus pullers can do shot three times and then just think to themselves, "I'm just going to throw it over there, just to see what happens," and that turns out to be the best and most intuitive thing to do.

"The simplest thing I could say [to the question of what elements in 'Ex Machina' have been influenced by the contributions of the people who worked on it] is, 'Almost everything,' because almost everything is the consequence of a group of people having a conversation. And the only dishonest thing that we can say, at least on a film like this, would be to say, 'It's all the director,' " Garland summarizes. "Maybe what I'm saying is only true in my line of sight, but I suspect that it isn't."


Both Gleeson and Vikander have roles in other, upcoming science fiction films. Vikander co-stars in the big-screen version of the 1960s television series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," while Gleeson has landed a part in the new "Star Wars" film. Both are due to hit theaters later this year. One of the journalists asks Garland whether he might one day want to "play in the sandbox" of a huge, long-established franchise like "Star Wars."

"Well, I did in a small, sort of British way on 'Dredd,' I think," Garland says, noting that the movie -- and an earlier film version starring Sylvester Stallone, from 1995 -- has comic book roots. "But what you mean is, am I gonna chuck my hat in the 'Star Wars' arena? That actually isn't [something I'm interested in doing]. There are various reasons why, but I would not be suited for that. My sensibilities are wrong, and... look at my track record. There's something, at a certain point you have to go, 'Right, there's a pattern here: "Sunshine," "Dredd," "Never Let Me Go." ' "

Movies, in other words, that have done respectably enough, but hardly broken box office records. Movies, moreover, with a smaller footprint, and a more intelligent character, than the big colorful franchises.

"Years ago we had a hit with this movie, '28 Days Later,' " Garland notes. "But it's not exactly a... " He hesitates briefly. "I'm very pleased with how everything has worked out, but something in there would not lead you to suggest that what I should be doing is not running a $150 million film.

To elaborate on a mother pattern in his body of work, Garland begins to enumerate and profile his films in reverse chronology. "My personal experience has been you're constantly learning as you go along -- that's number one," Garland notes by way of preface. "And, you're constantly reacting against the thing you just did. So there's a pendulum swing; here's 'Ex Machina,' that's got one kind of vibe, it's mellow, [with some examples of] restrained violence; then 'Dredd' is off the hook; preceding that is 'Never Let Me Go,' which is very quiet, melancholic, reflective; before that was '28 Weeks Later,' and then 'Sunshine' is back to being more reflective again, though it goes off the rails in various ways; and '28 Days Later' is back to [the action and violence]. The way I see this is, there may be violent instances [in any particular movie], but some of them are adrenalized, and some of them are not. That's the see-saw."

The publicist calls time, and the journalists gather their assorted recording devices. We're practically heading out of the room when one journalist sneaks in a final, quick question: Are there any plans in play for another sequel to "28 Days Later?"

"Yeah, there is," Garland says, almost casually. "We're talking about it at the moment. The thing about '28 Days,' the first one, was that it had a kind of aggression to it; it had a sort of subversive element to it. And the sequel ideas that we floated and discussed amongst ourselves were tame and sort of acquiescent, and actually cynical -- they were franchise-type ideas. And then we came up with something that had a bit more bite. So, we are going to give it crack, but it's very early days."


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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