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Interview: Ex_Machina Director, Alex Garland

21st January 2015

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Alex Garland has produced some of the most thought-provoking screenplays of recent times. He’s provided the scripts for the two widely successful Danny Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and gone on to pen two more dystopian delights - Never Let Me Go and Dredd.

With Ex_Machina he finally takes his turn in the director’s chair, although he doesn’t think of it in those terms. Spend any time in the company of Garland, and you can quickly see why he is a veteran at churning out sophisticated sci-fi blockbusters – he’s constantly challenging people’s perceptions.

When asked why he decided to direct Ex_Machina he immediately brings into question the role of the director: “I’ve been working in film for about fifteen years or something,” he says, “and my whole sense of filmmaking, theory of it I suppose, is in a funny way “anti-director”.” He then continues to outline his view on filmmaking: “The process is a bunch of people standing around a hole - how do we best fill it? And at some point it’s the guy with the concrete, at another point it’s the guys who’s got the spade. It’s like that, y’know…” But surely there must have been something that made him want to direct? “Again, I never saw it in those terms. It is a collegiate activity between a group of people – that’s actually what I like about it – so I don’t want to deny it.”

After Garland finishes his sentence, he adds a quick “Sorry, I’m not having a go.” It would be reasonably difficult to misinterpret his enthusiasm as annoyance, but it’s clear his passionate responses sometimes garner the opposite reaction. Whenever a question is asked he gives time to contemplate his answer and, even though he’s probably heard the same questions hundreds of times over the press junket, answers with an energy that suggests it’s the very first time he’s ever had to consider that particular conundrum.

For someone that clearly likes to confront ways of thinking, it’s appropriate that his latest effort concerns itself with Artificial Intelligence and the notion of consciousness in machines. And the screenplay for Ex_Machina certainly gives off the impression of an idea that has been fully explored and researched. When was it that he first wanted to write about AI?

“A long time ago really. There’s a little bit of dialogue in the film about Chess computers, which act as if they want to beat you at Chess, but they don’t know what Chess is. There’s something very interesting about that.” And like the best sci-fi flicks, Ex_Machina isn’t really about robots, but resonates on a human level. Garland confirms this: “The problems of AI are the problems of the [human] mind. So it becomes about something fundamental, really fundamental – what we are, where we perceive consciousness to exist, and are we right?”

It’s no surprise that Garland’s film feels authentic and grounded in its representation of AI - we’re a long way from I, Robot. Garland employed the help of science advisors Murray Shanahan and Adam Rutherford to cast an eye on the script and eradicate any scientific shortcomings. Once the science was accurate, it was down to Garland to play with the more complex implications of AI: “If you have a machine that, unlike the Chess computer, when you say, “I’m gonna switch you off”, the machine says, “I don’t want you to switch me off”, and it’s the truth, it’s actually got the same internal qualities that you and I have got – immediately there’s an ethical problem.”

Like many of Garland’s scripts, Ex Machina works on many levels. Dealing with AI is just one of the film’s concerns – there’s a strong message regarding gender equality and the treatment of young women, as well musings on the notion of creation. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, one of the three leads and the scientist responsible for the creation of Ava (Alicia Vikander), the film’s seemingly female robot. Yet Nathan doesn’t look or act like your typical geek billionaire – the antithesis to Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network – he sports a big bushy beard, boxes frequently, drinks like a fish and possesses some surprisingly sharp dance moves. Was this a conscious decision by Garland? “Yeah, maybe. I’m not sure I buy into that. I mean, a lot of these tech billionaires go to the gym and they’re vain. They’re narcissistic, maybe overly narcissistic, maybe they want to rule the world. Certainly I saw a couple the other day that looked like a couple of tennis clothing models – they didn’t fit that image.”

He attempts to describe the character of Nathan further: “There’s kind of an Oppenheimer parallel going on, the guy who worked on the atomic bomb – there’s lots of references to that. A sense of being conflicted, doing something you really wanted to do, but being destroyed by it. A sense of self-disgust.”

Isaac, an actor currently experiencing a meteoric rise to fame, excels in the role. In fact, all three actors, Isaac, Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson, do an excellent job of carrying Garland’s script. Having worked with Gleeson twice already on Never Let Me Go and Dredd, Garland describes his decision to cast Gleeson in Ex Machina as “easy peasy”. The other two he spotted through their previous work, Vikander in the Danish drama A Royal Affair,and Isaac in Martin Scorsese’s Body of Lies. On Isaac, Garland has this to say, “He’s so effortless. He’s like a supernatural actor, like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, you just know immediately they’re good.”

You could quite easily say the same about Garland. Every film he’s involved with boasts an effortless ‘lived-in’ sci-fi world that thoughtfully, ruthlessly wrestles with modern philosophical quandaries. And as directorial debuts go, Ex_Machina certainly is a strong one even if, in Garland’s own words, he didn’t strictly direct it in conventional terms.

Ex Machina (2015), written and directed by Alex Garland is released in UK cinemas on 21st January, Certificate 15.


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