A cartoonist, novelist and screenwriter, Alex Garland, who’s most commonly known for writing films such as The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd, has now made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a sci-fi cautionary tale that challenges viewers with a variety of existential questions in regards to artificial intelligence. Can consciousness exist without gender? If so, does a robot’s particular sex have a deliberating factor on whether they’re able to persuade someone on the legitimacy of their cognizance? And how does their racial physicality come into play with how they’re designed, treated, and programmed to behave?
I was fortunate to sit down with Garland and discuss these various themes, who supplied a plethora of information in regards to establishing these heady concepts within his latest work, which, unlike a majority of examples within the genre these days, refreshingly relies more on thought-provoking ideologies than excessive displays of special effects.
Cinematic Essential: Dating all the way back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) up to your new picture, we’ve seen so many interpretations of artificial intelligence embodied as beautiful women in film. Why do you think we’re fascinated with this concept, and what were you attempting to convey about it through this particular story?
Alex Garland: The film, in a very reductive way, but very straightforward way, is about the extent to which we can establish what is going on in someone else’s mind, or something else’s mind, and then what obstacles might exist to that. Why we can succeed in doing it, maybe, or why we might fail, and that’s where I began to get very interested in where gender resides.
Is there such a thing as a male or female consciousness? If you say there is such a thing as a male and female consciousness, which lots of people do, then I immediately start to wonder, ‘Well, how do you demonstrate that? What is something that a man would think but a woman wouldn’t under the same circumstances? And vice versa.’ So, a whole stack of these things go up, and you can keep going, because lots of different issues get conflated into this one issue of gender that you brought up.
Tech companies, for example, why are they so male-oriented? And you can keep going and going. So some of it is implicit, and some of it is quite directly addressed within the film. So there will be that conversation of, ‘Why did you give her a gender? Does sexuality or interaction play a part in consciousness?’
When I sat down to write this film, and I haven’t always done this, I thought, ‘In this case, with the issues it’s addressing, I’m going to really think them through and test them on myself to the best of my own abilities.’ Of course, everyone’s always limited by all sorts of parameters and blind spots that one has. But then I’ll also test it on people I know, who have particular interest in the agendas that I’m raising here. Some of which are political, and some of which are philosophical, broadly to do with A.I. research or consciousness. So that’s what I did.
I noticed that race seems to play a factor in the film as well. There are two white, male protagonists who have dominance over A.I. built to represent various racial descents. And Isaac’s character is consistently making racist remarks throughout the film. Were you attempting to make some kind of social commentary on this aspect of society as well?
Well, it’s a little gamier than that, I would say. Nathan [Isaac] uses race as a way to wind Caleb [Gleeson] up. What Nathan’s doing is purposefully sounding as if he’s being racist in order to push Caleb’s buttons to get him going, and the game that Nathan is constantly playing with him is, ‘Are you seeing me, 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 for the purposes of this experiment that’s happening?’ And then there’s a secondary question, which is, ‘Is he pretending to be what he actually is?’ Which is something we often think. We caricature the thing about ourselves that actually does exist, you know?
So, in terms of the races of the women inside the closets for example, there isn’t an embedded point in there. Sometimes you do things unconsciously, unwittingly, or stupidly, I guess, and the only embedded point that I knew I was making in regards to race centered around the tropes of Kyoko [Sonoya Mizuno], a mute, very complicit Asian robot, or Asian-appearing robot, because of course, she, as a robot, isn’t Asian. But, when Nathan treats the robot in the discriminatory way that he treats it, I think it should be ambivalent as to whether he actually behaves this way, or if it’s a very good opportunity to make him seem unpleasant to Caleb for his own advantage. So, for example, when Kyoko accidentally tips over the wine glass, did Nathan program her, or tell her, to knock over that glass?
Do you think the film will play differently for American audiences compared to British audiences in regards to the issues you’re addressing on gender and race?
Not where gender’s concerned, I think that would play similarly. The short answer is, I don’t know. I think not where gender’s concerned, because issues around feminism are very current at the moment, and not without reason. I think that’s broadly true from both sides of the Atlantic, but because I’m not American, that assumption is kind of difficult for me to ascertain. Where race is concerned, it’s possible, because there is a similar history, and then there’s that divergent point where the two separate before reconnecting. What I’m specifically talking about is slavery, which Britain was involved in, but abandoned earlier. So that particular racial issue doesn’t have quite the same currency in the U.K. as it does here.
When Nathan [Isaac] is appearing as if he might be being racist to this guy [Gleeson], to the point where he might bristle, that is one character aimed at another character. It’s also slightly aimed at the audience. I’ve been at screenings where there’s actually been quite a bit of laughter, [but] the second that [Isaac] starts talking about ‘black chicks,’ the room goes silent. That was calculated, and if you calculate to do something like that, it is there to provoke, at least, a conversation. I had to emphasize to the best of my ability that I was being thoughtful. That if you are going to do that [include tonal shifts], you don’t do it in a glib way, or a way that would stand out.
In addition to Metropolis, the film seems influenced by a variety of iconic films, such as Frankenstein (1931) and Blade Runner (1982). Were there any other specific films you considered when making Ex Machina?
I started work as a novelist, and there are some similarities between writing a screenplay and writing a novel, but there are also some differences. One of them is that when you write a book, you can’t actually assume that readers have read all of the books that you might allude to, where as in film, you pretty much can. So, I could say there are allusions to Blade Runner or Apocalypse Now (1979), and in the case of Apocalypse Now, I’m pretty sure that most people watching this film has seen it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve read Heart of Darkness, which is a perfect [literary] parable.
In the case of Blade Runner, I also assume most people have seen it, and I think that’s a pretty fair assumption. I’ve seen it several times, and to the extent that I was aware I was using it, it had to do with things like misdirection. I would assume a semi-literate audience would make a bunch of assumptions quite quickly… such as the fact that this test is not on the apparent machine [Ava, played by Alicia Vikander], it’s actually on him [Gleeson], and he’s a machine. Or [Isaac’s] a machine, and this is part of it, or whatever it happens to be. So I knew audiences would go there, and they’re nudged to go there, in the way that Kyoko [Mizuno] moves, or in the way that Gleeson’s character has strange symmetrical scars on his back… [They serve as] misdirection[s] for what’s really going on in the film. The twist in some respects is that there is no twist. The robot that looks like a robot is a robot.
I am kind of curious as to what the connections are between those films [that you noticed], other than the ones I’ve just talked about.
As far as Blade Runner goes, the scene where Gleeson slices his arm open out of paranoia that he may be a robot.
He’s doing the same thing that I hope the audience would have done, which is think, ‘Sh*t, maybe I’m a robot.’
Exactly, and when it comes to other films, the fact that Gleeson wins a contest to travel to Issac’s resort almost feels like homage to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).
Yeah, that’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. On the helicopter flight, the pilot was [originally] going to say, ‘So, you won the golden ticket!’ But I cut it, because it felt out of place.
When you’re writing a film, do you have these visuals in your head, or do you go straight into storyboarding?
I do have visuals in my head, because my long-term background is drawing comic books. My dad was a cartoonist, so I grew up around comic books, and I thought that would be my job. I spent my life up until my early 20s thinking that’s what I would do. You used to get a bit of paid work, but not much, and I had a very clear sense as to what the job entailed [from my dad]. I could see what my failings were; I could see things my dad could do that I couldn’t do. But that’s a good training in film, because the grammar in comic books has a lot of similarities with the grammar of film, in terms of imagery and so on. I don’t actually board everything out, but I do draw particular images.
The artist, Jock, did concept art for the film, and his original images of Ava turned out to be remarkably similar for what she looks like in the film.
Jock and I were bouncing drawings backwards and forwards. We knew each other very well, ‘cause we’d worked tightly on Dredd (2012), which was our previous film. The first thing that me and Jock ran into was dealing with all the other robots from film history. They cast very long shadows, and, while a lot of people haven’t seen Metropolis [for example], they know that iconography. If you have a sort of metallic looking breastplate, you immediately think of that film, even if it’s just the poster.
So, the very first image that Jock sent me featured this gold-ish hue, inspired by C-3PO, and from that moment, for the first three weeks, it was actually about learning what Ava [Vikander] didn’t look like. For example, Chris Cunnigham’s music video for the song, All Is Full of Love by Björk, has this incredible bit of imagery, and much like the connection between Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, a lot of people haven’t seen that video, but they’ve seen the images it inspired within the film, I, Robot (2004).
The first time that Ava walks onto the screen, you think of another movie, and that’s exactly what you don’t want to happen at that moment, because you want the audience to have the same kind of vibe that Gleeson’s character is having. Not referencing, not stepping out, but being locked in to that instant. It took us a while to develop that intended feeling.
Was it that personal sense of visualization that brought you behind the camera to make sure it came out exactly as you envisioned it?
Uh, no, because I’ve been very involved in previous films that I’ve worked on, and I know the implicit thing in what you’re saying is that the director is the visionary who runs everything, but that’s not true in every film. I’m not anywhere near the kind of auteur type, and I’m not really interested in auteurship.
To an extent, I see myself as a writer. That’s what I think my job is. What I’m 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 the DOP [director of photography], production designer, director, writer, producer, etc. You could keep going down the list of HODs [heads of design] who are all bringing very distinctive qualities to the movie. I would be taking too much credit on this film if I appropriated that, and I would also be being unreasonable on the HODS on the previous film if I then allocated it.
So, I’m just trying to get rid of this pyramid structure, ‘cause I don’t really buy it, I’ve never really observed it, and I don’t really care about it. The best thing about film for me is the collaboration, this group of people working together.
Yes, but someone has to hold the reins.
They do, but is it always a director? If you’ve been observing how films are made, you must know that directors aren’t always doing the thing that we allege they do. Why do productions fight so hard for DOPs? That line we often get in often get in reviews, such as, ‘The way the director mounted the camera,’ or, ‘The performance the director got out of the actor.’ Why would we fight to get these people if it’s the director who’s dragging this stuff out of them, or micromanaging the whole thing? The collaboration is the biggest deal for me.
Yeah, there’s this slippery slope, like you said. The DOP or the key grip could actually be responsible for the way that ‘the director’ mounted a particular shot.
Oh man, can I give you, for instance, the truest example of how films actually get made, in my experience. Woody Allen, he might be another story. He might be an auteur; I can’t evaluate that possibility.
There’s this drug in Dredd, and it’s kind of a drug movie, since it’s based around this substance known as ‘SLO-MO.’ One of the most beautiful bits of imagery in the film is within a scene that helped us define the other sequences of drug use that occur, when the character of Mama, played by Lena Headey, gets stoned in a bathtub. She puts her hand in the water, and as she pulls it up, the droplets descending from her arm become iridescent. It’s a lovely, beautiful bit of photography. That shot largely exists because Michelle Day, a person who’s name usually never appears on the cards [credits], said, ‘I think Mama should have a bath right in the middle of her room, and she should get stoned in the tub, because that would be the best place to get stoned. She could lie in the bed, but wouldn’t it be great if she were in the bath? And then when she was getting stoned, she could play in the water and it would look very beautiful?’ Then, me, the DOP and a bunch of other people go, ‘That’s a terrific idea. Let’s have a conversation with Lena about it.’
So, we ask her if she’s comfortable with having a bath, because some actresses may not want to do that and whatnot, but the shot that Miche predicts becomes something that informs a huge number of the other shots. Nobody watching the film could have any way of attributing that thing to her. We don’t present film that way, because it’s too complex. There’s no way to extrapolate from the credits, ‘Who did that, how did they do it, and how did it happen?’ Now, that’s one example of Miche, and one of the reasons I put her in the [opening credits], because she does this like, f*cking fifty times a movie, and I think I’ve worked with her on five films now. I don’t mean to sound preachy, but I’m getting pissed off with this director thing. I’m bored of it; I’m really bored of it. It doesn’t seem accurate to me. I’d rather talk about Miche, and a bunch of other people. A lot of the beauty that exists in this film, I can say, exists because it’s not mine. It’s Rob Hardy, who’s a fantastic DOP. He’s such a clever, intuitive, gifted DOP. You look at his other films, and his craft is still there; it’s nothing I did.
Were there any collaborative moments with the crew of Ex Machina that similarly occurred along the lines of that bathtub scene in Dredd?
Actually, with the color, the gaffer [Lee Walters] was very involved in those moments. The kinds of bulbs, the temperature of the light, and the way it would diffuse down a wall. He’s a very gifted man. Focus pullers can do a shot three times and then think to themselves, ‘I’m just going to throw [the focus] over there, and see what happens.’ That could turn out to be the best and most intuitive thing to do.
The simplest answer is that almost everything [is like that sequence in Dredd], because almost everything is the consequence of a group of people having a conversation. Ideas don’t often get traced back to one person. Miche might have heard a conversation beforehand from someone else who said, ‘This weed in South Africa is amazing. I got stoned in the bath last night and it was fantastic!’ So, how do you locate it?
The only dishonest thing you could state, at least on a film like this, would be, ‘It’s all the director.’ That’s the biggest bit of bullsh*t you could say.