For a man whose directorial debut has earned almost uniformly stellar reviews, Alex Garland seems slightly pessimistic about what might come next. It's likely because of his experiences writing “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd.” All three earned some heaping of critical praise, but either disappointed or had middling success at the box office. “Ex Machina,” which has already had success on the other side of the Atlantic, may break that trend.
A contemporary science fiction thriller, “Machina” finds a young programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), dropped off at the remote estate of his company's mysterious and genius founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb has won a contest at their Google-like company to spend a week with this powerful, Steve Jobs-esque figure, but he soon learns, however, that he's been recruited for a specific experiment. Nathan has secretly been developing an artificial intelligence that “lives” within a walking and talking robotic body. Caleb has been brought in to interact with Eva (Alicia Vikander) and help determine if “she” has really reached a true level of independent consciousness.
Garland sat down with HitFix earlier this month to discuss whether machines can actually achieve human-level A.I., finding great actors (quite easy it seems), the film's stunning production design and what's next.
HitFix: You”ve probably heard this question a hundred times but…
Alex Garland: I think I”ve heard it before.
Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
Three things. When I was 12, [I was coding in the most basic way in the basic language], in a very sort of ultra-simplistic way making it talk so it could do a little routine. 'Hello, how are you. I”m fine. What”s the weather like.' So, very limited but it would give you this weird feeling like it”s alive essentially, you know. And then years later a good friend of mine, his thing is neuroscience and he comes from a position that says machines can”t be sensitive for various reasons. There”s something we don”t understand about consciousness, our consciousness. When we do understand it we”ll see that it precludes the idea that a machine can be conscious and it”s a very reasonable argument which a lot of people believe and it has strong sort of…
He basically believes that a machine can never have consciousness.
Ever. And that”s not a niche position at all. Nor is it a religious position. I mean it is an absolutely kind of well-argued scientifically unphilosophical position, but it didn”t feel right to me. And really because I used to argue against him and be left behind by his literal expertise, I just started reading about it and I read and read and read and another friend of mine who knew that I was sort of getting fixated on the subject matter gave me a book by a guy called Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial which is like our version of MIT. And I started reading the book while we were in prep on Dredd out in South Africa and it really had an impact and it sort of consolidated some of the things I”d been thinking about. [It]sort of answered some of the questions that kept buzzing around my head. And the story for this film just kind of arrived. I wrote it very, very quickly, just a smashed out thing, a way too short piece of shit. You could never film it, but it gets it down [on paper]. And then we made 'Dredd.' At the tail end of that whole thing, I handed it over and then thought, 'Alright, now I”m going to try and get stuck into this' and that was it.
One of the things I love about the movie is you”ve clearly put so much thought into it. I”m just wondering how real some of the ideas presented in the film actually are. For example, there”s a scene in the movie where Oscar”s character brings Domhnall in and he shows him like sort of this brain.
Is that a real thing that is being developed in the scientific community?
No, what that is is a kind of reasonable speculation type thing. There”s two big sort of pillars of science fiction in the film. One is that there”s a sentient machine and the other is the level of robotics on display, because you couldn”t do either at the moment. It just wouldn”t be possible. But it”s Sci-Fi so you”re allowed to. So, it”s presenting a bunch of ideas which aren”t really my ideas. They”re out there and it”s to represent them fairly and clearly and to dramatize them. I mean, you [can't] say they”re scientifically accurate because there is no science there. It”s science fiction. But what you can say is in the issues surrounding the matter this is a reasonable account of the ideas.
What I did was write the script as best I could…then I approached three people and one of them was that professor Murray who I just contacted out of the blue and said, 'Look, I read your book and found it fascinating. I want you to take a hard look at this and I want you to test it.' Another was a lady names Gia Malinovich who I wanted to check her to look at other aspects of the film. And [geneticist and science writer] Adam Rutherford had another set of things that he was looking at. If it”s an ideas movie there”s a thesis. If the thesis is bullshit the whole thing”s a fucking waste of time, right? And it really would devalue it. I worked a few years ago on a film 'Sunshine' where I felt I”d seriously dropped the ball in some respects in terms of losing track of the connection between characters, themes, argument and narrative.
You thought they weren”t integrated enough?
They”d separate and then reconnect or not reconnect or whatever. On a personal level I was not at all satisfied with that. I then had a kind of object lesson because the thing I did after 'Sunshine' was 'Never Let Me Go' and that was a novel adaptation where this amazing novelist had an argument and a character and themes that were really beautifully enmeshed and intelligently enmeshed and was almost demonstrating how badly I had managed some of this stuff previously. It”s very good [when you do an] adaptation because you get inside the writer”s head a little bit to a degree. I don”t want to overstate it, but to a degree you really think about 'Why this is like that? Why has he done this at this moment?'
Do you feel like you couldn”t have made 'Ex Machina' unless you had adapted 'Never Let Me Go'?
I think I could have made this film without all of the preceding movies. In one way or another everything previously gets played out here.
Segueing a bit, let's talk about the production design. It's almost a fifth character in the movie. Is Nathan's remote estate supposed to be in Iceland?
No. We were specifically avoiding Iceland because everyone else keeps shooting in Iceland. One of the things about film is that it has this unbelievable tolerance with familiarity. It”s weird. Sometimes it embraces familiarity and other times it kicks it in the teeth. So, Iceland was out. Because we knew what productions were going there and we knew which ones had been there. We looked at the Alps. It”s sort of doubling for maybe Alaska or something like that.
I wasn”t sure.
It”s not doubling for. It”s someplace.
O.K., it”s not a specific place.
But the question is what effect does it have on the viewer and if you stick cameras around the Alps what you keep finding is that you”re just too familiar with this imagery. You”ve seen it on a chocolate box or a postcard or just as like in a window as a backdrop in a travel agent's . I don”t know. You know it too much. The thing about Norway was…
Ah, so Norway.
…It had this significant difference. It hasn”t been seen much. It”s got something desolate about it. It”s very beautiful and it”s very powerful. These big [expletive] skies. These powerful waterfalls. These stunning mountains and the green and the rock, But there”s a hardness in there. There”s a sort of power and a hardness amongst all the beauty. You”ve also got this CEO of a tech company and if we know anything about those guys it”s that they”re rich, right? So, they”ve got [expletive] of money and we”ve got 15 million dollars, a lot of it which is going on a VFX budget. So, how do you get the right house with the claustrophobia and the aesthetic and the wealth and the power in the landscape? It turned out to be Norway partly because of the beautiful landscape, it”s not that familiar on an unconscious level. Partly because they”re the smartest country in the world in some respects because when they discovered oil they nationalized it and they kept it. They didn”t squander it. They made their society affluent. And what you find in Norway is these incredible architectural conceits in the middle of nowhere. It was kind of perfect.
It was a six week shoot, four of it on a sound stage and two of it in Norway. We found a house and a hotel built by the same architect about 15 minutes away from each other in an incredible rural dramatic setting, remote setting. Then some of the design cues we carried from Norway back to Pinewood Studios. I mean we shot Pinewood first. So, some of that went back to Pinewood and some of it went the other way. You know, through the magic of cinema.
Was the Norway location a private home or a hotel then?
It”s an Eco-hotel and it”s a private home. There”s a living room with this huge rock wall and that”s someone”s living room. Then at Pinewood Studios in Nathan”s bedroom and office there”s a big rock wall which is echoed. These beautiful landscape windows that show a river and mountains behind as if it”s framed beautifully, it”s been framed beautifully by the architect. That”s the hotel. The hotel had like these black boxes where one wall is glass and…
So when he”s outside working out that”s a pretty good location.
That”s the location, yeah. The Juvet Hotel.
I feel like the house also informs Alicia”s character in a way. Were those elements developed separately?
Yeah, we designed Ava before we got to the problem of where are we going to find this house. Where are we going to find the landscape?
Was that part of your location choice though? That she has to be able to work in this space because that's Nathan's aesthetic?
No, it is integrated for another reason which is we”re sort of post iPhone. Technology now leans towards the sort of minimalist aesthetic and sort of softness of contour lines and stuff.
There are no sharp edges.
Yeah, it”s stones on the bottom of a riverbed that have been polished for a long time. So that”s in there and everyone working on the film, you know, everyone doing the concept art. Andrew Whitehurst doing the visual effects. Mark doing the production design. It goes on and on. All of us know that. We”ve all got it in us. You don”t want to do Robbie the Robot, you know. You want to do the iPhone robot.
I”m guessing Ava was the hardest character to cast in many ways? Am I wrong?
Oh no, real easy.
Really? so you just met with Alicia and it was like, 'Yup, that”s it. She”s got it.'
There really wasn”t much of a casting process. I mean there was a film, 'A Royal Affair.'
You watch it and you think, 'She”s utterly captivating. She”s got incredible control over her performance and she”s unbelievably beautiful. Does she want to do it?' I mean, she did go on tape. She was shooting something out in Australia. There was an element of that. But, truly, this is how I have tried to explain it in the past so you can [expletive] use it in your interview if you want. You don”t need to work in film to recognize good actors.
I think you probably need to work in film or be very steeped in film to notice good editing, but you don”t need to be that to notice good actors. I”ve never met anybody who thinks Philip Seymour Hoffman was a bad actor. It”s sort of empirical and when you see Alicia in 'A Royal Affair' she”s doing the same thing that Philip Seymour Hoffman does which his this strange double state that really good actors present you with. Where one part of you is going 'My god, they”re a brilliant actor. This is an amazing performance.' And the other part of you is totally sucked in and in the narrative and in the moment and the two coexist. They should be mutually exclusive, but actually you can admire what Meryl Streep is doing whilst being locked into what she”s doing at exactly the same time.
Did you want to do a screen test with her and Domhnall just to see how it worked?
I had no interest in that whatsoever. I”ve worked with a lot with actors. I know sort of the rhythms of it and kind of what you”re looking out for. By the way this is the third film [Domhnall and I have] worked on together. We know each other well. We did 'Dredd' and 'Never Let Me Go' so that was kind of easy.
How about casting Oscar as Nathan? Was that harder? Or finding the right actor?
No it was [expletive] easy. I had seen him in various things and I particularly remember watching him act opposite DiCaprio in this film set out in the Middle East.
Ridley Scott directed it.
Yes, what is that movie.
Whatever that movie is. [It's 'Body of Lies'] I remember thinking, 'This guy is just owning everything. It”s like he”s completely unintimidated by DiCaprio.' It was so impressive and you just had to notice him I thought. He”s kind of incredible looking anyway so there”s all that stuff really. Then we met in New York and while we were talking he actually started talking about 'Sunshine' which he”d read for back when he was leaving Juliard, but mainly what we spoke about was science. I knew he could act and he was so clearly just so smart that after about three-quarters of the way through talking to him I began to feel this rising sense of anxiety because I was thinking, 'This guy is so right for this.'
He”s going to intimidate me?
No, 'How do I make sure we get him. What now?' (Laughs.) Because who else can do it? And in the whole filmmaking process the only moment of tension from start to finish was the casting process. These [actors felt] so right. They did this incredibly dangerous thing of making you feel that no one else could do it. And then you”re at the mercy. You have managers and agents and lawyers and producers [to deal with].
That too, yeah.
This also a rare case where the film has already been released in the U.K. and it”s a hit before it ever lands in the states. It appears as thought it's done really well financially so far. Do you feel that's the case?
It depends what you mean by really well? We were a low budget film. We did fine. I mean but like…
But for the U.K. I mean…
[“Ex Machina” has earned $6.2 million outside the U.S. as of April 9]
Yeah it was great. I”m really happy but I also know the way this industry works and at the end of the year when you look down the list of what grossed what you”re going to have to go a long way down before you find us. But, I know in some respects that”s not important.
Did that give you more confidence that it could do well here? An industry expert would look at the results and say, 'Oh, if we extrapolate the U.K. results to the U.S. it could do this amount of box office.' Do you feel relieved at all over the U.K. success?
Yeah. I”m just trying to think. I”m actually trying to think how to answer the question honestly.
It”s a funny thing in interviews how one can drift into dishonesty without meaning to.
Yeah, I get it. I've experienced it.
Sometimes it”s almost out of politeness. I don”t know, but usually it”s out of feeling some need to twist the facts to one”s own advantage…
…or lie. I think that for me there can be concurrent feelings of relief and dismay and all sorts of different emotions of going at the same time. The thing that lies under all of it is what I would really like to be able to do – and this is true of every film I”ve worked on – is to be able to make another one afterwards. That”s it. At times, a film like 'Never Let Me Go' or 'Sunshine' creates an obstacle to doing that because it has nothing to do with critical reception. It may or may not be actually. Sometimes it is that, But if you”re going to point to one thing you”ve got to point to box office. What I feel is in a way it”s not about this film. It”s about the potential to be able to make another. I feel I”m in with a shout. I can make an argument. I can write a script and I can propose it and, yeah, I”m in with a shout.
Speaking of another do you know what you”re going to do next?
That”s the thing right? I”ve just written an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's book 'Annihilation.' I”ve adapted it and the producers, who also produced 'Ex Machina,' have just submitted it and we”re waiting to find out if we”re going to get the green light.
Is it set up in a studio or are you looking for independent financing?
The book is owned by Paramount so we”ll see if they want to make it or not. That”s what I hope. That”s what I”d love to do, but I know how the real world works.
The real world is not always great. Well, best of luck and I truly thought that movie was remarkable.
“Ex Machina” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.