The world of science fiction is absolutely buzzing right now thanks to some big name franchises. With summer movie season approaching and other blockbusters gearing up for releases in the months following, it seems like everyone is talking about ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron,’ ‘Jurassic World,, ‘Ant-Man,’ ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ and ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.’ But sci-fi fans should really look to their local theaters this weekend for a really interesting little film called ‘Ex Machina’ that might go under some radars.
Marking the directorial debut of ‘Dredd’ and ’28 Days Later’ screenwriter Alex Garland, ‘Ex Machina’ follows two scientists in a secluded facility that are administering the Turing Test to a remarkable A.I. named Ava. Not only is it noteworthy for its cast of rising stars including Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander, but the visual effects used to create the unique and incredibly realistic robot are enough to make heads turn. Check out Ava in action in the latest trailer for the film:
But at the core of ‘Ex Machina’ are extensive ideas and themes contained within the film that really leaves the audience entrenched in thought after the credits roll. Basically, there’s a lot to sort out afterwards, but luckily I had some help in that department. Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with writer/director Alex Garland to talk about the movie and everything involved in creating it. Check out our chat as we touch on the inspirations behind Ava, the amount of research Garland went through to get things right, and his take on certain subjects that haven’t exactly been explored in this way before:
ScienceFiction.com (SF): First, to quote Oscar Isaac’s character Nathan, the film was “f**king unreal”. It really left an impact and I wanted to thank you for that. I was left thinking about it for hours after I saw it because there was so much to process.
Alex Garland (AG): Thank you. It’s a pleasure. I’m really very grateful. You know, when a group of people make a film, it takes maybe two and a half, maybe three years and you have no idea whether people will dig it on the other end. All that time, it’s just a group of people working together and in a way they forget about the fact that one day it will come out. And then suddenly you realize that it’s going to come out and it’s pretty nerve wracking actually. It’s cool that people seem to be responding to this film way more than any of us thought was possible because it’s a strange, quiet, sort of off-beat sci-fi movie and it’s not a very easy movie. A lot of talking and then a lot of silence.
SF: Now, even before I knew anything about ‘Ex Machina,’ I was drawn in because of Ava. Not only because Alicia Vikander is stunning, but because of the incredibly well executed harmony between costume and special effects. How did the process of designing Ava begin and what steps ultimately lead to the unbelievable finished product?
AG: Well, I guess it began with the physical description in the script, but the really significant first step was to send it to a friend of mine who I’ve also worked with before. He’s a British comic book artist called Jock. We worked really closely on ‘Dredd’, which is the movie I had done before this one. So Jock and me sort of sent sketches back and forth and discussed it a lot and refined the character. A lot of it was learning what she didn’t look like as much as what she did look like. Eventually we got to where we felt there was something interesting and a lot of it had to do with this mesh that covers her body. That was really the breakthrough.
Then it was a question of taking it to the VFX guys and saying, “Is this possible?” and “How can we do it?” It was quite important in the design that she had these missing sections of body. That is to say, a torso that you could see through so that she didn’t look like an actress wearing a suit. If that were then case, then that would give rise to the possibility in the story that it’s not actually a robot, but a girl wearing a suit.
Then it was about executing it so that she doesn’t look like C3-PO or the white plastic robots in Chris Cunningham videos or ‘I, Robot’ or she doesn’t look like Maria from ‘Metropolis’ or Robbie the robot or whatever. She looks like herself. At the end of that, she walks out in a silhouette and hopefully the audience isn’t thinking about other movies. They’re having the same experience that the character in the film, Caleb, is having while he’s meeting her for the first time.
SF: Speaking of Alicia, I found the casting to be spot on here. All the characters were so layered and I felt like you got the right people to convey that. What qualities did Oscar Issac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander possess that said to you that they were the right fit for your film?
AG: Domhnall was the easiest because I had worked with him twice before. This was the third film that we had worked on together. In fact, out of the five movies that I’ve worked on, four out of five movies I’ve worked on have involved a Gleeson because I worked with his dad Brendan Gleeson on ’28 Days Later,’ so I’m pretty familiar with that lot.
With Alicia, I saw her in a Danish film called ‘A Royal Affair.’ She’s a very young actress maybe 21 or 20 or something like that acting opposite the very experienced, charismatic Mads Mikkelsen and yet you just get transfixed by her and you watch her. Whenever that happens when you’re watching something, you always sort of put a mental marker by that actor or actress and say that they’re special, they’re different, and they’ve got this sort of magnetic quality.
And Oscar was something similar. It was a much smaller role. I saw him in ‘Body of Lies,’ a Ridley Scott-directed film, and he’s acting opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a little bit like Alicia opposite Mads Mikkelsen. Totally unintimidated, owning the scene. I was watching him and thinking, “How are you doing this? How are you taking the scene away from this guy?” After that, I dug out other performances that Oscar had done and ultimately it’s that you meet them. So you have the evidence that they’re brilliant actors and then you meet them and they talk so intelligently and insightfully about the script and what they’d do with the character. Then you think, “Okay. Perfect. Done.”
SF: The complexity of Ava may have drawn me I’m, but the story definitely kept me there. In regards to the story, man vs. technology is a timeless tale, but what inspired you to create the familiar yet very unique experience of ‘Ex Machina’?
AG: I had spent a lot of time reading about partly artificial intelligence and partly consciousness. Just human consciousness, trying to get my head around it. I found it really fascinating. I found it interesting how the two connected to each other. And the thing about sci-fi, one of the many, many things I love about sci-fi is that sci-fi is not embarrassed by big ideas. It actually looks for them and audiences who like sci-fi embrace the big ideas. So within this, what you had was a story that by looking at artificial intelligence, you would look at, as it were, natural intelligence. Consciousness. To deal with the two things concurrently and the way they feed into and inform each other. And that’s just like catnip for a sci-fi writer. That’s exactly the kind of stuff you look for. On some level, it comes down to that’s the kind of film that I’d want to see, so that’s the kind of film I’d like to make.
SF: Though we’ve seen your work onscreen before with ‘28 Days Later’ and ‘Dredd,’ but this was your first outing as a director. How did you find that experience?
AG: Really very straightforward. Very easy. I have to say that I didn’t do anything on this film that I haven’t done in some capacity that I have in other films. It was like the other movies that I had worked on: It was a collaboration between a group of people and for me the pleasure is in the collaboration. Also, what makes the thing good is in the collaboration. The thing that I seek to distance myself from is, “The stuff that’s good in the film is the result of the director.” A huge amount of that is the result of the actors or the production designer. And lots of the people on this film were people that I’ve worked with many, many times actually, so it was much the same as the other films.
SF: I detected hints of ‘Jurassic Park’ and things of that nature that weren’t necessarily robot or sci-fi films in the style of ‘Ex Machina,’ but I should probably ask you directly instead: Which directors or films did you look to in preparation for ‘Ex Machina’?
AG: I’m trying to think if there were any specific things we checked out. I don’t know if there was anything we looked at in a “Let’s all watch this film together and discuss how to do it” sort of thing. But I had a bunch of background influences that sort of float around and just sit with me the whole time. In a film like this, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ ends up being an influence. And also weirdly ‘Stalker’, which is a Russian film directed by a guy called Tarkovsky, who also did ‘Solaris’ which was then remade by Steven Soderbergh some time later. There are elements of ‘Stalker’ in there. In fact, once we had shot the film and while we were doing the cut, the first music that I tried out was the score for ‘Stalker’.
SF: You’ve mentioned that there was a lot of collaboration on the film. Was there anything that changed from your original script to the final product where someone along the line was like, “I’m not sure if that will work out.”?
AG: No, nothing actually. The whole approach to this was kind of can do by the cast and crew. It was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” The thing where you would have most likely found that was in the VFX because they’re so expensive and difficult. But the VFX team who completed the final stage of the design of Ava, I think they just took the project under their wing a bit really and it became a labor of love for them. They just said that they were going to do this brilliantly and go above and beyond the call of duty. And they did.
SF: That must have been awesome working with people so dedicated to the work.
AG: That outfit that’s run by a guy called Andrew Whitehurst, who was the VFX supervisor. The company that Andrew works in is very high level. You would have seen their work in ‘Inception’ with the folding buildings and [‘The Dark Knight Rises’] where the football stadium collapses. They’ve done many, many films, some where you don’t even know there’s VFX. They work at an incredibly high level and we were incredibly lucky to work with them.
SF: After watching the film, I got the vibe that the audience could have taken away a number of things about our relationship with technology, the dangers of science, and in a way our insecurities with ourselves. What was the message that you were trying to send with this film?
AG: Too many in a way to list. [‘Ex Machina’] belongs to the sci-fi tradition of ideas. It’s an ideas movie. What it does is it proposes a whole bunch of questions like should we be scared of AI. What is consciousness? Where does gender reside? All sorts of different things like that. Some of them the film will present an answer to like, “Is Ava sentient?” or “Does she have empathy?”. I would be able to argue that there are things that happen towards the end of the film that answers those things. And some of them don’t have answers because I don’t think there are answers to them. But that doesn’t matter to me because, again, that’s the nice thing about sci-fi. You can be sort of philosophical and you can pose questions that you know there are no answers to, but it’s in the posing of the question that something interesting happens. So really what I think I wanted it to be was like an ideas movie where the ideas stood up.
SF: One idea that particularly stood out to me was the gender thing. That’s something that we haven’t really seen before in these films. Was that something that you definitely wanted to explore because it hasn’t been done before?
AG: I don’t know if it hadn’t been done before, but I was just interested in exploring it. With regard to some of the AI stuff, I wrote the script and sent it to a scientist whose book I used. A guy called Murray Shanahan at Imperial, which is like our version of MIT. I said, “Check the script. I’d like you to test this over.” With some of the gender stuff, I showed it to a friend of mine. It was conversations with her that these questions had been raised in my mind. Where does gender reside? Is there such a thing as a male and female consciousness? Is that a problematic idea? Or does gender reside in just the physical form? Would it be correct to say of Ava “she”? Or is it he, she, or it? What is the right thing to call her?
All I’m really saying I guess is that it was a deliberate intent. It wasn’t sort of by accident and I went about it in as thoughtful a way as possible. I know not everyone digs it, but one of the things about film or any presentation of narrative is that you can kind of take what you want and see the film in the way you want. You could watch this film not as an ideas movie and just as a psychological thriller if that’s what you wanted to do. It depends on what the viewer takes into the movie.
SF: For sure. It certainly sparked some interesting conversations after the credits rolled among my colleagues.
AG: That’s music to my ears. That’s what I hoped would happen.
SF: Finally, before we wrap things up, I wanted to ask one more quick question about some of your other work. Are there any updates on a possible sequel to ‘Dredd’?
AG: I get asked this question quite a lot. The basic thing is that ‘Dredd’ lost a lot of money, therefore it’s unlikely to see a sequel. ’28 Months Later’ however… ’28 Weeks Later’ didn’t lose a lot of money, so it’s more likely to get a sequel because that’s basically how the film business works. I actually just heard from the producer of those ‘28’ movies saying that he’s just engaged a writer to work on ’28 Months’, so maybe that will play out.
‘Ex Machina’ starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, but it receives a wide release on April 24, 2015.