Alex Garland ‘Ex Machina’ Interview: ‘Black Mirror’ Connections, Designing Ava and Talking ‘Star Wars’
Posted on Monday, April 13th, 2015 by Germain Lussier
Alex Garland‘s Ex Machina feels familiar while also being unique. It may be the latest in a string of films about artificial intelligence, but the look of the movie, the tension it creates, and the surprises within do everything to separate it from films such as Her, Transcendence and Chappie.
Garland, making his directorial debut, had all of that in his head when shooting Ex Machina. He purposely avoided every other piece of new pop culture out there that may have lined up with his movie, but he also used older movies as a reference to make something fresh. The result is an electric, frightening film that’s achieves great deal from three characters (played by Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson) dealing with some very heavy issues.
In our interview with Garland, we talked about how he maintained tension on set, as well as the connections the film may have had with stories like Black Mirror, some of his aims in creating this story, the beautiful design of the robot Ava and whether or not he asked his lead actors about their roles in Star Wars. Below, read our Alex Garland Ex Machina interview.
This entire movie feels so tense. There’s always this paranoia with both characters. Oscar Isaac told me he was uncomfortable having to push Domhnall around a little bit, but ’cause they’re friends. What was it like creating that tension?
Alex Garland: Well I think it was something that was quite difficult for the actors. I think it was particularly difficult for Domhnall actually. The thing is that it was kind of a weird film to work on. A really, really good film to work on, but it had a strangeness attached to it, which is that there is a tension, but there’s also a funny kind of Zen vibe. A sort of stillness a lot of the time with something seething underneath it.
And the actual process of shooting, because we had to shoot this movie in six weeks basically for budgetary reasons, in between takes, there’d be this frenzy of activity. Throwing down boards so a dolly could get moved, turning the camera around, no relighting ’cause it was all practical, but that kind of thing. And in a funny way, the tension, the back note of tension probably relates partly to that actual process of making it. And I’ve definitely found that on every film I’ve worked on. The process of making the film obliquely ends up on the screen. Things whether it’s anger or calmness or speed or whatever it is, you can just see it out there on the screen and it sort of infects everything. It’s weird. So maybe that.
So do you think of it as a happy accident?
No, but, okay, so say the movie needs it. Well, then does the process partly come out of what the movie needs?
It’s very difficult to retrospectively unravel these things. What I can say is that with this film everything seemed to be in sync with everything else. Nobody was disagreeing about what we were doing or why we were doing it, and whether this was the right way to execute it. There was this strange sense of consensus about it. And I can actually see that on the screen as well, because there can be a disconnection between one department and another on a film, and you can see these things don’t quite coexist, you know?
On previous films I’ve worked on, I could see it quite easily. And on this again, it feels very harmonious. So two people who never fucking have any communication with each other – like say Jock, who’s a comic book artist and was very involved in designing Ava, never then has a conversation with Mark Digby, the production designer. The two of them are sort of in separate camps in some respect. And certainly working at different periods of time in the production. But somehow her form and the aesthetic of the house feel interrelated.
[MINOR SPOILERS BEGIN]
When you first came up with the idea, how many of the twists and the turns did you have, and what was the chunk that started this for you?
The basic idea was that there’s two things about the movie that were always in there. Apart from the A.I. stuff. The first thing was that the protagonist was always gonna be the robot. That it was gonna be covert. You would be led to believe it was not the robot and then gradually you’d realize it is the robot.
The other thing was that it was an escape movie. That it was about somebody who should not be imprisoned getting out. So if I, I’m not sure you can call it a twist. It’s more just a structural thing.
Right, it’s not a twist, but it’s a surprise.
And you can mention that really because like you know that about prison movies. You know that about The Shawshank Redemption. It’s just you’re in prison. It’s about not being in prison. And so it was those two things that she would gradually float out of the film as the machine and the sense of her being sentient trades places a bit, concurrent with that would be a realization this is a prison movie.
[MINOR SPOILERS END]