Alex Garland 'Ex Machina' Interview: 'Black Mirror' Connections, Designing Ava And Talking 'Star Wars'

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.

Alex Garland Ex Machina 2

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?

Okay, sure.

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.

Ex Machina Hallway

[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]

Ex Machina

I never quite knew who's good and who's bad. That's sort of a simplistic way to put it, but movies mostly have a protagonist and an antagonist, and I think everybody sort of fills each of those roles in this movie at some point.

Well if you asked any of them who's the protagonist, they'd say "I am." Also the person who's notionally bad is Nathan. The film is inviting you to say "this guy's bad." But the other thing is, he's inviting it. He is in effect casting himself to the other guy as a predatory, violent, intimidating, alpha-male of a particular sort. From hoping this robot needs to be rescued. Now he's doing that partly for the purposes of the test. But there's another question. So he might be ramping up that aspect of himself. He may be presenting a false aspect of himself. He's not like that at all. But it may be actually more like a mask slipping sometimes.

So actually a huge amount of what me and Oscar used to talk about was exactly that. At this moment in the scene, when he says this thing, where is his head at? Is this a mask slipping? Is this what he really thinks? Is he caricaturing himself to make himself seem darker and more misogynistic and more scary than he actually is? And it would, it was those kind of tracking things I guess.

Black Mirror is now available in the U.S, and watching this, I see similar themes. Plus Domhnall is in both. When you were making it, did you think about the show at all?

No, what actually happened was we were just starting prep and this film is part funded by Film 4. And Film 4 is part of Channel 4. And Black Mirror is a Channel 4 drama. And I was with the boss of Film 4, Tessa Ross, and the boss of Channel 4, David Abraham. And he said he knew about Ex Machina, which we were just about to make and he said "Ooh, we're doing this thing Black Mirror and actually Domhnall's in it and it's got a sort of related element to it." And at that point, I immediately knew I can't see this. And I actually said this. I actually said, "Stop telling me about it."

Actually there was a whole sequence — there was Black Mirror, but there was also Her and Transcendence and Automata and there's Chappie. There's been a whole string of them, and I've avoided all of them. For two reasons. One is it can be intimidating. If they've done a good job, it doesn't help you think. And then the other thing is that you can end up stealing. You can steal without even knowing you're stealing. A few years ago, a long time ago, I wrote this movie, 28 Days Later and it's a zombie film.

28 Days Later

I've seen it.

Okay, cool. So well the beginning of 28 Days is essentially the beginning of, I don't mean the very beginning, I mean, the beginning of the story proper is basically a beginning of Day of the Triffids. Which is a novel by a British sci-fi writer, John Windom. And I did not know I was doing that when I did it. And then a point arrived like and it may have been even as late as we were in pre-production or something or it was probably a bit earlier than that. Where I realized this is not like an homage type thing. It's a lift. In some really specific beats. This guy waking up in hospital, finding that everything's changed in London. And I think since then I've been very careful of it. A bit wary of it.

You mentioned Jock, and I have an original piece of his art on my wall, I'm a fan.

You're kidding. That's fantastic.

Jock Ex Machina

What was the collaboration like between you for this? It's sort of unique to bring in a comic book artist to design just one specific character.

Well, I knew Jock previously. He and I worked together really very closely and very productively on Dredd. So there was a whole period in the development and early prep of Dredd where Jock was doing a huge amount of work because he knew that world backwards. And we've got a similar take on some things, and similar things that we're interested in basically.

The first person you could say was on payroll of this film was Jock. So when the script had been, up to that point, only knocking around between me and the producers and they knew it was like "We need to move this forward" the first person I called was Jock. Literally just called him up and said "Let's work together again. Here's the script. Tell me if you wanna do it." He read the script, he said "Yeah, let's do it." And that was it.

Ex Machina (1)

Did you have an idea of what you wanted Ava to look like? Did he give you a ton of stuff?

There were some things that were sort of set in stone about her. For various reasons. Like no part of her body could extend beyond what the skin line would be. And her face would be a human face. In a way, because of just having worked on Dredd and not wanting to hide a face again with a protagonist. And so there was some stuff which was set in stone and then the rest of it was very up for grabs. And so we started trading drawings and chatting and figuring stuff out. And the first images Jock sent were robot images I guess. Which would be colored different ways and stuff and immediately things started falling into place. Initially to do with the way things shouldn't look rather than what they should look like.

That film has got all these icons, robot icons, and it was really important that the first time you saw Ava, you didn't immediately think about something else, another movie. You'd discover something like plastic. Chris Cunningham, Bjork, I, Robot, no white plastic. Or, I mean, you might have a little bit of white plastic, but not dominant white plastic. And, there was a bunch of visual cues that we had to avoid and eventually, the thing that really cracked it was the mesh.

Poe Dameron Oscar Isaac Star Wars Force Awakens

As a Star Wars fan, it's very exciting to see two people who are in the new movie in this movie. Of course you didn't know that when you cast them. But since then, as a fan of science fiction, have you talked to them about it? 

I haven't actually. I've avoided it because the scale of the production they're on is so massive that it's actually sort of dangerous to them. You need plausible deniability in a way. I know that if I ask them something, they might almost feel too embarrassed to not tell me 'cause it would feel like being unfriendly. So they would, they'd open up. Maybe they'd open up. I don't know, 'cause I haven't asked. Then if they told me, I could inadvertently let it slip. And if I did that, they'd be in serious shit. Not kind of like a bit of shit, deep shit. So I just was like, don't wanna know.

Ex Machina is now in theaters.