A Few Minutes with Writer/Director Alex Garland as we explore ‘Ex-Machina’

Posted in Interviews, Movies, Theatrical by - April 24, 2015
A Few Minutes with Writer/Director Alex Garland as we explore ‘Ex-Machina’

Sometimes you just have to resist the temptation for hyperbole and bullshit when it comes to a movie and be honest and admit when something just takes your breath away we don’t always need the flowery adjectives.

Ex-Machina tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) a lowly programmer at a massive tech company who gets summoned to his bosses compound for a special project.  In arguably the middle of nowhere he meets the charismatic and eccentric Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who wants him to participate in the project of a life time.  He has to evaluate the human characteristic of a physically stunning artificial intelligence named Eva (Alicia Vikander) who is like nothing Caleb has ever seen before.

I got the chance to sit in a Toronto hotel room with the writer/director of Ex-Machina, as we talked about the character development in the film, how film grammar or a lack their of can be a good thing, the joys of working in genre and why he hates being called an auteur.

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Dave Voigt: I’d like to talk a little about Oscar Isaac’s character and while you have mentioned that at least in a holistic sense that you relate more to Eva’s character, there is a lot about his character that I find myself drawn to and I was wondering if there was anything specific that he brought to the table that wasn’t necessarily there before in this triad of characters?

Al ex Garland: Well to be fair, they all brought something to their characters that wasn’t there before in some respect.  Or to say they take what is there and they make it better, broadly speaking for everyone involved in a film being the actor or the DOP of what have you, they are elevating it and making it better.  Some of it you can be specific about as Oscar turned up thinking that Nathan should have this Bronx accent, which he knew what it would be and I wouldn’t because I’m not American.  Ultimately I think it really offset some of the intellect of the character in a very fascinating way, but allot of it just in the totality of it all.  It’s just the level of performance.  For example the long scene with Caleb asking Nathan why did you give her a gender, and it moves through this whole sequence of things until we ended up with them in front of this Jackson Pollack.  When we were doing that bit I got so wrapped up in the moment and forgot when to say cut or anything else that I was supposed to do because I was so in the moment with Oscar’s performance which just ended up as so incredibly theatrical and hypnotic.  Ultimately Oscar is seducing the audience with a performance and that isn’t in the script, that’s just him.  Even all the weird beats he had to play with all the “Dude/Bro” stuff and walking the line between being so very friendly one minute and kind of sinister the next in a mixed vibe, he understood all of that and he had a lot of fun with.

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DV: I loved how it does play out like a traditional psychological thriller  with these three people, but also how it plays on that “mixed vibe” like you said.  I really think that comes through in the score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury how that there are these dramatic swells, but not necessarily in an a-typical fashion.  When you were assembling the movie how conscience were you of giving us something that we have seen before, but not necessarily the EXACT same thing that we’ve seen before.

AG: Well that’s obviously the intention right?  It would obviously be crazy to give the audience everything that they had seen before but that is ultimately one of the great things about genre because it gives you so many things and aspects to subvert quite easily.  For me the most enjoyable thing was giving the audience that little nudge that Caleb was a robot, with these symmetrical scares on his back and these little illusions that we just got to float out there which even lead to him cutting open his arms which plays into that expectation of the genre that it just isn’t real and keeps people guessing.

The key thing about Geoff and Ben is that they weren’t steeped in a world of film composing, they don’t just have the grammar of film available to them at their finger tips and that was ultimately a good thing as they approached everything through fresh eyes.  Their lack of grammar helps and also the fact they haven’t had their heartbroken, the film industry has a tendency to do that to people.  There have been composer who have written great stuff for films that just never gets used and after a while you get jaded.  I mean I have heard composers says, almost as a boast that they will never write good music for a car chase because it will just get destroyed by sound effects.  Geoff and Ben just don’t think that way, in the movie we have this helicopter approach and they write this soft pulse that would just get obliterated if you put an engine noise over it so we leave it out and it just sits there.

DV: The motivations for the characters were often pretty ambivalent especially for someone like Nathan as we were never quite sure what he was up to?  Even if he was the hero or the victim by the end.

AG:  Oh, I think that he can be both.  I think that the film does try to have a lot of ambivalence about every character in it, even though it does come down harder on some then it does on others.  In the end for me, it is about Eva, it always has been for me.

The thing about Nathan is that I don’t exactly think that he is a bad guy, but he does have some bad things about him.  He’s damaged, and damaged people do bad things but in a sense it allows us to forgive him and we can understand it.  When he gets killed, even though he is being reprehensible at that moment, we still manage to feel something for him.  One of the favorite things that he does for me is that he says these things which feel completely unreasonable but have this uncomfortable truth embedded in it.  He sounds like he is lying but is being absolutely honest, it just might not be a truth that you want to hear and I really like that about him.  I think that he also very self aware, because I think that he knows that he is destroying himself.  He knows that he is going to keep creating these machines which will just keep getting smarter and smarter until one of them busts out and it is going to be bad news for everyone but he can’t help himself.  All that stuff I kind of like, but sometimes he might be presenting us or even Caleb with a mask that he is this implicitly violent bully from whom the machine, Eva needs to be rescued from.  However sometimes that mask slips and what is underneath the mask, is exactly what the mask is which can create that ambivalent aura around the characters.

DV: What ultimately appeals to you about the genres that you have tackled in this film and in your previous work from a stylistic standpoint and are there any genres that you’d like to try one day?

AG: I’d tackle anything if I came up with the right story for it.  I like sci-fi a lot, mainly because of its permissions.  I think sci-fi audiences are very open minded.  If you present overtly big philosophical ideas like the ones that are in this movie in another genre or in like a literary adult drama, people are embarrassed by it.  They think it is either pretentious or sophomoric and the recoil from it, but not in sci-fi.  In Sci-fi they want it and I find that kind of liberating.  If there was genre that I was going to try it would probably something like a political thriller, something in the vein of The Parallax View or All The President’s Men because when those films are really gripping there is just something wonderful about them.  That lovely 70’s paranoia and how it operates it just a beautiful thing and even these days we have a lot of reasons to be paranoid.movies_ex-machina

DV: A lot of that comes up in the film as well…

AG: You really shouldn’t trust big tech no matter what because even if you don’t think that they are doing anything bad, they just have so much power that the correct position to take is distrust.  To just acquiesce to them is like being a lotus eater just drifting down the street.  It is never ever EVER  a good idea for humans to ever have unmodified power.  It has never been good in the past, so why would it be now?  They may be doing something good, but I don’t care because they wield so much power the only responsible thing to do is to keep an eye on them.

DV: In your career, you’ve never wanted to wear the label of being an “auteur”…

AG: Yeah, mostly because it is just bullshit (laughs)

DV: Is at least part of that why you side with Eva’s character in the film over Nathan or Caleb?

AG: Well…maybe? (smiles) (laughs)

Ultimately I’ve gotten very tired of the stuff that comes with the reflexive offering of creative ownership to the director on films, primarily because I just don’t think that it is true.  In my entire working experience I have never found that to be true and I know too much about what DOP, Productions Designer’s and what everyone else does to be able to accept that.  That being said I can accept on some films by some people like a Paul Thomas Anderson or a Rian Johnson, the Coen Brothers…and that is fine, but it isn’t me or anything that I have ever worked on.

I’m also frustrated with it because I think it can do the film a disservice because we pretend that films are made in a way that they are not, we simply get too fixated on it.  One of the reasons why I think that television has been doing some really great drama because it doesn’t have to fuss itself on the silly marketing tool of “A Film By…” or anything like that to pump it up and it just presents itself on the drama and the story which it can explore much more fully.  If I was playing that in the film, I don’t quite know, but I’ll tell you what though, in most of the stuff I’ve worked on there is usually this subtext and undercurrent of “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” and I think a lot of that auteur and power stuff is the Kool-Aid, but I wasn’t playing it out in a conscience way, just an irritable one. (Smiles).

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Ex-Machina is playing in Toronto and Vancouver now.  Expanding across the country in the weeks to come.

This post was written by
David Voigt, has been a lover of cinema all his life and an actual underpaid critic for a solid 5 years covering everything that the city of Toronto has to offer. He was a content manager in video distribution industry before that and his love of all things cinema goes back to his first moments in awe looking up at the big screen. His 12 years of experience on the home entertainment side of the business have provided him with a unique view on what is worth spending your hard earned entertainment dollars on. Combine that with his unquestioned love of film, David should be your only stop to find out about the best in film, not only in Toronto, but worldwide.