If you want to discuss contemporary sci-fi touchstones of the last 15 years, probably somewhere near the epicenter of that conversation has to be writer/director Alex Garland. The writer behind “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” and “Never Let Me Go,” Garland has carved out a niche of intelligent thrillers with thoughtful yet visceral edges and made his directorial debut earlier this year with the well-received “Ex Machina.”
One of the biggest indie hits of the year and A24’s highest grossing film to date, “Ex Machina” continues Garland’s moody exploration of dystopian ideas, and how they affect mankind. Featuring a trio of up-and-coming stars —Oscar Issac, Domnhall Gleeson (both of whom are in the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens“) and Alicia Vikander— “Ex Machina” plays with the notions of empathy via artificial intelligence in a futuristic milieu (our review). More specifically, “Ex Machina” centers on a gifted computer programmer (Gleeson) who wins a lottery for a one week getaway retreat with the reclusive CEO of the world’s leading Internet search company (Isaac). Upon his arrival however, the programmer is surprised to find an eccentric, heavy-drinking mad scientist who is working on his pride and joy experiment: a sentient A.I. robot named Ava (Vikander). Set in mostly one location, “Ex Machina” is like a three-pronged chamber drama and a claustrophobic thriller that subverts sci-fi tropes and expectations at every turn (and it’s on our Best Films Of The 2015 So Far list).
This conversation came on the heels of a post-screening Q&A I moderated this spring with Garland about “Ex Machina” where the audience reaction and various interpretations of the vaguely open-ended conclusion and the character motivations was fascinating. My freeform chat with the self-critical filmmaker led our talk to destinations about his career, his complicated feelings on his past work and much more. “Ex Machina” is out on DVD/Blu-Ray today.
It’s really interesting to see how the audience responds to the ending of “Ex Machina,” and how your intent butts against their subjectivity. In Q&As, it’s fascinating to see where the audience empathy lies — it’s almost like a sociological experiment.
Absolutely. I think one of the things I’m really learning about this film, and I think because it doesn’t signpost the movie’s overall intent— where it stands on a lot of the characters and their actions— is how open to a subjective response it is. It’s just wide open.
The more interaction I’ve experienced with audiences the more I realize how little a film has to do with filmmaker intention and how much of that is do with what the people are bringing to the film personally. In a very loose way, for years, I’ve quantified [the movie experience] as a fifty-fifty split. The creator brings fifty percent to it and then the audience experience is fifty percent and that melds to become the outcome of how they absorb the movie. But it’s not fucking fifty-fifty, it’s eighty-twenty in subjective favor.
Could it be because of the movie’s omniscient point of view?
No. It’s not. It’s just us. It’s more about us than the film. We’re subjective creatures, and there’s a terrific arrogance in thinking that you can spell out what people will think about a narrative.
You can’t. I think about my entire film watching and reading life and I’ve spent it discussing and disagreeing with friends about what a book or film is about. So why should I be surprised? I’m not.
I read where you said there would be no sequel to “Ex Machina.” I kind of chuckled, and thought “Well, of course there isn’t. Did you not see the movie?” It’s not that kind of film.
True, but I think there’s two things. One is that the film does end with an ellipses. Sort of a dot, dot, dot.
Sure, but that’s regular ambiguity, maybe not unlike the ending to “Inception” or any number of classic sci-fi or dystopian films.
Well, I think for some people, the ending proposes the idea. That it may, in fact, suggest that maybe a sequel has been intended.
The other thing is now, for a long time, since the early ’80s, the relationship between a film working in some criteria and then making another version of it, has become ingrained in us. Like a paradigm. It’s just what you’re supposed to do. It must be what you want to do. How could you not want to do that? “Parallax View 2”! You think, “What? What are you talking about?”
Normally, I would bring up “Blade Runner” as a perfect sci-fi thriller analogue, but they’re making a sequel to it.
Right. Instinctually, even on a rational level, I didn’t feel— it wasn’t quite right [making a sequel to “Ex Machina”]. I also think it’s probably worth instinctively wanting to push back against that. It has problems embedded within it, that particularly paradigm. It’s dangerous.
I don’t want to sound overly judgmental about it, because it’s very easy to get precious about this stuff and I don’t feel that way. But I think the convention of expecting and needing more of a narrative has built-in issues. Because most stuff doesn’t stand up to being repeated.
It just doesn’t. Some stuff does, and that’s great. Actually, some of the most visceral, kind of exciting stuff can. The film I’m looking forward to most at the moment, probably have been all year, is “Mad Max Fury Road.” And that’s a sequel of sorts. I don’t know, maybe it is. Until I’ve seen it I can’t tell.
And look, I’ve actually, in some respects, been half involved in one, in a floating way, with a zombie.
Right, “28 Weeks Later.” I was about to say, but you didn’t write that one.
No. Sequels are generally done in a rush. They’re done with a sense of urgency. The first time, you spend a long time developing to get it over the line. The second time, you don’t. Your expectations are different and your motivations are different.
My motivations, to the extent I was motivated, on ‘28 Weeks’ were wholly different from “28 Days Later.” And I think that’s why none of us involved then tried to make [a third] one, at least for a long time. We could have — on a financial basis it made sense. ‘28 Weeks’ made plenty of cash, but that raison d’être existed. Anyway, I’m talking bullshit, as usual.
[Editor’s note: You can read our full digression about the third ‘28 Months Later’ film here. Yes, they are planning another, though Garland won’t be actively involved.]
Sometimes, though not often, sequels-after-the-fact can be better insofar as time has passed, and sometimes organic ideas just come up years later.
Well, the [“28 Months Later”] idea definitely was organic; it comes from the right place. The thing about the first one was that it was a reaction. If I was being very honest about it, probably more honest than I should be, “28 Days Later” was a reaction to “The Beach” in some ways because I felt it lacked, a kind of aggression in it. I guess, enough time has passed, I can probably say [that].
So “28 Days Later” was a compensation then? “The Beach” is pretty different from the book, right?
Certainly less aggressive, yeah. ‘28 Days’ has tons of action, and there’s something subversive about it. “The Beach” novel, in my mind was, in some respects, subversive. I don’t want to make great claims for it, but I think ‘28 Days’ overdid that. In my mind, it was this sort of punk film. It had a punk sensibility.
Well, sensibility is definitely what’s on screen even via the sort of DIY, lo-fi aesthetic.
That was the intention. The kind of aggression in subversion, basically. I thought ‘28 Weeks’ didn’t have, it was not subversive. The idea for ‘28 Months’ is subversive. That was the key, “what is this thing?” In my mind, it’s something about aggressive and subversive.
What were you trying to subvert exactly?
It gets into the sort of territory that I try to avoid talking about. What happens is I allude to these things and then I suddenly get elliptical, and I can imagine how irritating that is.
OK, I see you’re trying to not spoil the next one a little.
The “28 Months Later” idea also came out of a trip to another country. In fact, there’s a scene in the original film where the character looks up and sees a plane flying above, and he’s in this completely desolate place. And the character in the movie suddenly sees the rest of the world is just carrying on while this virus is decimating the U.K. People may be going on holiday, right? And that’s exactly the experience I’ve had with this new idea. I think what I was trying to do, was bring some aspect of a foreign culture with a lot of trouble in it to the U.K. and just say, “Stop fucking whining about stuff.” It can be way worse out there.
When you’ve been away, you see difficulty. Just difficulty. People who are dealing with things that are really hard. And then it’s back in London and… it’s kind of basic, the idea. It’s very trite in a way, but that’s where it came from.
Was “The Beach,” in some ways, was your film school?
Definitely not. I didn’t go to film school. “The Beach” was not my film school because I was not involved in making that film.
I simply observed it, and really, observed it from a distance. I had three points of contact with it. I wrote a script, I visited the set in Thailand before principal photography. Then, towards the very end of the edit process, when the film was effectively locked, I then saw it. That’s not participation, by any means.
But the rest of your films, where you were much more participant, no?
Oh yeah, way more. It’s a whole polar opposite. Then I’m a novelist that gets into making films, and arrive with a kind of novelist sensibility. As much as I can see what I consider to be an important role that a writer does, and some of the themes, the characters. I arrive in it in a slightly anti-auteur theory state, I guess.
Putting all that stuff aside, the film school thing, which is way more interesting, anyway, begins for me and continues with this guy, Andrew Macdonald, who is the producer I work with. He produced “The Beach” too, but I was personally only involved with the next six movies including “Dredd” and “Ex Machina.”
Andrew was a line producer before he was a regular producer. So he understands what every single person does on the set. It still amazes me how many people work in film, but do not understand how a set functions. What Andrew did is he taught me how films are made on a practical level. There would be someone standing there, and I would be thinking, “What is that person doing? I don’t understand,” and he would explain it. A writer’s principal relationship, in may respects, is with a producer, because they often start the project.
It was often a combative relationship, but it was a hell of a learning curve. In truth, it doesn’t stop. I just was in a breakfast meeting with Andrew this morning. And he was still saying stuff about film, and I was sort of thinking, “I need to remember that. Okay, that’s good to know.” That was the start of film school, and film school categorically hasn’t stopped.
What’s your relationship with the past films? How do you feel about them?
Really? How so?
On all of them, what I can do is point to something — and this is a personal thing — that’s a massive compromise. That’s what I can do.
How do you feel about the end of “Sunshine”? Because I know a lot of people have problems with that film.
I do, yeah.
Is that a writing compromise, or—
No, it’s holistic. Sometimes when I’m talking about collaboration with collaborators before we work together, I say, “Don’t get this wrong.” When I say collaboration, I’m not saying you’re going to do it all, I’m saying we’re going to collaborate. It will be a partnership, and that’s the beauty of the collaboration. They make it better, and ideally, you also help in making it better. It’s people working together, not working totally separately.
That’s also true when things go wrong. When things are elevated, it’s because of a group of people working together, and when things start to fall down, it’s for the same reason. What I can see in “Sunshine,” is I can see unresolved tensions. I can see different movies being made simultaneously. And I can see things that simply could have … It’s so dangerous for me to talk about this.
Then I guess I have to ask you, because you haven’t mentioned his name: Danny Boyle. You guys have made some great films together and I would love to see you make more.
I don’t think we will.
No. But I learned an enormous amount from Danny and I respect him hugely. He’s a real director. He’s a real film director. Not all directors are real film directors. He is. He has stunning strengths and abilities. We’re not always completely compatible, because ultimately, what I want to do is put an agenda first. Everything is in service of an agenda. And Danny has a terrific instinct toward viscerality and compulsion.
Of course, viscerality and compulsion, if you’re making ‘28 Days,’ then you’re both in a perfect sync and perfectly riffing off each other as collaborators. “Sunshine,” in my mind, was closer to “Ex Machina,” tonally in it had a more reflective quality.
Ok, I see then where you might be at odds.
And sometimes viscerality and reflection were fighting for space on that movie. It was like a balance issue. But what I really want to underscore strongly, is the most significant failings in “Sunshine,” from my point of view, were not in Danny’s direction, they were in the script. They predated the shoot or editing, and what we were never able to do was to fix the problems in the script. Because we had a different methodology in terms of how that fix might happen. And, it would be completely wrong for me to either state or discreetly imply that the issues in “Sunshine” that exist rest at Danny’s feet. That’s not how I see it. The difficulty was more in agreeing on what the problem was, but disagreeing on the solution.
Well, if you’re talking about reflective qualities, you certainly had that in “Never Let Me Go” which is very plaintive and introspective. How do you feel about that movie?
I think it’s the only auteur movie I’ve ever worked on, actually. If we’re going to talk about auteurism, the only one I can make a case for is “Never Let Me Go,” and the auteur is the author Kazuo Ishiguro, the novelist. I think if you’re going to talk about auteurism, I think what you need to talk about is one person’s sensibility permeating everything. Sensibility that permeates everything is categorically Ishiguro. We had the book, we’d return to the book, we’d have questions, I’d telephone him from the set. I’d call him up and say, “Here’s the thing, we’ve got these options. What do you think.” The palette comes from him, the tone and the themes come from him.
Talk about educational, because look at the failings of “Sunshine.” If I’m going to define what the failings of “Sunshine” are, what I’m going to say is this: it lost track with itself. It veered away sometimes. It had a meaning, and it had an argument, and it would separate from that to create a quick sort of hit of something. Then it would try to pull itself back. The more it tried to do that, the more the elastic started to stretch.
OK, I can see that.
I look at “Never Let Me Go,” now look at what this guy’s done. It’s got a story, its got feeling, it’s got an argument, it’s got a thesis. And however many times I pick that thing up and I turn it, and I say, “Why does this character exist? Why is the scene going? How does the scene inform the themes?” It stands up every single time. It starts to kind of blow my mind at a certain point. Because I’m getting an object lesson in the kind of writing that I have failed to do. I like viscerality. I try to be visceral. I think it’s a good thing, but I haven’t done anything as capable as what this Ishiguro’s done. I find that really fascinating because I’ve got enough technical knowledge to understand what he’s doing and also see what I’m not doing.
But you weren’t entirely happy with it?
In the end, if we’re going to talk about that funny compromise thing, what I get is a film that takes that lesson on, tries hard to learn it, execute it, and is faithful to the author’s vision in some fundamental ways, but is also bound by it. The thing that I see in “Never Let Me Go” is this kind of monotone, this oppressive monotone. And in a funny kind of way, a lack of cinema sometimes. And a lack of the viscerality that I actually, in truth, love as much as Danny. The reason I love Danny is because I love the visceral.
Being faithful to the text is not always enough.
Certainly, yeah. I think I was over-awed by it. I was so stunned by what [Ishiguro had] done that I was then locked within it, because I thought, “I can’t unpick this, because the house of cards would collapse.” It’s not my construction, it’s his.
I worked hard on that movie, I worked as a filmmaker. But I didn’t really work on it as writer, he was the writer. I was like a translator. It was Greek to English or something. I don’t know. The writing was almost a technical exercise. The other stuff was the filmmaking. There’s a huge lesson in the object lesson, but also at the end, thinking…I knew there should be move violence, whether it’s—I don’t necessarily mean physical. It just needed more fucking agitation. Just agitation. Mixing it up a bit more. I knew it, but …
So “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd,” you were more involved in those than the others?
Yes. After “Sunshine,” I did think to myself, “I can’t work exactly like this again.” I love Danny. I actually loved the film. Whatever I say about “Sunshine,” and its problems. I actually loved “Sunshine.” In fact, I love all these films.
But you’re ambivalent about them as well.
Yeah, you can be ambivalent and love them. Actually, often, it’s the flaws that you feel most bonded to in some strange way. Because of what was involved in them. But I did think, “I can’t be in a position again, where if there’s something I feel very strongly about, I can’t … I can’t have … [long pause]”
No. It’s not exactly control. It’s not control, because you never fully— control implies something total. It’s not total, it’s influence. And of course, I always had influence with Danny, because Danny’s very open. Danny doesn’t close people out, but if something was happening that I felt really strongly shouldn’t happen, I needed to be able to stop it. That’s really what I’m saying.
So is that the impetus for you directing?
No, because that situation existed on “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd.” That was a product of a conversation between me and Andrew saying we need to restructure a theoretical way of how we’re making these films. We looked at television, that’s basically what we did. We looked at American television as a discussion point. To a film guy, like you, that’s going to sound like an attack on directors. Maybe. To some it is.
No. I think your thoughts on auteur theory are refreshing, personally. It’s a collaborative medium after all.
Well, that’s good to hear. I know sometimes that I’m sitting opposite of people when I’m talking about it and I can feel how strongly they disagree with me, but they’re too polite, maybe, to express it. Again, the key to this is that these are new auteur positions. It’s not to remove the importance of the director. It’s not to say the director is of no importance. It’s just to re-calibrate it so that we’re all writer, producer, director, director of photography, with strong voices working together. We’re not going to affect a belief in the pyramid structure, which anyway, doesn’t actually exist.
Because a huge amount of effort gets involved in the pretense of something that isn’t even there. You suddenly discover a quarter of your day is involved in a bit of… sort of like play acting. It’s a head fuck and a waste of time.
We’ve touched upon much of your past work and talked ‘Machina’ before. So we might as well squeeze in “Dredd.” There was some sequel talk there too, no?
Yeah, with “Dredd” there was a thought of sequels. I had a whole plan, an idea, and a rough storyline. But what I never thought about would be, the reality of actually having to make one another one.
Here’s the thing: by the time you finish a film, you’ve been focused on one thing for somewhere between two and a half and three years. In some respects, the last thing you want to do is even contemplate going back to the same movie. I find it truly mystifying, these directors [who can]. Fine, good for them. Returning to whatever — “Harry Potter,” or “Transformers.” I think, “Wow. Isn’t that, aside from anything else, isn’t it just a head fuck? How do you deal with that? What happens when you wake up in the morning and think ‘Harry Potter’ again? What happens at that beat?”
It could be the creative equivalent of eating the same meal every day for several years.
I can’t get my head around it. I talk about the sequels, but the reality of making them … If I ever actually entertained that, I’d feel like I was falling off a cliff.
So the “Dredd” sequel thing [laughs]. I have reached a point now where I sort of understand it would be great if it happened. It needs to be with other people, anyway, because we dropped the ball. If you drop the ball like that in film, you don’t get the right to pick it up again. I really believe that, actually. I’ve made my peace with it. It took me a while to make my peace with it. I felt really fucking furious with myself for a long time, but I’m done now.
Scott Rudin, getting towards the end of post-production on “Ex Machina,” says, “There’s this book you ought to read. It’s by this guy Jeff Vandermeer, it’s called ‘Annihilation.’ ” It’s one of those bits of timing where something you’ve been thinking about, a vehicle for it just arrives. It’s a beautifully written book. It pushes a whole bunch of things in me to do with stuff I read when I was a kid.
What’s it about?
It’s a group of women who enter into an area of America that has been sealed off, by the government, by an organization. It’s a surrealist science fiction novel, where these things are not really locked down or fully explained. They enter into this area, and what they find is some extremely strange landscape with some very strange things going on with it. It exists in a kind of surrealist dream state for a lot of it. It reminded me of J.G. Ballard and also felt like its own thing. I sort of think, “Right. Yeah, I’ve got a handle on how to make this. It’s kind of weird. Are you sure you want to make this film, because I would be into making it. But do you really want to make it, because it is very strange.”
This has got more in common, in some respects, with “Dredd,” but it actually has lots of thoughtful and reflective qualities in other ways too.
“Ex Machina” is out on Blu-Ray/ DVD, iTunes, GooglePlay and more Digital outlets.