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Alex Garland & Rian Johnson Talk ‘Ex Machina,’ Misdirecting The Audience, Shooting On A Budget And More

Alex Garland & Rian Johnson Talk 'Ex Machina,' Misdirecting The Audience, Shooting On A Budget And More

For writer/director Alex Garland and his movie “Ex Machina,” things are going about as well as one could have ever hoped, particularly for someone who’s taken on such complex subject matter for his directorial debut. The sci-fi film has been very well-received by critics (read our own enthusiastic review), and though it doesn’t hit theaters nationwide until this Friday, it’s had considerable box office success in its limited release thus far.

Even better? Garland’s film has also won the heart of filmmaker Rian Johnson, the man behind “Brick” and “Looper,” and who will be writing and directing “Star Wars: Episode VIII.” Johnson joined Alex Garland, after a screening of “Ex Machina” at the Arclight Hollywood last Saturday, for a special Q&A. The director seemed genuinely blown away by the film, which he compared favorably to such films as “Sleuth” and Sidney Lumet’s “Deathtrap.”

Johnson described the movie’s particular brand of sci-fi as a “three-character/one-location thriller” and he complimented the writing as being “absolutely tight” and “flawless.” Over the course of their conversation, Garland talked in detail about the peculiar location of where the film was shot, how he discovered actress Alicia Vikander, and his approach to the design of Vikander’s AI character, Ava. There were a couple of other interesting tidbits Garland shared with the audience which you can find below, but if you would like to go into the film knowing as little as possible, it’s best to read the Q&A after seeing the film. So, proceed with caution.

Writing For A Low Budget Sci-Fi Movie
Rian Johnson: What was the origin of this in terms of the writing?

Alex Garland: When I was trying to describe what this film would be I used to call it a sci-fi psychological thriller and “Sleuth” was a film I did think about because of the way the allegiances shift. In terms of the genesis, it was really just reading over years about AI and some of the problems of mind and consciousness… I’ve now been working in film for around about 15 years and inevitably some of the processes of film, you learn them in sort of a helpless way. And if there’s something that requires a lot of creative latitude as this did, probably unconsciously, I deliberately wrote something that I knew we could make cheaply. Limited locations, limited cost…

RJ: At the same time, it doesn’t have that thing [where] it feels like they compromised in order to make a cheap movie here, it looks gorgeous. I was actually gonna ask you some more mundane questions about where you shot it, in terms of the house, how much of that was built, whether there was found locations in terms of the exteriors…

AG: It was four weeks in Pinewood, and two weeks on location. [For] all the things you can do to save money, the best thing you can do is have a really short principal photography period. So, it was a six week shoot and then there was a backward element of it which is you need to find a location and be able to build to it. The location was in Norway, and you know it’s funny the way imagery in film works. Iceland was quickly out of the question because it’s been mined by cinema so much and you start to think, “I know that glacier.”

Shooting In Norway
AG: We ended up finding Norway and what was great about it, Norway’s quite an interesting country because they’re the only country in the world that did the right thing when they discovered oil which was to nationalize it and then keep all the money and spend it on the country itself. So it’s this amazingly affluent country, which makes it very expensive to shoot in. But you get weird modernist architecture in the middle of nowhere and the landscape is not too familiar to us. It’s semi-familiar because there’s skies and mountains and glaciers and rivers, but we’re not too steeped in it so Norway’s perfect. [We] found a beautiful house and a hotel.

RJ: What was the house itself? Was it an empty house? Was it somebody’s house?

AG: It was a house that this guy had been building and nearly finished so he didn’t mind a film crew turning up. So, for example, the living room where these two guys talk at times which has this strange rock wall kind of intruding into the room, that’s the living room of that guy’s house. These beautiful cinema-screen-shaped windows that have these panoramic views is an eco hotel which is about 15 minutes away. And what we would do is build sets like Nathan’s bedroom and study with the glass wall, where we brought that rock wall into Pinewood and tried to tie it together loosely.

RJ: Because it was such a quick shoot, obviously exactly the things that make it cheap also make it very intensive in terms of it’s the performances that carry this movie all the way through to a large extent. Did you have rehearsal time with the actors?

AG: Yeah that was crucial. We had, actually, a lot of discussions and then we had rehearsals because there wasn’t going to be time to talk about motivation, for example, on set. And the process of shooting it was very intense and complicated because the film has to have a kind of zen vibe about it and the second you’re moving the camera, it’s like, in come the guys chucking down boards to move the dolly and a real frenzy of activity and then back to this quiet mode. And you’re absolutely right, that leans hardest of all on the actors. Pretty hard for the camera crew, but particularly hard for the actors. And they had to keep a kind of good close track of what they were doing the whole time, but they totally nailed it.

Casting Alicia Vikander And Domhnall Gleeson
RJ: So, uh, Oscar [Isaac] and Domhnall I know… somebody should put them in a big movie. [laughs] But actually, the big revelation for me was Alicia [Vikander]. I’m sure she’s been in other stuff, but this is the first thing I’ve seen of her. Talk to me about where you saw and discovered her.

AG: She was in a Danish film called “A Royal Affair” and she was, I’m guessing, like 20 or 21 and acting opposite the incredibly charismatic, powerful actor Mads Mikkelsen and that thing happens that we all recognize, it’s not a secret. It’s not like you work in the film industry to recognize good acting. I’ve literally never met anyone who thought Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t a great actor. So you know it when you see it and your eye would just track what she was doing and register how confident and complex her performance was. And that’s also true of Oscar, the slightly odd one out was Domnhall because this is the third film we worked on together and so that was different, I just sent him the script and said, “Will you do it?”

RJ: Was he the first one on board?

AG: Yeah.

RJ: Do you write actually seeing actors in your head?

AG: Yeah I do, and that could be complicated. It’s a bit like temp score when you’re cutting because you can get temp-itis, you know, fall in love with a bit of temp score and find that you keep trying to nudge the composer towards copying it. So, yes I do, but I also try to be self-aware and then to reject it later, but Domhnall was in my mind because it’s a funny part… It’s not something that all male actors want to do, in a way, to be the recipient, to be on the receiving end so much and I just knew that he could do it.

RJ: At the same time, it’s also a part that, to his credit, it’s deceptive… he’s doing so much in it with so little and he’s so good at communicating, largely reacting to the world around him, guiding the viewer through the story.

AG: And not telegraphing what’s actually going on. Because it can be hard for everybody to avoid the nudges and winks, like “I’m actually more powerful in this scene than you think I am.” But he was incredibly disciplined about that.

Designing Ava
AG: With Ava, it was a three step process, with a step back thing which is this is a post-iPhone world. We’re used to tech being beautifully designed essentially. Initially, it was to do with what she didn’t look like. C-3PO, for example, was a problem. Gold metal immediately put C-3PO in mind. White plastic put Chris Cunningham’s Bjork video [for “All Is Full Of Love” in mind] which was also riffed on by “I Robot.” [And] even if people haven’t seen “Metropolis,” [Maria] is an iconic image that it casts an incredibly long shadow. So, when she first appears you don’t want to initially be thinking of another film.

Second thing, she had to unambiguously be a machine so that it didn’t give wise in the narrative the possibility that it might be a young woman wearing a robot suit. So, missing areas of her body dealt with that. More important than that, the breakthrough aspect was this mesh that follows the contours of Alicia Vikander’s body, which meant that you immediately see her as a machine and then you immediately start to move away from that because as the light captures it a bit like a spiderweb, invisible in some circumstances, visible in others… you get this glancing, ephemeral sense of a young woman.

Misdirecting the Audience
RJ: As a filmmaker, I’m curious in terms of the editing, when you got into the cutting room was there anything that surprised you that you had to adjust in terms of where the audience was keeping up with it, or what they were thinking during different parts of it?

AG: I think, in the edit, of this and other projects, from my point of view, you have to run on instinct because you’re so steeped in it. At least in my experience, it’s very hard to be precise and rational about it. Wood for the trees, essentially. But there were some things I felt pretty sure of, and one thing was that we could nudge the audience or sections of the audience. Some people just want a story and will just accept whatever comes and others, their antennae are up and they are hunting and they want to get ahead of it in some way. And I felt pretty sure that there were two key misdirections we could do that would take attention away from the other stuff we wanted to keep more covert. But one of them was that audiences, you can assume literacy in film audiences. They will have seen “Blade Runner,” for example. And so they will be thinking “I know what’s going on”—

RJ: Domhnall is a robot.

AG: Right, exactly, so there are symmetrical scars on his back. And there’s a slightly implausible backstory.

RJ: Which you only reveal very slightly in the thing so even as an audience member you’re thinking, “How clever, I just caught that.”

AG: Exactly, yeah. So one is that train of thought that then leads to him investigating himself, in a way that an audience might have investigated him as well. And the other was the Japanese-appearing robot, Kyoko, that of course also people will know quite quickly that this is a machine. And in intention, I hoped, the antennae twitching audience will relax and think “oh I get this.” I think the ideal state is to just let the thing happen. You know, I sometimes think the best way to see a film — no, I know — no trailer, no information. Certainly, that for me, that’s my favorite way. So, in a way, the edit was partly about using those misdirections, I guess.

RJ: No, I think it all works to its benefit. And like I said, ultimately, it does that magic trick that my favorite movies all do, which is, it does exactly what it told you it was going to do and you’re surprised by it by the end.

“Ex Machina” is now playing in limited release.

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