The writer, best known for his collaborations with director Danny Boyle on “The Beach,” “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” both wrote and directed the sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina,” which recently screened at SXSW to positive word of mouth and opens this Friday, April 10 in select theaters courtesy of A24. The film, which Kaleem Aftab called, “A worthy addition to the wealth of sci-fi classics from Fritz Lang to Stanley Kubrick that explore the prospects of machines outwitting their human counterpoints,” in Indiewire’s glowing review, centers on a billionaire scientist (Oscar Isaac) who invites a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) to his secluded laboratory to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of his latest A.I. creation (Alicia Vikander).
Below, in Indiewire’s interview with Garland, the writer-director unpacks why he doesn’t consider himself a first-time filmmaker and opens up about his creative process.
You’re in a pretty unique position given how the film has already opened in Europe to favorable reviews. Does that alleviate some of the stress of the stateside opening?
I’ve been working in film for years now and the UK and the states don’t always line up. It’s its own thing in each territory and it probably would be as well in France and Italy and Spain, if I knew what was happening in those territories. I just don’t. It’s weird though. The whole idea of selling a film is weird. It’s a strange process. Some people take it to it naturally but I can never quite shake the sense of surrealism.
I hardly know where to begin. Everything about it is strange; everything about it is not like my normal life. So I’m sleeping in a room that’s not my room, my family’s not around and I’m also trying to talk about something honestly. I know I’m not saying anything insightful. You’re trying to talk about something honestly but you’re also talking about something you may have said several times before. And then you get this strange voice in the back of your head that says even by virtue of the fact that I’ve clicked back into a sentence that I’ve stated several times, though it’s not a lie, it’s still the same sentence, it feels like a lie. There is sort of an embedded lie because I’m trying to make it sound like I haven’t said it a million times before. I could keep going. What you get left with is being in a surrealist state. So here I am in Austin trying to get people to be interested in this film and I’ve got people like Geoff [Barrow] and Ben [Salisbury] who did the music and Rob [Hardy] who shot it, they’re out here too. We look each other in the eye and we say, “What the fuck is going on” and we get here. Anyway, it’s weird.
Was it always your intention to direct “Ex Machina” back when you set out to write it?
No, I never think in those terms particularly. Every film I’ve worked on in a particular kind of way, so I wrote the screenplay as if I had ownership rather than it’s a work for hire, uncredited ghost work or something like that. It’s very different. You’re executing something under someone’s wishes I suppose. Anything like this I only think of it just in terms of filmmaking because there’s an intention to make a film at the end of it. What’s that film going to be like? What’s the blueprint? What’s the thing you’re going to distribute amongst the group of people you’re going to work with? Whether it’s the source of agreement or collaboration or whatever it is. Those are the only terms I’m used to thinking, those are the only terms I was thinking back then — more than just it’s an interesting film.
The kind of stuff I think of these days, and I try not to but I can’t avoid it, often has to do with pragmatism. A film like this, to make it in the way it was written, requires a certain amount of creative freedom. It requires license to have conversations that go on a certain amount of time, or nobody saying, “You know what needs to happen now, is a car chase.” And that means making it cheaply. It’s three to four people in one location. It’s that kind of thing.
With that said, it’s still an incredibly ambitious directorial debut. Were you entirely confident going into it that you had what it took as a filmmaker to nail your vision?
What I really feel is that I’ve been working as a filmmaker for years. It didn’t have total confidence that it would work out but it’s a reasonable degree of confidence. Incidentally, a lot of the people I worked with on “Ex Machina,” I’ve worked with a ton of times; I know them backwards.
I learned a lot on “Never Let Me Go.” I remember having a conversation with Keira [Knightley], one of the actresses, before we started shooting, saying, “One of the things we have to look out for is we can’t let it get monotone.” We hit a tone, we hit it very well, but then we just stayed there. So this film has an injection of a sort of disco scene just to jolt it out. That what I remember thinking with “Never Let Me Go” — this is too measured; it’s not aggressive enough. And “Dredd” was a VFX movie, so that was a great training ground for “Ex Machina.”
About what you just said earlier, that you feel you’ve been working a filmmaker for years. How involved were you in the making of the previous projects you penned?
I’m very involved; I get involved. We present films in a very director centric way — I’m not very director centric and never have been. I understand that that’s one way to work on films but it’s not the way I’ve worked on films. It’s a group of people. So when I’m name checking people like the DOP and the production designers, it’s not it’s not name checking, it’s real.
Name that filmmaker? I would include all of them because in reality, making these films we sit around and talk as a group and say, “How are we going do this?” We did it on “Never Let Me Go,” we did it on “Dredd” and we did it on “Ex Machina.” You can have someone at the release of a film kind of elbowing everyone out of the way and saying, “Well, my vision…” which is something that directors are able to do — but it doesn’t marry up with my personal experience of making films which is basically a collaboration. On those other films I would do the same stuff I would do on this, I would be sitting in the edit, I’d be sitting in rehearsals, I’d be sitting on the set and saying, “Not sure that was right, maybe we should do that again.”
READ MORE: Watch: ‘Ex Machina’ Trailer Tricks Domhnall Gleeson Into Being a Trippy Experiment
How do directors respond to that, like Danny Boyle?
He made a movie of “The Beach,” which was a book I wrote. I wasn’t involved in the making of the film, that was just him doing it. What actually happened was this flowed right from Danny. Danny is completely un-neurotic about writers, or at least he was back then. I don’t know what he’s like now because we haven’t worked together in ages. But back then he really had no neurosis about writers at all. So when I arrived I had no idea what to expect, I had no idea what this process would be like. I had a kind of rough sense of what people say making films is like.
I remember on “28 Days Later” we’d been through the development process, writing the script and putting the thing together and having discussions as groups of people, and then he’d say it’s the rehearsals – “Alex turn up at 9 tomorrow and we’ll rehearse with the actors.” On the shoot I was very green, I didn’t know what he fuck was going on. So I’m learning on the fly as fast as I can I guess. On the shoot he’d be like, “Alex come take a look through the monitor” — he’s completely unintimidated. In the edit, every week, you go into the edit room — they don’t do this anymore because of pirating reasons – and you’d get a VHS and you could watch it at your home at your leisure over the weekend and come back with notes and so on and so forth. Danny was very, very inclusive. When I’ve moved onto other films I didn’t give a fuck what those other directors thought, that was the way I’d been taught to do it. I did work on productions sometimes when they were like, “What do you mean the writer’s going to be in the rehearsal? That’s going to affect my ability to bond with the actors and such.” But it didn’t really matter because that’s kind of the only way I know how to do it. So I guess you can say it came from Danny, it suited me. And it suited what I thought was a perfectly reasonable way of making films. So I just didn’t stop.
This all begs the question: whom have you butted heads with?
Oh, I’ve butted heads with loads of people.
Care to indulge me?
I think what would happen is, we would — ah, you know what, let’s not.
But just to sort of put it back to the intention, it’s not me. It’s because there’s a whole bunch of experienced filmmakers. What I do in terms of collaboration is it’s a true conversation between people.
Here’s an example: someone can say, “X got a great performance out of this actor.” That may or may not be true. What I’ve come to learn from films is that you have literally no chance of knowing how a film got made unless you were working on that production. Another production, they get made in a different way, you hear stories and you trade notes. All I can say is that in my experience there’s not much “getting performances out of actors.” The key decision is in the casting. You don’t cast an actor to get a brilliant performance out of them; they are going to bring the performance to the film because they are one of the collaborators. The key part of that collaboration is actually that performance. As a writer I got very used to that because I saw actors create meaning in lines that I never thought or intended.
I think what you’re saying will resonate with a lot of filmmakers who read this.
Or they might think I’m a prick.
For me it is. Here’s the thing. As a reduction, I came from books, I came from sitting on my own and writing a novel. Now, that word auteur means author. That is an act of authorship. And it’s kind of miserable because you don’t have a lot of people to talk to or hang out with or share problems with. The exact thing that attracts me to film is the collaboration. That’s single truest thing I can say about that, is what I enjoy about it. When somebody looks at this film, such a large part of what they’ll respond to is the obvious stuff, the performances and stuff. But the production design, the way it’s shot, they’re harder to see. Part of the beauty with those guys is that they do it beautifully but don’t draw attention to what they’re doing so it doesn’t get in the way of he drama or the characters or something. All I’m really doing is acknowledging that.