It can’t be overstated how great 2015 was for Alex Garland. His “Ex Machina” opened in the U.K. in January 2015, and from there word spread that this was a special sci-fi movie. Earning a string of British Independent Film Awards and nominations from BAFTA, the Golden Globes, and the Academy Awards (where it’s up for Best Original Screenplay and Best Visual Effects), the picture is a tremendous success and a reminder that intelligent genre movies can capture the imagination in a big way. But like any movie, “Ex Machina” could only exist if someone in a position of influence took a chance on it, and speaking recently with the Playlist, Garland commended Film4, whom he previously worked with on “Never Let Me Go,” for believing in his vision.
“Everyone more or less has a kind of house style. The house style can be very, very broad. But still house styles exist. Film4 backs difficult movies, films that were not an easy sell,” Garland said. “If I’d gone to [Former Film4 Director Of Feature Films] Tessa [Ross] with a very broad movie that had a clear commercial appeal, she’d say, ‘But what do you need us for? We’re here to help people who try to make tricky stuff.’ ”
In 2014, David Kosse took over for Ross at Film4, and he knew at first glance that “Ex Machina” was unique.
“When I saw a [first] cut that he presented —which was not a million miles off of the finished film, it just didn’t have all the finished visual effects in it— we knew that it was a very affecting and powerful film, and it felt like something that really captured the zeitgeist in a very specific way,” Kosse told The Playlist.
As Garland prepared for the release of the movie last year, he was confident about his work, but also concerned about how it might be received.
“I felt really good about the film on a personal level, but always in this job, you want something to do well. In a funny way, not for the thing itself but to help you make another one, you know? I was coming off the back of three films that really hadn’t worked at all in financial terms. That was ‘Dredd,’ ‘Never Let Me Go’ and ‘Sunshine’ in reverse order,” he explained. “I think I felt I might not get another shot at this, because there’s a limit to how many times you can lose people’s money So I was nervous and then —it’s hard to say this stuff without sounding like you’re kind of bullshitting or handing out platitudes— [the reception was] a hell of a surprise. It’s been kind of amazing.”
Not only has the response critically and commercially been exciting for Garland, but the conversations that sprung up around the story and ending of “Ex Machina” have been as well. Garland has reflected on the various theories and interpretations have emerged from viewings of his film.
“I think I’ve just had to get used to the idea that the arguments that you think exist within a film may or may not exist for the person who’s watching it, and a lot about their response as such is about what they take into it,” he said. “That would be their own set of beliefs, their own personal life experience, the things that interest them and don’t interest them. And so some people will see some stuff and other people will see other things, and at the end, you can have two people who will have 180 degree opposite opinions about what he intention of the film is.”
“But the thing about that is that it shouldn’t surprise me. It did surprise me a bit, but it shouldn’t have, because my whole life I’ve been arguing with friends about books and films, saying “well I think it’s this” and they’ve said it’s that. So why should this be any different?” he added.
With the Oscars on the horizon, it reminded us of the last time we spoke with Garland. It was last summer, and he had yet to see “Mad Max: Fury Road,” so we had to ask him if he had finally caught the film, and just like everyone else, he is a fan of George Miller’s action flick.
“Well, I was kind of amazed by it. It’s just a hell of a trip, isn’t’ it? My main sense was something like wonder and adrenaline. I wasn’t unpacking it —it was a completely visceral response,” he said. “It wasn’t like watching a Steven Soderbergh movie, where you’re analyzing it as you watch it. It was completely a gut response. I guess it fits into that thing of what you take into a film as you see it. I think what I wanted was to be transported at that moment and that is exactly what happened. So I really dug it.”
Next up for Garland is “Annihilation,” an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s book and the first installment of a trilogy. The cast lining up for the picture is very strong, with Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh all on board. However, the director makes it clear he’s focused on the first movie and isn’t thinking about the sequels.
“At the point I wrote the screenplay, which was a year and a half ago now, I hadn’t read parts two and three, and I approached it just as a film. I didn’t think about where it was going because I didn’t know where it was going,” he said. “Franchises are such a huge part of the way the film industry functions these days, but I just wasn’t seeing it with this particular job. I have approached films in those terms before. When I worked on ‘Dredd,’ I absolutely tried to imagine it was a trilogy and what would be the structure. Possibly as a result of having done that, the film bombing and those ideas sort of turning to dust, I’m probably reluctant to think too much in those terms again, and so I concentrate on the one film I’m actually making.”
As for Film4, the studio is gearing up for a very busy Oscar night, with not just “Ex Machina” in competition, but with “Carol,” “Room,” “Amy,” “Youth,” and “45 Years” all in contention. And with the #OscarsSoWhite conversation swirling around the ceremony, we asked Kosse about Film4’s own commitment to diversity.
“Diversity is a significant priority. We’re really proud in terms of the number of female filmmakers and female writers and voices that we develop and nurture, as well as what’s called in the U.K. BAME [black, Asian, and minority ethnic]. Not just in front of the camera but behind the camera as well,” he said. “We get very very involved in advocating and developing projects with black and Asian filmmakers, as well as filmmakers of other groups that are under represented. In fact, every time we greenlight a film, we sit with the producers and look for opportunities for the production companies to employ under represented groups on the crew to begin to build up people’s resumes, so that there will be a wider diverse group. Not just writers, directors and actors, but crew members. It’s pretty central to what we do.”
Let’s hope the rest of Hollywood takes that initiative.
“Ex Machina” is now available on home video, and see how the picture performs during the Oscars on February 28th.