In interviews, novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland has always seemed uncomfortable with the labels people want to put on him. His 1996 debut novel, The Beach, made him a bestselling author at 26, but in the media, he often seemed to be dodging the hyperbolic praise it earned him. He’s been similarly self-effacing about his other two novels—1998’s The Tesseract and 2004’s The Coma. After Danny Boyle directed an adaptation of The Beach in 2000, with Leonard DiCaprio in the main role, Garland began working with the director personally: Boyle also directed Garland’s first two screenplays, for 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Garland followed those projects with non-original scripts, for the Kazuo Ishiguro book adaptation Never Let Me Go in 2010, and the comic-book-derived Dredd in 2012 . At this point, the “genius” and “prodigy” tags he evaded seem to have been dropped. So instead, here’s a new one he wants to lose: “auteur.” Garland is making his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a chilly, conversational, intellectual science-fiction movie which he also scripted. But unlike most first-time directors, he doesn’t consider it a significant career step, and doesn’t like the way people talk about it.
Ex Machina stars Domnhall Gleeson (Frank, About Time) as a programmer whose reclusive boss (played by Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac) invites him to a remote, high-tech facility to meet what may be the first artificial intelligence. Ava (Son Of A Gun’s Alicia Vikander) is a robot in the shape of (of course) an attractive young woman, but her existence raises questions, starting with whether she’s actually intelligent or self-aware, or has just been programmed to emulate intelligent, self-aware behaviors. A conversation with Garland during a recent press tour for Ex Machina made it clear that he’s more interested in exploring those questions than he is in promoting his directorial career, or giving in to those auteurist claims.
The Dissolve: You didn’t write this thinking you were going to direct it, and you hadn’t directed before. How did you end up in that role?
Alex Garland: At any point when I’ve been writing for films, I never think in those terms, about who’s directing or acting or whatever. I’m just thinking, “How do you make this film?” The script is a blueprint. I ask, “Is this a film worth making? Is it interesting? Does it have good questions in it, does it have good answers? Is it valid?” That’s the first and most important task. It’s not until I get to the end of a draft that I want to show someone that the question even arises. It would almost seem presumptuous to think about who’s directing, because I don’t know if the screenplay works.
The truth was that there was no epiphany moment about directing, because I just don’t dignify the directing role the way we’re supposed to. I just don’t buy into it. I used to work as a novelist—you do that on your own. Film is collaborative. It just is. There are a few people—like Woody Allen, he’s an auteur, and I’m cool with that. But for me, directing is about collaboration. With this film, I’m working with a lot of people I’ve worked with on the previous film, and the film before that, and the film before that. I think the production designer has been on every single production I’ve been personally involved in. And Domhnall Gleeson, this is the third film we’ve made together. With the producers, it’s like the fifth or sixth film we’ve made together. So to me, this was just the next in a continuum.
The Dissolve: Do you think any differently about auteur theory when you’re looking at a writer-director? In this case, you’re shepherding your own vision to the screen, as opposed to being a hired gun on somebody else’s screenplay.
Garland: I can only answer about how it feels. I suppose I could stop and try to rationalize or intellectualize it, but it feels the same to me. As a writer or a director, I just end up the same way on all these films, talking to an actor about why a character is motivated a certain way, or why that line doesn’t fit in their mouths. A DP always wants to know the point of a scene. “Why is it here? What is the most important thing I have to actually capture?” The conversations are the same for a writer or a director.
The first director I worked with, on two films together, was Danny Boyle. Danny is not intimidated by writers. The first film I really worked on was 28 Days Later. It was a spec script I’d written, and he said, “Just come in to the rehearsals.” He wanted me on set. During the edit, I was in there several times a week. Every weekend, we’d get a work-in-progress VHS. They don’t have them anymore, and you’re not allowed to take anything out of the edit these days, for secrecy reasons. But back then, I’d sit and watch the film over the weekend, and come in Monday and say this or that. That was my training, from this very un-neurotic director. Some directors are fucking terrified of writers, and run a mile to avoid them, or get the producers to create a brick wall in front of them. If I ever encountered that in the future, I’d be like, “Fuck that, I’ll just kick the brick wall over, so you can’t have any bricks.” My attitude toward directing and writing is all in how I got introduced to film, really.
The Dissolve: One of your Danny Boyle collaborations, Sunshine, starts out as this thoughtful, 1970s-style science-fiction film—
Garland: And then it goes off the rails and turns into a slasher flick.
The Dissolve: Exactly. But the early part of the film seemed to be universally well-received. Given all the positive reaction to the early cold-equations part of the film, did that give you any more freedom with Ex Machina? Did you think “Well, now I know audiences still like this style, and can keep up with something quieter and more philosophical”?
Garland: It’s very hard for me to talk about this truthfully, so rather than lie, I might just try to dodge the question. I would say this is a failing at least as much in myself as anybody else: I was not happy with a lot of stuff in Sunshine. It had things within it that I just said, “I’m not going to have that happen again,” for whatever reason it happened. I am not kidding—this is not one of those diplomatic things—it was at least as much my fault as anybody else’s. But you learn, and then you try to do different stuff.
Without question, this film is in some respects in response to Sunshine. I’ll tell you one of the things that Sunshine got wrong, which has nothing to do with the third act. It was just a more general step-back problem. It was too cavalier with the science. Sunshine was actually about something, believe it or not. It was about heat death in the universe. And it was about what these huge powerful things in space do to us, the extent to which we can understand them, how it affects us psychologically. But in particular, it was about what it is to be facing extinction. Anyway, it all got sort of fudged and fucked, basically. One of the reasons it happened is because the science and the thinking was clumsy, sloppy, and it didn’t follow itself through. It would compromise itself constantly for the sake of what it hoped was adrenaline, or something like that.
In Ex Machina, I was rigorous about the… It’s wrong to say “science” because there are no AIs. There is no robotics at this level. But I was very rigorous about some of the principles surrounding what might be the science, and some of the thoughts around them. Because it is a film about machine consciousness, at least partially—some of it is human consciousness. I wanted it to stand up to a certain kind of inspection. So after writing the script, I showed it to people for various reasons, each of them looking at it in different ways. And I said, “Test it, and if it’s wrong, tell me. I’m not looking for you to find excuses about how I can shoehorn things in and make them work. I’m not looking for excuses to how this can work dramatically. If it’s not going to work properly, I want to chuck it out.”
The Dissolve: You’ve characterized yourself in the past as writing a lot about passive male characters who go in and out of protagonist mode.
Garland: As with this film, where the character who appears to be a protagonist actually isn’t.
The Dissolve: What draws you to that type of character?
Garland: I don’t know, because a lot of that stuff is unconscious. Some of what I’m doing here is conscious: I’m very specifically thinking of the question, “Where does gender reside? Is it in a brain, or in a mind? Is there such a thing as male or female consciousness? Is it an external form that denotes it, or is it this internal mind state that denotes it, or what?” I was consciously analyzing that. But why I keep writing passive male characters, that comes from a thought process that is hidden from me. I don’t know why I do it. I could present a post-rationalization as to why, but that may or may not be connected with why I actually do it.
When I was thinking about what makes Ava special for me, it was that she wouldn’t be like that character. My thought processes are hidden from me. Your thoughts are largely hidden from you, I assume, if you’re anything like me. I suspect you are, because you’re a human. I can be washing dishes, and a thought will pop into my mind. I don’t know what caused it about it, but it involves a lot of complicated stuff, and now I have the results. But Ava would be different. If you stopped her, and asked her, “Why are you angry about this? Why are you scared about that? What is your feeling of interest in this thing related to?” she would just be able to tell you. That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have an emotional life. It doesn’t mean she’s not as interesting as us, or as good as us, or as valid as us. I think she might be better than us, because unconscious motivation, which is a huge thing with us, would evaporate.
The Dissolve: That self-reflection is one of the things I wanted to get at with this question. So often, if you tell filmmakers, “All of your films have this kind of character,” they’ll say, “I’ve never thought about it that way, and I don’t see it, my characters are nothing alike.” But you’re aware of how your protagonists compare. You brought that similarity out yourself in other interviews. And that sounds so much like the chess problem you bring up in the film: Being self-aware suggests intelligence, but how does it reflect on the activity when you’re aware of it?
Garland: What we do is, we deceive ourselves. I try to be self-aware, because it’s so strange to deceive ourselves. We’re so strange, the way we function, and also the way we fail to function. This all sounds very self-aggrandizing, and I don’t mean it like that. I try to be honest. I try to know when I’m lying. It fascinates me what a full-time job that is. It fascinates me how many instincts I have to lie, throughout the day, in all sorts of little ways. and it fascinates me. I can have a fleeting encounter with someone who I’m buying something from in a shop, and I’ll do something deceptive at some point in that interaction, in terms of how I present myself, in terms of what kind of person I’m actually like. And I think, “What the fuck? Why did I do that? I’m never going to see this person again.” I find that baffling, and fascinating as well.
The Dissolve: It sounds like one of the things you’re saying is that in your opinion, a machine consciousness wouldn’t have a subconscious, wouldn’t have any form of self-deception, and could be completely transparent to itself.
Garland: I don’t know what consciousness a machine might have. And I suspect that when we have a machine that is self-aware—and I think one day we will—it probably won’t be like us, in all sorts of different ways. And it would be hard for us to understand, in the same way that it’s hard for us to understand a dog’s consciousness. We can see a dog is self-aware; it recognizes itself in the mirror. It doesn’t think it’s looking at another dog. It knows it’s looking at itself. So it’s something like us. But we don’t really know what it’s like to be a dog. And I suspect it will be like that with AIs as well.
The Dissolve: As you say, the film brings up questions about gender, and where it lives, and consciousness, and what it is. Do you feel like you reach conclusions? Do you want viewers to reach conclusions?
Garland: About some stuff, but not others. It’s legitimate to ask questions that actually not only do you not know the answers to, but there are no answers to. There is a value in posing unanswerable questions. Here, I don’t want to specify what the answers are, because I feel that’s inappropriate. But there are questions like, “How do you judge whether consciousness exists or not?” “Does the machine within the context of this narrative have an internal emotional life, or is it masquerading it?”
With Ava, one of the key questions I was asking, which I think is unanswerable, probably, is, “What gender is she.” The thing that interested me about her is, it seems like it’s very, very easy to construct an argument that says she has no gender. That would be a very straightforward position to take. But if you were to call her “he,” that would just seem wrong. It would seem incorrect. And if you were to call her, “it,” that would seem disrespectful. Weirdly, even though she’s a fictional character, we afford her a kind of respect. If you call her “her,” that actually seems appropriate. But if you were to transplant her mind into a body that has a male form, instantly you would then feel it’s appropriate to say “he.” Now, that relates to where gender resides, and how we decide what it is. There are all sorts of questions that can flow from that.
They have a conversation about this in the middle of the film—why she has an apparent gender. And they talk about the questions I think automatically flow from that one. If there’s such a thing as a male consciousness and a female consciousness, I immediately think, “Well, prove it. Demonstrate for me how these things could be different.” It feels like anything where someone could say, “A man would think this,” you would also be able to show a woman who has that thought, and a man who doesn’t. I personally don’t have an answer I feel comfortable with about some of these questions, relating to the he/she/it aspect of Ava. But that doesn’t stop me wanting to ask the questions, and put them right in front of people, because I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had. Still, the film comes down hard on one side or the other about some of the questions it poses. It feels like it would be almost cheap to try to either front-load or back-load the film with excuses and arguments, or annexes, within the context of an interview. The film should work, and live and die on its merits. That’s the deal. That’s the contract you get into.
The Dissolve: Given all this, how did you work with Alicia Vikander on the role? What did you tell her about how you wanted her to play it?
Garland: This is why I’m not interested in the auteur theory. I just don’t involve myself with how actors should play things. The reason you hire an actor is because they’re going to elevate the part themselves. I wanted to know what Alicia thought. Sometimes that related to Ava’s behavior. She came up with a fantastic idea—just a brilliant, elegant idea—about how she was going to play Ava. Rather than give her any kind of robot in her actions, she was going to do a perfect version of what humans do. And because it was perfect, it would feel other, because we’re not perfect. And it just functions. It just works. The way she walks across the room, or tilts her head, or whatever it happens to be. There’s a weird sense of it feeling right, but feeling wrong. And it was just lovely.
Other times, with what Ava wears, I said, “That’s not my business, that’s your business.” We’d have a conversation, but broadly speaking, once the sort of broad intention is defined, it was up to Alicia. Because to me, it becomes part of the performance. It’s part of her conversation with the costume designer. One of the things that irritates me about auteur theory is that it seems to imply that you made all of these decisions. I’m interested in delegating to collaborators. It’s the best thing about film. I used to work in books, you don’t do any of it in fucking books. You’re on your own. So I would try to empower the actors to own their characters, and make decisions about themselves. All of them, there’s Sonoya [Mizuno], who plays Kyoko in the film. People tend not to talk about her, but she does some really complicated stuff as well. She does some really beautiful, clever bits of performance.
The Dissolve: The film feels so clinical in the setting, and the shots, and the editing. And in Ava’s design, given how clean and simple and mechanical she is. And then you start to bring naked bodies into the story, and it’s so jarring, so far outside what you’d created so far. Was the use of nudity meant to be alien and unsettling?
Garland: The truth is about that and all those things, is that there is a Zen atmosphere/vibe, a sort of flatline thing that is almost there to be disrupted. Five or six years ago, I was working on the [Mark Romanek] film Never Let Me Go, and it has a tone, which it hits beautifully. But it really hits only that tone, and it’s to the detriment of everything, ultimately. It could have used some aggression and some spikes. It was weird, I remember having a conversation with one of the actors, Keira Knightley, saying, “We’ve got to be really careful.” I knew this was a problem even before we shot it. “We’ve got to be careful that it doesn’t become monotone, and that we get some spikes in there.” And then some part of me felt that saying that made the problem go away. But it didn’t. So with this film, I actually embedded aggressive spikes and juxtapositions into it. You find the naked bodies confrontational, and you’re supposed to. It’s actually supposed to make you feel really hostile. It is done aggressively, as a attack on the viewer.
Actually, the disco dance is an attack as well. The disco dance has funny little attacks. There’s an attack on a character, but there’s also an attack in the edit. Just as the audience might be starting to enjoy it, it cuts out. I don’t let them enjoy it too much. And then there’s other juxtapositions, like between this incredibly, fanatically controlled human environment, and this very uncontrolled, uncontrollable exterior of mountains and sky and water. All I’m really saying is that I baked spikes in, and then tried to emphasize them. I erred on the side of aggression this time, rather than Swiss-watch delicacy.
The Dissolve: You’ve said this film isn’t coming from a place of fear about AI, that it’s coming from a place of hope. But this is ultimately a horror film. Where are you seeing the hope?
Garland: Well, the horror is with people. Really, the hope is that AIs might be more reasonable than we are, basically. There are so many things we do that we shouldn’t do. So many. The thing that freaks people out about AIs is, they think they’re going to be unreasonable. They think they’re going to destroy us, and outlive us. And I would see it in a evolutionary type. They’re not distinct from us, they are a continuation. You could roughly draw an analogy there with children. What we ask of children almost more than anything is that they outlive us. And we would also hope that there’s lots of stuff that goes with that: We would hope their lives would be at least as good as ours, and hopefully better. Now, if you frame an AI in that way, what’s the threat? I’m one of those people who think we’re going to die on this rock. That’s what going to happen. A few of us might die on Mars, but the rest of us are going to die on this rock. And AIs might be all of us that survive. They might go to places we can’t go to. And why would you want to stop that happening? We don’t have a choice about dying on this rock. Some part of us might keep going, and why would you want to be in the way of that? I know that sounds ridiculously long-term futurist, but that is actually what I believe.
The Dissolve: With that continuity in mind, can you see doing a sequel to this story?
Garland: Nah, fuck that. I’m not interested. When you’ve worked on something for two years, what you really want to do is start something new, not do it again.