A very deep conversation with Alex Garland about his new Sci-Fi classic 'Ex Machina'
For a man whose directorial debut has earned almost uniformly stellar reviews, Alex Garland seems slightly pessimistic about what might come next. It's likely because of his experiences writing "Sunshine," "Never Let Me Go" and "Dredd." All three earned some heaping of critical praise, but either disappointed or had middling success at the box office. "Ex Machina," which has already had success on the other side of the Atlantic, may break that trend.
A contemporary science fiction thriller, "Machina" finds a young programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), dropped off at the remote estate of his company's mysterious and genius founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb has won a contest at their Google-like company to spend a week with this powerful, Steve Jobs-esque figure, but he soon learns, however, that he's been recruited for a specific experiment. Nathan has secretly been developing an artificial intelligence that "lives" within a walking and talking robotic body. Caleb has been brought in to interact with Eva (Alicia Vikander) and help determine if "she" has really reached a true level of independent consciousness.
Garland sat down with HitFix earlier this month to discuss whether machines can actually achieve human-level A.I., finding great actors (quite easy it seems), the film's stunning production design and what's next.
HitFix: You’ve probably heard this question a hundred times but…
Alex Garland: I think I’ve heard it before.
Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
Three things. When I was 12, [I was coding in the most basic way in the basic language], in a very sort of ultra-simplistic way making it talk so it could do a little routine. 'Hello, how are you. I’m fine. What’s the weather like.' So, very limited but it would give you this weird feeling like it’s alive essentially, you know. And then years later a good friend of mine, his thing is neuroscience and he comes from a position that says machines can’t be sensitive for various reasons. There’s something we don’t understand about consciousness, our consciousness. When we do understand it we’ll see that it precludes the idea that a machine can be conscious and it’s a very reasonable argument which a lot of people believe and it has strong sort of…
He basically believes that a machine can never have consciousness.
Ever. And that’s not a niche position at all. Nor is it a religious position. I mean it is an absolutely kind of well-argued scientifically unphilosophical position, but it didn’t feel right to me. And really because I used to argue against him and be left behind by his literal expertise, I just started reading about it and I read and read and read and another friend of mine who knew that I was sort of getting fixated on the subject matter gave me a book by a guy called Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial which is like our version of MIT. And I started reading the book while we were in prep on Dredd out in South Africa and it really had an impact and it sort of consolidated some of the things I’d been thinking about. [It]sort of answered some of the questions that kept buzzing around my head. And the story for this film just kind of arrived. I wrote it very, very quickly, just a smashed out thing, a way too short piece of shit. You could never film it, but it gets it down [on paper]. And then we made 'Dredd.' At the tail end of that whole thing, I handed it over and then thought, 'Alright, now I’m going to try and get stuck into this' and that was it.
One of the things I love about the movie is you’ve clearly put so much thought into it. I’m just wondering how real some of the ideas presented in the film actually are. For example, there’s a scene in the movie where Oscar’s character brings Domhnall in and he shows him like sort of this brain.
Is that a real thing that is being developed in the scientific community?
No, what that is is a kind of reasonable speculation type thing. There’s two big sort of pillars of science fiction in the film. One is that there’s a sentient machine and the other is the level of robotics on display, because you couldn’t do either at the moment. It just wouldn’t be possible. But it’s Sci-Fi so you’re allowed to. So, it’s presenting a bunch of ideas which aren’t really my ideas. They’re out there and it’s to represent them fairly and clearly and to dramatize them. I mean, you [can't] say they’re scientifically accurate because there is no science there. It’s science fiction. But what you can say is in the issues surrounding the matter this is a reasonable account of the ideas.
What I did was write the script as best I could…then I approached three people and one of them was that professor Murray who I just contacted out of the blue and said, 'Look, I read your book and found it fascinating. I want you to take a hard look at this and I want you to test it.' Another was a lady names Gia Malinovich who I wanted to check her to look at other aspects of the film. And [geneticist and science writer] Adam Rutherford had another set of things that he was looking at. If it’s an ideas movie there’s a thesis. If the thesis is bullshit the whole thing’s a fucking waste of time, right? And it really would devalue it. I worked a few years ago on a film 'Sunshine' where I felt I’d seriously dropped the ball in some respects in terms of losing track of the connection between characters, themes, argument and narrative.
You thought they weren’t integrated enough?
They’d separate and then reconnect or not reconnect or whatever. On a personal level I was not at all satisfied with that. I then had a kind of object lesson because the thing I did after 'Sunshine' was 'Never Let Me Go' and that was a novel adaptation where this amazing novelist had an argument and a character and themes that were really beautifully enmeshed and intelligently enmeshed and was almost demonstrating how badly I had managed some of this stuff previously. It’s very good [when you do an] adaptation because you get inside the writer’s head a little bit to a degree. I don’t want to overstate it, but to a degree you really think about 'Why this is like that? Why has he done this at this moment?'
Do you feel like you couldn’t have made 'Ex Machina' unless you had adapted 'Never Let Me Go'?
I think I could have made this film without all of the preceding movies. In one way or another everything previously gets played out here.
Segueing a bit, let's talk about the production design. It's almost a fifth character in the movie. Is Nathan's remote estate supposed to be in Iceland?
No. We were specifically avoiding Iceland because everyone else keeps shooting in Iceland. One of the things about film is that it has this unbelievable tolerance with familiarity. It’s weird. Sometimes it embraces familiarity and other times it kicks it in the teeth. So, Iceland was out. Because we knew what productions were going there and we knew which ones had been there. We looked at the Alps. It’s sort of doubling for maybe Alaska or something like that.
I wasn’t sure.
It’s not doubling for. It’s someplace.
O.K., it’s not a specific place.
But the question is what effect does it have on the viewer and if you stick cameras around the Alps what you keep finding is that you’re just too familiar with this imagery. You’ve seen it on a chocolate box or a postcard or just as like in a window as a backdrop in a travel agent's [office]. I don’t know. You know it too much. The thing about Norway was…
Ah, so Norway.
…It had this significant difference. It hasn’t been seen much. It’s got something desolate about it. It’s very beautiful and it’s very powerful. These big [expletive] skies. These powerful waterfalls. These stunning mountains and the green and the rock, But there’s a hardness in there. There’s a sort of power and a hardness amongst all the beauty. You’ve also got this CEO of a tech company and if we know anything about those guys it’s that they’re rich, right? So, they’ve got [expletive] of money and we’ve got 15 million dollars, a lot of it which is going on a VFX budget. So, how do you get the right house with the claustrophobia and the aesthetic and the wealth and the power in the landscape? It turned out to be Norway partly because of the beautiful landscape, it’s not that familiar on an unconscious level. Partly because they’re the smartest country in the world in some respects because when they discovered oil they nationalized it and they kept it. They didn’t squander it. They made their society affluent. And what you find in Norway is these incredible architectural conceits in the middle of nowhere. It was kind of perfect.
It was a six week shoot, four of it on a sound stage and two of it in Norway. We found a house and a hotel built by the same architect about 15 minutes away from each other in an incredible rural dramatic setting, remote setting. Then some of the design cues we carried from Norway back to Pinewood Studios. I mean we shot Pinewood first. So, some of that went back to Pinewood and some of it went the other way. You know, through the magic of cinema.