Exclusive: Ex Machina writer/director Alex Garland on 'small' sci-fi films, sentient machines and going mainstream

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Apr 28, 2015, 5:25 PM EDT

One of the best films of the year so far is the sleeper hit Ex Machina, the directorial debut of screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland. Garland also wrote the film's original script, which follows a wealthy, brilliant, but possibly insane scientist named Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) as he creates what may be a sentient android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). When Nathan brings one of his employees, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to his remote lab/living space to determine if Ava is truly self-aware, the three of them become entangled in a web of deception, psychological manipulation, and even sexual politics, with unforeseen consequences.

Garland first made his mark nearly 20 years ago with his debut novel, The Beach, but embarked on a screenwriting career in 2002 that started with the modern horror classic 28 Days Later and has stayed firmly in genre territory ever since. He wrote the underrated 2007 sci-fi film Sunshine for 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle, and followed that with an adaptation in 2010 of the literary novel about clones, Never Let Me Go. In 2012, he wrote and produced an excellent adaptation of the iconic British comic book Dredd, which instantly erased memories of Sylvester Stallone but, sadly, failed to take off at the box office.

Garland has yet to land that big mainstream box office hit, but Ex Machina is doing nicely right now in an expanding release and will hopefully pave the way for bigger projects. Garland has a unique grasp of sci-fi that Hollywood could use more of, and it was a pleasure to speak with him by phone about Ex Machina, his views on sci-fi movies and what's next.

It seems like you had a lot of different things and thematic concerns on your mind with this film and this story. What did you start out with and how did the initial concept change as you wrote it?

Alex Garland: The thing I really liked about this idea is that it had something very, very simple about it, which could then build out to encompass a lot of other stuff. So, it has a sci-fi elegance about it in that respect. And basically, if you start looking at strong artificial intelligence, you know, the idea in particular of sentient machines, inevitably and almost immediately you also talk about humans and human consciousness because the issues of one relate to issues of the other. Soon as you do that, you’re then talking also about human relationships and how they interact with each other and that spreads out to sort of global things about how we relate to each other in terms of gender and society and power structures and deception and you name it, you know. So, from this very, very simple starting point, it just felt like it expanded out in a way that was also natural and kind of unforced. 

You don’t directly address the concept of the singularity (the potential moment in history when artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence) in the film, but you certainly brush up against it...

It’s sort of implicit.

Was that something that you were also thinking about? And why is it important for this idea to be out there?

From my point of view, it’s partly because I think that there’s a growing sense of fear about artificial intelligence that you see manifested a lot at the moment. It’s partly in films, these tons of films about AI which take a sideways or fearful look at it. And also, there’s a lot of public statements in increasing numbers -- Steve Wozniak or Stephen Hawking or Elon Musk, you know, making very clear statements of alarm about AI and the Singularity and stuff like that. Part of my starting point on this was that, on an instinctive level, I don’t feel affiliated with that sense of concern. My instinctive position is that I actually want it. I like the idea of the Singularity and sentient machines. So, I guess that’s the angle I was coming from. 

Did you know from the start that you wanted to direct this? How long had you been thinking of making that leap?

I didn’t really think in those terms. In some respect, I don’t actually care about that label and the associations of that label. In some respects, I actually found them an impediment more than a help. When I was writing the script, all I was thinking about was the same thing I always think about when I’m trying to write a script: Does this work? Is there a movie in here? Does it acquit itself with the themes and the characters and does the story feel integrated? Everything else is sort of like a distant secondary concern. I’ve written a lot of films by now, and I know how hard I struggle with those basic things and fail to achieve them, sometimes. So, it’s like, I’ve got enough on my plate without worrying about the director’s part in this.

So, you didn’t write it with directing in mind, but once it became evident that you would direct it, was there a sense of wanting to keep it small and something that you could find manageable?

No, I wanted to keep it small for other reasons. For example, Dredd wasn’t a small film by my terms. That felt like quite a big movie and quite sprawling with a lot of stuff going on in it. The reason to keep this small was simply because this story and the way I wanted to execute the story required pretty much total creative freedom, and the way to get creative freedom at the level of film I work in is to make it as cheaply as you can. So, it’s to do with protecting the movie basically. I mean, you can imagine if somebody said -- and by the way, people have said this kind of thing -- if we inject a car chase or something like that, you know, or a big fight in a helicopter and then the helicopter crashes and people jump out and carry on the fight on the ground and all that kind of stuff, it would interfere hugely tonally and actually thematically on every level with this film. So, the budget and the contained quality were about having the freedom to do it properly.

The movie really shows that, to make a compelling science-fiction film, you don’t necessarily need armadas of spaceships and exploding planets and armies of robots and all that. Do you see that reliance on spectacle and loads of visual effects as perhaps a problem with some of the paths that science-fiction cinema has taken?

I think what I fear, and it’s very much a product of how old I am -- I’m in my mid-40s, so a lot of my influence has come from the '70s, and my favorite period of film is the '70s, I would say. What would happen back then is that pretty much, broadly speaking, science-fiction would, whatever level it was, contain ideas. So, in fact, you could have movies that were quite big movies in some respect, in terms of action sequences and a sense of a lot of scale, but they’d also have some kind of agenda within them. Often, quite a subversive agenda. I mean, actually, I should open it out slightly from the 1970s. So, broadly speaking, if you look at Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Silent Running and any number of films which are not like the most obviously cerebral sci-fi films -- I guess the best example of that is 2001 or Solaris or something -- but Logan’s Run has ideas in it. Soylent Green does. Westworld does. They’re satires and commentaries and things like that. So, I come from that period. I grew up with that period. I liked the idea of big ideas tucked within sci-fi -- in fact not even tucked, just sitting there front and center. My favorite thing about science-fiction is that it gives you the permission to have big ideas and not feel embarrassed about it. The other genres often sort of cringe a bit from big ideas as if they’re sort of pretentious, but sci-fi is actually pretty relaxed and kind of embracing of that stuff.

You started out as a novelist. Did you read a lot of science-fiction literature growing up? Because your screenplays feel closer to sci-fi literature in some ways.

That’s very flattering, actually, and I’ve certainly read a lot. I would read a lot of J.G. Ballard and Ray Bradbury. Ballard would have this strange sort of sense of unearthliness and surrealism. Bradbury would have these little sort of agendas and commentaries nestled in there, and also some good, old-fashioned storytelling technique as well. In some respects, his stories functioned a bit like episodes of The Twilight Zone, you know. You’d finish it, and you put it down and you'd go, "Huh." At the age of 10 or 11, you think about it a bit before you moved onto the next one. And I always loved that. I always really loved that.

One of the biggest British sci-fi authors at one time was John Wyndham, but he's not spoken about as much any more. Was he an influence on you?

John Wyndham was a massive influence. In fact, the start of 28 Days Later wasn’t a homage, it was a steal, really. The start of 28 Days Later is pretty much the start of (Wyndham's) Day of the Triffids. Basically, a guy wakes up in a hospital to find that London is transformed and he has to some extent an advantage over the surroundings that other people don’t have. I mean, in one case, they’re blind, and in another, they’re sort of zombies. But the mechanics are basically the same. But yeah, John Wyndham was a massive influence. It’s quite interesting you say that, because I’ve noticed recently that, when I invoke people like John Wyndham now, people don’t know who I’m talking about. And if we were having the same conversation 25 years ago, I feel many more people would have known who I was talking about. There’s something a little bit sad about that for me, because he is a really interesting writer, and I can feel him slowly sort of sinking into the quicksand of history.

(The next question and answer contain what may be small spoilers for Ex Machina)

Back to the film. A question came up in a discussion I was having: does Nathan ever think to build a kill switch in his creations?

There isn’t a kill switch in them and there’s various reasons for it. They relate to the same reasons why he is not, for example, observing Asimov's laws of robotics. It’s to do with free will in some respects. What Nathan is doing is basically self-destructive. It may not be fully sane or rational but, in his mind, he’s creating a succession of artificial intelligence, sentient machines, each one of them more sophisticated and effectively more refined and better than the previous one. He’s doing this knowing that, at a certain point, what’s going to happen is one of these machines is going to outsmart him and it's the nature of being outsmarted that you don’t know it’s happening as it happens. But it’s actually being done with that intention. And he knows that, when it happens, it’ll be bad news for him, but he’s doing it anyway, because it’s effectively a kind of hurrying along of the evolutionary situation in some respects, and something that he feels is inevitable. In a way, he’d rather it's him that’s part of it rather than someone else, just so that he could be there at that moment. So, a kill switch or the laws of robotics would be protective of things he's not actually interested in.

(end potential spoilers)

You mentioned before that directing is not necessarily your primary concern. But at the same time we have seen people like Duncan Jones and Rian Johnson and Josh Trank, all of whom have made smaller films, getting involved in bigger franchises. If you were offered the chance to participate in one of these bigger franchises, would that be something you’d want to entertain and is there one that you are interested in?

It’s a complicated thing. With Rian Johnson, I’m a huge admirer of what he’s created and what he’s done. I thought Looper was some really excellent filmmaking, and it’s partly because I’m aware of what he’s done that I can see that what he’s good at is what I’m not good at. It gives me pause. I’ve worked on a bunch of films for years as a filmmaker, with other filmmakers -- the team collaborative thing -- and I can see now that there’s a repeating pattern. And the repeating pattern is that the films I work on just don’t break out. They just miss some mainstream sensibility. It’s not an unusual experience for me to be out there selling a movie like Dredd and having people say, "I really like Never Let Me Go." Or, I was out selling Never Let Me Go and people were saying, "I really like Sunshine." And in this case, with Ex Machina people are saying, "Oh, I really like Dredd." And so it goes on. But all of those films, if you look at it with a kind of cold unblinking eye, they were failures in terms of the industry. Creatively, I might like them, and other people might like them, but in the mainstream, they just didn’t pop. What that leads me to believe is I’m the wrong guy to do a big franchise, because something there doesn’t connect. And it’s not like it's any subconscious thing -- I wasn't trying to do Dredd in a way that was not mainstream. Believe me, I’d have loved for Dredd to work. That would have been great from my point of view. I really wanted people to go and see Sunshine. It was a personal kind of disappointment, and you feel kind of bad about it when it doesn’t work out that way. It’s not like I’m self-consciously trying to take this sort of weird off-to-the-side position. It’s more just something to do with my sensibility which just doesn't work on a big stage, I guess. 

Are you working on something now? 

I’ve just submitted a script called Annihilation, which is based on a novel by an American writer named Jeff Vandermeer. Jeff just wrote this really strange, really quite beautiful book actually, that Scott Rudin, one of the producers of Ex Machina, suggested I read. So, I just submitted an adaptation of that to the studio and we're waiting to find out if we're getting the money to make it. The key thing about this project is that I really want to do it, but it’s twice the budget of Ex Machina and so, in some respects, twice as hard to get finance for it. If I’d had mainstream success in the past I think it might be relatively easy to get finance for it. But when you’ve got a track record of losing money, it’s harder.

Annihilation is a great book and I'm glad you're adapting it, so I really hope that happens.

Well, so do I. I mean, I think it could be really interesting. For what it's worth, I did an adaptation for the novel Never Let Me Go which is like holding up a mirror to the novel. This is not holding up a mirror. This is more fluid than that. But I absolutely love the book and I guess I’ve been thinking about it in the way David Cronenberg approached some of his adaptations, where you are true to the spirit of the story as much as anything.

Ex Machina is out in theaters now.