In the science-fiction thriller "Ex Machina," Domhnall Gleeson ("Unbroken") stars as Caleb, a young computer programmer for BlueBook, a Google-esque tech corporation. As the film opens, Caleb learns that he's won a company-wide raffle to spend a week at the remote estate of BlueBook's founder, a reclusive genius named Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac, "Inside Llewyn Davis"). But once he arrives, Caleb learns that he's actually been selected to administer a Turing test on Nathan's latest creation, a robot he's dubbed Ava (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander). The goal is to confirm whether Ava's mind is indistinguishable from that of a human's, but things are not as they at first appear, and the motives of all three characters are quickly called into question.
Raising intriguing ideas about artificial intelligence, consciousness, and humanity -- all in a sleekly entertaining package (you can read Dayna Papaleo's full review here) -- "Ex Machina" also marks the directing debut of British novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland ("The Beach," "28 Days Later").
City recently spoke with Garland by phone about his new film. An edited transcript of that interview follows.
City Newspaper: How long was "Ex Machina" kicking around in your head, and what first interested you in centering a story around the idea of artificial intelligence?
Alex Garland: I've been reading up on A.I. and human consciousness for a long time. I mean, probably at least 10 years in sort of an earnest way. But the actual idea as a film -- as a story -- came to me when I was working in pre-production on the movie "Dredd." We were out in Africa getting ready to shoot and I was reading a book about it while I was out there and it came to me, and I just quickly got it down.
The story's robot, Ava, looking very much like a woman is obviously deliberate, and a lot of the projects you've worked on have this underlying examination of societal power structures and gender roles. Do you gravitate toward projects that contain those sorts of ideas, or is that something that you find yourself injecting into them?
Well, the way this stuff works with me is I've got a bunch of things going through my head and the stories I end up writing at that point reflect those things. And in this movie, I know what's playing a part in it is that I've got two children and one of them is a daughter, and I'm aware of the kind of influences that exist and are beginning to emerge. It can start to play a role when children are surprisingly young. So some of it comes out of that, but also some of it comes out of just talking with friends and the things that are going on in their lives. I've got one friend in particular who's very committed to gender issues, and it's a big part of her life. She's a friend of mine and we talk about it, so it sort of entered into my perspective as well.
I wanted to talk a bit about the design of Ava; she's so striking visually, and her appearance is such a key part of the character. How much of a hand did you have in her look?
Well, I was a part of the team of people that were designing her. Initially the design was being done between me and a guy called Jock. He's a comic book artist -- also a friend really -- and we got to know each other when working on "Dredd." We worked very well together, so actually the first person who got brought into the filmmaking team was Jock. He was literally the first one on the payroll. So me and Jock would kind of bounce ideas backwards and forwards and try to figure out what Ava looked like, and initially a lot of that had to do with what she didn't look like. Avoiding references and things that looked like they belonged in other movies, like "Star Wars." You know, if there was gold metal on her, or white plastic to avoid "I, Robot" and stuff like that. And then the task was partly to make her look like a machine, and make it very clear she was a machine so that there's no doubt within the logic of the story that she isn't a young woman dressed up as a robot. And that's the trick of the story. Also then once you establish she's a machine, to give her elements that are more feminine. She has this mesh that follows the contours of her skin, or specifically the contours of Alicia Vikander's skin, so that you get a strange sense of something that's a machine but also has an intensely feminine aspect to it.
How much was practical and how much was digital?
Well, if you can roughly imagine what Ava looks like in your mind, she's got this kind of missing sections of body and then she has other sections that are like a suit with a mesh overlaid onto it. So you get that grey solid section in her shoulders and chest and hips. That solid section is practical and when we were shooting it, she was wearing a full body suit like a grey, webbed, mesh Spider-Man. And then what the effects guys did was swap out the midriff, arms and legs, and the neck and the back of the head with the visual effect component. So the practical effect is the grey mesh and the visual effect is everything else. And of course her face is a practical effect. It's the actresses' face, but it was a prosthetic around it to create that sort of mask.
I read that Alicia has a background in ballet. When you were casting, were you deliberately looking for performers who had that sort of physicality?
No, no that was a total bit of fortune really. I'd seen Alicia in a Danish film called "A Royal Affair" and was really impressed by her. It was a really stunning performance. As a very young actress she had a lot of power and a lot of authority. Clearly very, very talented. I didn't know she was a ballerina until I'd already decided I wanted to offer her the part, so that turned out to be just a really fortunate discovery.
Without giving too much away, there's a dance sequence in the film. It's so unexpected and hilarious, and particularly with where it falls, it has the effect of throwing you off guard when you're watching the film. How did that scene come about? Was it always in the script?
It was always in there, yeah. Well I say it was always in there, but it wasn't in the first draft. But it was in the shooting script. It came from various things. Partly because I'm looking for sort of playful ways that this character, Nathan, can bully and intimidate the character Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson. So it's partly just for that and partly the strangeness of it and the humor of it and the weirdness of it. But it's also because I think you learn as you're going along in your filmmaking life, if you're lucky to be able to make more than one, there's things you get wrong in the earlier movies that you then hopefully manage to figure out. There's a film I'd worked on a few years ago called "Never Let Me Go," where there was a kind of monotone. It fit the tone [of that story] really well, but then we didn't vary from that tone. And in some respects "Ex Machina" is kind of similar to "Never Let Me Go," but I wanted to make sure that I was more aggressive with the tone and I mixed it up a bit. So I was always hunting for ways to kind of jangle it and create spikes.
And I have to imagine that was fun to shoot.
It was great. It was really, really enjoyable. I mean the whole shoot was really fun, but I remember that day the crew and everybody just loved it. Because we had this fantastic track blasting out and we could all sit around watching Sonoya Mizuno and Oscar Isaac do this fantastic disco scene. It was great fun. A lot of people turned up that day to watch it as well. People who wouldn't normally be on set, but were connected with the production in some way. They all knew we were gonna be shooting it, so they all mysteriously turned up that day to watch.
This is your first film in the director's chair. How was the shift going from screenwriter to director for you? How did it compare to the transition from novelist to screenwriter?
The transition from novel writing to screenwriting was very big. I had a massive learning curve and that was a substantial shift. From screenwriting to directing was essentially invisible. It hardly existed. Also, I think I just sort of see this stuff slightly differently than I sense we're supposed to. I don't place a huge importance on the role of the director. They're just one of the people making a film. I've been working in film now for 15 years, and I don't think there's one thing that I can point to and say here was this major, big deal that arrived because of directing. Every film I've worked on up to this point has been a group of people working together to make a movie. And this one was a group of people working together to make a movie. It's pretty much the same thing.
All the films you've been involved with have fallen within a spectrum of the sci-fi and horror genres. What is it about those genres that appeals to you, and do you ever see yourself making a more straightforward drama?
I'd do whatever, really. I've written different kinds of stories -- non-science-fiction stories -- as novels. And I kind of think you just do the thing that's fixating you at that moment. But that said, there are things about sci-fi I really love. In particular what I like about science fiction is the kind of permission it gives you. There's a lot of freedom working in sci-fi: you're allowed to have big ideas and people aren't embarrassed by them. It often feels like people are kind of embarrassed by big ideas when they're in dramas or action movies. It's sort of like people feel they're inappropriate or sophomoric or that kind of thing. But in sci-fi they actually want it, and they seek it out.
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