Interview: Alex Garland Talks Lo-Fi Approach To 'Ex Machina,' Auteur Theory, And Much More

If you ask Alex Garland, writer and director of "Ex Machina," if his goal was to make the film a "game changer" for the genre, he would probably say, "Hell, no." What he's likely to say is that he wanted to make a think piece, a solid science fiction film. And that's exactly what "Ex Machina" is.

"Ex Machina" screened at SXSW last month (read our review) and we caught up with Garland after the premiere to talk about the film. There’s a lot of moving parts to "Ex Machina" but it all comes together when it needs to. When talking to him, we learned some kind of charming facts about him that happen to be polar opposites from each other: he knows all about movie robots and the films with artificial intelligence, but in the real world, his world, he’s very out of touch with technology. This accidentally worked in his favor for the film.

Read on to learn how Garland made a micro-budget project visually match a studio release, as well as carefully constructing his A.I. robot to separate itself from others you’ve seen before.

You did a really terrific job with the visuals. When designing the compound facility and all the technology involved in the film, how much planning went into it so this movie in 20 years will stay relevant to science fiction, or was that even a goal you were thinking about when making the movie? It’s fascinating when watching films like "Terminator" how the technology is now dated.
With these questions, or more specifically with the answers, there's a danger you can rationalize stuff. 'Cause it's so, so easy to get pat and rationalize things, retrospectively. And often kid yourself that it's actually true, that the rationalization is what happened. But the real thing is, say in this film, there's no holistic vision in that sense. It's piecemeal.

So for example, the design of Ava is not in a broader context of the of the historical place that this film might exist, either within the internal universe of the film, or the external thing of it being watched in 20 years time in our world. You know, it's got nothing to do with either of those things. It's really got to do with film history, which is that the first time she walks on the screen, I didn't want people to start thinking about other movies with other robots. I want them to be attached to her, this robot.

"The first part of the design of Ava, was finding out what she could not look like, rather than what she could look like."

So, in a weird way, the first part of the design of Ava was finding out what she could not look like, rather than what she could look like. And there were some specifics. I found it quite interesting. Gold metal made you think of C3P0. A metallic chest, which had a sort of metal structure to the breast immediately made you think of "Metropolis," and you couldn't get away from it. It was just there. White plastic made you think of either [Bjork's “All is Full of Love" robot music video from] Chris Cunningham or more "I, Robot."

So that's her, right? So then there's the house. Well, the house thing is just really a simple, practical problem. We're a low budget film, and we're making a film about a low budget millionaire who does not have a low budget; he's got a lot of money. So how does a low budget film create something or find something that's got the vibe of someone who has a lot of money when we don't have that money. So that's really kind of like a domestic, almost banal problem.

That's about old-fashioned filmmaking graft of location hunting and looking through millions of photos and, you know, it's sort of as simple as that. And then, more broadly ... I'm gonna give you two more and then you can get bored with this answer. (Laughs)

No, you actually just answered another question, so keep going! (Laughs)
Okay. (Laughs) When someone would ask me, "When is this taking place," I'd say it's 10 minutes in the future.

You just answered the 3rd question! (Laughs)
All right, so there you go!

Keep going!
(Laughs) Okay, so, there's a ton of stuff you do not need to invent. I don't need to get anyone to redesign what a glass looks like or a mug, or a kettle, because you just buy one, and that's cool. You know, he's got a nice kettle, that's it, and so when he makes tea or whatever it is, there's a tap, it's just a tap. Certain kind of sci-fi, "Aeon Flux" or something, you have to redesign everything, but this is the opposite of that, it's our world.

And then the fourth strand of this incredibly convoluted design answer is key cards. Now, I'm really interested in science. I'm interested in A.I.s. I'm interested in human consciousness and a bunch of different things, but I'm also 44 and I'm out of touch in a lot of ways. And there's all sorts of stuff my kids know about to do with technology that I don't know. I'm not very tech-savvy about a lot of gadgets. I thought when I was writing it, the key cards was like a cool futuristic way of getting around this fucking house, right? Retrospectively, you're laughing because it's so stupid, and retrospectively, it's been pointed out to me, this is like the most lo-fi thing you could possibly do. You could have retinal scanners and you can buy a fucking phone which checks your fingerprint, and what, he's using a key card — it’s preposterous.

It's pretty clever how you brought old school into new school.
Yeah, but it's an accident. I actually got that because probably like 15-20 years ago I read something about Bill Gates, who had a key card system in his house and I thought, "Well, that's futuristic." So then 20 years later, I'm writing this script and I'm putting in what was the future 20 years ago. It's ridiculous. I mean, it's like I'm my grandmother. (Laughs)

I want to talk about Ava's design. It’s fascinating that you chose hands, feet, and face to be the only flesh for her. What made you choose those three parts of the body? Obviously the face, but why the hands and the feet for flesh?
So, okay, the face is — I just wanted the range of subtle expression, for that human-like interaction. The truth about the hands and the feet were, we were not able at our budget range swap them out because to create a midriff, shoulders, breasts... Often all these things are swapped out in the film. Legs are very durable.

But the hands can become incredibly complicated and expensive. And, so then we tried her wearing gloves, and the thing about Ava's body is she's wearing a suit. The actress is wearing a suit, which packs her out. She's actually a very delicate girl, you know.

But the suit just beefs her up slightly and you get away with that, actually, because she's so slender and delicate, on her torso and legs. But on her hands, it was like she was gonna thump you, like she had big sort of fists, like she was gonna take a swing.

And I took one look at the gloves and said, "We just can't do that." So then me and Andrew Whitehurst, the VFX guy had a quick, sort of like thing of like, "What the fuck are we gonna do?"

And this was like a few days before we start shooting, and basically Andrew's methodology which he came up with was to use black bands. Because if there was gonna be a hand over between VFX and practical, the mesh would be incredibly hard to match up, but a black band gives you all this tolerance, and... Look, the thing about particularly low budget filmmaking is to be told the practical parameters and then to be as inventive as you can within them, and to try to find ways of making them into a virtue where possible. Even if you're just doing it to kid yourself and everyone around you to feel like it's a virtue, rather than an impediment, is important.

Something else I found fascinating and rather noble. At the Q&A last night, you spoke about this being your directorial debut, and you talked about how Hollywood shouldn’t deify directors and that it's a complete process from the whole crew working on the film and that you're a writer first and foremost, and that everyone involved in the film is the filmmaker. I thought that was a really amazing statement — will you elaborate on it? 
It doesn't seem to me like a surprising observation. It just seems to me to be clearly true. I think that film does allow for the existence of auteurs. I wouldn't need a lot of convincing if somebody made a case to me that Woody Allen is an auteur. It feels like yes, he is. But I've been working in film for a long time and what I have observed a lot is that they're quite hard to find. However, the way the film is presented to the world is that they're not hard to find. The vision of the director, it's a marketing tool, and it's a way of kind of dignifying the process.

"The vision of the director, it's a marketing tool, and it's a way of kind of dignifying the process."

And there is a lot of myth around it, and there's a lot of bullshit around it, and I find it boring. But I also think it's actually, it's not to the advantage of cinema, because what I think happens sometimes is that people are given too much power that actually shouldn't have that much power. Some of the supporting team in that pyramid structure are trained to be deferential at times, when they shouldn't be deferential, they should be assertive, and they should say, "I think this is a better way of doing it." And it's somewhere in my head, it's something like a kind of anarchy. It's like the right kind of anarchy where everyone is working semi-autonomously but doing the right thing, 'cause they're pulling in the same direction or something like that. All right, now that answer actually has an element of the rationalization that I was trying to avoid earlier embedded within in it I would say, but I don't know. It's very, very hard to answer this question. I've tried to answer these questions honestly. This is a particularly difficult question to answer, honestly.

One of the things is, all those names that appear at the end of a film, they're not there by chance, you know? And when people talk about how a director mounted a camera, or what the fuck do they think a DP does, you know? Why does this guy get so valued within the filmmaking community, but so ignored outside it. Does that imply a deception somewhere?

And actually with that DP, why do filmmakers value production designers so much? You know, if all these people are doing is adhering to their vision, why do they value these people so much? Why do productions fight over production designers, you know? If it's all this one guy's vision? And I would say it's not one guy's vision. It's a collaborative exercise that gets sold as one guy's vision; seems to me a reasonable answer to that question.

That's a great answer and I want the readers to see that and hopefully more people will understand that films are more than the director. It's about the collaborative process.
I think it would be fair to say that the collaboration would be something you could celebrate, rather than try and deny.

[Note: This interview was originally published on Indiewire's The Playlist.]