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Alex Garland Is Not God

The man behind some of the most chilling and intelligent science fiction of the past 20 years has finally directed his first movie, the artificial-intelligence thriller ‘Ex Machina.’ Just don’t call him an ‘auteur.’

“What is a director? Tell me what a director is.”

Alex Garland poses this rhetorical challenge while sitting at the bar of West Hollywood’s London Hotel. The British-born Garland is in town promoting his sci-fi chess match Ex Machina and emphatically making a point about how movies are made. After 28 Days Later … , Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd — movies that he wrote but did not direct — Ex Machina finally finds Garland at the helm. He is, finally, the vaunted “writer-director.” And since he created the world of Ex Machina, including its science, visual language, and ominous pace, it would not be inaccurate to call him an auteur.

“I am not an auteur,” says Garland, who has brows like police barricades and the physical bearing of a retired center back. “I’ve got no problem with auteur theory as long as it’s not applied in a blanket way. As long as it’s not everything, because I’m telling you as a statement of fact, it’s not everything. I’m not saying the director is not the auteur [and] someone else is. I’m saying there’s no auteur.”

But in Ex Machina, there is an auteur. The movie begins with a programmer at the world’s leading search engine, BlueBook, being summoned to the home of the company’s bro-talking Colonel Kurtz. There, this programmer is required to conduct a Turing test on an AI that looks like a beautiful woman and may or may not have an agenda of its own. It’s a story about artificial intelligence, not-artificial intelligence, trust, love, parenthood, sincerity, watching Oscar Isaac exercise, the ethics of surveillance, the future of the human race, and beer. Garland wrote the script, but the script is only one part of a film that hinges on a consistency of aesthetic execution: the astonishing Norwegian hotel and house in which the film is set; the sound design and VFX that push the AI, Ava, deep into the uncanny valley; the photography and cinematography, striving toward appalled infatuation.

“If in a production you have one person in primacy in prep, another in primacy in the shoot, and another in primacy in the edit, who’s the auteur? There’s no fucking auteur. There’s a group of people. And they might all get along. They might not,” he says, laughing. “But they might!”

Dozens of people, sometimes hundreds, make a film, but the public sees only one, or a handful. In Ex Machina, the question of what we see — what we think we see — is constantly changing. More than anything, it seems, Garland wants us to be aware of that: not what we’re seeing, but the act of seeing itself. Because it isn’t our eyes that deceive us — it’s what’s being put in front of them.

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If you are British and between the ages of 35 and 50, you probably remember The Beach, a novel about young backpackers in Southeast Asia groping for some version of utopia. If you are American and familiar with Leonardo DiCaprio, i.e., if you are American, you probably remember The Beach, a movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio jumps off cliffs. Garland wrote the novel based on his backpacking trips to Southeast Asia in his late teens. Growing up the son of a newspaper cartoonist, he was surrounded by foreign correspondents, including his godfather, always traveling back and forth from Laos and Vietnam with bags of sweets for him and his brother.

At first, Garland imagined he’d be a cartoonist like his dad, until he learned enough to know that his drawing skills would never reach the necessary level. Then he thought he’d be a foreign correspondent like the men he grew up idolizing, until he realized he had a problem with being definitive.

“It took me a long time to understand how confident nonfiction writers need to be in order to say, ‘This is what happened,’” Garland says. “I noticed that many nonfiction writers, in whatever capacity they’re doing it, don’t say, ‘This is what I think happened,’ they say, ‘This is what happened,’ and I would get stuck on that transitional moment. I remember submitting a bit of writing to a subeditor who just said, ‘You are reasonable-ing this out of existence. Like, I don’t give a shit about all of these qualifying arguments you’re making. Just be clear what you think.’ I actually found that paralyzing: I think I get very nervous about stating an opinion because I know how fluid my opinions are and I know my hypocrisies and I know how wrong I can be. There are many times I could’ve sworn ‘x’ happened, and two weeks later I find out it was ‘y.’ I wasn’t lying — I just didn’t see the other part of the angle.”

This realization was manifested in The Beach, which solved the problem for him. Released when Garland was only 26, the book became a sensation when the paperback began circulating among the backpacking types Garland had once been. Since then, it has become a significant part of English literature. It placed at 103 — one spot ahead of Bram Stoker’s Dracula — in the BBC’s 2003 survey of the most-loved British books.

As the novel gained momentum, two separate reactions were brewing in Garland. First, he finished his second book, The Tesseract, and turned it in to his publishers. Meanwhile, in increasingly positive reviews of The Beach, critics identified techniques, scaffolding, and symbolism that Garland never intended. A realization struck him: He absolutely, no question, did not want to write novels anymore.

“Initially, I felt — and I’ve heard other people say this before — I felt like a massive fraud and [like] I was two inches from getting busted,” Garland says. “It’s tricky with these things, because there’s a pattern in interviews that one can do of being self-deprecating and modest and showing how much humility you’ve got. I am aware of that, and I’m not trying to do it. I’ve often, often heard people talk about, at the first moment of success, the overwhelming sense that you’re a fraud, and I got it big time.”

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Second, the production company turning The Beach into a film invited Garland to visit the set as an observer. In director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald, Garland saw camaraderie, companionship, togetherness, fun. He liked what he saw; it was the artistic opposite of novelistic isolation, sitting in a room alone and wrestling with prose. He had a pizza with Macdonald on Charlotte Street in London and pitched him an idea: running zombies set in London during daytime.

He wrote the first version of the script in a week, but it took Garland five drafts, with Macdonald essentially teaching him how to be a screenwriter along the way, to arrive at the version of 28 Days Later … that became a critical and commercial hit. He gave back his advance for two more books, and the zombie movie became his job. Boyle eventually came onboard, and the tight infrastructure of the writer-producer relationship, which Garland calls one of the key dynamics in a film, inflated to include their new director. Along with Boyle, collaborator upon collaborator had to be folded into the mix. Here was the model of a happy family, the Merry Men Making a Film that Garland had so admired on the set of The Beach. But in a theme that returns over and over again in Garland’s work, appearances can be, if not deceiving, than at least withholding.

“What I learned very quickly was something I’d never understood before about the dynamic of a rock band, where from the outside, it’s this rock-solid team, and on the inside they can be at each other’s fucking throats,” he says. “We vacillated between being really tight and trying to kill each other. By the way, I’m not talking about me and Danny — I’m talking about me and Danny and Andrew. It was kind of brilliant, but it was not easy.”

Boyle let Garland into every aspect of production: into rehearsals, on set, in the edit. Boyle “knowingly and un-neurotically” encouraged Garland to knead the movie as it came into being.

“I have to be so careful what I say, but I do think we deify directors at our cost as an industry,” he says. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I personally think the right thing to do is to embrace the collaboration, for the simple reason that that is what it is: Embrace the thing that it is.”

Garland pauses.

“The problem is, right, while we’re talking about this stuff, I believe it, but I’m boring myself, partly because I sense how little people want to hear this. Just sell me the film; I’ll decide whether I want to see it or not. But because I really do care about film narrative, it does bug me,” he says. “I love DOPs. I love stills photographers. I love the language.”

He launches into an extended reflection on the value of a talented focus-puller who knows just when to throw focus, or a grip who instinctively starts a movement on a line just a moment later than he was told to. For a man who never went to film school, whose education came at the hands of these lifers — the producer, the set designer, the DP — this fixation makes sense. Where the foreign correspondents who’d passed in and out of his parents’ house once ushered him toward Thailand, these men and women are the ones helping his visions become actual, actionable things.

Another part of it comes from duress. If 28 Days Later … had its moments of productive sparring among the men who made it, his next movie experience, Sunshine, veered over the edge. Another collaboration with Macdonald and Boyle, Garland wrote Sunshine as a hallucinogenic sci-fi film about whether man can stay sane when he faces the hard truths of the universe. The story revolves around the captain of a team on a mission to rescue a dying sun; rather than prolong humanity’s eventual oblivion, the captain and his crew accelerate the process. Along the way, though, the movie became more of a conventional space-thriller, all-too-human humans trying to save the world. That original narrative of the man who looked at God and went insane remains in the villain Pinbacker, but it’s far from the core of the film.

“I know in my heart that’s a good idea for a sci-fi movie, and that idea got shot to shit, and it turned into this other thing — elements of it remain, the setup remains, but not the knockdown,” Garland says. “There is an implication in there that it is someone else’s fault, but it’s not someone else’s fault, it’s my fault, and it was a lesson learned, and I said that’s not going to happen again.”

His next two scripts were Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of the novel by one of Garland’s literary heroes, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Dredd, an ultraviolent action film that has developed a cult following since its release. Adapting Never Let Me Go, Garland lived with a story that he found held up as a metaphor and symbol from any angle he looked at it, a perfect circle of fiction. In adapting it to the screen, he was able to learn from Ishiguro’s consistency and precision.

“It’s pretty much impossible to improve at chess unless you’re playing someone who’s better than you,” he says, “and Ishiguro was categorically better than me.”

Dredd was another story. If you were mapping out the arc of Garland’s professional life, Dredd would be the nadir. The hyperaggression and brutality of the film was not a coincidence — it was a reflection of his state of mind. Although he’s happy with the finished product now, the process was, as he calls it, “deranged, actually deranged,” and, as a collaborator, he was raging against the compromises he had to make. But while he was in prep on Dredd, for a measure of sanity he banged out, again in about a week, the first draft of Ex Machina.

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Go back through this story so far. Notice something: Garland rarely goes more than a few separate strains of thought without engaging in meta-narrative. This isn’t necessarily uncommon in interviews, particularly with artists in the middle of press junkets or promotion, when interviews become a significant part of their lives. But unlike the typical head-nod toward the fact that here we are! interviewing! how about that!, Garland’s interest is far more architectural. He is constantly considering and reassessing the way in which he, his crew and actors, his viewers, his characters, and everyone else in his life exist in relationship to one another.

If there’s anything that characterizes Ex Machina, it’s this cartography, this awareness of the straight lines and triangles and messy crossovers in human — and para-human — relationships. When Caleb, Domhnall Gleeson’s nerdcore computer scientist, arrives at the bunker-enclave of Nathan, Oscar Isaac’s brogrammer CEO, he walks in on Isaac beating the shit out of a punching bag. In Ex Machina, Isaac has a shaved head, a Billy Reid model’s beard, and the physique of a mixed martial artist; he looks like he’s spent the last six months rolling a large tire up and down a mountain. Garland and Isaac came up with the character’s look together, aspiring to make him look “more alpha than alpha.”

“It’s in the script that Nathan’s always on that punching bag, so those elements were already there, but I tried to embody them as much as I could. Alex mentioned that he saw him with a beard — I don’t know if he expected the big beard that I came up with,” Isaac says. “One of my inspirations was Stanley Kubrick — a genius with this mysterious, strong, severe look, those glasses that he peers over and that bald head.”

Ex Machina feels distinctively self-contained, from its strains of philosophical inquiry to the physical setting. Garland and Isaac would spend hours on the phone in prep trying to interrogate what Garland had written.

“Alex was fearless, fearless in the best sense. He wasn’t afraid to look at every single inch of the thing and how it worked and be ready to abandon it if it didn’t, or defend it endlessly if he believed in it,” Isaac says. “I would take every argument that Nathan makes and every point that he’s defending and try to make sure that it would all connect — we’d try to do that together.”

This relationship found its allegory in Norway, when the two of them, plus Gleeson and director of photography Rob Hardy, were scouting locations for a scene in which Nathan and Caleb go hiking on Nathan’s property. Isaac says that a stream intervened, a big, icy, rock-filled stream, and they poked along the bank of it looking for a crossing point. Eventually, Isaac settled on a location that was only vaguely fordable, and the rest of the party decided to keep searching — except for Garland.

“I just followed him — if we fell, we would’ve been taken down through the water into the rocks. It would’ve been bad,” Isaac says. “And he helped me over to the other side, and then we started climbing up this huge mountain and talking about religion and consciousness. It was a beautiful moment of just connecting, and, of course, trying to keep up with him.”

Compared to Nathan, Gleeson’s Caleb is a meek and suggestible boy whose status as Ava’s interlocutor quickly becomes more complicated. (Isaac says he picked up a tic from an astrophysicist friend that he put to work on Gleeson: He’d try to interrupt him before he could finish any of his sentences.) Early on, the question of how to test an AI becomes an issue of major importance — how do you know it isn’t just programmed to pass the test? How do you know that it has chosen to pass the test? The click of that door being opened resets the entire alignment of the film. It’s that architecture again: Not only do our feelings about the characters shift; our notion of what the characters are to each other is disrupted, and not for the last time.

“The film is partly about the degree to which you establish or fail to establish what’s going on in someone else’s head,” Garland says. “And part of the thing that’s happening in the film is, What is Nathan? Is he as he appears at face value, or is this an act he’s putting on in order to serve the terms of the test he’s set up?”

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To discuss much more about the ways in which he might be putting Caleb on, or why he would conceivably be putting Caleb on, would ruin some of the movie’s true pleasure. Calling Ex Machina a psychological thriller might even be more useful than calling it sci-fi; like many great sci-fi films, it vaults beyond genre descriptors, and it does this by making its fantastical conceits seem so plausible and supported by its fictional infrastructure that the unreality fades away.

Ex Machina is filled with psychological nuance, forceful acting, and meditative cinematography — the polar opposite of Boyle’s manic, hyperactive camerawork. But Ex Machina’s true achievement is in the rendering of Ava, played by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who has to exceed certain measures of personhood and come up short of others; she must be human without being human.

“It was something Alicia arrived at,” Garland says. “She didn’t know the term ‘uncanny valley,’ but when she said, here’s my idea for how to play Ava, what she was describing was uncanny valley. Essentially, it was to make Ava’s movements human movements, but just better than we do them, so it’s not robotic, it’s us, but it’s perfect us, and perfect us doesn’t feel right. It just feels wrong, and better than that, it feels wrong, but you don’t know why it feels wrong.”

Ex Machina requires audiences to decide which of the characters’ actions and words to take at face value. Vikander had to do this as well.

“It all comes down to if you think she has consciousness or not, and that is something I had to make up my mind about while making the film, that Alex and I figured out,” Vikander says. “I wanted Ava to have a journey through the film, learning more and more as she’s in the room with another human being.”

Most actors have to deal with figuring out what kind of person their character is. Vikander had to confront a different problem entirely: She had to render a type of creature that, by design, had no real archetype. That’s an intimidating task for an actor, and one of the reasons she says she could pull it off was how seriously Garland took the challenge she faced. Early in the production, Vikander says she asked Garland a question about Ava, and he immediately walked away. She thought she might’ve offended him. A few minutes later, he returned and said it was such a good question that he’d needed some time to think about it, and now that he had, would she like to sit down and hash it out?

“He doesn’t like to pin himself down as the leader — that’s probably something he would hate,” she says. “But he makes you want to try things. He’s just someone you trust, because it feels like he’s gone through every single thought in his head.”

Aside from Vikander’s performance, Ava is brought to life through a pair of technical achievements. Her guts and skeleton are made up of gyroscopes and gel technologies, giving her a look that is more smartphone than Blade Runner. And her body makes a sound. It’s a subtle sound, barely perceptible, but it’s there, a little whirring. It’s almost too real; the robot, what Vikander becomes onscreen, seems less like a prop created for a film and more like something ported out of real life to perform in a film.

With her narrow face, high forehead, and neck like something you’d buy from Herman Miller, Vikander appears as a slightly evolved version of a human being even when she’s not pretending to be a robot. As Ava, she gives the role a shocking, visceral sensuality. Early on, Caleb asks Nathan why he decided to give his robot a gender, and if he gave her sexuality; it’s a question that fascinates Garland.

“Partially it’s just a way of saying, ‘Where does gender reside?’ Is it in the mind or in the body?” Garland says. “Is there a male consciousness or a female consciousness, or is that ridiculous? How do you demonstrate what the difference is between a male and female consciousness? What would you call this thing? It would be so easy to say she doesn’t have a gender — it feels like it would be the most natural argument in the world you could make — but then try calling her ‘he,’ and that just feels completely wrong. Try calling her ‘it,’ and it feels inappropriate. And then you get back to ‘she.’”

Complicating this idea even further is the endless complexity of human sexuality, of gender and sex identities outside of the binary. Garland considered an important question: For an AI to possess the same sort of consciousness humans do, would it need sexuality? How far Ex Machina delves into these issues is a testament to the film’s thoroughness.

“Some of the questions that the film sets up, there is an answer in the film,” Garland says. “Where does gender reside, there’s no answer provided in the film at all. It’s just simply posing the question and seeing if anyone finds it interesting.”

Garland says all of his movies have a theme, sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes less so. Ex Machina is about many things, but at the most fundamental level, it is about awareness: How aware are we of others; how aware are we of ourselves; and if a machine can be aware of itself, what does that mean for us?

Before he gets up to go speak to a room full of people who’ve just seen his movie, Garland offers an addendum. It is the defining qualifier of our conversation; I have a feeling it might be the defining qualifier of his life.

“A lot of times I find myself distorting things just by the warp of memory, and then sort of being told, no, there were three of us there that night,” Garland says. “And I’m thinking, Why the fuck would I have got us to the point where there were two of us there that day? How did that happen? Why did I do that? I think that’s why the nonfiction thing was so hard — I couldn’t trust anything. My memory’s shit. I think the only thing I could say is that while we’ve been talking, everything I’ve said I think has been true at the moment I said it.”

Ex Machina is the first time, Garland says, when he made a film that was all pleasure and no challenge, the ideal of that camaraderie he saw on the set of The Beach a decade and a half ago. In this case, he can’t say why that was. But he has a sense. 

Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.