Ex Machina’s Alex Garland and Oscar Isaac Discuss Artificial Intelligence

The director and actor offer a behind-the-scenes look at their new sci-fi thriller.


    While covering SXSW last month, Film Editor Justin Gerber sat in on a roundtable discussion featuring Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland and one of the film’s stars, Oscar Isaac. Ex Machina comes out in theaters everywhere on April 10th.

    Let’s talk about that dance scene. Was it scripted?

    Oscar Isaac (OI): Yeah, it was in the script. It was a lot of fun. We got a great choreographer, and we did a very long dance routine that we rehearsed quite a few times and then brought it in and Alex would come in and watch it. I think he really dug it.

    Alex Garland (AG): Yeah, I joined in.

    OI: He joined in every once in a while.

    Do you feel like it was … I meant it comes out of left field all of a sudden. It doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the film. It was just so impressive and incredible. Did you feel that way? Did you write it that way? Did it kind of just hit you?


    AG: Yeah, actually that was precisely the intention. I worked on this film a few years ago, Never Let Me Go, which is a sort of serious literary adaptation type thing. It has a very … a tone. If we hit the tone well (that was the only tone we hit) … it had this sort of less-is-more maxim reversed, so we had more is less. It was a lesson. And with this film, which actually has something in common with Never Let Me Go, because it’s sort of a Swiss watch type of movie – careful construction of a certain sort. I was much more aggressive and spikey. I sort of forced spikes into it in a particular kind of way; percussive-type things that can allow you to do stuff with sound and could also hard cut and stuff like that. So say, even in that dance scene, just as the audience is really starting to dig it, they could actually probably stand it going on another 15 seconds or something, but you cut out too soon, so you don’t even let them enjoy that in the right way. It’s just him walking down a corridor slapping his head. It was aggressive in its intent.

    Somebody last night in the Q&A mentioned Pinter, and I was actually thinking August Strindberg because he was all about the psychological battle of wills, like the stronger, so he’s two people always trying to outdo one another, and there was this constant one-upmanship between the two guys.

    OI: I don’t know how often he got one up on Nathan [Isaac’s character]. It wasn’t until the very end that he gets one up on Nathan. He is definitely provoking him throughout. That’s interesting about Strindberg. It’s true, but I think the Pinter-esque aspect of it is that there’s so much that’s not being said, and there’s so much double-talk, and there’s so much of people presenting something that’s not necessarily the truth or not the whole truth. Even Ava is doing the same thing; so, the manipulations are happening.


    AG: The double-talk, yeah. It is essentially a product of drama that comes from conversation, isn’t it? And that is theatrical…

    IO: Yeah.

    AG: …And so part of the challenge in a piece of cinema is something that’s using theater form of a sort to make sure it doesn’t then feel like a stage play where we slung some cameras around and to find cinema within that because it needs to feel like cinema.

    OI: Yeah, because often what is moving the action along is the language because that’s what happens in a play; that’s what’s moving it along…


    AG: For sure…

    OI: ..And yet to make that visually interesting, that’s challenging.


    You mentioned at the start of the Q&A yesterday that you were interested in artificial intelligence. Could you elaborate why you wanted to choose that subject for the first film you directed and how you [played] with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?

    AG: Without wanting to sound negative to the question, the Asimov’s Three Laws … I completely ignored them because it’s not like a law, not an actual … it’s a self-declared law. But why should one observe it? It may or may not be observed. It’s just sort of a suggestion, isn’t it? I don’t feel obliged by the Courts of Sci-Fi to do whatever Asimov thought was the right thing to do. I don’t actually think that he’d have expected that either because he was a writer, a fiction writer.

    So in terms of the question about why this film to direct, the problem for me with that is it presupposes that I wasn’t making films before and that you don’t really make films until you become a director, and I just dispute that. I don’t think it’s true; I think I’ve been doing this for years. And I’ve been doing this with actually the same group of people largely for years as well — some of them actors, some of them crew. So that’s not a land grab from directors. It’s just a statement of fact that cinematographers and writers and producers are all filmmakers, and the thing that your question does is it overstates the importance of directors. That would be my position. I also think there’s no cookie-cutter aspect to this. It would depend on a film-by-film basis and a group of filmmakers-by-filmmakers basis. I’m not saying Woody Allen is not an auteur, ok. He’s an auteur. I’m happy to go along with that. It just doesn’t apply much to my work.


    How much of what is going on now with surveillance and privacy was stuff that you were thinking about when you were first writing this, and how much of that did you try to adjust with what’s going on right now?

    AG: I think I tried to say this last night, but I probably didn’t say it very articulately – the current crop of A.I.-related narratives and also to the public pronunciations of concern, our themes don’t come from concern about A.I. directly. In a way, it’s more to do with privacy issues. It’s more to do with the sense that we have given up something of ourselves to machines and that we understand less about machines and the tech companies than they understand about us, and that makes us feel uneasy and probably should do as well. I was trying to acknowledge that within the script, or within the film, and it was a weird thing that happened. [To OI: Did we speak about this last night?]

    OI: A little bit…

    AG: This really strange thing happened where, when trying to get this film financed, one of the financiers we showed the script to said, “Yeah, yeah, this is really good, but this whole thing about tech companies Hoover-ing up information from mobile phones is just too ridiculous. They’re not going to be doing that.” And this is really true; they did say this. And I remember thinking you’re going to buy this talking, thinking robot but not that tech companies are Hoover-ing up private information. It was a slightly different state, but then Snowden came along and really did blow the lid off that stuff. Thank god he did. It was a fantastic thing. Um, anyway, yeah, paranoia.


    Just to follow up – was there then any sort of, as that became a bigger and bigger issue, in society, internationally, where you thought, okay, we can highlight that a bit more or tweak the way the story…

    AG: Not as a primary concern. The main theme is actually about how A.I. and consciousness kind of dovetail and relate to each other. That understanding of one carries with it a sort of implication about the other.

    Can you talk a little bit about the look of the house because it’s a single location obviously, sort of very carefully designed and all that. Could you talk a little bit about the look that you wanted?


    AG: Part of it is very pragmatic stuff. We were in many respects a low-budget film. We were a $15 million movie as a budget but actually effectively less because a huge chunk of that was the effects budget. So you have just a very simple problem, which is, how does a low-budget film present the house of a guy who’s got more money than anybody else in the universe? So we hunted around, and it was sort of old-fashioned filmmaking stuff. We found this very beautiful place in Norway. And Norway is a country that is incredibly affluent because they were so smart; they nationalized their oil industry and then were sensible with the oil and the way they exploited it. They’re like a tech company. And you get these beautiful architectural things. It was actually a hotel in a house, and we used that as the location — stunning landscape just outside. And in Pinewood, something that was complementary to the location that we found. So on the soundstage complementary so that you could see from one space to the other.

    Well, what about some of the tech things inside the house?

    AG: Yeah it was, but it was so outdated. Some of the tech stuff, I didn’t realize until later, was just me being down at the discos, sort of hopelessly out of touch. I kind of … like the key cards … I read, I don’t know, 20 years ago, that Bill Gates has this house with key cards that lets you into different areas, and I thought that’s very futuristic. Twenty years later I’m writing the screenplay, and I sort of put the future into it, which is actually from 20 years in the past. And actually, these days it would be retinal scanners and sort of facial data recognition manipulation or whatever the fuck it is. So yeah, some of it’s by design, and some of it’s by stupidity or ignorance.

    Oscar, you said that the dancing was in the script. What about the hints of humor that you’re able to bring into it? Was the script funny when you read it?


    OI: Yes…

    Or is that something that you kind of helped move along? How did that work for you?

    OI: Not really. That was in the script – the language, the wit, the condescension, that sardonic biting humor. That was all in there. That whole bro millionaire. It was all right there, so there wasn’t a lot of mining that to try and find some sort of humor in there. It was pretty built into it. And sure enough, being the hammy actor I am, I’d look where I could add more of it in little moments here and there, but really it was there in the script.

    Did you look at any young billionaires who might have that god complex or might feel like they can’t be hurt at all? Did you look at anybody in pop culture or the industry right now that is a billionaire and is 25 years old and kind of pull from them?

    OI: No, I didn’t. I tend to … usually I’ll go to a left-of-field thing when I’m the main character as opposed to getting too locked in to a one-for-one kind of literal thing. When I was playing King John in Robin Hood, I thought of Robert Plant and Richard Nixon and a mix between them, something that’ll get your imagination going. That’s when I landed on Bobby Fisher. Here was someone I thought had a brilliant mind but also an incredible dark thing going on and reclusive and presented certain aspects of himself and probably hid other ones. And Kubrick was another person; I listened to the way he spoke. He’s so intelligent, but he had a roughness because he’s from the Bronx as well and a little bit of a self-taught sort of thing because I think he was really bad in school but also quite brilliant at chess as well.


    You briefly brought up this idea of A.I. having this sexless consciousness, and then you present these two human characters, who I think fail as a result of having a gendered consciousness, so I was wondering if there was intent in showing that sexlessness as part of the strength of the A.I. over humans.

    AG: Not really. I think it was … there’s probably a few separate things there. I think partly it was just about the failure of these people to think about what this machine was thinking and to get involved in their own kind of prejudices and narratives and not think about the thing that was right in front of them, and actually the task at hand, in a strange kind of way, because of aspects of her.

    The sexless thing, or genderless thing, is more a question than a statement. It’s more like where does gender reside? Is it in the mind? Is there a sort of thing as a male mind and a female mind? Is that a reasonable thing to say? If it is in the mind, then Ava could actually have a gender. That’s then conceivable, isn’t it? But then also, if it is true, it feels to me that you then got to say, what would the differences be? What would a male consciousness have different from a female consciousness? And what happens when a male consciousness is actually acting like a female consciousness? It feels like it falls apart to me, as an idea.


    And then so the converse thing is the mind doesn’t have a gender; it’s actually genderless and the external form is what denotes gender. In which case, by some terms, she is actually female because she has a consciousness as a male or female could have, but the outside form denotes a gender of sorts. The thing is that gets confused potentially with her behavior, which is genderless. She is just acting as she has to act in order to do what she needs to do, which is to get out of a glass box. In some respects, I know I haven’t been clear with the position that the film is taking with this stuff, but that’s also deliberate. This is supposed to be a movie about ideas, and we talk about this stuff a lot. We test it on each other constantly. It’s there to provoke a conversation, not…


    OI: …And ultimately, I think that the position the movie would take is that sexuality is a thing that can be used as a tool, or as a weapon, or whatever it needs to be used as. Not necessarily that you’re a slave to that. Although I don’t really think that Nathan really fails … if he fails at anything, it’s how far Caleb would go. I think that’s the only thing he fails … I don’t know what he fails to understand about Ava’s thinking. He knows that she wants to escape. She knows that she’s going to use all the, any powers that she has. I just don’t think that she’s going to convince him enough. What he ends up not figuring out is when Caleb would decide to really go for it and pull the trigger. I figure he has that a little bit more indirect than he actually does.

    AG: But within that is the basic thing. The point is we don’t ever really know what is going on in someone else’s mind. It’s just as simple as that. I don’t really feel a need to specify what exactly is going on in Ava’s mind. The thing I want to specify is does she have a mind? That’s the key question. It’s not what is actually motivating her. One of the things about A.I.s is, and you could also say it about people, they may not be like us, they could have all sorts of qualities, but not be like us, human-like qualities but still not be like us. The only thing I know about Ava is she has an internal life in the end. She’s walking across this room, there’s some Schubert playing, she looks back over her shoulder, and she smiles. That represents an internal mind state. It’s not for anyone else’s benefit. She’s alone in the room at that point, and that’s as far as I get.


    Can you talk about the soundtrack? There was some incredible music.

    AG: I’m very glad you think so. Well, it’s Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. Ben has largely worked in nature documentaries in the UK, and Geoff is in a band called Portishead and another band called Beak. Beak I’m a huge, huge fan of, and that’s kind of where I know Jeff from mainly. We worked together on this previous movie I worked on called Dredd, and the soundtrack didn’t work out for various reasons, and I just loved working with him, as people, frankly. The thing about them is — it’s an incredible asset — that they’re not steeped in film grammar. They’re not film composers who’ve been doing this a long time and have had their heart broken because they wrote some brilliant piece of music for a car chase that then got destroyed by engine revs and tires squealing. So there’s a sort of freshness about the way they approach it. And left field. Their grammar is their own grammar. That’s an incredible thing to find, in film, with competence. It would be easy to find with incompetence but to be competent and be left field, that’s like gold dust. Plus, Geoff is fierce. As a personality, he’s a real kind of fighter, and what that means, in the world of film, which is incredibly lean towards compromise, you’ve got this guy that’ll keep you honest. It’s fantastic working with him — couldn’t be better.

    Especially at the very end, whatever that music was…

    AG: Just on a technical level what they do is really quite something because all the sound design basically drops out. You have image and you have music, and it goes on for a really, really long time. It goes on and on and on, and it’s pushing so hard on the shoulders of the score. And it has to move through all these different spaces so you get these abstract walls of white noise and chimes, which are bit degrading into this clumsy, scratchy bit of noise and then ending up with this sort of gossamer, delicate sort of noise that floats, and you feel that by touching it it would splinter. It’s an amazing thing they’ve done. I’m glad you pointed it out because I think they did some incredible work, back of light, no experience. They just arrived and did it.

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