by: Jay Carlson
Indie Revolver recently had the opportunity to sit down with writer/director Alex Garland to discuss his newest film, Ex Machina. You might know Garland through his previous work as a comic artist or novelist (He wrote the novel that was adapted for the Danny Boyle film, The Beach). More than likely you know Alex Garland for the movies he’s written. Most notably Garland is responsible for reanimating the zombie genre (along with the Resident Evil video games) with his script for Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later. He also wrote the amazing action film Dredd, as well as Danny Boyle’s Sci-Fi film, Sunshine.
With Ex Machina Alex Garland created a dark, complex, science fiction masterpiece, but don’t call him an auteur, “I’m not really interested auteur-ship.” Garland continues his thought, “Woody Allen? That could be another story. I’ve got no idea. He might be an auteur. I’m not saying that auteurs don’t exist; I’m just talking about my own experience.”
Garland embraces the idea that every member of his crew is an integral cog to the creative process. “What I’m doing is filmmaking, but it’s not that I am the filmmaker. It’s that I am one of a group of people who are filmmaking. That would include a DOP (Director of Photography), a production designer and the director and writer and producer and you could just keep going down the list of all the HOD.’s (Head of Department) who are really bringing distinct things to the movie. I would be taking too much credit on this film if I appropriated that. It would also be being unreasonable to the H.o.D’s on the previous film if I then allocated it. So I’m just trying to get (rid of) this pyramid structure thing ‘cause I don’t realty buy it. I’ve never really observed it and I don’t really care about it. The best thing about film for me is the collaboration, this group of people working together. “
“You must know if you’ve been observing how films are made, directors don’t always do the thing we allege they do. I mean, you must, because it’s impossible. And also, why do productions fight so hard for DOP’s? That line that you often get in reviews is the way directors mount the camera or the performance that the director got out of the actor. Why would we fight to get these people if it’s the director who is dragging this stuff out of them, or micromanaging the whole thing? I’ve never seen that. And because I’ve never seen it, I wouldn’t know how to do it anyway. The collaboration is the big deal to me.”
“This for me is the truest example of how films actually get made. In my experience… There’s a whole thing in Dredd where there’s this drug… it’s kind of a drug movie in one respect. It’s based around this drug called Slo-Mo, with some nice imagery attached to it. There’s a scene, one of the most beautiful bits of imagery on the film and actually a scene that helped us define the other bits of drug imagery that appeared where Ma-Ma, the character played by Lena Heady gets stoned in the bath. She gets wasted and she puts her hand in the water and she pulls it up and these droplets kind of become iridescent and it’s lovely. A beautiful piece of imagery… Beautiful bit of photography. That shot largely exists because Michelle Day, who is a name that never appears on the cards, although in this film I did put her on the cards (Day is credited as the Set Decorator for Ex Machina) but normally she’d be buried in the roll up, said “I think Ma-Ma should have a bath right in the middle of her room and she should get stoned in the bath because that would be the best place to get stoned. She could lie on the bed but wouldn’t it be great if she was in the bath? And then, when she’s getting stoned she could play with the water and it would look really beautiful.” Me and the DOP and a bunch of other people go, “That’s a great idea, let’s do that.” We have a conversation with Lena. “Are you prepared to have a bath?” You know, because an actress might not want to do that or whatever. But basically the shot that Michelle predicts becomes something that informs a huge number of the other shots that wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t said that. Now, nobody watching the film could have any way of attributing that thing to her because we don’t present film that way. We present it as.. Typically there’s a film and then there’s a name in brackets and that’s the director’s name. But also it’s too complex. There’s no way to extrapolate from the credits who did what or when they did it or how it happened. Now, that’s one example of Michelle and one of the reason’s I dragged her out of the roller and put her in the cards. To try and acknowledge (her), because she does this like fucking fifty times a movie. I’ve worked with her now on, I think, five films and so I don’t want to sound to preachy or go on a thing about it but I’m getting pissed off by this director thing, I’m bored of it. I’m really bored of it. It doesn’t seem accurate to me and I would rather talk about Michelle and a bunch of other people. A lot of the beauty that exists in this film, I can say exists because it’s not mine. There’s Rob Hardy, this DOP is fantastic. He’s such a clever, intuitive, gifted DOP. If you look at his other films, it’s still there. It’s nothing I did.”
Garland continued to heap praise on his crew when asked to elaborate that collaborative effort in Ex Machina. “Grips and focus pullers… Focus pullers can do a shot three times and then just think to themselves, “I’m just going to throw it over there just to see what happens.” And that turns out to be the best and most intuitive thing to do. Almost everything is the consequence of a group of people having a conversation. Ideas often can’t even get traced back to one person… Do you know what I mean? The only dishonest thing you can say is, especially on a film like this, is that it’s all the director. That’s the bit of bullshit, you could say.”
When the point is made that, even though the director might get an undue amount of credit for a successful film, they also shoulder a lot of the blame if a film is a failure, Garland concedes a bit. “I guess. But all that would be is another representation of something which might be broadly inaccurate. I have to say, of course because I haven’t worked on films that I haven’t worked on. Maybe what I’m saying is only true in my line of sight. I just suspect it isn’t because I’ve worked with enough crews to get the vibe, you know I’ve been doing it for fifteen years. Again, say Woody Allen is an auteur. I really won’t disagree, I’m sure it’s true. It’s just the blanket application that we tend to do that I’m disagreeing with. I’m trying to be reasonable rather than unreasonable. “
It’s no secret that two-thirds of Garlands main cast consist of actors taking part in what could be the biggest film year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Garland sheds a little light on the Star Wars casting process of his two leads “They got that gig, like after… I think we were at least three-quarters of the way through post production. Films are often cast surprisingly soon to when they go into prep. As I remember, both those guys signed on two weeks before it was announced. Two and a half weeks? Something like that. I guess there might have been a conversation six months before but for other reasons I don’t think there were because of the process.”
When asked if there were any thoughts about holding Ex Machina back in order to cash in on the Star Wars sweepstakes, Garland says, “I just.. No. The conversations I had about a film like this is, is there a weekend anywhere where we can come out without getting obliterated? (Laughter) But that is true. This film, the reason it’s coming out this time of year is because there’s the awards corridor and then you get a bunch of these adult drama… we’re never going to live… like we’d be dead in seconds in that space. Then there’s the tent poles. You know, May to summer or whatever?”
Don’t expect to see Garland stepping behind the camera of a Star Wars film though. When asked whether or not he’d be interested in stepping into a sandbox like that he surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly) had the following to say, “I did (work in a sandbox like that) in a small sort of British way with Dredd, I think. That’s a preexisting comic, 2000 AD. But what you mean is am I going to chuck my hat in the Star Wars ring? It actually isn’t (something that he would be interested in). There are various reasons, but I would not be suited for that. My sensibilities are wrong. I’ve been doing this long enough… Look at my track record. There’s something… at a certain point you have to go, “There’s a pattern here.” Sunshine, Dredd and Never Let Me Go. Years ago we had a hit with this movie, 28 Days Later. I don’t want to sound self-deprecating, I’m really pleased with how everything has worked out but there’s something in there would not lead you to suggest that what I should be doing is running a 150 million dollar film.”
When asked about the possibility of another film in the 28 Days Later series, of which Garland wrote the screenplay and served as a producer on its sequel 28 Weeks Later, he had the following to say “There is. We’re talking about it at the moment. We spent a long… The thing about 28 Days (Later), the first one, was that it had kind of an aggression to it and it had sort of a subversive element to it. And the sequel ideas that kept getting brought up, floated or discussed amongst us were kind of tame and they were franchise kind of ideas. Then we sort of came up with something with a bit more bite. And so we’re going to give it a crack. But it’s very early days. Very early days.”
Ex Machina is out now in select theaters. I can’t recommend this film more highly. It truly is an exceptional film.