Writer/director Alex Garland was in Boston to promote his latest film Ex Machina. The film may be his directorial debut, but Garland has written some of the best genre films of the past 15 years including 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. The director discussed the use of gender and race in his film, his leads and much more.
Ex Machina is about a genius named Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) trying to create the world’s first fully operational artificial intelligent being. He uses Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to test his AI being and as the film develops, you start to question Nathan’s test and if everything is what it seems. Garland discussed the use of gender (the AI robots are female, the two leads are male) in his film and previous films that tackle artificial intelligence, “Often where a certain kind of AI is involved, not I guess when it’s an alien, what it means, I guess it depends on the story, it depends on the context of the story, who’s telling it and why. I know obviously with sci-fi you get these large tropes (about women), but I almost don’t feel equipped to speak to about it as a whole. I suppose I can say about what my interests were. The film, in a very reluctant way, is about the extent to which we can establish what is going on in someone’s mind and then what obstacles might exist. Why we can succeed in doing that or where we might fail. I then got very interested in where gender resides. Is there such a thing as male or female consciousness? If you say there is such a thing as a male or female consciousness, which lots of people do, then I immediately wondered how you demonstrate that. What is a thing a man would think, but a woman wouldn’t under the same circumstances and vice versa? A whole stack of these things go up and you can keep going because lots of different issues get conflated into this one issue of gender. Tech companies, why are they so male? Some of it is implicit, but some of it is directly addressed in the film. Does sexuality or interaction play a part in creating consciousness? I could go on and on. This is what I should have said, when I sat down to write this, in this case, in the issues this addresses, I’m really going to think them through. I’m going to test them on myself to the best of my own abilities. But then I’m going to test them on people I know that have particular interests in the agendas I’m raising here some of which are political, some of which are philosophical.”
Race comes into play a bit in the film as well. Nathan’s assistant is Asian and is treated in a very submissive way. Other AI prototypes had other skin tones and could be taken as one race or another. But Garland discussed how race is used as part of the test and to push Caleb’s buttons. “It’s a little bit more game-y and tricksy than that (just straight up racism). He (Nathan) does talk about race and right in the middle there’s a key, fulcrum conversation where lots of these things get addressed. But he uses race as a way to wind this guy (Caleb) up. He keeps winding this guy up, he’ll deliberately misquote him. What he’s doing at that moment, he’s sounding as if he’s being racist, he’s pushing buttons to get him going. The game that Oscar Isaac’s character is constantly playing is, are you seeing him OR are you seeing a presentation of a predatory, misogynistic, vile, bullying alpha male who is there to be something that this machine needs to be rescued from the purposes of this experiment? Then there’s a secondary question, which is, is he pretending to be what he actually is which is something we often do? We caricature the thing that actually does exist. In terms of the races of the women, there isn’t an embedded point in there. The only embedded point I was aware of, that I knew I was making, was this mute, very complacent, Asian appearing robot and the tropes that exist around that.”
Because of these issues of gender and race, I asked him if he thought the film would play differently in the United States compared to the United Kingdom. Garland, “Not where gender is concerned. I think that will play similarly. I should say, the short answer is, I don’t know. I think not where gender is concerned because issues around feminism are very current not without reason. I think that is broadly true on both sides of the Atlantic from what I can tell. But because I’m not an American it is hard for me to ascertain.
“Where race is concerned, it’s possible because there is a different, explicit history in the two countries. There’s actually quite a similar history, but then there’s a divergent point where the two separate. Obviously I’m specifically talking about slavery which Britain was involved in, but abandoned earlier. So that particular racial issue doesn’t have quite the same currency in the UK as it does here. The film is thoughtful and doesn’t do these things unwittingly. It’s pushing questions. I’ve been in screenings where there’s been quite a bit of laughter up to a point, but the second he (Nathan) starts talking about black chicks, the room goes silent. That was calculated. If you calculate to do something like that, it is there to provoke a conversation. If you are going to do that, you don’t do it in a glib way. You try to do it in a way that would stand up to some reasonable questions.”
It is a very science fiction based film, but also seems to draw from other films and genres. Garland was asked what films he watched or thought about while writing this. “I started work as a novelist. There’s some similarities between screenwriting and novel writing, but there’s some differences. One of them is when you write a book, you can’t assume the readers would have read all the books you might allude to. In film, you pretty much can. I could say there are allusions to Blade Runner or say Apocalypse Now. In the case of Apocalypse Now, I’m pretty sure most people watching this film have seen Apocalypse Now, but they would not necessarily, in the case of a book, have read Heart of Darkness which is a perfect parallel. In the case of Blade Runner, I was assuming people have seen it, it’s a very fair assumption. To the extent that I was aware of using it, it was to do with things like misdirection. I would assume a audience would make a bunch of assumptions quite quickly. I knew audiences would go there and I nudged them to go there.”
He talked more about his writing process and whether he had concepts and visuals in his head. “I do have visuals in my head. My long term background is drawing comic books. My dad was a cartoonist so I grew up around comic books. I thought that would be my job so I spent up to my early 20s thinking that’s what I would do. I used to get a bit of paid work, but not much. From my dad I had a very clear sense of what the job entailed. Also I could see what my failings were. I could see things my dad could do that I couldn’t do. That’s a good training in film because the grammar in comic books have a lot similarities in the grammar of film. I sketch stuff out some times. I don’t actually board it, but I draw particular images.”
The film’s two male leads are in another sci-fi film coming out later in the year. You might have heard of it, Star Wars Episode 7. I asked Alex if there was any thought about holding the film back to get buzz along with Star Wars. Garland, “They got that gig (Star Wars), I think after we were three quarters of the way through post production. Films are often cast surprisingly soon before they go into prep. As I remember, both those guys signed on two weeks before it was announced.” On holding the film’s release till later, “Piggybacking it? No. The conversations that I had about a film like this is, ‘Is there a weekend anywhere where we can come out without getting obliterated?’ That is true. For example, the reason it’s coming out this time of year is because there’s the awards corridor, then you get a bunch of these adult dramas, then there’s the tent poles, the blockbusters. A24 (the distributor) said there’s a gap. Then there’s surprises. People thought there was a gap earlier this year and American Sniper arrived. People in my world didn’t anticipate that.”
Asked if he could see himself working on a franchise like Star Wars that already has a built in fandom. “I did in a small sort of British way with Dredd. That’s a preexisting comic. Am I going to chuck my hat into Star Wars? Actually it isn’t (something he’d be interested in). I would not be suited for that. My sensibilities are wrong. Look at my track record. At a certain point you have to go ‘There’s a pattern here.’ Sunshine, Dredd, Never Let Me Go. Years ago we had a hit with 28 Days Later. I don’t want to sound self deprecating, I’m really happy, very pleased with how everything’s worked out, but something in there would not lead you to suggest why I should be running a $150 million film.”
Ex Machina is in limited release now with more cities opening soon.
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