Writer Alex Garland has deep roots in genre film. From injecting new life into the zombie genre with 28 DAYS LATER (no matter if they are zombies or just infected, that film kicks ass regardless of the official category), outer space hijinks in SUNSHINE, and even the 2012’s DREDD, Garland has established himself as an original mind who flirts with the edges of genres. He visited Boston this week and I got to sit down to talk to him about his newest film EX MACHINA.
From FRANKENSTEIN to BLADE RUNNER there is a strong history of creating artificial life or artificial intelligence in science fiction. What attracted you to working with these stories?
I’m aware of exactly what you are talking about, and I thought I had a different way I wanted to approach it. Typically creation stories are cautionary tales, with a semi-religious aspect to them. It is implicit that man should not create life because creation is God’s work. If man messes with creation he will get his fingers burned. I was interested in that rhythm. I could see elements, but the more I thought of it, the more I realized there was a misapprehension here. Particularly when it comes to consciousness, because on some level this is just a film about consciousness. Creating consciousness is not God’s work at all, it is a parental act. Everybody on the planet is a result of either one or two other consciences creating it. It’s not in itself a very strange thing. In fact, it is the opposite of strange; it’s the most normal thing there is. It is fundamental to the fact that we exist at all. So in some respects I was approaching this from what I thought was a different angle. In my mind, though I wouldn’t expect anyone else to see it this way, when you have a thing like Ava turning to Nathan and saying, “What is it like to have made a thing that hates you?” that’s like an adolescent. More importantly than that, the film is allied with child. In my perspective I’m standing next to Ava. Of course I understand other people may not. They might empathize with Nathan or, more likely, Caleb, but I certainly don’t. When stories get repeated this way, with variations, it is because they capture something. It’s effectively the same as myth, isn’t it? It’s in the telling and retelling that we assure ourselves or examine ourselves. Many of the stories that exist out there are myth-like reoccurrences.
One of the questions I was planning on asking you was which character you identify with, and it is interesting that you chose Ava.
I identify massively with Ava. And I did think a lot about this because it is an ideas movie. Posing questions, with some of them answered and some of them not. Some of them like, “Where does gender reside?” I’m not sure if I know how to answer that. But the fact that I don’t know how to answer it doesn’t mean that it isn’t interesting to ask and think about it. If you are going to put this stuff out there, there is something of a responsibility. The right thing to do is to think about it as hard as you can, and to rely on other people as well. With this film, more than any other I’ve worked on, I worked on it and then showed it to other people. They were interested in some of the issues raised, and I asked them to test it and make sure it stands up.
This is the first film you have directed. Is that correct?
Fucking hell (laughs). Usually that question is asked in an easier way. By saying “correct?” you have put me on the spot. I have worked as a director before, so it’s not exactly the first time.
EX MACHINA often focuses on showing, rather than telling. As a writer, how did you approach the script when creating the visual language, when you would be the director too?
If someone said, “What’s your job?” I would say I’m a writer. I always approached the script exactly the same way. Show don’t tell is one of the first lessons in filmmaking. The fact that I knew that lesson didn’t mean that I didn’t get it wrong earlier. The whole thing is a process of learning, on all sorts of levels. I can see lots of stuff in this film that is a direct reaction to other things. For example, things I did not do properly on SUNSHINE, things I didn’t do properly in NEVER LET ME GO, things I didn’t do properly on DREDD. I can point to things and say, “That’s me trying to correct a problem that I created on SUNSHINE.” I already knew show don’t tell. There are times in the film where I can see people reacting in a polar way. I’ll see it one way, someone else will see it another, and another will see something else. I think I could have avoided that if I did more tell don’t show. If I said specifically what the position of the film is, and it was very clear, then it would avoid a certain problem in interpretation. However, I also think that would be to the detriment of other stuff. A balance is the right way to do it, but it’s not clear in my head. It is an ongoing process.
You’ve already touched on some topics I wanted to bring up. You mentioned gender, and the fact that you did not have a specific answer to some questions about gender- (Garland jumps in)
There are very specific questions. And there are some answers to some of the questions. For example, the questions that get implicitly raised in the film are, “Where does gender reside?” “What is the right way to refer to Ava: He, She, or It?”, and “Is gender defined as a way that someone else reacts to you, is it defined by your physical form, or is it defined by your consciousness?” With the particular question, “Where does gender reside?” I don’t feel that I have a water-tight, concrete answer. But that does not negate the value of the question. It remains an interesting subject for me, whether I know where it leads or not.
You are kind of interviewing yourself at this point. I was going to ask, what made you want to explore gender as a topic? So many films do not deal with it, and EX MACHINA takes it head-on.
Various things, I suppose. Much of it is rather banal: I’ve got a young daughter. I’m aware of some of the things, and some of the inputs that are being laid on to her. You think about it. Sometimes you feel pretty anxious about it. A lot of what is in the film comes from conversations with particular friends. There is one friend of mine, in particular, who I have spoken to about some of these issues for quite a while. As you think about them, turn them around in your head, they become more and more interesting. You try to process it. For me, as a writer, this process takes the form of stories. When I get really fixated on a subject that’s where it eventually works itself out.
What is your next project?
One of the producers on EX MACHINA, Scott Rudin, gave me a book. I did read it and I thought it was kind of amazing. It’s called Annihilation, written by an American called Jeff VanderMeer. It is a really strange, beautiful novel, which has a dream-like aspect. I read it and got really fascinated by it, and could see a way to approach it as an adaptation. I wrote that, and I just submitted it to the studio and now I’m waiting. At this point it is like a coin flipped in the air, and it is spinning.