Interview: Alex Garland Talks Going From the Low of 'Dredd' to the High of 'Ex Machina'

Interview: Alex Garland Talks Going From the Low of 'Dredd' to the High of 'Ex Machina'

Jul 14, 2015

Two guys and a robot girl. That's all you need to make a killer sci-fi movie. Oh, and the brain of Alex Garland, who cooked up the smart, engaging, often stunning Ex Machina as his directorial debut. If you haven't seen it yet, you can fix that now that the hit movie about two men testing an artificial intelligence is out on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital HD.

We spoke to Garland, who also wrote The Beach, Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and Never Let Me Go, earlier this week for the Ex Machina home video release and couldn't help but bring up the last time we spoke, which happened to be on the eve of the release of Dredd, the last movie he wrote and produced. That movie has since found its following, but even he'd be the first to say that audiences just were not there for it in theaters. And so we wanted to know how he transitioned from that to Ex Machina. The last time we spoke was the day before Dredd came out.

Alex Garland: [Laughs] I was in a pretty bad mood, I'm guessing. After the recorder got turned off, you did confide you knew that Dredd wasn't going to be a massive box office hit.

Garland: Yep. That was a pretty accurate prediction. Likewise, did you know that Ex Machina was going to be the grand success that it already is?

Garland: Oh, God no. There is a sort of implicit compliment in that, so thanks, but no, I didn't. When we were making the film, we all felt that we had a shot at being a certain kind of indie movie that acquits itself if we found a festival that would take it. Amongst ourselves we'd talk of it like it was a festival film, and pretty much that's been what happened. It's just that we got a much bigger lift out of the festival than we imagined.

It went to SXSW and the audience really got behind it and it gave it a running start in the world. Films of this sort can never be a wide release. There's no universe where this is a wide release, so you have to do the festival thing. We were amazed. This answer is probably too long, but it was really cool how it happened. Because we always said it was a festival movie, a bunch of us had already planned on getting out for it. So it wasn't just the actors and me, there was also Claire who runs post-production, and Jeff and Ben who did the score, and Rob the DoP. There was a whole gang of us. It was great fun. I was at that screening, and you said something during the Q&A that stuck with me. It was along the lines of "Being a director is the most overrated job in Hollywood." You seem far more willing to acknowledge collaboration and the need for it than others in your position.

Garland: I would say it's really simple from my point of view. It's the collaboration that I enjoy. The process is very openly collaborative. In a way I can't really expand upon that, except that to some extent it's all kind of obvious. Of course the DoP is important. Of course they are! That's why all these productions scramble after the same guys. If it was all the director mounting the camera, what would you need a DoP for? You do because it's actually them mounting the camera.

That aside, collaboration from my point of view is one of the things that's special about cinema. Writing a novel is not collaborative. Making a film is collaborative. It seems to me that's a plus, not a minus. Is that why you've gravitated away from writing novels to filmmaking?

Garland: I think I wrote books partly because it was a way of acting out this writing compulsion. I think my job is I'm a writer. Given a choice, I'd have always been making films, but you can't make films alone in a room with a word processor. You can write a book whilst not having money, but you can't make a film without having money. Do you have any interest in writing novels again?

Garland: I think when I get depressed. [Laughs] If life is going okay, then probably not. I like making films. There's pleasure to be had in it. When it came to writing Ex Machina, did you factor in audiences expectations that A.I. Would always be malevolent, like something like Skynet, or did you try to ignore pop culture and write in a vacuum?

Garland: I didn't ignore it because I often felt it was something to slightly fight against that there'd be an expectation that the A.I. was the baddie and the humans were the victims. The interesting thing to me was that by the end of the process I'd thought I'd done a story where the humans were, if not the antagonists, the closest thing the film had to antagonists. In the end there were still a lot of people, a sizable portion of the audience really, who would still take it as an anti-A.I. cautionary tale.

I guess all that really says is that a substantial amount of what people take from a narrative is what they bring into it. If that's how they feel about A.I. or tech or whatever it happens to be, they'll make the argument and support what they feel. And of course I may be doing that too, since I'm more positive about A.I. and it's all about the robot from my point of view.

I'm not judgmental of people taking the opposite view, but I think it shows that stories aren't as controlled by the writer as the writer would probably want to believe. Or, in the same way, as much as the audience wants to believe, because so often they'll say "This is what the writer intends or believes" and in fact that's them deciding that. Going back to our interview a few years ago, you were teasing this project.

Garland: I think I said something probably like "I'm working on a low budget old school sci-fi movie, more in the Never Let Me Go vein." That's what I was working on at that time. I had just heard back from the producers, who were saying "Yes, we think we can do this and raise $15 million. It's a long shot, but I think we can do it."

So on the one hand I was feeling really quite despondent about Dredd, but on the other hand I was thinking, "I think this Ex Machina film is a go..." In our last interview you said you like to alternate between adrenaline-ized movies like 28 Days Later and reflective movies like Never Let Me Go. So which mode are you in next?

Garland: The one I'm working on is definitely in the adrenaline-ized mode. The film I'm trying to make at the moment is based on a novel by a guy called Jeff VanderMeer and it's called Annihilation. It's in the sort of darker, stranger, propulsive space. It's more like Dredd and 28 Days Later. Never Let Me Go and Ex Machina basically are reflective, quiet, talky movies, and this has some of the same sort of propulsion, I'd say, of 28 Days and some of the hallucinogenic aspects of Dredd, but they're way more ramped up. Way, way more ramped up. It'd be April next year we'd be shooting it if it works out.


To get you even more excited for the Ex Machina Blu-ray, here's a clip from the special features of Alex Garland talking about casting the movie.


Categories: Features, Interviews, Sci-Fi
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