After breaking through with The Beach, Alex Garland has swapped the pen for the director’s chair on Ex Machina, writes Ed Power
ALEX Garland refuses to bask in the moment. The novelist-turned-screenwriter has directed his first movie, a dystopian morality play, entitled Ex Machina. He is no longer a background toiler. He is calling the shots, but he’s not presumptuous about it.
“There’s a tendency to overstate the importance of the director,” he says, flatly. “I know it sounds very self-effacing. Honestly, it’s quite true. I don’t put the emphasis on directing that you are supposed to. It doesn’t really marry with my experience. Filmmaking, so far as I can tell, is a collaboration between a large group of people.”
He could demur all evening. Having stumbled into the spotlight aged 26, when his novel, The Beach, became a surprise bestseller, Garland long ago concluded celebrity, literary or otherwise, was not for him. “Being a novelist didn’t appeal,” he says. “The way I see it, I’m only here once. I want to be out and about as much as possible. Sitting in a room for two years [writing on a book] definitely did not suit me.”
Garland stresses that Ex Machina, which stars Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac, is a collaboration. And yet, it bears his imprint: as with The Beach and zombie romp 28 Days Later (which he scripted), it radiates a chilly stoicism, a sensibility that might be described as Garland’s trademark. Big ideas grind against one another in Ex Machina, and the surprise ending will haunt you for days.
The film is a meditation on technology, how it has unmoored our understanding of what it is to be human. Vikander plays Ava, an artificial life-form yearning to be free of her creator, creepy dotcom whiz Nathan (Isaac, a mash-up of Mark Zuckerberg and Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz).
To ascertain whether Ava is truly self-aware, or merely an uncanny simulacrum, Nathan tasks an earnest employee (a nicely bumbling Gleeson) with striking up a relationship with the droid. However, Ava has an agenda, too — one that is revealed slowly and terrifyingly.
Ex Machina is exceedingly talky, unafraid of grand concepts. It is the kind of film we are told does not get made nowadays, in this era of the super-hero ‘tentpole’.
“It’s not an obvious, big commercial movie,” says Garland. “It won’t make hundreds of millions of dollars. You have to do it cheaply to make it with creative freedom [the budget was $10m). Everyone has to punch above their weight to make it very fast.
“We had six weeks to shoot — so it was quite an intense process. There was a lot of juggling behind the scenes. The movie itself, though, should feel calm.” Novelists lured into cinema typically complain about the lack of control. A writer is in utter command of his or her vision; on a movie, such freedom is siphoned away. But, says Garland, that isn’t always a bad thing.
“You are presupposing I had a lot of control over the novels,” he says. “I’m not sure I did. In my experience, you do the best you can. The things I struggle with are not other people, it’s personal limitations: the brick wall you keep running into. You talk about giving over control: well, there is another way of seeing it. For me, it’s a pleasure to be involved in a medium that involves team-work,” he says.
Garland grew up in leafy north London, the son of a cartoonist father and psychoanalyst mother. He wrote The Beach, about the downfall of a utopian community of expats in Thailand, in his early 20s, inspired by a stint backpacking around South East Asia.
Initially, it seemed set to be a moderate success: reviews were kind rather than ecstatic, early sales modest. Then, Garland began to hear reports from Thailand of young Western tourists obsessively reading the book. Upon returning home, they would pass it onto friends, who, in turn, passed it onto others. In short order, a phenomenon was born. Among late teens and twenty-somethings, it was the novel to read.
At that point, Garland hadn’t decided if he even wanted to be a novelist. And yet, the expectation was there, not least from his publishers, who quite fancied another bestseller. He duly turned in a further two books, The Tesseract, and The Coma. Neither was as zeitgeisty as The Beach and soon rumours began to circulate that Garland was wrestling with creative stasis. This, he said, was untrue.
He had simply lost interest in writing — or at least in churning out novels. He wanted to work in movies and jumped at the opportunity to collaborate on Danny Boyle’s adaptation of The Beach.
“There were all sorts of issues going on,” he says. It was reported that, at the behest of the producers, Leonardo Di Caprio was parachuted in as lead, in place of Ewan McGregor. “I could see politics was happening. None of it was what I expected. The image I had in my head of making a film was very different. And yet, I could see there was something very collegiate about the process. That was attractive.”
Garland has collaborated with several Irish actors: Domnhnall and Brendan Gleeson, as well as Cillian Murphy, who got his big break with 28 Days Later. Garland wouldn’t say he seeks out Irish performers. But they have qualities their British peers arguably lack, he allows.
“I have noticed that British actors are more comfortable being on the back foot — Australian and Irish actors are comfortable being on the front-foot. British actors struggle in certain kinds of film.
“For example, American, Australian and Irish actors can occupy a position in an action movie really comfortably. Whereas, maybe for Hugh Grant that is going to be a tough one.”
With Ex Machina, Garland did not explicitly set out to make a movie with a ‘message’.
Nevertheless, he found certain themes bubbling to the surface: the surrender of privacy engendered by the internet, the implications of the emergence of artificial intelligence.
“There are arguments happening in the film,” he says. “You are talking about strong AIs, machine consciousness, stuff like that — these are fundamental questions. They are fundamental to who we are. I can’t hide from that. In past films, I have hidden.
“The ideas were there; you had to unpick them. This film wears its heart on its sleeve. The things it seems to be about are the things it is, in fact, about.”
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