One of the most interesting (albeit far too brief) interviews I did at the SXSW Film Festival this year was with the makers of EX MACHINA, from writer and first-time feature director Alex Garland, the man who wrote the novel THE BEACH as well as the compelling screenplays for 28 DAYS LATER…, SUNSHINE, NEVER LET ME GO, and DREDD. On the surface, EX MACHINA is a story about the dangers of artificial intelligence—in this cast a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), designed by billionaire tech guru Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who hires bright junior search engine programmer Nathan (Domhnall Gleeson) to perform a version of the Turing test to see if he can spot the signs that Ava is, in fact, a robot (outside of the tube and wires that run through her largely see-through shape.
But before long, EX MACHINA reveals itself to be about much more than a smart machine. It speaks to such subjects as loneliness, our need to sexualize everything, insecurity, and a man’s desire to help a damsel in distress. The film works because it’s about many things, as most great science fiction ought to be. And the three leads do fantastic work playing out this eerie chamber piece set a not-so-futuristic research facility.
Isaac is riding a wave of incredible work that began 2011’s DRIVE and continued through INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, IN SECRET, TWO FACES OF JANUARY, and last year’s A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. He’s set to star as the villain Apocalypse in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, and writer-director William Monahan’s MOJAVE.
For a time, Gleeson (son on Brendan) was best known as Bill Weasley in some of the HARRY POTTER films, but with roles in Garland’s NEVER LET ME GO and DREDD, as well as TRUE GRIT, ABOUT TIME, FRANK, CALVARY, UNBROKEN, and the upcoming BROOKLYN and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s THE REVENANT (opposite Leonardo DiCaprio), he’s certainly breaking out as one of the great young actors working today.
I sat down briefly with all three gentlemen in Austin to chat about the many layers of EX MACHINA, and we even joke around a little bit about the high levels of secrecy surrounding STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, in which both Isaac and Gleeson star. Please enjoy my brief chat with Alex Garland, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson…
Capone: Alex, why was this the story that you didn’t want to let go of, to have another director run with? Why was this the film you wanted to direct?
Alex Garland: It’s a really difficult question for me to answer, honestly, because it sort of pre-supposes a bunch of stuff about directing that I just don’t really feel.
Capone: That it’s something you’ve been driven to do your whole life, etc.?
AG: Yeah. It’s to do with the deification of the director. I find it really boring, and I’m not saying you’re really boring [laughs]; I’m saying the concept behind it doesn't appeal to me as an idea, and it also doesn’t marry up with my personal experience working on films. So really what I would say is from my point of view, this film is just part of a continuum—working with a bunch of people, a lot of them are the same people. This is the third film me and [Domhnall] have done together, the production designer… [Gleeson gives him a funny look]. You shouldn’t have overheard that. It’s the third time we’ve worked together and the last time.
AG: Whatever happens next, you can be sure of that. You weren’t supposed to hear that. This is so fucking not the way I wanted to tell you.
Domhnall Gleeson: I kind of knew.
Capone: At the same time, you’re not saying that being a director is just a job.
AG: What I’m saying is that it is one job out of a group of people making the film, they get credited at the end of the film. A lot of the people I’m working with are people I’ve worked with lots of times. So when you’re standing on the set, I’m having the same conversation with the same people, whatever it was, 18 months before the last time we were doing it. There’s really nothing different. There were some key people in this film that were different. I’d never worked with Oscar before, I’ve never worked with Rob Hardy, the DoP, before. But broadly speaking, it’s a collaboration between a bunch of old colleagues, so there’s no big deal.
Capone: Got it. And you guys are cool if we just talk STAR WARS stuff for the whole rest of the interview, right?
AG: They want to talk STAR WARS. Finally, somebody brought up STAR WARS [laughs]
Oscar Isaac: Someone is finally interested in it.
Capone: To keep secrets for this long that everybody thinks they want spoiled, does that just eat away at you after almost a year of just sitting on this knowledge?
Oscar Isaac: No, because it’s not secret to me. So I know.
Capone: But you have to keep it secret.
OI: Yeah, but just from you guys. At first, what was very difficult was keeping it secret when I was being considered for it, and when I just got the part. In that little interim, that was a very difficult thing, because I couldn’t tell anybody.
DG: Even yourself.
OI: I literally couldn’t even tell myself that this was happening.
AG: That must have been so hard.
OI: But like my uncle, my cousin, my family, they are die-hard STAR WARS fans, so I knew they were going to be so pissed at me when they see that interview where I did some STAR WARS trivia and I didn’t know any of it. They’re going to be so ashamed. But anyway, I didn’t even tell them that I had met with J.J. or any of that, because I didn’t want them to be calling asking, “Did you get it? Did you get it? Did you get it?” So that was a little tough.
DG: It would be different if we were on the creative side of things.
Capone: That’s true.
DG: Because you can’t even bounce ideas around. That’s a different thing than what we’re going through. I think it’s fine for us, because you just don’t talk about any of it. If you were allowed to say certain things about your character or allowed to talk about any of that stuff it would be difficult because you wouldn’t know where to draw the line. But the line is right at the beginning; you don’t go anywhere.
OI: That’s why I’ve had more fun talking about X-MEN, because I actually haven’t read the script yet, so I can be like, “Yeah. He can be this, he can be that. Maybe there’s this part.” But I have no information.
Capone: Yeah, I’m excited about that, too.
DG: I’m doing pretty good, too. If you take a look at…
OI: Yeah, so anyway—X-MEN…
Capone: I’m excited about THE REVENANT. That photo that they released with DiCaprio was great.
DG: I totally stole it back [laughs]. Yeah, that is exciting.
OI: It worked!
Capone: Alex, would you consider this a cautionary tale?
AG: Have you seen it?
Capone: Yes, but I guess what I’m wondering is whether it designed as a cautionary tale? There’s a lot going on that has nothing to do with robots or artificial intelligence. A lot of it mostly having to do with the way men treat women. At the same time, I think there are people that are only going to see it as a message about being scared of robots.
AG: Well, let’s say you only took it as a film about AI’s, I still wouldn’t say it was a cautionary tale, because most of the caution is directed from my point of view at the humans, not the machine. And I don’t personally feel a great sense of alarm about strong AI’s or the future. I know there are some people who do, and there’s a lot of reason to feel cautious or worried about it, but it seems to me to be roughly analogous with nuclear power, which is why there are parallels drawn between Oppenheimer and Oscar’s character in the film. Parallels in as much as nuclear power is potentially incredibly dangerous, but also potentially benign, and I think that would broadly be true with technology, that kind of technology. I also think typically when people talk about AI’s, they conflate lots of different things. We have a lot of AI’s already, and they’re very sophisticated and powerful. They’re in the stock markets, they’re in your cell phone, they’re controlling in health systems about how drugs get allocated. This is slightly different. This is about self-awareness, really.
Capone: We were talking earlier about what’s scarier, a robot that’s good or evil? I don’t think robots can be good or evil.
AG: Not at the moment, they can’t.
Capone: Right. But Ava is manipulative and aware of someone being bad to it, which is almost scarier and slightly more sinister.
DG: Yes. That’s better, though. Isn’t it? She’s been mistreated so badly. If she is conscious, if you talk about a real person being locked in a room and being judged…
AG: Or switched off. I think that’s the key.
DG: Locking someone like that away is not humane either, if it is conscious. So I don’t think it makes her any more sinister, actually. I think it makes [points to Isaac] this guy and also Caleb, who participates in the process of making decisions about this. I think that’s really sinister.
Capone: It’s funny, we’re meant to call it she, but it’s not a she.
AG: It’s debatable.
Capone: Yeah, it’s interesting the way we immediately sexualize it just because of the way that it’s built and the voice that it’s given. That too is manipulative. When you two read this script, what do you remember responding to immediately about your characters?
OI: I loved the language. I just thought the language that he uses, and the unpredictability of him I thought was really interesting. I thought it was very funny. I found it to be incredibly humorous, and just the wit that was written into it. And I think apart from the character, for me above all else, it’s about consciousness and whether it’s in an AI or in a person, or in a woman or a man, the idea that we can never be sure that our experience is at all alike. We assume that it is, but we really have no idea if the way that you process the world is anything like mine. And so I thought in all of these different ideas, whether it’s language or AI or even the things we talked about as far as like cell phones—all of the information coming in. I think ultimately, it’s a very interesting explanation of what consciousness is.
DG: First of all, I just loved that I never knew what was going to happen next with my character or with anybody else. The way it is built, anything is possible. Anybody could be the robot really. The test could be anything, and I kept on thinking, “Oh, I know what it is.” And five pages later you’re proved wrong. So I never knew who my character was when I read it. And I thought that’s interesting. From my perspective of having to fulfill that in the movie, but also from an audience prospective. If I was just watching this while I’m reading this script, I would be totally swept up in the whole thing. And the fact that it’s a pressure cooker, that Caleb just takes on so much as the film goes on. It just keeps on. It’s just more and more weight on his shoulders as it goes through and how somebody bares that, while also possibly falling in love, I thought was really, really interesting.
Capone: So did the film turn out exactly how you wanted it, compared to something you maybe handed off to another director? Do you feel like your first time out was 100 percent the movie you wanted?
AG: Yes. [pauses for a while] Pretty much. This movie was exactly what I had hoped it would be.
Capone: Alright, thank you all so much.
AG: Thank you very much, sir.
OI: Good seeing you again.
In an interesting post-script to this interview, after I left the room and headed to the elevators to leave the hotel where we were, Garland came running down the hall after me to clarify his last answer and the pause that preceded it. He explained that he’s never actually “handed over” a screenplay to any director. The few directors he’s worked with (particularly Danny Boyle) have always kept him close and made him an intricate part of the production process at every step. He conceded that he was all too aware that this was not always the way writers are treated in the film business and that he’s been extremely fortunate in that regard, which is perhaps why his transitioning to the director’s chair wasn’t as much of an adjustment as it might have been for other writers. I must say, it was incredibly decent of him to qualify that.