Interview: Alex Garland on his new venture ‘Ex Machina’

The novelist’s first movie as director tackles artificial intelligence — or does it? Antonia Quirke talks to the film-maker and two of its stars
Sonoya Mizuno and Alicia Vikander in ‘Ex Machina’

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

It has been a long wait for the words “written and directed by Alex Garland”. The 44-year-old novelist has been involved in movies as screenwriter and producer for more than 10 years (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd), some of them famously troubled behind the scenes.

So there’s a feeling of “about time too” surrounding his new venture Ex Machina, a Polanski-esque chamber piece starring Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, 26, as a captivatingly sophisticated robot called Ava, American star Oscar Isaac, 34, as a Prometheus character called Nathan, and Dubliner Domhnall Gleeson, 31, as Caleb, a gentle drone programmer invited to an isolated compound to test just how successfully human this artificial intelligence, Ava, is. Kept in a glass room, her face is that of a young human woman, but much of her body is patently mechanical, moving with delicacy, accompanied by a subtle whirring.

Garland, Gleeson, Vikander and I are sitting in a hotel room in London’s Soho talking it over. How did Vikander sift through cinema’s memorable AIs and aliens — from Jeff Bridges in Starman to Sean Young in Blade Runner — to settle on a way of being for Ava?

Alicia Vikander (in a low, scarcely accented voice): “I thought about all the messages we send out that are human or not, and thought that if someone has made me, then I am probably the most extraordinary thing for that person, so I went with trying to do perfection . . . that is the most inhuman thing of all, in fact. What is more human than a flaw?”

Alex Garland (cutting in): “That too-perfect thing. In VFX [visual effects] they call it ‘the uncanny valley’. You get everything right on the shot, the robot looks right but just too damn perfect.”

Vikander nods. To be characterised as “too perfect” she takes as her due. In the recently released Testament of Youth, in which she stars as Vera Brittain, she is described as “all brown and soft, just like a linnet”. Vikander is exceptionally beautiful in a neat, miniature way: her nose, her tiny brogues, her smooth hair. But there is also a spiky professionalism about the ex-ballerina. She is nobody’s fool and pointedly controlled.

Gleeson, son of actor Brendan, is shyer than the others, takes his time, and is always anxious to reassure and affirm. I say that I liked Ava’s whirring noise, musical but oppressive.

AG: “Actually someone else suggested that. It’s a good example of a director getting credit for something they had absolutely nothing to do with.”

Domhnall Gleeson (in a flash): “You did though Alex, you put it in the film.”

Alex Garland, Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson in Soho

AG (scoffing): “Oh what? I saw it and I recognised it was a good idea? Great!”

DG: “That’s what I’m saying! That’s a good director.”

He and Vikander are focused on Garland with a childlike admiration. I’ve known Garland on and off for a decade and he is one of those charismatic people who don’t behave as if they know they are charismatic — a quality that inspires precisely this sort of loyalty and affection.

AG: “If there was one bit of fascism in the film, it’s that I said, if nothing else, this experience was going to be friendly and if not — you’re out. I wanted this experience to be decent. To be calm.”

Which suits a movie about contemplation, in which the mood slips in and out of a stoned-like stasis (there are lulling, druggy moments reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg) until it’s not really a film about AI at all, I suggest, but more like a poker game — about hiding and concealing and manipulation.

Vikander shoots me a look, and is opening her mouth to speak when Gleeson starts describing with intensity the distracting things Vikander would do when filming scenes with him.

DG: “The camera would come round to me and over there Alicia would be finding different ways of turning off, quietly repeating a line as though she was thinking: ‘He’s getting too comfortable with this person as a person, so I’ll just shut off for a second and see what that does to him. Let’s see where this sends him.’ ’’

On the page, Caleb is essentially a reactive character, a quiet receiver of information — the sort of unshowy part that’s terribly hard to play. Gleeson needn’t, however, worry that his impact in the film is too humble, minor: as an actor he excels at encapsulating the look of tender sadness and grieving that Germans call Sehnsucht — a yearning for something which is unattainable. (His Levin in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina was a masterclass in Sehnsucht.)

AG (apologetically): “I often write very passive male characters who look like they’re at the heart of it all but really aren’t . . . but then actually are.”

DG: “Oh this is all just actory rubbish . . .” He tails off laughing. Earlier I’d noticed that he’d scribbled on the front page of the film script he has tubed in his jacket the words “commit to lunacy”.

AG (hunched in his chair, to me): “Actually you’re wrong. Ex Machina is about AI. Any thought about AI very quickly becomes a thought process about us humans, about consciousness and where the mind is and what the mind is. Stephen Hawking made some alarmist statement the other day about AI [that we will one day be replaced by intelligent robots], and maybe that could all be true, but there’s nothing in the creation of a consciousness that’s unusual. People do it. They have children. All the anxiety surrounding the issue doesn’t seem to me to be remotely reasonable. To be scared of AI is just an act of self-destructive parenthood.” Garland finds this idea more stimulating than worrying.

The photographer is starting to set up and the concentration of the group is shifting when Vikander suddenly returns to my original question about how she conjured Ava.

AV: “I read all these books about the human body. Electrodes. Signals in my brain. Dopamine. Hormones.”

She must feel us all staring at her. It’s always fascinating to meet someone when they are in the moment of blossoming stardom — and Vikander is in that moment. She is about to experience a very modern, overwhelming kind of scrutiny. Having played the unflinching Ava at this point could prove poignantly useful.

AV: “I talked for days and days about my ‘emotions’ and my ‘signals’. And I got to thinking in the end: ‘I’m just an organic machine’. And I accepted that.”

She adjusts her skirt. In her black patent brogues the reflection of tough, small hands.

‘Ex Machina’ is released in the UK on January 21 and in the US on April 10

Photograph: Victoria Birkinshaw

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.