Not content with writing one of the best novels of recent times, The Beach author Alex Garland then moved on to penning some of the most interesting horror and science fiction films of the 21st century. His collaborations with director Danny Boyle gave us the very first, very fast-running zombies with the Infected of 28 Days Later and then he bent minds by breaking into science fiction with Sunshine. After writing a Dredd reboot that made everyone forget all about Stallone’s misjudged Dredd, Garland has taken the next step in his evolution as one of the finest genre storytellers of a generation. His directorial debut, Ex Machina, is out on Friday, January 23rd, with previews beginning on January 21st, featuring two future stars of Star Wars: Episode VII, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, as well as phenomenal talent Alicia Vikander. We were lucky enough to have a quick chat with this extremely intelligent writer/director to discuss the making of Ex Machina and the magic of cinema.
STARBURST: You have had a long and healthy relationship with Andrew MacDonald and DNA Films over the years. How easy was it to get this film into production with the budget you needed?
Alex Garland: It was surprisingly easy. I mean it was helped by the fact we’d been working together a long time and we know how to kind of work the angles, it would be fair to say. When I first presented them with the script, it was conceived as being a £3 million Film 4 movie and that we would not be able to do the kind of VFX that we knew that we would want, but we would find some kind of clever way around it. And the reason for doing that is because, basically, for this kind of subject matter, with a story told in this kind of way, which is quite adult sometimes in terms of content, and thoughtful or however you want to describe it, you’re never going to get a big budget. You’ll only be able to make this film if you do it cheaply, and then what we found to our surprise was that with the help of some real heavy hitters, people like Scott Rudin, who is a big producer who was involved right from the start, that we were able to aim at a higher budget than we thought we’d initially be able to do and effectively made a Film 4 movie with a huge VFX budget that pushed it up to $15 million.
It sounds like the opposite of what you usually hear from directors. It sounds like the studio, or the ‘suits’ or executives or whatever you want to call them, have helped you to make a bigger budget film but still make the film that you actually wanted without having to compromise in order to get a wider audience.
That’s literally exactly what happened. They looked at what we were proposing and they decided, “Yes, we want to do this.” There was another thing that made it, in a way, even more complicated. Again, because of the kind of film it is, it puts an enormous pressure on the actors because they have huge, huge scenes of dialogue one after another. You can’t cast a star that can’t act. You won’t get away with that charisma. Some stars have got a lot of charisma but they don’t have terrific acting ability, and that would kill a film like this. What you need more than anything is serious actors. Not only were they financing a rather sort of strange, difficult sci-fi movie, but also one that didn’t have any sort of obvious megastar, incandescent appeal. It’s an actor-led film more than anything. And they went for it and I honestly don’t think that we could have asked for a better cast for this film.
You cast Oscar and Domhnall before any of their recent successes and long before they were announced as part of Star Wars: Episode VII. Why those two?
Well this is the third time I’ve worked with Domhnall so I know him very well. I knew he’d be perfect for this. I knew he’d just do a terrific job. The thing about Oscar and also Alicia, they weren’t ‘stars’ as in they hadn’t blown up in the way that you’re talking about but everybody knew they were really, really good... I mean everybody. It’s not like a secret. When someone’s a really good actor, you know within a minute or two of them being on screen. You know if you looked at Philip Seymour Hoffman in an early role, you would instantly know how good he is. You don’t need to be some fancy film director to figure that out; it’s bloody obvious. In the case of those guys, it wasn’t a case of any great prescience on our part, we were not the only people who were trying to cast these actors. There were other films also pursuing them. The challenge was not recognising how good they were, but getting them to do it. That was the dicey bit.
How did you feel when you heard Oscar and Domhnall had been cast in Star Wars and when did you find out?
It was way down the line. I mean towards the end of post. What I thought is that with this group of people and all the other people involved, we’d made a film I feel very good about. I like it more than anything I’ve ever worked on in the past, but it’s not going to be a very easy sell and this will help.
Did you always want to direct this film and had you ever wanted to direct any of your previous screenplays?
I think I’d never quite framed it in the terms that you describe it. I don’t deify the directing role at all. Broadly speaking it is deified. And I never ever saw it that way. My approach to film is that it is a group of people working together; one of them is a director, one of them is a DOP, one’s a writer, one’s an actor, and so it goes on. All these people, essentially what they are is filmmakers. I feel that I’ve been in the business of filmmaking for 15 years or so and this is just another one of those movies. I’ve got a particular affection for it but that’s nothing to do with directing it; it’s to do with the fact that I feel it achieved its intentions and I haven’t always felt that in the past.
You mention that filmmaking is a very collaborative process. The production design on Ex Machina was incredible. The set had elements of a prison, a research facility, a futuristic eco-hotel. How much of that comes from the script and how important is Mark Rigby’s input?
It’s very hard to quantify in terms of percentages, I guess. What I’d say is that the script exists as a blueprint and then gradually a team is built up and enlarged. What those people do is they don’t just simply execute what they read, they say “How about this for an idea?” and it’s a rolling conversation between a large group of people. With Mark, I think I’ve made six films with DNA, it might be seven, I honestly can’t remember, and Mark’s worked on all of them. So I know Mark very, very, very well and, as with a lot of people on that crew, I’ve worked with them several times before so there’s a lot of shorthand and you get to know each other and someone suggests something and you know where they’re coming from is good so you immediately go “Yeah, that sounds great” and run with it.
What made you turn to Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow for the soundtrack?
I’d worked with Geoff and Ben for a time on the film I worked on previously, which was Dredd. So Geoff and Ben and I got to know each other during that period of work on Dredd. When this film came up, I just immediately contacted them. I think that they’re brilliant and they’re really interesting and fantastic composers, but they’ve got something about them which is very special; that they’re not deeply entrenched and saturated with film grammar because they haven’t spent years and years scoring movies and getting bad habits or good habits or any sort of habits. So they approach it in a way that is very fresh, and Geoff is a real fiercely creative guy and he keeps you on your toes and I like that about him. They have a bunch of qualities that they bring with them that are above and beyond just the composing.
You filmed on location in Norway in the most stunning places. Were the exteriors an actual house in the middle of nowhere?
Yes, we did 4 weeks on sound stages in Pinewood and then 2 weeks in Norway, and it was really just to get a kind of wild, big, strange landscape to work as a juxtaposition to this really claustrophobic interior. The house in the film is a combination; some of it is a house and some of it is a rather strange eco-hotel. The eco-hotel and the house were both designed by the same architect so they have commonality of aesthetic, which means you could move from one space to another and it would feel fluid. In fact, they’re like 10 miles from each other. That’s the magic of cinema.
Ex Machina is released in UK cinemas on January 23rd, with preview showings starting January 21st.
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