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Q&A: Alex Garland on the Strange Ease of Directing 'Ex Machina'

Ex Machina
In 'Ex Machina,' Alicia Vikander co-stars as the robot Ava. DNA Films/A24 Films

Ex Machina, the brilliant and heady new Artificial Intelligence film, is not always easy to watch. But it was easy to make. Or so says writer and director Alex Garland, who says it's the easiest movie he has worked on "by order of many multiples." (Previous screenwriting credits include 28 Days Later and the Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation Never Let Me Go.) 

His favorite thing about it? That's easy: It's the robot (played by Alicia Vikander), whose snappy intelligence—artificial or otherwise—elevates the flick and entangles its characters. "I just feel huge affection for Ava," Garland shared in a conversation with Newsweek. "It's nice writing characters that are smart," because movies so often encourage the opposite. 

Garland also talked about the casting process and the overwhelming acclaim Ex Machina has already received. A longer feature based on this conversation is scheduled to appear in Newsweek's print magazine next week.

What's your favorite thing about the robot Ava?

I just feel huge affection for Ava. I wrote this script; it was all about Ava before I even had written the first line. I knew that I was crazy about Ava before I got to that scene. The film is all about how amazing Ava is, basically. And so it's kind of everything. I love the design. I love the behavior. I love the thought patterns, I love the dialogue and I love the intelligence—Ava's really intelligent. It's nice writing characters that are smart. Film often tries to stop you from doing that in various ways. They can be cunning, but not necessarily smart.

Because the audience is supposed to be smarter than the characters, in a way?

I think that it's like a received wisdom sometimes, and it probably—in fact, almost definitely—doesn't really stand up to much scrutiny. But that's in the nature of received wisdom that they stick around without having to get scrutinized. And the phrase "dumbing down" relates to something real. People do ask you sometimes. I often had it in scripts, where people say, "That conversation is going to be impossible for anyone to understand." You think, "No, it's not. It's actually quite straightforward. It's reasonable." But still you get asked to take long words out.  It actually happens.

Like the programming talk in this case?

Any field.  No, no, not in this film.

In your previous films?

In fact, the first time I ever had a producer say, "I like that these characters are sort of highly educated" or something like that is on this film. Normally you don't hear that—that's not what you hear. This film was different: It's cheap. It doesn't have to justify it according to mainstream tastes, except even that is perceived mainstream tastes. I'm not kidding, I don't think it stands up to any scrutiny, but that doesn't stop it existing when you're trying to get a film financed. 

What was the hardest part of making Ex Machina?

It was really a very, very easy film to work on.

Really?

Yeah. Probably the part of production where it felt in the most threat was during casting, because with this cast, once it was clear that these were the right people to do it, which really was almost immediately, the future of the film hangs on whether you get them or not. In many respects, this was exactly the right cast, I knew it was the right cast, and it would've been pretty alarming if we hadn't gotten [them]. After that point, easiest film I ever worked on by order of many multiples.

What reactions to the film have surprised you the most?

Well, when we were making this movie, what we felt was that we were making a very small, difficult, indie movie. The surprise thing has been that people have responded to it. This is a very talky film. It doesn't have a lot of intended glamor. You can't cut together a great trailer with car chases and helicopters and fights or whatever the hell you might get, explosions, I don't know. Having a film which is as talky as this get received as something like a psychological thriller has been really nice, and it's something that amongst the people who worked on the film, we've been emailing and calling each other like a "Can you believe it?" type thing.

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