Writing for Robots: Alex Garland on Ex Machina
Alex Garland discusses his new film, the trick to exposition, and the connection between writers and actors.
By Andrew Bloomenthal.
More than a decade after bursting onto the cinematic scene with his zomb-pocalypse genre pic 28 Days Later, British screenwriter Alex Garland explores Artificial Intelligence in Ex Machina, his directorial debut.
In this stylish and claustrophobic thriller, reclusive dot-com billionaire/inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has just put the final touches on ravishing robotic creation Ava (Alicia Vikander), his most advanced design yet. But is Ava sophisticated enough to achieve higher consciousness? To find out, Nathan recruits his meek employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to be the human component in a Turing Test–the classic experimental exercise of determining if a machine can think like a human. And Ava is damn convincing. But has she truly achieved autonomous thought, or is she simply programmed to appear like she has? Either way, she elicits our sympathy, telling Caleb she feels like a prisoner inside Nathan’s remote compound. Of course, she may be playing Caleb, to win an ally against her controlling creator. As motivations become increasingly obfuscated, a hell of a three-way chess game emerges. And someone will get hurt.
Garland spoke to Creative Screenwriting about creating his compelling narrative.
Alex, how are you?
I’m fine, Andrew. You’re from Creative Screenwriting–the screenwriting magazine, correct?
You might not think so after hearing my first question.
Because I thought your robot character Ava was so nuanced and interesting, that she reminded me of Sean Young’s replicant character in Blade Runner. A fair comparison?
It’s fair because it’s your comparison. One thing about being a writer—and if asked, I define myself as a writer, is that you quickly get used to the idea that when you write a story and put it out into the world, you’re not controlling what people take from it. It becomes a 50-50 deal: 50% of the experience is provided by the person providing the narrative and 50% by the recipient. So if that’s your take-away, I have no problem with it at all. But I don’t think I consciously made a connection to Blade Runner. When I was thinking about previous movies with A.I’s, I probably thought more about HAL in 2001 than Blade Runner—certainly on a conscious level.
How did you describe Ava’s physicality on the page?
Let me find it on my phone…It says: “We see Ava, a robot girl. She’s an extraordinary piece of engineering, proportioned as a slender female in her 20s; limbs and torso a mixture of metal and plastic and carbon fiber. Her body structure is covered in a delicate mesh skin, the pattern of a honeycomb. It’s like a spider-web, almost invisible, unless side-lit. But the one part of her that’s not obviously an inorganic construct is her face, which is that of a girl.”
Oscar Isaac’s character Nathan also had a distinct appearance, with his shaved head and beard. Was his look patterned after anyone?
The only requirement I had for Nathan, in terms of the way he looked, was that he had to be physically intimidating, with an implicit violence to him. Because the second you say he’s the boss of the world’s biggest Internet search engine, it’s straightforward that he’s super-smart by definition. So he had to be threatening—not just intellectually, but in a physical, predatory way. And to be really reductive about it: he’s a dark alpha male type, against Caleb’s softer, more gentle beta male type.
Ava had a certain economy of speech, which makes sense because she’s a robot. But you also had to also suggest a potential burgeoning consciousness. And then there’s a third level, where she’s possibly employing trickery. Tell me about writing Ava’s dialogue, with these considerations.
She’s speaking on different levels—what she’s actually saying and what she actually means behind her eyes. But that’s actually true of all of the characters. They’re all doing exactly the same thing in that respect. But in a way, I didn’t write Ava as a machine. I wrote her as a person, and there was an innocence there. An ingénue type thing. At the same time, I had to suggest that her naiveté may or may not be an affectation. But I don’t think about characters in terms of the constructs you just stated. It’s more about how I feel about them. And I liked Ava, where I was suspicious about the two guys.
Describe working with Alicia Vikander, to nail down the modulation of her voice and her delivery. I guess that’s more of a director’s question, I suppose.
No. No, it’s not. I disagree, actually. In fact, in many ways, there’s a very strong connection with writers and actors, because nobody really gets more deeply inside the characters than these two people. That said, as a writer, there’s a certain point–usually during the rehearsal process, where you hand that character over to the actor, as long as you’re in agreement on what the scene is, why it exists, and what the important things are within the scene. The trick is in the casting. I saw Alicia in a Danish movie called A Royal Affair, and we had a conversation. She was smart and insightful, and when she did a reading of the part, I knew she was perfect.
You had to describe arcane computer theories such as the Turing Test and other complex ideas. How did you negotiate how esoteric to get with your exposition?
The trick with exposition—and it’s not something I’ve always gotten right, is to have it said how the characters would actually say it, in conversations the characters would actually have. The danger of exposition is when it feels like it’s information the filmmakers need to include, just to move the plot forward, even if the characters would never talk about it left to their own devices. Thankfully this wasn’t a problem with this film, because two of the characters are coders, with an interest in Artificial Intelligent-type consciousness, so they really would be talking about this stuff in the natural scheme of things. That was a gift. But if you had characters with no interest in men’s souls or consciousness or A.I., who suddenly start talking about the Turing Test, you’ve got a massive problem.
A prop question: there was a scene in the science lab where Nathan held up the gel-infused brain. Was that a visual effect? What was actually in his Oscar Isaac’s hands?
There was a Perspex object filled with liquid, with things floating in it that were exactly the same proportions as what you see on screen. Then it was a visual effects job to swap out what was inside the semi-spherical shape, and fill it with something strange.
Why did you opt to have Nathan use wetware technology, versus a circuitry-based, CPU-driven brain?
Because our brains are wet and it just felt more reasonable to me. And to an extent, there’s a bit of artistic license, but this just made sense.
Ex Machina deals with Nathan’s giant search engine, Blue Book, which he uses to learn about Caleb. Do you personally curb your online activity, to reduce your digital footprint?
I don’t, actually, because the way I see it is that there’s just such an enormous data out there, that in some respect, it’s probably not about individuals, it’s more about the ebb and flow of the tide in more general terms. But that said, in a way I am slightly too old for some of the things about the Internet that are the most current and most interesting. I’m not on Facebook and I’m not on Twitter, so I’m not leaving a digital footprint in that respect. I’m slightly disconnected to those things.
You’ve stated that you think A.I. is possible. Is it inevitable?
It’s not inevitable. I think the analogy is something like a cure for cancer. There’s a lot of people working on it, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. With things like this, the breakthroughs often also bring problems, so as you move forward, the goal also moves slightly further back.
Finally, the character of Ava has a palindromic name. Tell me about choosing this.
Well when I was first working on this, I called her ‘Eve’. But then I thought that this was too prosaic, because of Adam and Eve and that kind of thing, so by changing it to Ava, it felt like it had some of the qualities of them name ‘Eve’, but it wasn’t as on the nose. And also, ‘Ava’ looks like it’s an acronym–like it stands for ‘Advanced Vehicle Automation’, or something like that. It just felt right.