It’s 9 a.m. at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons and the recent heat wave has encouraged a healthy pumping of conditioned air to compensate. I rib Garland on this fact, mention perhaps he—in the midst of a press whirlwind for his science fiction directorial debut, Ex Machina—has people that could bring him a jacket. “No, I don’t. I’ve got legs!” he offers. I cautiously sip my hot tea.
Alex Garland wrote the iconic mid-90s novel The Beach when he was 26 years old. He then began writing screenplays, which include: 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd. He just got back from a screening of his film in Austin, at SXSW, which—he cautiously notes—was well-received. And by this I mean: Alex Garland has been busy.
Two days prior to this interview, I sat in a packed screening room—at some other West Hollywood hotel—watching Ex Machina. It’s a film that offers this premise: Man (a beefed-up, Machiavellian Oscar Isaac) invents AI (a deep-welled, whirring Alicia Vikander). Man invites employee (Domhnall Gleeson, who rightfully appears shell-shocked throughout the film) to perform the Turing test on AI. Rest of plot unknown.
The tension of this uncertainty hung heavy in the opening scenes, the weight of this void filled with every science fiction film everyone in the audience had ever seen. And then Nathan—the AI’s creator—mercifully offered up the first of many laughs.
“Often, humor in drama films is like oxygen, in a funny way. People often particularly notice it in horror movies because it works like a release valve. But actually, just in general, it sort of is like oxygen, and in a film like this it would be very easy to take yourself too seriously,” Garland says.
I ask him why he chose this particular film for his directorial debut, a question that, at this point, he’s likely heard enough times to have a canned answer. And yet that comfort, despite its innocuous implications, leaves him reluctant to give in and switch on autopilot, even when doing so at 9:23 a.m. on Friday would be relatively easy to forgive.
Garland doesn’t seem to find the transition worth noting. The question itself, he adds, “presupposes a bunch of stuff about directing that I don’t really feel.”
His reasoning is that while writing is, inevitably, something one does alone, “you don’t make films on your own, they’re just different. And I feel—not just comfortable with the collaboration—it is my favorite thing about it.” For Garland, despite his writer and director credit, he doesn’t feel his presence, heavy in its solitude, in each scene. He’s keen to credit the actors, the sound designer. He redirects my reactions to the work of Rob Hardy, the director of photography.
“That’s the thing about film,” I say. “There’s kind of a sadness in it if someone doesn’t have the right team. Like if you, for instance, had someone else do the score or there was a different director of photography,”
“It wouldn’t have been the same film,” he says.
Nathan seems to act as an opposing view to this methodology. He moves through his space alone and unchecked, blissfully unaware of the fact that his ideas are sliding further and further from the realm of normal human behavior, that his ideas just aren’t that good.
As our technological research slowly changes hands, sliding out of the public view, it’s an archetype that doesn’t feel unreasonable. “When you isolate a person, or a group of people and you don’t have external forces modifying their behaviors and eccentricities they can be like a balloon that slipped out of a kid’s hand and just drifted off. And they can end up in a very strange place quite quickly,” Garland continues.
“That’s really the thing. It’s the thing I find most scary about us—where reasonable people can end up when their behavior isn’t modified by other people.”
Deus ex machina is a Greek phrase, the origin of which means “God from the machine.” It’s evolved to reference a plot device, one in which an unsolvable problem finds a resolution.
Both meanings are particularly apt in Machina, the second for reasons I won’t describe, lest I give away that “rest of plot unknown,” but the first I’ll leave here: In the film, Ava—the AI—asks Nathan how it feels to have made something that hates him. It hits hard, in a large part because I clutch tightly the belief that artificial intelligence often offers up more about humans than it does the machine itself. I tell Alex, “I’m not so much interested in how you feel about Artificial Intelligence, but how you feel about the way that Ava reacts to Nathan. It’s really an interesting way that a creation would react to a creator. I wonder if that’s because a human created Ava, or if that’s just the way that creations react to creators?”
“Here’s my take,” he offers. “A lot of creations become about God and they become a cautionary tale: It’s a mistake to do God’s work. That becomes it. That didn’t really interest me for various reasons, and what did interest me was the idea of parenthood, humans creating stuff. Which we do. We have kids. And where the anxieties about AIs come from—if you reframe an AI as not this distinct other thing, but as a child, a product of a consciousness, one consciousness creating another one. For me everything changes when you look at it like that.”
I turn this over, smile, and tell Garland that kind of takes the pressure off the whole thing, doesn’t it?
We sit across from each other, swallowing our lukewarm drinks.
Eventually, Garland comes back to writing, musing on how when he wrote The Beach, the fear was that books—that reading in general, was a dying art. “Words were getting abandoned.” And now here we sit: we spend all day reading screens. You perhaps are somewhere, in some other time, reading these words. We, in our own ways, keep it alive.
I say goodbye to Alex (he’ll stay in this room today and field more questions from writers, string together more words to be filed for later reading, balk at saying things that feel inauthentic). I unsuccessfully look for a surface on which to set my half-drunk tea. And then I step out into the sunshine, climb into the shelter of my own machine, and switch on the A/C.