Alex Garland interview: Ex Machina, GamerGate, Jet Set Willy

Screenwriter and filmmaker Alex Garland chats to us about his new SF film Ex Machina, GamerGate, auteur theory and Manic Miner...

Since his breakthrough success his novel The Beach in 1996, Alex Garland has emerged as one of the UK’s finest writers. His screenplay for 28 Days Later resulted in one of the most influential horror movies of the 2000s.

Sunshine was an intense and intelligent sci-fi film, and 2012’s Dredd finally gave 2000 AD fans the full-blooded comic book adaptation they’d been craving for years.

With Ex Machina, Alex Garland turns his hand to directing as well as writing. It’s an intimate, disturbing and characteristically smart film, about a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who finds himself locked in a bizarre triangle with a reclusive, self-destructive tech CEO (Oscar Isaac) and the artificially intelligent being (played by Alicia Vikander) he’s created in his remote lab.

What follows is a skilfully-wrought thriller about the nature of consciousness, technology

and human cruelty. It’s an assured debut, and we were extremely keen to catch up with Garland and talk about what influenced him to make it and his thoughts on directing and technology. Here’s what he had to say on those topics, plus his love of videogames past and present, and how they feed into the themes in his new film.

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Congratulations on the film. I was really taken, first of all, by the intimacy of it, which I wasn’t expecting. Did you conceive it as a script that you would direct yourself?

I just wrote it. I genuinely don’t put much by this whole directing thing. I know we’re supposed to, and I get that – I’ve been watching films for years, I’ve been working in films for years. I get that it’s a big deal, but I really don’t see it that way at all. You’ve got, on any film that I’ve ever worked on, a group of filmmakers – not one filmmaker, a bunch of them. DOP, actors, producers, writers, and the director. They’re one of the people standing around discussing, “How do we film it?”

So I think directors… I get it, they’re deified, but I’ve never seen any sense in deifying anything. This was just another film, and I was just trying to do the best job possible. That’s it.

So you weren’t daunted by the prospect of directing?

I wasn’t daunted at all. I was daunted by the prospect of making a film, because it’s hard, and it can easily go wrong. There are always problems of one sort or another. But really, just too much noise is made about the word ‘director’. I find it misleading and implausible. 

You’re not big on auteur theory, then.

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No, I’m not. I’m not saying auteurs don’t exist. If somebody makes a case to me that Woody Allen is an auteur, I’m not going to argue against them. I’m happy for them to exist – I’m just saying I’ve never had any direct experience of it. And I’ve worked on a bunch of films, I’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s not my experience of filmmaking. I am not an auteur: I’m working with a bunch of people, some of whom I’ve worked with six times. I’m not going to do or say anything that takes away from their work, because that’s bullshit. [Laughs]

That’s fair enough! So can you talk a bit about where the germ of the film came from? Was it the science fiction angle of the story, or the human nature side of it?

Well, it just came out of an interest in AI, really. But it goes back to doing a Hello World-type program in Basic on a ZX Spectrum, you know? Which is before your time, I’m sure.

It’s really not, actually! I grew up owning a ZX Spectrum. [Laughs]

Okay, well. You know, there’s a conversation which is a version of that Hello World thing in the film, where people talk about chess computers

. It seems to be wanting to beat you at chess, but it doesn’t want to beat you. It doesn’t want anything. It doesn’t actually know it’s playing chess, right? Computers make you confront that kind of problem, and make you think about it.

I’ve always been interested in that. I’ve got a friend who’s very knowledgeable about that kind of stuff,  and he’s convinced, for various reasons, and it’s a very reasonable argument, that there’s never going to be any strong AIs. I don’t mean AIs like on a phone or in a videogame, I mean sentient AI.

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It’s a very reasonable position to take – I just don’t personally agree with it. Instinctively, I think there will be. And also rationally, I think there will be. We used to argue about that a lot over the years.

Then I was working on prep on Dredd, which was the film I made before this one, and the story that attached itself to that argument just arrived. I stopped what I was doing, I wrote it down quickly and went back to Dredd. Then as soon as Dredd was finished, I got on with this one. 

For me, there seem to be several strands to the story. One, which I really liked, is that it pushed the notion of technology being seductive to its logical conclusion. In the sense that when I grew up, computers were beige lumps of plastic. Now they’re svelte, caressable things. Was that a conscious part of it?

The way I used to phrase it is that we’re in a post iPhone world. A particular emphasis is put on elegance. When we don’t see it these days in product design, we’re almost affronted by it. Unless you’re like me, and you like the Raspberry Pi thing, for its guts, just being this functional thing, and being able to see all of that. It’s cyclical, anyway. People will probably be bringing out Acorn Electrons again or something, or whatever the fuck they were called.

You can get cases for your phone that make it look like a Nintendo Entertainment System.

Yeah, the old NES control pad. Or a Game And Watch.

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Exactly. The other strand, which I was really interested in, was that the film’s about human nature – particularly the way men tend to treat women.

It’s a streak. There’s two concurrent things going on. One is about AI consciousness, because any discussion about AI becomes about human consciousness very quickly. The other is an argument, really. It’s partly an argument about the objectification of women in a particular way. In this sense, it’s a literal objectification.

Eva’s not actually a woman. She’s a machine that does not have a gender. So the question is, why is she presented as a girl in her early 20s? It’s because we fetishise girls in their early 20s. In a particular kind of way. Sometimes you read about that being shunted onto the media: advertising does it, film does it. It’s bullshit. It’s passing the buck. We all do it. Men do it and women do it. Right?

The reasons we do that are complicated, and I could make guesses as to why it is. But what seems to be beyond debate is that it does actually happen. And there are various tricks – games being played within the film. One of them is that the process that is happening to the young man who appears to be the protagonist of the film, is also happening on the audience. And if he goes down that path and we follow him down that path, which is the intention, what should happen – it’s hard to talk about this without blowing the movie – but the means by which that happens necessitates that Eva be presented as a girl in her early 20s. 

I saw [Ex Machina] late last year. It was around the time the whole GamerGate thing was blowing up. To me it fed into that: the way we treat each other as human beings would extend to how we’d treat an AI. That they would become our toys.

Well they shouldn’t.

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Definitely not, but it seems inevitable that it would happen.

It’s interesting all that. What I think is, it’s a bit like that thing I just said about the objectification of girls in their early 20s. You can have a big discussion about why it happens, but you can’t argue about whether or not it happens. It fucking obviously happens, right?

There’s also a thing you can say about videogames. Which is that videogames have a streak, a  mile wide, like a fucking motorway running through them, which is dominated by male adolescent preoccupations. It just does. I play videogames, and it’s bloody obvious. Whatever you’re going to say, you can’t pretend that it’s not the case. It’s just screamingly obvious. And there are implications to that – it just seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to observe that it exists.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing; I was an adolescent male. And actually there’s a part of me that always will be. It’s a function of being what you are. In some respects, I couldn’t really tell what the argument was all about, sometimes. I know there was a whole thing about ethics in game journalism. Alright, whatever, yeah, fine. But I used to think, what the fuck are people actually arguing about here? Are they actually arguing about the way women are  represented in games, or the way that games are male-centric? Are we really having a discussion about whether that is the case or not? I just didn’t get it. I found it baffling.

So much of our culture is based around male power fantasies. Whether it’s films, games – all sorts of media. It’s a dominant theme, so I think it’s important to question why that is. Which I think your film does.

I think it’s important to question everything. Pretty much everything is up for grabs, so question it. I’d say that’s a reasonable position to have. Yeah, never take anything at face value, I guess.

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Male fantasies, power structures… I guess. FIFA is a fantasy played out [in a game].

People like me aren’t going to get to play for England any time soon.

Right, right. But now you can. Call Of Duty. All that stuff. Yeah, clearly, that’s something that is happening.

Of course, there are all these other strange… one of the things I love about the games scene now is that it felt, to me – and I’m sure there are going to be exceptions to the rule. It’s not like I’m an expert. But this is how it felt to me as a gamer. There was a period where people like Jeff Minter and Matthew Smith – well, Jeff Minter never stopped – but there was a bunch of people who were doing these weird, esoteric games. Bedroom coders. And it was this sparky, inventive, strange world. And playing Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy brought you into this dream, this kind of hallucination. It was fucking amazing.

That got crushed for a while by triple-A titles, and I found that really, really boring. I played them, and some of them I loved, but I found it restrictive. I missed all that stuff. I missed Jeff Minter’s games. I’d actually get my Atari Jaguar out and play Tempest 2000 or 3000

You had one?

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Yeah, I bought one! I was one of the few. And I loved that game. It’s in my top 10 of all time. But now it’s back, isn’t it? Gone Home. The Stanley Parable. God, I love those games. I mean, I don’t just like them – I absolutely love them. There’s a game coming out, No Man’s Sky – I absolutely cannot wait for that.

It really looks incredible.

It feels like the games industry has gone, “All that other stuff – forget all of that.” I don’t even really care about GamerGate stuff. I don’t give a fuck. What I’m interested in is that there are people out there. The triple-A stuff is getting nudged to the side a bit, and I’m really glad, because I’m really interested in what these other guys are doing. I can’t wait for another Gone Home. I can’t wait. But not as a franchise, not as Gone Home 2 – I mean someone else coming along and making something as fucking brilliant as that game. Those guys, whoever did it, more power to them. I love it.

[Publicist comes in, mouths, “One final question”]

So to return to science fiction for a moment, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what led you into that when you moved into screenwriting. Because you went from realistic novels, for want of a better term, into sci-fi. 

I think I’ve always written genre stuff, in a way. Thrillers. Adventure. Sci-fi. Horror. In a way, 28 Days Later is really a horror movie. If you’re going to be really pedantic about it, there’s not a lot of science in the fiction – it’s really horror. But I really love science fiction, and I’ve always loved it. I like the permissions it gives you: it gives you a lot os space to come up with a certain kind of conversation in the narrative, and for it not to feel like it’s unearned. It’s what it allows you to do. You can explore big ideas. Not your big ideas – someone else’s big ideas, but you can put them in your story. And that’s what I really love about it.

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Alex Garland, thank you very much.