Alex Garland first came to prominence with the international success of his novel The Beach, an exploration of backpacker culture that was eventually made into a 2000 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Danny Boyle. Garland would go on to have a working relationship with Boyle, writing the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine. He has also written adapted screenplays for Never Let Me Go and the action film Dredd. He recently completed his first project as both writer and director, Ex Machina, a film about a brilliant inventor who brings a young man to his remote island in order to test his latest creation, a robot that he swears can perfectly pass for human. The A.V. Club spoke to him about misconceptions of filmmaking, the science of AI, and how we actually know that we’re human and not just Matrix-like brains in vats.
The A.V. Club: Many of the films you’ve written, especially the Danny Boyle ones, are thought of chiefly as the work of their directors. But you look at Ex Machina and it’s very much of a piece, thematically, with your other projects. It makes you realize how collaborative film really is.
Alex Garland: Yeah. I’ve been working in film for around 14 or 15 years. And there’s so much bullshit around the way we perceive film compared to what it actually is. And so much of it is so evidently bullshit, I have no idea how it sustains itself. My analogy I made to myself is something like the banking system just prior to 2007, where what you have is all these kinds of inherited wisdoms that are unquestioned, stacked up one on top of each other, and people just go along with them, act as if they’re true. And if anybody is forced to look at what’s true and what’s not true, it just collapses. The difference is that the banking system has something concrete behind it. Is it making money? And if it’s failing to do that in a sort of mathematical sense, then it collapses, maybe. Whereas that’s not really true in film, because the fictions embedded are more abstract, basically. In an elliptical way, what I’m talking about is auteur theory, and that’s effectively what you were alluding to.
AVC: Yeah. You’ve talked about that in the past—
AG: I think auteurs probably exist. I think Woody Allen is an auteur. It makes sense to me that he’s an auteur. But we are forced into a position where we have to act as if everything is an auteur movie, and the basic reason we have to do that is partly because it’s comfortable but mainly because it’s easy to sell. And you could say of film—well, if auteur theory is so solid and unshakable and so universally applicable, why do film companies fight over production designers? Why do they fight over DPs? If the “director” mounted the camera, what do you need a DP for? And if the production designer is just executing the precise vision of the director, they’re just interchangeable. But they’re not interchangeable. We fight like crazy over these people.
So—and I’ll shut up, I want to say one fucking thing and then I’ll shut up. I came from writing books, right? You write a book on your own in a room for the most part. You talk to an editor or something like that, but basically you do it on your own. Film to me seems self-evidently collaborative. I’m not an auteur, I don’t work on auteur movies, I don’t want to be an auteur. The pleasure in it is the collaboration. That’s why I stopped writing books and made films—so I could be working with sometimes directors but also DOPs and production designers and actors and all these people within the collaboration that elevate the project. Anyway. I will shut up.
AVC: No, no. It’s obviously one of your bugbears—I mean you’re a writer-director, where people always want to say, “Well that means he does everything.”
AG: I’ll tell you why it bothers me. Partly it’s because I love cinema. I really, really love cinema. And I personally think that one of the downsides of auteur theory has been too much emphasis put on the deification of directing, and some of the other roles have been dismissed—and sometimes, within the production, almost treated with contempt. Now, in particular, because I perceive myself as a writer, I notice that about writing. It’s like a math teacher who thinks math is the most important subject in school or something.
I think film has lost track of how important screenplays are. And the consequence of that is really amazing writers in the visual art form have moved to television. And since The Sopranos—this is a general truth, it’s not a perfect truth—broadly speaking, the best adult drama has been on television. And we used to get Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Apocalypse Now and The Godfather and you just keep going. The parallax would be all these interesting adult dramas that could be also quite mainstream. And they exist now, but they’re Breaking Bad and The Wire and Mad Men and even Game Of Thrones or whatever. I just regret that.
AVC: And they exist in film, but it’s the little, $1 million dollar film that—
AG: Precisely. That’s exactly right. It does exist in film—but what it’s become is niche. So the Coen brothers—and you could choose whoever you wanted as your exemplars of that. There are many. It’s not just one. But I would point partly to the Coen brothers or Steven Soderbergh. They exist, they’re doing amazing stuff, but they feel niche. Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather—they did not feel niche back then. And Breaking Bad, which is a brilliantly written drama, does not feel niche. And I feel like we’ve lost touch with some of that stuff within film, a little bit.
AVC: These things are being made, but as you say, most people don’t always even know they exist. Like Breaking Bad is on AMC and it manages to connect with this huge audience.
AG: Does manage to connect, you mean, because it’s on AMC.
AVC: Without that sort of backing—
AG: But those infrastructures exist in film. Listen, it’s not—I don’t have an argument that is good enough to account for infrastructures. It’s more like a Field Of Dreams-type vague, fuzzy argument. “Build it and they’ll come,” that type of thing. And incidentally, by the way, I really have to be very clear while I’m saying this because I think it’s important: I’m not counting myself amongst the people that are doing the good stuff, right? I’m good enough to know when other people are really good, and to sort of think, “Wow, how did they do that?” Like, I can see the tricks they’re pulling off, but I don’t know how they’re pulling them off, if you know what I mean. It’s what I aspire to.
But I do think television is demonstrating—this is the crassest way of putting it but maybe the truest way of putting it—television is demonstrating the market that still exists for adult drama. And adult drama in cinema, in an equivalently large scale, is really hard to find. If you tell me the names of the people that are doing really great stuff in cinema, I suspect we’re going to agree on all those names, but then not finding the sort of market penetration, the budget, that their colleagues are doing in television. And also, by the way, all power to television. I fucking love it. I watch it to death. I’d like more. But I personally want to work in film, because I like film. I actually quite like short-form narratives.
AVC: A lot of work you’ve done comes from the science spectrum, getting interested in the intellectual notions behind things that start stories. But you’re also interested in genre film—specifically science fiction and horror. Do you remember when you first started getting into that, or seeing something and going, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do”?
AG: Yeah. I think particularly in science fiction, you tend not to have to smuggle in a big idea. You can just have it. You don’t need to apologize for it. And science-fiction audiences—I mean, there’s space opera, say, or action-movie space films, or all these subgenres. But broadly speaking, sci-fi is up for big ideas. You find it in Star Trek television shows, you find it in Battlestar Galactica, the more recent incarnation—maybe in the old one, too, I don’t know. But the point is, you’re just allowed. And that makes it attractive. And on a personal, day-to-day level, the stuff that I get most affected by, I find it while reading about science.
I was reading the other day about this experiment called the dual slit experiment, which is a really interesting thing and I would recommend everyone read about it, and if you just type it into Google you can find a great deal about it on Wikipedia. Reading about it and trying to get your head around it and thinking about the smart people that are trying to work on it—I find it mind blowing. It’s the edge of human intellect and existence and it contains our future embedded within it and also our past. What’s not to like? So yeah, it just sort of pushes buttons in me.
It’s also partly because I was just terrible in school at these things. I wasn’t allowed to take—these are the British versions of maybe SATs or something—they were called O Levels, and I wasn’t allowed to take physics, biology, or chemistry O Levels because I was just too—I was just lousy. And I couldn’t do math or anything. I was just hopeless. And in my 20s, my history term was so bad I got a U, which means unclassified. They couldn’t even give an A, B, C, D, or E grade. It was just hopeless. And I sort of thought I was thick. And then in my early 20s I thought, “This is interesting, it must be interesting,” and I got a book for kids about atoms, and I read it, and by the end I understood that book, and I just kept going. And in some respects, all of this is about feeling behind.
AVC: Do you think the reason there’s so much serious adult drama that a lot of people don’t feel a connection to is that they’re told, “This will bore you, this is nerd stuff”?
AG: That’s possible, although it’s such a strange idea to me that “this is nerd stuff, therefore it’s not interesting.” I have almost no way of attaching myself to that statement. I just can’t even begin to get my head around it. There is a version of that sense of being left behind that’s not just a sort of neurotic thing, it’s actually true. In the time of Newton, if you or I decided what we wanted to do was understand everything about where science was at at the moment, we could spend a year doing it. We could pretty much get a good working knowledge. I mean actually, personally, I’d struggle still on the math, but nonetheless, we’d be up there, in terms of maybe not coming up with the ideas but appreciating the ideas that exist. That is not true anymore. I know enough about science to know it’s just not true.
I’ve been reading, recently, a fair amount about multiverse theory and inflation and things like that, and the truth is these discussions are being had between quite a small group of people who actually understand what they’re talking about. And then there’s something very close to a vacuum, and very little information crosses that vacuum. And there are some things about that that really bother me, because there are ethical implications. And it’s hard to have a good opinion on the ethical implications if you don’t understand the thing that’s causing the issue.
AVC: In many high-level or specialized fields, whether it’s science or academia or even filmmaking, there are people interested in maintaining a veil of distance between what most people can understand.
AG: There are. And I have often thought, in philosophy—because I’m a writer and I try to be clear in writing—I think, why the hell did you phrase that sentence like that? Like, I can see you’re smart enough to have written that better and you’re choosing not to. And I do think that people protect their fiefdoms in that respect. There’s a philosophy speak and a science speak, and you’re in a club if you can do it, and you’re not in the club if you can’t—and that’s not a cool thing. And the most interesting—you know, someone like Richard Feynman, one of his great gifts is he doesn’t do that. He wants to bring you in and he wants to make you successful.
With multiverse, the thing I keep thinking is, “This is bullshit.” This theory, that every time something can happen the universe splits an infinite number of times and all things that can happen are happening—I just think, “No they’re not. What are you talking about? No they’re not.” But I can’t actually have a proper debate with somebody who believes in the way that multiverse follows from inflation because I don’t sufficiently understand those ideas. I don’t think wormholes are going to get us to other galaxies. I don’t think they’re ever going to exist, I think it’s a certain kind of scientific conceit that’s interesting—
AVC: It’s a thought experiment.
AG: It’s essentially a thought experiment. But I can’t really tackle that, because all I have is an instinct, which I suspect is true, but I haven’t really got the grounding to have a serious conversation about it with the person who is proposing that argument. And that sort of bothers me.
AVC: So let’s talk about objectification for a moment, specifically gendered objectification. It’s hard to discuss too much without giving away parts of the film, but what real-world issues or concepts triggered your interest in this?
AG: I’m happy to talk about the questions it poses, but I don’t want to talk too much about the answers. The answers I feel confident about are embedded within the narrative. But with that caveat, if I’m allowed to insert the caveat—
AVC: Oh yeah, please.
AG: Then the questions are—they’re various—but one of them would be, is [Oscar Isaac’s character] actually a Bluebeard type? Or is he presenting himself this way to this other character for the purposes of this experiment? And if that’s what he’s doing, to what extent is he caricaturing himself?
AVC: To what extent is he playing a role?
AG: To what extent is he playing a role, but also might the role be what he’s actually like? For example, I can caricature myself in all sorts of ways and sort of be half aware I’m doing it but I still do it anyway. Underneath all of that, the thing that actually I got really interested by is where gender resides. I liked the idea of presenting a character [Ava, the machine in the film, played by Alicia Vikander—ed.] it would make you uncomfortable to label. Like, if you had choice between “he,” “she,” or “it,” you’d have to choose she, because it feels almost like you’d be being disrespectful, and he just seems completely inappropriate. But why is that? Where does the gender actually reside? Is it in consciousness? Is there such a thing, therefore, as a male consciousness and a female consciousness? If there is such a thing as a male-female divide in consciousness, what’s the difference between them? Specify the difference. “Men will think like this in this circumstance and women will think like that” doesn’t feel right. I can find ways to contradict that position.
So does that mean it exists in the external form? You could put Ava’s mind in a male body, Ava would still be Ava, but has the gender changed? Now, you would say it feels wrong to keep calling her she, but why is that? So it’s just putting a question like that front and center: Where do you feel gender resides? And in fact, they have a conversation about this right in the middle of the movie.
Years ago, I wrote this book, The Beach, which was about backpackers. And it was critical of backpackers, in my mind. It had an agenda and it had a position. And when people read the book, a lot of them called it a celebration of the backpacker scene. The people that then made it into a film, I think, saw it that way. And I understood at that point that, in a very concrete way, the recipient of the narrative is providing almost as much of the narrative as the person really providing it. And so although I’ve got my own agendas and my own thought processes as to where these questions—about where gender resides—end up, I know that it doesn’t matter what I say or how clear I am. Some people will concur with the position that seems to be in the film. Other people will find it deeply offensive. Some people will say you haven’t thought about this stuff, or some people will say you’ve obsessed about it too much. Whatever. Fuck that. I can’t accommodate all those positions. All I can really do is try and do what I’m interested in, and try and be respectful and thoughtful in the presentation of it, and that’s it.
AVC: Doesn’t being thoughtful almost require leaving open that question of where gender resides? Because you see how angry people get when they’re challenged on any idea of what gender means to them.
AG: You can get mutually exclusive liberal positions on this area. Which is really interesting. You get two clearly liberal positions that are totally at odds with each other. Yes, you’re right. And so, on some of these issues, the film will come down on something like empathy, or… whatever, I’m going to get into the trap I wanted to avoid. The film will come down on some stuff, but you’re exactly right. The important thing to say is that you can’t come down, because we don’t know. There isn’t actually a clear answer to this thing. That doesn’t negate the reason to ask the question and have the debate. It probably reinforces the reasons to ask the question and have the debate.
AVC: And if you have the debate, the debate is what helps you avoid things like thousands of angry tweets at Paul Feig because he wants to make Ghostbusters female.
AG: Yeah, but you know what? Fuck that. Because you probably can’t avoid the thousands of angry tweets anyway. And it’s not anyone’s business to avoid that. The idea of trying not to offend an echo chamber is ridiculous.
AVC: Even your adaptations tend to be works that directly address questions of authority, power, and gender. From Never Let Me Go, or even Dredd, which on its surface is just sort of an action film—
AG: Yeah, it passed the Bechdel test—I was glad someone pointed that out.
AVC: Yeah, it absolutely does.
AG: That’s unusual in an action movie.
AVC: Do you find that you tend to seek out projects that already have that inherent in it, or is that something you bring to the table?
AG: I don’t know. I would just say in my personal life I am interested in things that seem to be difficult but true, and that challenge my instinctive position. And I cannot help being drawn to that stuff. I get very, very suspicious of people who are too comfortable with their instincts—on any political position. I am broadly affiliated with the left on a personal level, but I know lots of people who exist in that state in a completely reflexive, unthinking way, and I find it as annoying as some kind of neo-con TV presenter. I think, “Come on, you’ve got to be tougher on yourself than that.”
AVC: Reflexivity and how we determine our own identity and construct ourselves—these are questions you ask in Ex Machina, which has characters spending a long time just sort of looking at themselves.
AG: You never know how much this stuff comes out. And so it’s actually sort of a relief to hear you talk in that way. It must actually be there on some level. In terms of that self-looking thing, it’s the question of establishing if a machine is self-aware and has an emotional and internal life.
AG: Yes, exactly. The Chinese room or something like that. If you’re going to set yourself that challenge, then what you very quickly discover is that it’s really hard to do. Because you get this chess computer problem, which is something that acts as if it wants to win chess, is convincingly acting as if it wants to win chess, doesn’t actually know what chess is and doesn’t know what it’s doing or that it exists. It knows nothing. And so then from that you can then say, “Actually, forget the machine for a moment, how do I know that the human I’m talking to, how am I really sure that they have a consciousness in the way that I assume they do? Is this not a leap of faith?” And actually it is a kind of leap of faith. The leap of faith is, I’m pretty sure I have a consciousness and this person appears to be like me; therefore I’m going to assume they do. And from that point it’s just that they’re acting as if they have one. But there’s no clear bit of certain knowledge that says they do.
So now what you’re really left with is yourself. And then it turns out, you can ask that question of yourself, too. Is the consciousness I think I have actually the consciousness I do have? And, hence, all of that inward-looking stuff that you’re talking about, and the best example of this, which I didn’t use by name, but I reference in a scene, is qualia, which is a philosophical term talking about one’s own subjective response to things. Your sense of redness—what red is, versus my sense of redness. And then when you start looking at qualia, suddenly they can start to turn to mush as well. And then you’re left in a really strange place, because now you’re not certain about any of the consciousness.
AVC: People always reference Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but they forget the part where he actually ends that by realizing, well no, this could be a demon convincing me that I think all this, and I can never actually know it.
AG: That’s exactly right. I always have a sort of instinct to rephrase that line, something along the lines of “I think I think therefore I think I think I am.” And you just keep saying “think” until you’ve—
AVC: Ad infinitum.
AG: Because it’s really not that helpful.
AG: My demon in the back of my head while we’re having these conversations is, my job is to try and sell the movie, and I’m just so failing, like I can just sort of see people going, no.
AVC: But, again, it’s like the echo chamber versus the people who are going to read this and go, oh, that’s way more interesting than just a movie about a robot.
AG: I hope.