In the cerebral sci-fi potboiler Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a bright young programmer picked, seemingly at random, to spend a week with the mysterious owner (Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac) of the search engine company he works for.
Caleb arrives at the tech-wizard-come-millionaire’s isolated Alaskan property, only to discover that Nathan’s plans for him involve more than just hanging out—the brilliant scientist has been secretly building his own artificially intelligent machines, the latest version being the very humanoid, unnervingly attractive Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan enlists Caleb’s help testing the limits of Ava’s consciousness, and the two men fall into a partnership that starts off congenial, until cracks begin to develop and moral quandaries widen behind them.
Acclaimed writer Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go) pens and shoots his directorial debut with the thematic ambition and meticulousness fans have come to expect. But it’s the performances of his taut skeleton cast (besides the three principles, there’s only one other actor, Sonoya Mizuno) that anchor Garland’s potentially fanciful story. Gleeson’s Caleb is sensitive and gentle, susceptible to Ava’s childlike charms in the long, increasingly intimate conversations he shares with her. Isaac, on the other hand, plays Nathan as a charismatic genius whose calculating intelligence has a knack for the manipulative, using his brutal physicality to juxtapose—and undermine—the character’s steely intellect. MovieMaker spoke to the actors, whose stars are both rapidly in ascension, for a Spring 2015 feature.
Stephen Saito, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I heard that you were a longtime fan of Alex Garland’s. What was the entry point for you?
Oscar Isaac (OI): I was a couple months from graduating drama school when I got to audition for Sunshine. I got the script, read it, and became completely obsessed with it. I even formed an entire soundtrack for it. I obviously didn’t get the part. I remember I had a nice conversation with the casting director, but I just couldn’t let the script go. I even thought, “These songs that I have are so good. I wonder if there’s a way I can get them to the production so they could use them, because that could really help the movie.” I really had just fallen in love with it. I started going back and reading some of the other things he had written. Years later, when I got a script for Ex Machina and had the chance to meet with Alex, I was incredibly excited.
MM: What was it that appealed to you about this script?
OI: Just like with Sunshine, there’s just such a tightness to the way that he writes. You can look at it from any angle, and it fits together in a great way. It’s not only incredibly intellectually stimulating and rigorous, but also based in real things that the leading edge of science is grappling with at the moment. It deals with space, artificial intelligence, philosophy, language and the idea of consciousness. It’s also highly entertaining, and there’s a good emotional throughline to it as well.
MM: Did you and Garland discuss the whole world of the film, beyond just the script?
OI: Alex and I get along so well because we love just talking about ideas. It was one of the best times I’ve had prepping for anything, because we had meetings that lasted hours. I’m thinking, “I’m not going to get as smart as [my character] Nathan. I’m never going to be able to build an artificial, intelligent, sentient being robot in my basement.” But at least I got an idea about some of these things that he’s talking about.
Alex told me about this great Noam Chomsky book to read about where language comes from. We also talked about the idea of qualia, which is the word to describe the experience of existence. There’s no way really you can ever communicate what it feels like to exist to anyone else; my experience of the color red could be completely alien to yours, and there’s no way we could ever really know.
MM: What specifics about Nathan did you want to work on?
OI: The look of the guy was incredibly important. We did play with a lot of different things. At one point, I had a very long black wig on because my idea was, “OK, the guy hasn’t seen humanity for three years; what does that look like?” The challenge with Nathan is figuring out what he’s trying to do, what he means to do, what he’s accidentally doing, and what he’s pretending to be as well. There’s a lot of layers going on at the same time. He wants to present himself as a very specific thing to Caleb in order for the experiment to be successful—to present himself as someone that Ava needs to be saved from. How much of that is manufactured, and how much of that is actually really who he is? Sometimes he doesn’t know, so the balance of those things was what we discussed.
MM: How did you settle on the beard and the bald look? Was that real?
OI: The beard was real. I think I had kind of shortish, regular, conservative, normal hair, but with the beard, it just didn’t look as much of a statement. So one of the things we thought was, “Could he have not shaved and not cut his hair for a long, long time, and then because Caleb’s coming, he decides, ‘Screw it, I’m just going to shave the hair off?'” It seemed like that was probably, from a functionality standpoint, a very easy thing to do—just shaving his head every week so he didn’t have to worry about your hair. But shaving your face every day is annoying, so maybe he wouldn’t. We just found a way to make it part of the character.
I started reading and watching a lot of interviews with Kubrick, and there was something about the rhythm of his speech… also, as he got much older, he had that bald head, even though he had long hair in the back. He had that bald head and the glasses and the long beard, and he was such an imposing figure, a figure of such mystery and intensity, that there was something of that that I wanted.
MM: I heard that Alex limited everyone to three takes each. Was that true?
OI: I don’t think I would have been OK with that. That didn’t happen, at least not with me. We may have done a scene in as few as three takes, but it was never like, “Just so you know, you’re only going to get three takes!”
MM: Was there a particularly crazy day on set?
OI: We were on a crunch, and we didn’t have a very large budget by any means, which is maybe where that story of the three takes comes from. At the same time, I remember specifically shooting this one scene—the scene where Caleb and Nathan first meet. I was out there, punching a punching bag to get all pumped up, and then I had gone to say hey to Caleb. We did a couple takes, and I just hadn’t realized that I should have been pacing myself, because we weren’t going to get to my close-up until afterwards. So by the time that came around, I just was sapped of all energy. We shot it and moved on, and I kept thinking about it while we were setting up somewhere else. I came up to Alex and said, “I think I fucked that one up, man.” We watched it and then he said, “Yeah, I see what you mean. All right, let’s go back.” So we got all the cameras back, we went back upstairs and we tried it again and it came out way better. So the production wasn’t in such a state that we had to move no matter what. Alex recognized when it was the only time we’d be able to get that scene, so we might as well do it right.
MM: Are you happy with how the film turned out? It sounds like it.
OI: I’m so happy with how it turned out. It’s a great feeling when what you intend actually gets, to a certain extent, expressed and communicated. Often you don’t really have control over that. There’s something incredibly rewarding about seeing something and being like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what we were going for.” If for whatever reason people don’t feel the same, it doesn’t matter, because you know that that was what you were going after.
Stephen Saito, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you get interested in this?
Domhnall Gleeson (DG): You always sound like you’re kissing ass when you talk about someone you’ve worked with, but the truth is that I’ve been a massive fan of Alex for years. My dad [Brendan Gleeson] did a film with him called 28 Days Later years ago. I was a huge fan of his work with Cillian Murphy, who had done 28 Days but also Sunshine, which I thought was just a superb, beautiful sci-fi film. So I worked with him on Never Let Me Go in a smaller role, and also in Dredd, in which I have a couple of chunky scenes.
MM: Did he approach you to star in this while you were working on Dredd, or how did it come about?
DG: No, no. I got an email out of the blue. Hilariously, it was like getting the email from Nathan right at the beginning of the film, saying that I’d won a competition. I had to audition and stuff, but Alex wanted me to do it. I had to convince producers to allow me to play the part.
The script was absolutely superb, and I remember calling my agent saying, “This is everything that I want to do. This totally encapsulates the sort of movies that I want to be in.”
MM: Was there anything specifically that appealed to you about this, or the character, or the story?
DG: It is everything. The character was brilliant, and not something I’d played before. I am very interested in the notion of AI and of the things man creates that are a danger to man. And I’d also done a role in an episode of Black Mirror, which is now taking off in America thanks to Netflix, in which I play a much less, robust version of an AI.
What Alex does brilliantly is he’s very economical with how he gets important information across, but also writes total page-turners. There are so many scripts I get, which I read over three days, or a week, and this I read in an hour and a half, and then read again an hour and a half later in its entirety.
MM: There’s a line that Caleb has that seems to sum up his character beautifully, where he’s describing why he lives where he lives, and he says, “There’s a five-minute walk to the office and a five-minute walk to the ocean.” It seemed to capture the dreamer/workaday character of this guy.
DG: What I found interesting about that line was that suggested some comfort. The ocean is a place of romance, of openness. It’s a place of possibilities. It’s a place of great nature, actually, and it told me that Caleb was not just interested by computers. I also liked the fact that he walked everywhere now, because obviously we find out he had been in a car crash when he was younger. His back was obviously terribly, badly hurt as we see in the film. He liked a little bit of a different sort of freedom.
MM: It must have been very helpful to have Ava—Alicia—designed in such a way that she would be present for the scenes that you were in together.
DG: Yeah, it was very helpful. Alicia had worked very diligently on her physicality for the character for all the visual effects, which have been incredibly rendered. The observation room scenes with her were probably my favorite scenes to film because they were these chunky dialogue scenes. We could really try to push each other into corners with performance.
Her costume that she wore was very similar to what’s in the movie, it’s just that the middle is gone; the back of the head is gone and also her makeup, because they had extended her forehead with prosthetics over her skullcap, so it looked like her face had been planted on top of a different structure. She did look otherworldly and remained very beautiful, but in a way that I hadn’t quite seen before. Having that directly in front of me just took some of the extra brain-work out of it and allowed me to just react to what was there.
MM: Did you enjoy the intimacy of the production?
DG: We were in a heatwave in London when we shot the scenes in Pinewood, which is all of the interior scenes. Then suddenly being in Norway, surrounded by openness, huge vistas and landscapes, opened the paranoia and cabin fever up. It was nice being able to breathe for a while.
It was psychologically very intense. It was a very pressurized atmosphere, necessarily, because of the nature of the film we were making. It’s supposed to feel like a pressure cooker. And we were just so damn hot all the time in those scenes in Pinewood. I felt the character’s predicament weighing down on me all the time, and was quite depressed a lot of the time, because my character’s job is to absorb emotional punishment for most of the film.
MM: Were there any surprises to you in how the film turned out?
DG: Yeah, a couple of things totally threw me for a loop when I saw the film, because it’s so tightly scripted that I didn’t think anything could be shifted. What was shifting was really minor, but because you have your character’s journey in your head, it’s totally discombobulating when the pieces don’t quite fit. It’s like somebody taking a jigsaw puzzle and still making it work by putting some of the pieces in different places. But in terms of visual effects and everything, it was beautiful and just felt totally organic. I just felt very proud, because it’s the sort of film that I love. MM
Ex Machina opens in theaters on April 10, 2015, courtesy of A24. Photographs by Liam Daniels, Courtesy of A24. Read our interview with Alex Garland and DP Rob Hardy here.