Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
Director: Alex Garland
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Synopsis: Caleb, a 24 year old coder at the world's largest internet company, wins a competition to spend a week at a private mountain retreat belonging to Nathan, the reclusive CEO of the company. But when Caleb arrives at the remote location he finds that he will have to participate in a strange and fascinating experiment in which he must interact with the world's first true artificial intelligence, housed in the body of a beautiful robot girl.
Release Date: March 5th, 2015
From acclaimed writer/director Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) comes Ex Machina, a chilling vision of the not-too-distant future of artificial intelligence.
In the mountain retreat of a gifted internet billionaire, a young man takes part in a strange experiment: testing an artificial intelligence, housed in the body of a beautiful robot girl. But the experiment twists into a dark psychological battle, where loyalties are torn between man and machine.
Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander lead the cast of Ex Machina, an intense psychological thriller, played out in a love triangle. The film explores big ideas about the nature of consciousness, emotion, sexuality, truth and lies.
Written and directed by Alex Garland, the film is produced by DNA's Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich, with Scott Rudin and Eli Bush and Film4's Tessa Ross serving as executive producers.
Joining Alex Garland's creative team are director of photography Rob Hardy (Blitz), production designer Mark Digby (Slumdog Millionaire), costume designer Sammy Sheldon Differ (X-Men: First Class), make-up designer Sian Gregg (Never Let Me Go) and editor Mark Day (About Time).
Alex Garland's first outing as a director might seem simple on paper. 'It's about three people pitting their brains against each other," he says. 'It's about how they test each other, try to defeat each other mentally, and form allegiances with one another."
But when one of the protagonists is a robot girl, things get a little more complicated. 'Ex Machina works on two levels," says producer Andrew Macdonald. 'At its heart it works on a genre level – it's a psychological thriller – and then it's able to use these characters to explore very fundamental, human and psychological issues."
Indeed, says Andrew Macdonald, films like Ex Machina fall right within the DNA of DNA Films. 'I've always wanted to make films that are accessible and smart at the same time, and if there was ever one trying to balance those two, Ex Machina is it."
Making his directorial debut with Ex Machina, Alex Garland taps topics that have long fascinated him, and plays on our fears and insecurities about technology and the role it plays in our lives. 'People are paranoid about AI and computers in general," he explains. 'It's on people's minds, as it should be. I approach it from a slightly different angle, because I don't exactly feel paranoid about it. With Ex Machina my sympathies lie with the robot."
Alex Garland's debut novel, The Beach, was published in 1996, when he was 26. When it was adapted into a 2000 feature film by DNA Films, Alex Garland became fascinated by the filmmaking process and went on to collaborate with the company on projects like Sunshine, 28 Days Later and Dredd.
Alex Garland is keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of filmmaking and insists that Ex Machina has been made richer by the contributions of his creative team. 'Over the years I've had lots of different kinds of filmmaking experiences, and in my mind it all led to this film," he insists. 'I've put into practice a lot of things I'd learnt along the way. Mostly, it was about giving people space to do what they want to do in the best way they can."
Shaping Science The Evolution of Ex Machina
Alex Garland always conceived Ex Machina with a view to directing the film. He had worked with DNA Films for many years as a screenwriter, and producers Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich knew Alex Garland had the talent and ability to take that next step. 'We said to him, -Go away and write a script that anyone else would kill to direct, and you can direct it,' remembers Macdonald. 'He came back with Ex Machina."
'We've worked together for so many years and he's completely ready for it," continues Allon Reich. 'He's grasped it with a kind of calmness and sense of collaboration and I think all of the heads of department feel very supported and inspired. He has a vision of what he wants to do and he relishes talented people around him providing him with inspiration and ideas. It's a very precious commodity when making a film that there's a focus and everybody's excited about what feels like a very original piece of work."
For actor Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Caleb in the film, the collaborative environment Alex Garland creates pushes the entire team to do its best work. "He has so much respect for, and takes so much interest and inspiration from, the different departments on the film," says Domhnall Gleeson. 'He trusts people will come up with even better stuff when you test them, and that's what has happened here. People are firing on all cylinders."
Adds Alicia Vikander, who plays Ava: 'The thing about Alex Garland is I've never met a director who's as calm and who has as much time for everyone. He invited us all out for two weeks of rehearsal to talk everything through, and he wanted to know that we were feeling safe, and on the right page."
What happens if we invent a machine that can think like we do, but one that never gets sick, and remains at the top of its game forever? 'It seems to me that quite quickly some kind of swap will start to happen," says Alex Garland. 'At some point we become redundant, and you have to ask yourself whether that's a good or a bad thing."
Science fiction has explored these ideas in the past, with an emphasis on how humanity might be destroyed by the logical malevolence of a machine race. But Alex Garland insists Ex Machina takes a different tack. 'I find myself weirdly sympathetic to the machines," he explains. 'I think they've got a better shot at the future than we do."
For Oscar Isaac, who plays Nathan, the film is an allegory for human existence. 'It really delves into what it means to be a human, and what it means to think and have consciousness. How can you ever tell what the person in front of you is actually thinking, or if they think the same way you do?"
The setup is fairly simple. Dohmnall Gleeson plays a brilliant coder invited to his boss's country retreat, ostensibly just to meet Isaac's Nathan, a billionaire genius and lately a recluse. When he gets there, he finds that he's been called to interact with a new form of artificial intelligence, housed inside the body of a robot girl, Ava.
'Caleb's there to do a Turing Test," explains Dohmnall Gleeson. 'It's where a human interacts with a computer and if the human doesn't know that it's a computer they're interacting with – so they mistake it for another human being – then the test is passed.
'Caleb has no idea what he's walking into here, and then out of one of the rooms comes this kind of humanoid figure with a girl's face, but made of the most stunning mechanics he's ever seen."
The Turing Test is deceptively simple, and usually enacted in such a way that the person doing the testing doesn't know whether or not a computer is delivering responses. Many competitions are held annually to try and pass the Turing Test, but despite big headlines that occasionally announce passes, few stand up to much scrutiny.
'The Turing Test was set decades ago in the birth of computing," explains Alex Garland, 'when Alan Turing understood that at some point the machines they were working on could become thinking machines, as opposed to just calculating machines. He saw that it would be difficult to know whether something was really thinking or just pretending to be thinking."
It's that distinction that causes most failures, and stirs the controversy that follows -passes' of the test. Recent news stories suggested a chat bot named Eugene Goostman had passed the Turing Test by fooling a significant threshold of judges at a competition held at the University of Reading. But critics were quick to note that the bot, which took the form of a 13-year-old boy from an Eastern European country with only the most rudimentary understanding of the English language, relied on misdirection to fool the judges into assuming that the language barrier, and the subject's age, were what caused its machine misunderstandings.
But Ava, in Ex Machina, is different. Nathan's confidence in his robot's abilities is such that he leads Caleb in to meet Ava without trying to conceal the fact that she's a robot. If Caleb could be taken in by what is obviously a machine - with metallic body parts, servos and engines - could Ava represent the pinnacle of artificial intelligence? Could she really be thinking, as opposed to simply calculating?
'The question is whether or not she has a consciousness," says Dohmnall Gleeson. 'And I think we pretty quickly realise that she does."
The implications of what that means, the mad brilliance of the man who built her, and the isolated environment in which the test takes place, combine to turn Ex Machina into a thriller like no other.
'There are tropes and ideas in this that people who have been reading Alex Garland's work from The Beach onwards will immediately recognise," says Reich. 'But with Ex Machina he's found a real thriller aspect. A very unusual amount of the crew have come up to me and described their feeling of reading the script and how they had to close the door and not be disturbed, because they were so into the world and so keen to know what fate had in store for these characters."
Finding Life Casting Ex Machina
Amongst the biggest challenges of translating Alex Garland's screenplay for Ex Machina to the screen was finding actors capable of commanding the story's nuanced approach. Despite the grand themes the film deals with, it's the emotional core that makes the whole function, and the production team looked to three distinguished up-and-comers to pull it off.
'The cast we've got is fantastic; they're all on the cusp of great things and incredibly in demand," notes Andrew Macdonald. 'The most important thing was that they're absolutely perfect for their roles, and that's not always the case in films."
Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, the character that gives the audience it's eyes on the world the film creates, journeying into Nathan's mysterious compound and experiencing this extraordinary robot, Ava, as we do.
He's also a brilliant coder, and someone who immediately catches Nathan's eye. 'He's one of those geeky guys that rule the world," notes Reich. 'He's been making his way in Nathan's technologically-advanced company, Blue Book. But he's not as forceful as Nathan; he hides his brightness. He's more sensitive, and he's totally alone when he comes here."
'It's a challenging role for Domhnall Gleeson," notes Oscar Isaac, who plays Nathan. 'He's on the back foot going in."
Domhnall Gleeson is no stranger to the DNA Films family, having worked with Alex Garland, Alex Macdonald and Reich on Never Let Me Go and Dredd. 'There are two things about Domhnall," explains Garland. 'The first is that he's a seriously good actor. When someone's as good as him they can do a lot of different things and take any challenge you can throw at them.
'The second is that he has a vulnerability and innocence to him that is a very charming quality, and it's exactly that quality we find in Caleb. He's not an alpha male."
Echoes Alex Macdonald: 'Caleb understands machines and he's ambitious. He's a decent guy with his whole future ahead of him, and part of the reason he's been chosen for this test is he has a moral compass."
For his innocence, Nathan perhaps underestimates Caleb. But initially he seems like the ideal candidate for his mysterious boss's brand of manipulation. 'He's the cheese that Nathan dangles in front of Ava to see how she'll use her mind," explains Isaac. 'Caleb has been plopped in to the middle of this singularity – the greatest scientific event of all time – and he doesn't even know it yet."
'We can all associate with the feeling of being an employee wandering into this kind of environment," notes Reich. 'The sort of wide-eyed difficulties one might face when confronted by someone like Nathan. Domhnall Gleeson has an empathy that I think is impossible to learn. You either have it or you don't, and it's crucial for us."
'Caleb's expectations and the reality are quite different," Domhnall Gleeson says of the role. 'He knows the man he's meeting is on the verge of genius, but also that he has an awful lot of power."
Domhnall Gleeson thinks Caleb is formed of a mix between his own personality and Alex Garland's, and he draws a parallel between Caleb's enthusiasm at winning the contest to meet Nathan and his landing of the role in Ex Machina. 'I got a mysterious email from Alex saying, -Domhnall Gleeson, is this your address?' When I wrote back he replied, -I'm going to send you a script.'"
He read it from cover to cover in an hour, and immediately expressed his interest. But he's quick to insist that the actual experience of working with Alex Garland is a little more positive than Caleb's experiences with Nathan. 'We really picked up where we left off with the last two movies together,"Domhnall Gleeson notes. 'Except this time I was front and centre."
It's not hard to see why a man as intrigued by technology as Caleb is fascinated by Nathan. 'Nathan's the boss of the world's biggest internet search engine," says Alex Garland. 'He's an enormously wealthy, powerful man."
No one has seen the reclusive genius for several years, and so Caleb is enticed by the notion of discovering the truth behind the legend. 'He's spent the last few years working on this pet project of his and so he's been geographically and psychologically isolated from the world."
Alex Garland is a noted fan of Apocalypse Now, as anyone who has read The Beach, with its many references to the film, will have noted. 'Somewhere in the back of my mind there's a sort of Kurtz analogy," he says, referring to the disturbed colonel played by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's film. 'He's spent too much time up the river and has gone a bit crazy. At the point we meet Nathan, he's already tipped over the edge."
Adds Reich: 'Nathan is obviously super alpha male. He's got an intellectual determination to push the forefront of technology in every way he can. His psyche is also tormented by what he wants to achieve and what its effects might be. Living alone in this kind of place for who knows how long has affected him. On one level he's very at ease and powerful, and on another he's extremely troubled and vulnerable too."
But, notes Alicia Vikander, who plays Ava, there's a certain sincerity to Nathan that isn't reflected in the other two leads. 'When you first meet him he's very intimidating," she says. 'But he's also the one of the three of them who's the most honest throughout the whole script, even though you might see him as the bad guy at the beginning."
To play the role, Alex Garland tapped Oscar Isaac, an extraordinary character actor whose disparate roles in films such as Inside Llewyn Davis, Drive and Two Faces of January speak to his versatility and ambition. 'Oscar Isaac really does just vanish into parts," notes Alex Garland. 'He disappears and you completely believe in the character he's created. It changes film by film; he changes the performance, the mannerisms and his physicality. I met him again, about three months after we'd finished shooting, and I could hardly recognise him because he'd started prepping for a new role."
Isaac worked hard to establish Nathan's physicality, defining him as a man who is as obsessed with his physical strength as he is with his genius. 'I think it's important because the idea is that this guy is unbeatable," notes the actor. 'Intellectually you can't beat him, physically you can't beat him, and monetarily you can't beat him. Caleb doesn't stand a chance. Stacking your odds against the hero makes it all the more compelling. How do you break this guy?"
Isaac had never worked with Alex Garland before, but he remembers an audition for a role in Sunshine as being one of his first opportunities right out of drama school. 'It was the first script I read and I became so obsessed with it," he laughs. 'Even after I didn't get the part I kept reading it. When Ex Machina came around I was immediately excited to read it, and it was just as good, if not better."
He echoes Vikander's comments about Nathan's sincerity. There's a lot about him to admire, he says. 'He's this genius, dark, drunk, disco dancing megalomaniacal beast, and it was just such a weird contradiction of aspects that Alex Garland had put together."
Nathan is also just as drawn to Caleb as Caleb is to him. 'I think Nathan can't help but become intrigued by Caleb," Isaac adds. 'And particularly with the way Domhnall Gleeson plays him, he's very funny and an open book, but with real intelligence. There's a sense of respect that grows, and an intimacy that develops between the two of them, and it's almost like they have their own little love story happening."
But just as they're developing a relationship with each other, they're also competing for the affections of Ava, who proves to be equally as complex as the two men. Alex Garland found every aspect of the character embodied in Alicia Vikander. "She was perfect in a lot of different ways. She's a very beautiful girl, but she's also an incredibly gifted actress, and she trained as a ballerina from a young age, so she's got extremely good control of her physicality. The way she walks, moves her hand, the slight tilt of her head."
For Vikander, Ex Machina checked every box she had, too. She recalls a meeting with her agent in which she outlined her interest in genre projects, contained scripts and things that were intensely character-driven. 'I mentioned Moon as an example," she recalls. So she was thrilled when, a few months later, Alex Garland's script landed with her.
She sent in a videotaped audition piece in which she'd put some white make-up on her face to lend an artificial air, and it was this tape that convinced the filmmakers to give her the role.
The part was quite a challenge for the actress, who says she has always learnt to draw on her own experiences to create the characters she plays. 'Together with Alex Garland we had to set our own rules," she explains. 'How do you create something that has never existed? As soon as we answer one question, a hundred more just appear."
Alex Garland explains the difficulties Vikander faced to bring Ava to life, and the patience required to play a role that was going to be later augmented with CGI: 'She was wearing a suit that was very restrictive that she knew would get swapped out for VFX," he says. 'She had to make the character of a girl that's not a girl, and push through that to be the most dominant thing in the frame. Knowing where to pitch that is very complicated, but she did a brilliant job. There's this other level of discovery you make in the edit when you realise just how nuanced some of her decisions are."
The goal of Vikander's performance is to push past the CGI emotionally too. 'Hopefully, at first, you'll be amazed by Ava," says Reich. 'When we first see her in the film, she and Nathan are not trying to hide in any way that she's a machine with this incredibly beautiful, empathetic face of a girl. You start off amazed at her as a piece of technology, and then begin to fall for her humanity."
'I always felt that the human connection would be more important than the robot disconnect between Caleb and Ava," adds Dohmnall Gleeson. 'Those would be the moments that really mattered. Alicia has had to pay heed to the fact that she's playing a robot, and it's been really great to sit across from her take to take. It feels like we've been pushing each other - like we've really been challenging each other from either side of the camera - and that doesn't often happen."
Says Isaac: 'Alicia has this otherworldliness about her; her interpretation of the machine is very graceful."
Rounding out the cast are two smaller roles that don't necessarily impact the main storyline, but that are no less essential.
Corey Johnson plays Jay, the helicopter pilot that flies Caleb in to meet Nathan. He's our first point of contact with Nathan's world, and he explains just how secretive Nathan is. 'I've never even met him," Jay says. 'I only fly this shuttle between the airport and his residence. I did see him one time, stood on one of those mountain ridges."
Corey Johnson sees the truth in Ex Machina's fiction, and says the themes the film deals with are incredibly prescient. 'When you read something like this, that has a ring of truth about it, you want to keep reading," says Corey Johnson. 'I read this in a single sitting, which is weird because usually you skim stuff and go straight to your part! Alex knows what he's doing, he knows what he wants, and he's going about getting it."
The final character is perhaps the most mysterious of all: Kyoko. Nathan's silent assistant makes quite an impression on Caleb when she wakes him up on the morning of his second day at Nathan's compound. 'She's in the film quite a lot, but she never speaks," says Alex Garland. 'We needed an actor that could convey the -still waters run deep' kind of thing that she has."
It was while casting for supporting artists that Alex Garland discovered Sonoya Mizuno. The 27-year-old dancer and model trained with the Royal Ballet, and, after expressing an interest in acting to her management, landed her first audition for supporting work on Ex Machina. When Alex Garland met her, he thought her perfect to play Kyoko.
'She doesn't have any lines, but she has a really interesting journey throughout the film," notes Sonoya Mizuno. 'I think her journey really helps the story unfold, so she is really relevant to what happens."
'You would imagine that not speaking would be quite restrictive for an actor," says Alex Garland. 'But, like Alicia, Sonoya Mizuno trained as a ballerina, and can convey an enormous amount with her physicality."
'The part felt so right to me," adds Sonoya Mizuno. 'I felt like I understood this character, and that I've seen a bit of her in my working past so I knew how to develop her. It's been really fun to develop her and make her character stand out."
Ava from the Machine Building an AI
For Alex Garland, science fiction is at its best when heavily rooted in science. The concept of building an artificial intelligence has intrigued and challenged scientists and technicians since the birth of the computer age, and it seemed an ideal topic for Alex Garland to explore in his directorial debut. 'We clearly live in a world where computers are central to our existence and we also live in a world where advances in computers have incredibly accelerated in pace," he says. 'There has to be an interesting question about where it ends and what it means for us. At some point machines will think in the way we think and there are a lot of implications to that. At some point, don't we become redundant?"
It's an idea that is as prescient as ever. 'If some inventor came along," says Andrew Macdonald, 'and held a press conference to say, -We've invented a robot girl and here she is,' I don't think anyone would be all that surprised."
With Ex Machina, through Ava, Alex Garland suggests a world in which man's creation of an artificially intelligent robot lays the foundation not necessarily for our destruction, but for our evolution into another state of being. Ava isn't simply a robot bent on human destruction, but rather something that we might see as enticingly human.
'Because I approach this on the side of the machines, broadly speaking" he explains, 'I needed to house Ava – the idea of this machine consciousness – in something that people could fall in love with. The protagonist needs to fall in love with her for the story to function." 'The impression of Ava is that she's a real girl," continues Oscar Isaac. 'And although she's made up of metal and silicone and gel, she still exhibits all the traits of a human being and therefore should be treated as such."
For Vikander, the balance comes in melding the human with the otherworldly. 'I could tap all the emotion and human aspects that I know myself," she says, 'and add things to it which made her a little off and a bit strange. She's unknowing, too; she's doe-eyed sometimes because she's new to this world."
Her creation raised all manner of questions for the cast and crew. Says Alex Garland: 'What is consciousness? How are you responsible for something if you create it? In a way, Ava is a really pretty version of Frankenstein's monster, but today we're closer than ever and going further and further into what is possible, combining mechanics and humanity."
The film makes no attempt conceal the fact that Ava is a robot. When we first meet her, at the same time as Caleb, her artificial composition is laid bare. 'The design itself is extraordinary; you can actually see through her to her workings," explains Isaac. 'You can see that she's a robot. But Alicia plays her with such warmth and gravity. She pulls you in, so that you forget you're looking at a machine even though you can see it right in front of you."
Conceiving the design for Ava was one of the biggest challenges of the pre-production process. Like much else in the conception of Ex Machina it was led by a desire not to repeat what had been done in the past. 'Her design was driven by Alex initially, and what he had in his mind as his concept for her," says production designer Mark Digby. 'In the early days we very collaboratively discussed this and I think he wanted something that was very different to anything else."
'The design process started with a guy named Jock, who I'd worked with on Dredd," says Alex Garland. 'We got on very well and so we sat down when I was planning the film and spent a few weeks trying to figure out what Ava looked like."
Immediately it became clear that, in the vast pantheon of science fiction depictions of robots over the years, there weren't too many stones left unturned. 'Jock did one drawing of her where her parts were made of a gold-ish metal, and she basically looked like C-3PO," laughs Alex Garland. 'A music video director called Chris Cunningham did a Bjork video that was very influential. Then there's a robot girl in Metropolis whose image has become iconic. It's very easy, it turns out, to make a robot girl look like the robot girl in Metropolis. We had to come up with something that didn't feel like it was just referencing robots in the past."
The breakthrough, he remembers, was cladding her form in mesh. 'If you imagined it as a spider web, in certain lighting conditions you can see straight through it to the skeleton structure, but in others it caught the light, and so suddenly you'll see a torso appear, or the shape of a neck or an arm."
'We didn't want her to be over-electronic or over-mechanical," notes Digby. 'There's an overlap between the organic and the computer-driven. It was less about robotics and more about this evolved machine."
Vikander is impressed with the design the team came up with. 'It's a piece of art they've created. She's not only a machine, she's exquisite and beautiful and I think it'll look amazing on screen."
Though the visual effects artists at Double Negative will have created much of what we'll see of Ava in the final film, realising the robot girl began on set, with a costume designed by Sammy Sheldon Differ.
'We approached Sammy because she had experience making superhero costumes, and we knew we needed a costume that would be practical at times," Alex Garland explains. 'The costume needed to have some overt design elements, but also maintain Alicia's silhouette without bulking her out at all. It was a surprisingly complicated job."
Notes Vikander: 'I tried to visualise her when I read the script, and I remember when I first met Alex he showed me a few drawings he had made at a very early stage. I did my first camera test and I don't know how many weeks it took just to make this extremely tight-fitting body suit that I wear. The prosthetics take about four or five hours to apply each morning, and then the VFX guys took one of the frames we shot in the test and showed people what it was going to look like in the end. I've been carrying that photo with me every day, because I look like a fake Spider-Man, just running around in my silver suit."
Augmenting the footage shot on set is the team at Double Negative, led by visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst. 'Andrew MacDonald really took on the task of creating her, and continued the design process with us," says Alex Garland. 'He took it to the next level, which was to make her a three-dimensional construct. She was refined and the machinery took on subtle organic constructs and shapes."
Whitehurst is quick to insist that as much as possible of Vikander's on set performance has been translated into the CGI model. His team spent countless hours matching their animation to her movements. It was a painstaking process, though it began with a carefully constructed model that paid close mind to plausibility of Ava's construction.
'We were always looking at the images we were producing," notes Whitehurst, 'and thinking about how well does this work? Why does this work? What effect does it have on the audience? Do you believe this is a machine that someone could fall in love with? They're difficult questions to grapple with.
'On top of that you have practical questions; how do we design something that works plausibly as a machine in that all the muscles and joints are connected in the right place and you believe that she would work? I think the film would fail, visually, if you had a character that didn't seem technologically plausible as well as emotionally plausible. That was a pretty narrow tightrope to walk, but a fascinating process to go through."
Just as Alex Garland had intentionally avoided designs inspired by robots that had come before, so Whitehurst charged his team to deliver something fresh. 'The only rule I put on the crew was that they weren't allowed to look at pictures of robots," he remembers. 'We had a whole load of reference imagery of sculptures by Brancusi, and a lot of modernist Bauhaus sculptures as well. On top of that we looked at things like Formula One suspension, high-end concept bicycles, hundreds and hundreds of images of those sorts of things where you can start to feel an aesthetic growing out and you can build that into a robot."
It was contrasted with work the team put into researching human anatomy, to ensure that Ava moved just as we do. 'You get a very interesting synthesis of what feels like an evolved form, and what feels like an engineered and manufactured form," Whitehurst says.
Ex Machina shot for six weeks, but the post-production process on the film lasted six months, as the visual effects team worked to build Ava. 'For a British film, that's very unusual," says Andrew Macdonald. 'But it shows how important it is for us to get Ava right."
Completing the effect is the film's sound design, which is similarly unprecedented. 'Glen Freemantle has designed the sound on all the films I've been involved in over the last 10, 15 years," says Andrew Macdonald. 'He was absolutely crucial in answering that question: What does a robot sound like?"
'Ava has a whole kind of language that has been invented," notes Alex Garland of the work done by Freemantle. 'His team didn't record servos, which is what you'd normally hear with a machine moving about. They did things like spin gyroscopes in oil and the like, to get all sorts of odd noises. When you overlay the robot noises, she takes another massive step towards being a machine, away from being a human. That's very important."
For Alex Garland, getting the sound design right meant nailing the tone of the piece. 'At times this film functions like a horror movie," he says. 'It's sci-fi, but it has horror elements, and sound design is very important in horror. One of the jobs that was necessary in the sound design is that you have these very long conversations in the film that take place in stark, silent environments, and it's how to bring sound design very gently to that."
At One With Nature Ex Machina On Location
Ex Machina takes place all on one location, at Nathan's high-tech compound home in the heart of Alaska. As Caleb is choppered in to meet the mysterious billionaire, he asks how long it'll take to reach Nathan's land. 'We've been flying his estate for the past two hours," notes the pilot.
So how does a billionaire live? 'It's the biggest challenge on low budget films," notes Alex Garland. 'You've got to show the house of the richest guy in the world. How do you do that?"
The task fell to the team led by production designer Mark Digby. 'We've worked with Mark, and Michelle Day, our set decorator, on a bunch of movies since 28 Days Later," explains Andrew Macdonald. 'They bring an amazing continuity to a project, and they start with character, which is the real key."
The world of the super rich is not one often seen – with endless wealth comes the opportunity for limitless privacy. 'When we started trying to visualise his world we were looking at a lot of very expensive houses," notes Digby. 'But they were all millionaires' houses, or multi-millionaires' houses. We realised we needed to go stratospheric with this. It's several levels beyond, and there just aren't many people globally who are that powerful and that rich."
Indeed, even the ones that are aren't especially inclined to open up their homes to a film crew. The drive was to find a house that could only accommodate 1% of the 1%. Notes Reich: 'Nathan needed a place that was a little bit special."
Very early on, Garland hit upon the notion of situating Nathan's house within untouched wilderness. 'We knew that if we found a spectacular landscape it would provide a lot of the power of the guy. If he owns this landscape, he must be spectacular too."
The team scouted a number of different locations trying to find a house that would fit the brief and a landscape that would make the house all the more special. 'We needed something that had a sort of modernist architectural feel," notes Digby, 'but that was also in an incredible environment."
They found what they were looking for in Norway. Notes Andrew Macdonald: 'Norway doubles brilliantly for the Colorado Rockies, Canada and Alaska. It felt a bit like Scotland, where I'm from, but Scotland on super drugs. It's incredible; these vertical hills, waterfalls everywhere and deep, deep fjords and sea lochs."
It was two locations rather than one, within driving distance of one another in the Norwegian Fjords outside a town called Valldal, that combined to form Nathan's house. 'We went on a great recce around Norway," remembers Alex Garland. 'We found this house and hotel, that were in quite a remote part of Norway, and they were both built by the same architect, so the house and hotel had a commonality of design."
The Fjora House, a private residence, and the Juvet Landscape Hotel offer many of the interior and exterior shots of Ex Machina. Both were designed by the Norwegian architects Jensen & Skodvin.
They found the house first. 'We went to have a look, but we were worried it might be too small for what we needed," remembers Digby. 'Then the owner said, -Oh, the guys who built this for me have actually built another location about half an hour away. It had a lot of the same features, but it was on a different scale."
As chance would have it, the hotel location features a glass-walled sauna that looks out into the Norwegian wilderness. When Digby and his team were collecting images for reference, a photo of the sauna was one of their first hits. It wasn't until they turned up at the hotel that they realised this was the place in the picture. It was perfect. Notes Reich: 'You stand in our hero window looking out on this extraordinary environment and you think that if you were that level of super rich, you'd want a window with this view."
Designing the interiors, says Digby, often meant turning away from the modernist architecture of the locations. 'We didn't want the house to be too brutal in its modernity," he explains. 'We headed for a very simple aesthetic, and we wanted to play with the balance of man-made materials and organic, natural ones."
There's a lot of life inside the walls of the house, from trees and plants to little gardens. Digby continues: 'In a sense that balance mirrors what's happening with the characters too; these humans are interacting with this man-made machine."
Fjora House has a particularly distinctive design feature, in which the rock on which it's situated cuts into the corners of its living room, and plate glass has been cut to run around it and enclose it. 'The idea of glass and concrete and this rock protruding into the room was something we started to get very excited about," notes Reich.
The nature of the world Nathan has created for himself changes as the film progresses. Says Alex Garland: 'The design trick becomes about making a house that at first seemed beautiful, desirable and classy feel suddenly scary, claustrophobic and dangerous."
Digby and his team built Ava's observation room, as well as a number of other interior sets, on stage at Pinewood Studios, matching them to the design features of the locations and using blue-screen to add in the landscape through the windows.
'Anyone who walked out onto those sets at Pinewood was immediately wowed by them," says Reich. 'It was a sort of discrete calmness, and it spoke of a particular aesthetic and money without being flash. The house, the facility, the living room, the laboratory; it's all carved into a rock face."
When Alex Garland initially wrote the scenes in which Ava interacts with Caleb, he imagined a room separated by a pane of glass. 'Mark Digby had the brilliant idea to give Ava lots of room to walk around," says Alex Garland, 'and keep Caleb in a tiny box, so that the girl who's imprisoned has the space and the guy who's breaking her out is trapped."
The observation room set literally does just this: a glass cube in its centre is where Caleb conducts his Turing Test as Ava is able to move around him. 'The voyeuristic aspect of it is complete," explains Digby. 'We built a glass cube within a room with an antechamber that she lives in that we can also see through, so at all times anybody observing her can see her. She's never not observed."
Designing the room like this had another benefit: 'Aesthetically we found that interesting, but also pragmatically it worked very well. It allowed depth – to be able to shoot through glass, through glass – and it just broadened out the variety."
The final touch to the observation room was a small garden that Ava is unable to access. 'It gives her an idea that there's an outside, and something beyond being a created object," notes Digby.
The production shot first at Pinewood before travelling for two weeks on the locations in Norway, where the stunning landscape offered the crew an opportunity to shoot a scene atop a live glacier. Guests booking rooms at the Juvet Landscape Hotel are likely to stay in the very locations featured in the film, since most of the hotel was at the production's disposal during the shoot.
'I'm glad we shot it this way around, and didn't do two weeks in Norway and then four in Pinewood, because it's difficult not to have your breath taken away by Norway," says Dohmnall Gleeson. 'At Pinewood, it was all so enclosed, and that was the idea: you feel psychologically that everything closes in. We got to some pretty intense places at Pinewood."
Agrees Vikander: 'We've been so locked in at Pinewood, so it felt like I was on the same kind of page as Ava. It was great to shoot those first scenes when Ava takes her first steps, and then come into the real world and it looks like he's been creating Eden here in a way."
Isaac is similarly impressed by the landscape chosen. 'It's Promethean out here," he enthuses. 'It's prehistoric landscapes, and a really smart juxtaposition of technology and this machine set against the enormity of this landscape. We're this infinitesimal speck on Earth and yet this little speck has the power to create life."
Alex Garland worked closely with cinematographer Rob Hardy, to light and photograph the work Digby and his team had done. Thanks to the location's floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and high-tech security features, each of the house's rooms takes on a different feel depending on the time of the day and the way it's being lit. No more is this clear than within the confines of Ava's room, which is part observation suite, part prison.
'Rob Hardy I've admired for a long time," says Andrew Macdonald. 'He's a British cameraman who has done some amazing work. You want someone who is going to work well with Alex and to go on this journey with him. That collaboration is key, and that runs through every department."
Alex Garland confirms that Rob Hardy, 'really picked up the ball and ran with it. He transcended whatever requirement I could possibly have made of him. He elevated everything."
For Rob Hardy's part, he embraced the challenge of working within a genre he hadn't previously explored. "I've never worked on anything sci-fi," he says. 'This just had all the elements that interested me about any given story. It crossed the line between being accessible and also something that had good weight to it. The visual opportunities were endless, really."
It was the human themes, in the end, on which he relied to define the film's visual aesthetic. 'We didn't really talk much about film references and we sort of avoided the obvious ones," Rob Hardy explains. 'We were looking at photography and thinking a lot about the philosophy behind what the characters were thinking and doing. It's a human story, and I immediately saw it as this sort of unrequited love story with a twist. It had a dark heart to it, which really interested me."
Completing the feel of the film is Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury's score, which, like all the other elements in the film, went to conscious lengths to avoid doing the obvious. 'We wanted to steer away from a certain kind of electronic score that you could easily move towards with sci-fi and robots," says Alex Garland. 'They gave themselves various kinds of rules about things they weren't going to use and things they would use in particular ways. The score is, in some ways, controlled and understated, but then at times it really flexes its muscles and does something extreme. It's a very strange score, but it's really fantastic." Garland thinks their limited experience with feature film is what makes the score all the more powerful. 'They didn't arrive with any pre-conceptions and just wrote a score to what they felt it should be. That was very interesting."
Release Date: March 5th, 2015