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'Ex Machina' director Alex Garland says tech giants are 'like NASA in the 1960s'

"Ex Machina" writer/director Alex Garland and actress Alicia Vikander on set.
"Ex Machina" writer/director Alex Garland and actor Oscar Isaac on set.
Oscar Isaac as Nathan and Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb in "Ex Machina."
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) examines Nathan's A.I. wares in "Ex Machina."
Oscar Isaac as Nathan and Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb in "Ex Machina."

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In the new film "Ex Machina," Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, the wealthy founder of a massive tech company. In his remote compound, Nathan has been experimenting with artificial intelligence, and he has built a machine that looks, thinks, talks — and may even feels — a lot like a real woman.

To test whether or not he has designed a creature that could pass for a human, Nathan invites one of his employees — played by Domhnall Gleeson — to spend some time with this A.I., Ava. 

"Ex Machina" marks Alex Garland’s directorial debut. He is a novelist who has written screenplays for "28 Days Later," "The Beach" and "Sunshine," all directed by Danny Boyle.

Alex Garland talks about how the Turing Test factors into "Ex Machina," what he learned about filmmaking from working alongside Danny Boyle and how a comic book artist helped him design his A.I. character, Ava. 

Interview Highlights:

This is your directorial debut, but of course you've been working in film for years now. You've collaborated with Danny Boyle on a few of your screenplays.  What did you learn about directing through your experience working with Danny Boyle?

One of the things about Danny was that he wasn't intimidated by writers and I think, to be blunt, some directors are intimidated by writers. Danny wanted me, as a writer, to be in rehearsals, and I'd be there on the soundstage or I'd be on location. In a way, from my point of view, even more importantly in the edit. So I got a terrific training with a guy who was un-neurotic about writers. I think maybe that's because Danny's background is theater. I didn't see any reason to change that when I stopped working with Danny.

There's an idea or a conceit at the center of this story and that is the Turing Test (after famed mathematician Alan Turing). Explain what the Turing Test is and how it factors into the genesis of this story:

Without wanting to be pedantic about it the Turing Test is one of those things that has gotten a bit misrepresented. Essentially it is a human doing a blind test with a machine, so they can't see the machine in the proper terms of the test, and if the machine acts convincingly that the human will be tricked into thinking they're not interacting with a machine, they're interacting with a human. Then the test is deemed to have been passed.

It's a very, very difficult test and it has never been is sometimes offered up as a test for artificial intelligence for sentience, but it actually isn't. What it really is, the Turing Test, is a test to see whether you can pass the Turing Test. And it may or may not imply sentience. This film deliberately acknowledges that and tries to say what the next step of that test process might be. 

In your film, a company called Bluebook has taken over, seemingly Google's place as the top search engine. What kind of company is Bluebook, and as you're thinking about either people in technology or the kinds of companies that influence your depiction of that company, what are you thinking about?

There was nothing in him (Oscar Isaac's character) that was targeted at any CEO of any one of those companies, like Mark Zuckerberg...there was a little bit that was targeted at the tech companies themselves. So what this character does is he talks in this kind of bro speak, he uses a lot of "dude" and "bro" and this familiarity thing that I sometimes feel that tech companies do to make you feel like they're your buddy. But they're not your buddy — they are massive, incredibly powerful corporations.

I just want to be clear — I'm ambivalent about them, that kind of stuff creeps me out a little bit, just to be honest about it, I find it weird. But I also think that in this day and age they're like NASA in the 1960s, they're the guys who are doing the most things, they're the guys who are trying to get to the Moon. My fear about this is not necessarily to do with what they actually are doing, it's just that they are so powerful that it seems prudent to have some kind of oversight over them because of what they might do. 

How did you go about the design of Ava in the film and what were the attributes that you thought were important in her look?

The first person that was brought on the film outside of the producers was a guy called Jock, who's a comic book artist. The two of us swapped sketches and developed the look of Ava. The issues were that film has many robots in its history, and the first time Ava walks onto the screen I didn't want the audience to be thinking about another movie and to be taken out of this one.

It was very interesting — a metal breastplate immediately made you think about "Metropolis. It's even stranger because very few people have actually seen Metropolis, but the images are so iconic that it doesn't matter ... A bit of gold was C-3PO, a bit of white plastic was "I, Robot" or a Bjork video directed by Chris Cunningham. So initially it was about avoiding stuff and then once we figured out what to avoid we could start figuring out what she could be. That was just about in this sort of post-iPod Apple world, about design that is machine-like, but also sensual in some way.

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