'You Don't Want to Kill the Thing': Lessons from 'Ex Machina' Director Alex Garland

Director Alex Garland, as well as stars Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander talk about their approach to bringing Ex Machina to life in this Film4 interview.

There is a little bit of everything in the interview, but there were a couple of discussion points that I thought would definitely benefit indie directors and screenwriters.

Give your audience someone in the film to relate to

Film is a mirror. When we watch films we want see ourselves in the characters (mostly the protagonist) to the point where we allow our emotions to reflect theirs. This is why it's so important to create characters that are relatable on some level so that the viewer can experience the struggles, triumphs, changes, and sentiments of at least one of the characters. It allows them to engage with the story on a deeper level than if they were just merely being entertained by flashing lights and loud noises. Garland took great care to employ this concept in Ex Machina, namely with the title character Caleb. He says:

Ideally, if the film functions, something is happening to the audience which is equatable with what is happening to the protagonist -- So as he's being seduced, we're being seduced. And as we're being confused, he's being confused.

Director Alex Garland directing Alicia Vikander

Don't over-rehearse, but come prepared

Until a film is finished it's pretty much a living, breathing thing. Sure, we write scripts and draft shot lists in an attempt to be prepared when it comes time to shoot, but Garland explains the delicate balance between over-rehearsing and under-rehearsing. Essentially as a director, you want to be ready to answer any and all questions that may pop up on set (something echoed by director Kevin Smith), but you also want to let the project breathe and develop naturally as a piece of art. In Garland's words, "You don't want to kill the thing -- but you don't want to have big conversations about motivation on the day." He suggests giving actors three takes: one to "get it right" the way it was planned beforehand, and two to explore new possibilities in performance. Remember, actors are professionals, too. They can give you so much if you just give them room to work.     

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12 Comments

The three take rule sounds good to me. Still haven't seen this film. Must see!

June 10, 2015 at 12:22PM, Edited June 10, 12:22PM

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Donovan Vim Crony
Director, DP, Editor, VFX, Sci-Fi Lover
514

I loved this film! And as the poster above me said, that "rule" sounds interesting, definitely something I would like to apply.

June 10, 2015 at 3:46PM, Edited June 10, 3:46PM

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Jesús J. Borges
Storyteller
166

That's the edge of digital over celluloid. If you are using three takes when you might otherwise have used the one, then with all the scenes where, for whatever reason, you NEED many more takes, then you will have a frightening shooting ratio if you were paying per second of filming time. Your three takes gives you time to experiment, to try and take it somewhere unexpected. Imagine what the French New Wave film makers could have done with their improvisation if they had had such luxuries.

June 11, 2015 at 8:27AM, Edited June 11, 8:27AM

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Julian Richards
Film Warlord
1718

This movie was truly stellar in so many ways.
Plus - it's a great example to use when explaining to productions why a Sony F55 is a good choice, over say, a Red. Not many examples of good work with the camera, but that's just a marketplace result. (Typically the only choices I get are Alexa or Red - and when it's lower budget, it's always Red - when an F55 would be same or less).
* This film was shot on F65 and F55

June 10, 2015 at 5:24PM, Edited June 10, 5:24PM

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Brian Charles Lehrer
DoP + Director
172

F55 I think was mostly handheld or steadi, the rest F65 which seems to me to be an underappreciated camera, especially now you can pick one up for 30K USD.

June 10, 2015 at 6:40PM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1902

Use the genre? What the hell is he talking about. I think he does not even know it himself.

June 10, 2015 at 9:52PM

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A genre itself can be loosely thought of as a type of story structure. In practice this means that viewers have a tendency to assume they will see story elements or themes presented in a specific way, in line with the traditions of that genre. So if you truly understand the genre and the subsequent assumptions the viewer may make, you can use that to your advantage and push the story in new and unexpected ways. I hope that helps.

June 11, 2015 at 2:46PM

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Toll
Production Manager / Producer
182

I love doing rehearsals with actors. its the first time you get to see your scene and dialog unfold. you can get rid of things that don't work, let your actors improve the dialog as they bring out their characters. there is so much to be gained by running thru scenes a couple times in rehearsal including the fact you aren't doing this while a full crew is waiting while you work it out during production. Ideally I try to do rehearsals in the actual production locations. while the actors work their lines, play around with the parts, hone it on what works, change what doesn't, it also gives me a look at shooting / lighting / sound and having a much better idea how I want to shoot those scenes.

when its production time you go in so much better prepared having far better idea whats going to happen. that certainly doesn't mean I still won't let the actors play a bit with their parts, but often because they have had time to think about the scene, they too have made refinements in their approach. Its when the actors understand the content, context and emotion of a scene that they will give you the best performances…and that doesn't happen without some rehearsal…and some trust in your talent they can bring good ideas to the scene too, especially once they are inside their characters.

June 11, 2015 at 2:08PM

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Steve Oakley
DP • Audio Mixer • Colorist • VFX Artist
500

Great video for a great movie. Thanks for sharing!

June 12, 2015 at 2:58PM

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Ian Mattingly
Artist/Film maker
176

I was surprised how badly written, directed and acted the movie was. Really awkward to watch. And the curved lens distortion made it look like it was shot on a Go Pro.
Was really looking forward to it.

June 12, 2015 at 6:21PM

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In fact, I would use this movie as a litmus test, and if a prospective writer, director or actor liked this movie I would not work with them. So many weirdnesses in this movie.
Why is Caleb so apprehensive when his is dropped off on a dream assignment at the facility? He acts like he's in a suspense film and that he may be attacked at any moment as he enters the scientists house. Why is he so nonplussed upon meeting the most amazing embodiment of AI ever created? Do you have a name, he instantly blurts? Jesus, how about taking in the wonder of the moment for a few seconds. Be amazed like a normal person. He acts like she is the most ordinary boring girl in a night club. Maybe he suffers Aspergers? He is a programmer. Dunno. Why is such an obviously incredible scientist, who would have to have the unflappable patience of a researcher such an alcoholic, impatient hot head? Such weird choices and by extension - writing and direction.
Apparently others feel differently... Maybe those weened on modern super hero stuff where nothing has to feel real anyway?
Dunno. As I said, I wanted to like it...

June 13, 2015 at 6:39AM, Edited June 13, 6:52AM

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Of course the geeks loved it. The story built up nicely but just didn't go anywhere. What was the point of it? That robots lie? It had the feel of a cool short film that was stretched into a feature without being fleshed out.

June 14, 2015 at 5:46PM

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JAY T
241

Badly written, Akward? Gotta be kidding...Oh well, let's agree to disagree.

June 14, 2015 at 1:20AM

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Erwin Hartsuiker
CineVideo-NL videographer
755

Agreed Jay T, it did build more toward the end. I thought the very last part when she was outside was unnecessary. I thought it would have worked better if they had ended it when she looked at Caleb as he was banging on the window and she just walked out the door.

June 14, 2015 at 8:01PM, Edited June 14, 8:05PM

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