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7 Lessons in Storytelling, From Novelist, Screenwriter, And Filmmaker (Don’t Call Him a Director) Alex Garland

Ex Machina filmmaker Alex Garland talks to Co.Create about developing as a storyteller, and why he has a problem with “auteur theory.”

7 Lessons in Storytelling, From Novelist, Screenwriter, And Filmmaker (Don’t Call Him a Director) Alex Garland
Behind the Scenes of Ex Machina Alex Garland and Oscar Issac [Photo: A24 Films]

The new film, Ex Machina, depicts what may be the most advanced artificial intelligence system ever created. The inventor of this technology, played by Oscar Isaac, only arrives at it, however, by standing on the cybernetic shoulders of others, and consistently refining his own previous iterations. Similarly, filmmaker Alex Garland considers Ex Machina the purest distillation of his vision yet, and admits it wouldn’t have been possible without his collaborators or his ever-evolving approach to storytelling.

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Alicia Vikander and Alex Garland on the set of Ex MachinaPhoto: courtesy of A24 Films

The only constant in Garland’s career thus far is change. He is a compulsive, gotta-write-every-day creator who refuses to be hemmed in by genre, format, or job description. Garland first came to the world’s attention in the mid-’90s as the author of The Beach, an achingly hip meditation on the feeling of civilization-fatigue particular to heavy travelers. The well-reviewed novel sold briskly, spawned a Danny Boyle-directed adaptation, and launched Garland as a potential generational mouthpiece–a role he was, in fact, uncomfortable with. While writing another novel, Garland began transitioning to the much more collaborative world of film with his screenplay for the zombie-zeitgeist-igniting 28 Days Later, also directed by Boyle. In the decade-plus since, he has written original screenplays about heat and the sun, adaptations of both literary novels and graphic novels, and even dabbled in the world of video games. It is finally Ex Machina, though, that marks the first time Garland’s name is listed as “director,” a title he eschews since it diminishes the work of those who helped him make the movie, as well as the role he played in the films that prepared him to make this one.

Recently, Garland sat down with Co.Create to talk about developing as a storyteller and screenwriter, and why almost anything he had in mind may fly write out of the window once the film crew is actually on set.

If You Want To Be Visionary, You Have To Think Visually, 1994

On his first pass at The Beach, Garland followed in the footsteps of his father, political cartoonist Nicholas Garland, and made an illustrated tome. While he ultimately switched to prose, the experience left the author with an important realization.

“I didn’t know it at the time but it teaches you a lot about film—the use of imagery and when you don’t need words,” Garland says. “Also because drawing comic books takes a long time and it’s very labor intensive, it pushes you towards economy and not drawing something that you don’t need to draw. Film is also very bound up in economy because even though two hours or an hour and 40 minutes can seem like a long time, it’s actually not. You can rattle through that in no time at all. Or you can rattle through it in an hour and 40 minutes. I find it really interesting how much can be achieved with how few words.”

28 Days Later, 2002Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Accidents May Trump Decisions, 2002

28 Days Later was not only the first screenplay Garland wrote, it was his first experience being intimately involved with a film from start to finish. During its creation, he got to see firsthand how creative solutions are sometimes brought about by external conditions.

“I assumed everything in a film was the result of a decision,” Garland says. “On 28 Days Later, I realized that a lot of stuff is nothing to do with decisions–it’s enforced, it’s by accident, it’s because of what the weather is doing, it’s because the thing didn’t work out the way anyone thought it would, it’s because the petrol station that was supposed to explode didn’t blow up properly. Having a lot of talent and experience doesn’t protect you against something not going right. That’s not to say 28 Days Later was made ineptly, just that, moment by moment, I saw during that production that film is not all carefully planned and created. It’s much more chaotic.”

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Garland shares a little-known demonstration of the creative power of circumstance: “At one point, we literally ran out of money and we didn’t shoot the end of the film,” he says. “We went into the edit without the end of it, knowing that at some point we were gonna have to get the production back up and running to shoot an ending. The end of the film, to an extent, got defined and dictated by what we’d already cut, when it came time to shoot it. So then there was some writing to do later on, which became the final moments.”

Sunshine, 2007Photo: Fox Searchlight

Follow Your Interests, And The Story Will Follow

Many of Garland’s projects have been genre films that are grounded in reality–a long way from his backpacking debut. His unpredictable trajectory is the result of following only his interests, rather than a strategy.

“Everything I’ve ever written has got some kind of argument embedded inside it,” Garland says. “It might be about treating parts of southeast Asia like a Disneyland for people in their early twenties or it might be about heat and the universe, or it might be about consciousness and artificial intelligence. Always in all of those things, it starts by being interested in a subject matter, and then a story arrived later on. The only thing I ever really seek to do is try to not do stories about other stories. So for example, not make films about other films, but try to have it about the real world in some respect–about something I’ve observed or gotten interested in.”

Dredd, 2012Photo: Joe Alblas, courtesy of Lionsgate

Know When It’s Not Working, 2011

Of course, sometimes even following your interests can lead you astray. In those moments, it’s important to recognize when to keep going and when to start all over again. For the 2012 film, Dredd, Garland had to start over again from scratch, twice.

“I didn’t just have to throw out an entire script–I threw out two entire scripts,” he says. “The one we shot was the third Dredd script I wrote. Three totally distinct scripts with basically no crossovers. That was fucking insane. I really do not want to ever do that again. The first two scripts, I kind of always knew it wasn’t working. There is a really annoying thing that happens with writing where somebody points out this isn’t working and instantly you know, ‘Yeah, I always knew that; I just was refusing to look at it. I was kind of hoping I’d get away with it.’ Or put it this way–when somebody tells me this isn’t working and I have that feeling, I immediately just drop it, it just dies for me. If they say it and I think, ‘No, you’re wrong,’ then I keep going. Ultimately the writer is the arbiter. But if they say it and I’ve just been refusing to look at this because I’ve been a coward, then at that point I drop it pretty fast.”

The Elements Of Storytelling Are The Same Across All Platforms

A lifelong gamer, Garland eventually took an opportunity to work on a few games, including Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for PlayStation 3, and ran into some familiar challenges.

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“There are some technical differences to do with branching narratives, but basically having had a little bit of experience working in games and some more experience working in film and in prose fiction and books, broadly speaking I think the problems are all the same,” Garland says. “It’s how do you convey via image and words and dialogue the themes and concerns of the narrative. How do you develop characters? When I play The Last of Us on PlayStation, I’m responding to the performances and the writing and the cutting and the direction, the decisions about where the camera is placed. And where the dialogue and the themes are concerned, I know that it involved, at some point, someone with a word processor putting words down on a page and trying to convey meaning to the person who would then be reading those things. The problems that person encountered are the same problems that I encounter.”

Ex Machina, 2015Photo: A24 Films

Editing a Film Means Rewriting It

Garland has always taken a big role in editing the projects he’s been a part of, and over the years, he’s learned to be more flexible with the scenes he’s written and the order in which he’s written them.

“I see editing a film as the final part of the writing process,” he says. “I think that editing and writing are very, very similar processes. Writers tend to be quite relaxed about coming out of a scene and just saying, ‘Ah, let’s just ditch all that stuff’ or ‘Let’s move that scene because it might work earlier.’ Because in the writing of the thing you’re quite easy and loose with cutting and pasting and moving things around, you can be that way again in the edit. I have never worked on a film where the finished film follows the structural order of the script. Something that was written for the back end of the film makes its way to the front end. Every time I’ve worked on something, that happens. A writer is well placed to be able to do that. Sometimes directors get too fast. The worst cut is always the one that follows (the script) slavishly.”

It’s About Filmmaking, Not Directing, 2015

Although Garland’s title on Ex Machina is “director,” he rejects the level of authorship the word usually implies, attributing the success or failure of a film to the collaboration that formed it.

“I just don’t really give a fuck about titles,” he says. “I’m interested in directing, but what I am really interested in is filmmaking. It is the making of the film with a group of people that is the most rewarding and interesting part of it. I have a resistance to people talking too much about directing because it carries within it all these implications about auteur theory and French film criticism and the way films are marketed that I just do not buy into. I accept that some people are auteurs. It’s not the way I work; it’s not the way I’m interested in working. I’ve never worked like that and don’t plan to. With a book, you sit in a room on your own. In a film, you’re most of the time working with other people. And I just enjoy that more.”