It’s a Sunday morning during South by Southwest and actor Oscar Isaac, fresh from starring roles in A Most Violent Year and Inside Llewyn Davis, and novelist/screenwriter and first-time features director Alex Garland are positively giddy.
They’re cracking jokes like schoolboys until Garland, in a mock serious tone, declares “game face,” signaling it’s time for the interview to start.
They have good reasons to be cheerful. Ex Machina, Garland’s film starring Isaac as a reclusive tech tycoon obsessed with creating artificial intelligence, screened to an enthusiastic crowd at the Paramount Theatre the night before.
While this topic has been broached in film — from the glory of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the ghastliness of Transcendence — it’s rarely done like this, as an intimate character study, which finds this new-generation Dr. Frankenstein squaring off against his assistant (played by Domhnall Gleeson) and his creation (Alicia Vikander).
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The Austin American-Stateman subsequently called it “a sleek, good-looking meditation on the nature of artificial intelligence, on what happens when we create robots that can pass for human.”
It has already opened in Garland’s native England to generally good reviews, with Empire magazine extoling, “Ex Machina is old-fashioned, grown-up science-fiction.”
That’s the most striking thing about the film, opening Friday in North Texas. It may be science-fiction but not of the CGI-heavy, sequel-obsessed modern variety.
Instead, it’s a low-key, three-person drama, a throwback to the works of Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick or Harlan Ellison, or such classic TV shows as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, where the concern is more about characters wrestling with ideas rather than special effects.
For Garland, best-known as the writer on the zombie classic 28 Days Later and the novel The Beach (which was made into a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio), it’s a breakthrough for a new director’s voice.
For Isaac, it’s another example of why he is one of the most vital actors working today. Ex Machina may be the last time viewers see him before superstardom beckons. He next appears in Star Wars: Episode Seven — The Force Awakens and X-Men: Apocalypse. Here is an edited take on our conversation.
[Ex Machina] really is reminiscent of the old Twilight Zone. These were shows that talked about ideas.
Garland: Exactly. They talked about ideas. Actually, there’s a whole thing that exists. It was short, contained, idea-based sci-fi. There were versions of it in stories, Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, The Twilight Zone was its TV incarnation. These stories that would present you with something that you’d think about after you finish the story. I always thought that was cool.
I interviewed one of the show runners for [the reboot of] Battlestar Galactica and he was frustrated that the show didn’t get the same respect as The Sopranos. Did that concern you with Ex Machina that people whom you want to see it will avoid it because it’s science fiction?
Garland: There was some brilliant stuff [in Battlestar Galactica], some really interesting, complicated moral arguments and analogies of things that were going on in global politics and stuff like that. It was really cool …
[But] you just make it the best you can. When we were working on this, we wouldn’t have conversations about … . You can’t think about this stuff. I mean, some people can.
Isaac: Some people mostly do and operate from that place. But when you read [Ex Machina] and then see it, there’s nothing about it that’s overly concerned with how it looks or how it’s going to be taken. It poses very bold questions and intimates some answers.
Garland: And we made it cheap. … These guys had six weeks to capture this stuff and there were huge pressures every time you did a take. There weren’t going to be 10 more.
Was this a hard film to sell to a studio?
Garland: It was not a hard movie to get financed. I thought it was going to be a hard movie to get financed but it wasn’t. … I think it’s going to be a hard movie to sell. Films like this are just a gamble for those guys.
You said that you see being a director as an extension of being a writer. Were there any surprises by becoming a director for the first time?
Garland: Literally not one, unless you count how easy it is. [Laughs] But just to be clear, I’ve worked in film for years and I’ve spent a lot of time in prep, on set and in the cutting room. It was all familiar, and I was working with people I’d worked with in the past.
Do you plan on doing it again?
Garland: I’d like to do it again. That depends on many things. One of the things it depends on is whether — [I guess] we should have been thinking about what people will think of it [laughs]. It’s defined by box office. I will find out my future career in about four weeks.
Oscar, what attracted you to the script?
Isaac: Just to be able to use that language, the language that this character uses, the amount of ideas that are in it, and the fact that it’s this chamber piece where the action set-pieces tend to be ideas and ideas are being thrown around explosively and used as weapons. … And I think that’s very, very rare in movies, definitely nowadays.
So, for me, to be able to say these words, to have that kind of wit, danger and unpredictability and playing something that layered … that’s one of the most joyful experiences I’ve had as a character.
The film also has a sense of humor, especially with that dance sequence from Oscar. You feel you needed humor to leaven it?
Garland: It was a deliberate thing. Humor is like oxygen. You often see that humor used in horror movies, just to relieve the pressure a bit. It would be easy to take this too seriously or very somber. And humor keeps it alive, keeps it breathing.
Also, a few years ago, I worked on a film called Never Let Me Go [starring Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan] and we got a lot of things right but one of the things we got wrong was the lack of humor. It hit its tone very beautifully but it kept hitting that tone, so it was like an insistent drill.
Oscar, you’ve gotten to sing in movies, from 10 Years to Llewyn Davis, and you’ve been in bands. Did you ever think of music as a career?
Isaac: I never thought about any of this stuff in career terms. … [Music and acting] are the two things I loved to do since I was in grade school [in Miami]. I was in bands in high school and I was in a band right after high school and we were recording and doing some touring.
Then I got into drama school in New York, so that’s when I had to decide [because] that’s like 13-hour days and rehearsals at night so that’s the road I decided to go down. But I never stopped playing.
I’ve had many opportunities to sing and play in movies strangely enough. Sucker Punch, I sang a song and did a whole dance number. Won’t Back Down, I was the ukulele teacher.
Though you are Hispanic, you’ve never been typecast into certain roles. How did you sidestep that?
Isaac: Just saying no to a lot of things. When I would say yes to certain roles, to make sure that it wasn’t a cliche, to make sure it was more interesting. Oftentimes, it’s used as a bandage, ethnicity on a character. What I’ll do is if I get a script, and it has a certain ethnicity, I’ll imagine that that’s taken away and suddenly you have a very bland character. And the only thing that made them exotic was that they were from some other place. So, I find ways to make them more idiosyncratic, not make the only thing that’s interesting them about them is that they happen to be from a different country.
You’ve got Star Wars and X-Men coming up, is this going to make it harder to do these smaller movies?
Isaac: It becomes easier in some ways. Because then you can get financing maybe because of that, you get more opportunity to do more things.
Alex, are you working on a movie based on the video game Halo?
Garland: About 12 years ago, I was hired to write a Halo script and then I got fired. Since that point, I’ve been asked regularly how’s the Halo film going?
Cary Darling, 817 390-7571