EXCLUSIVE: In this age of heavy hype and tracking, it’s hard to deliver a sleeper crossover hit. A24 is slowly building Alex Garland’s directing debut Ex Machina into exactly that, and will broaden the film to 2000 screens Friday as the film heads into its sixth weekend. The film’s growth has been deliberately slow. It opened on four screens and turned in an outsized per-screen average, and then Ex Machina ballooned to 1200 screens the week before the opening of Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and then held the same number of screens while that Marvel machine sucked all the oxygen out of the box office last weekend.
Now, fueled by great reviews and a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Ex Machina will continue a slow build that doesn’t happen often to a movie 6 weeks old. Most surprised about the film’s staying power: writer-director Alex Garland, who made his helming debut after a long scripting career that included adapting his novel The Beach and writing 28 Days Later for director Danny Boyle. “The film has massively exceeded anything me or anyone who worked on the film had a right to expect,” Garland told Deadline. “I’ve worked 15 years in Hollywood and you get used to certain rhythms and what this was supposed to be was a quite difficult to make independent movie. What I can say is, this is not what usually happens to this kind of film.”
Garland has been pleased that audiences sparked so strongly to the robot played by Alicia Vikander, who evokes both sex appeal and sympathy. That’s a place where numerous other artificial intelligence movies fell short. “That was the key to the film, the hope that people would empathize with Ava and she would project sympathy,” he said. “There have been other A.I. films that worked, but the one that most interested me as I wrote Ex Machina was HAL [from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey]. I recalled that when he was being killed by Dave, people felt ambivalent about it, and there was even a funny moment when you felt sorry for HAL, particularly when he broke down into nursery rhymes. Our movie doesn’t work if you don’t empathize with Ava as protagonist and it’s great they are reacting to her.”
I mention that when modest-budget science fiction films like Terminator become sleepers, the obvious next step is to make a sequel and raise the stakes and budget, something that the plot of Ex Machina lends itself to…if only Garland felt that way. “I imagined it as a completely self-contained story and I still feel that way about it,” Garland said. “It has become reflexive for people to imagine this movie was made to set up a sequel and that the plan was built into the structure of the film. But it was not that way, at all.”
Though he has been working in the business nearly two decades, Garland has suddenly become a hot director. He signed with WME; he is getting offered a multitude of films. He hasn’t closed a next film, but a good candidate is Annihilation, an adaptation of the Jeff VanderMeer novel about an all-women team sent to map out Area X, a forest that decimated the past expeditions that were sent to explore it. “This group of women enter a sealed park to see what is going on inside, and it becomes this surreal sci-fi story, that reminded me of this J.G. Ballard sub-genre I had grown up reading. We are literally in the process of setting it up, it’s definitely spinning in the air at the moment.” Paramount and producer Scott Rudin are running point.
As for his sudden arrival as a hot director, Garland is ambivalent. “To me, filmmaking is about a group of people, and I will still find it quite easy to write something I don’t direct,” he said. “It’s not that significant to me, it’s more that the overall group of people have agreed to make the same movie. The only time it has been trouble, is when different parties are making different films at the same time. So the directing part is not necessarily relevant, because I still see myself as a screenwriter. As for Ex Machina, I’ve worked on movies that have failed to capture momentum and I’m not sure why this one has, but I can tell you it feels a lot better when it does.”