Notes from a Masterclass with Alex Garland

At the pre-residential weekend of the BFI and NFTS Residential course, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was screened for us, and after the screening he gave a masterclass on directing/writing/being an artist, and here are my (really messy) notes from one of the best days of my life:

Alex Garland talked a lot about how he prefers sticking to a schedule by shooting in 10 hour days – he said that he doesn’t do breaks/lunch breaks etc. as he does not want to go over time since 1. it will annoy producers/cost more money, and 2. he knows his cast and crew have other commitments such as a family to go home to etc.

Since he was an author/screenwriter before becoming a director, Alex (I don’t feel like I’m on a first name basis with him but let’s go with it) talked about collaboration vs. isolation. He said how he preferred directing as it allowed you to collaborate with people and work with a time to create a vision, whereas when he was writing he found he was in his own head, which can be jarring for both the writer and the work itself.

Ex Machina fact: it was shot in six weeks, 4 weeks were shot in Pinewood studios and 2 weeks in Norway, it is set in Alaska (this is not stated in the film).

Alex Garland words of wisdom number 1: make the right movie for the right cast.

The director brought up new points of view for me about Ex Machina and how to watch it. For example, he asked ‘who’s the protagonist of Ex Machina?’, and it’s like…crap, man…IDK? To me, it feels like the protagonist changes…it goes from Domhnall Gleeson to introduce us to this new world, then Oscar Isaac to show how isolated it is and contrast the two sides between Gleeson and Isaac, and then Alicia Vikander, the New Human? I feel like we definitely go into her point of view when her and the other AI kill Isaac’s character, as the blood that pours from him feels more alien and inhumane than Ava putting skin onto her magnetic/robotic ‘body’.

Alex also talked about the noises of Ava and how they were purposefully made to sound like a heartbeat…direct quote: ‘the noises of Ava make you feel she is alive’. He talked about how these effects were added in post by the sound designer, but I annoyingly can’t remember how they made the noises.

The rest of his talk consisted of more words of wisdom, so I will title this section ‘Alex Garland’s Words of Wisdom number 2 to infinity:

A director must understand the direct of photography’s fingerprint/style, and react in an immediate way to this.

The writer and the author are always the 2 people who are closest to a character – writer hands the character over to the actor.

It is important to understand actors and what they do, since what they do is quite isolating (I found this really interesting as all the other directors from the masterclasses said something along the same lines too – something I had never really considered before. But, after being on set the actors really are the odd ones out).

Film wants to exploit – always think about why violence/why nudity/why this gender? Always give a reason for something.

Concept/theme and character – work as hard as can (I don’t really know what this note means but I’m putting it down in case I figure it out later).

Just write scripts and don’t use script editors – the producers can act in the same way.

Know the argument of a film.

Themes, character and place should all support each other.

Adjustment to include everyone else.

Grammar of camera.

Industry does not take sex seriously – it exploits it. Always have valid reason for including sex in film.

All production companies are hungry for scripts.

Writer and producer = very close relationship.

Make sure first film is good, since this is what the rest of your career will be largely based off.

It is the screenplay’s job to tell people what the room is going to be like – don’t overwrite in a screenplay, be restrained.

Understand why shots go together and why they don’t. He also said don’t hold shots too long, but I think this is a stylistic choice if he’s meaning in the way I thought he meant in terms of Citizen Kane style length shots, but he could’ve meant to be sparing in how these shots are used too.

‘Auteur theory is bullshit’ – Alex Garland, 2016. He did say he believes Wes Anderson, Hitchcock etc. are auteurs in terms of styles, but he was more focused on how the auteur theory suggests it is the director putting in all of the work to the film, when really it’s a collaborative process.

Alex Garland, if you are somehow reading this – thank you so much for the masterclass. It meant a lot that you came, I don’t know why Ex Machina wasn’t nominated for more awards (not that they are an indicator of a film’s value), and this aspiring director will take all of your advice seriously and work on it.

 

P.S. please give me a job on Annihilation. I will do anything.

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