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.


Intelligence is relative: an essay on the narrative of Burn After Reading by Joel and Ethan Coen


The tagline of the Coen Brothers’ 2008 film ‘Burn After Reading’ (if you couldn’t tell already) is: ‘intelligence is relative,’ and, like the tagline, so are the characters and narrative. Every time audiences are introduced to a new character, another character is added a facet. Each narrative strand strand that is presented adds depth to previous ones, and connotes the fundamental connotation of the film.

Taking this into account, the narrative cannot be confined into one subjective type; the Coen brothers continuously introduce audiences to new strands and layers to remind us of their tagline. Take, for instance, the introduction: audiences are immediately placed in a ‘top-secret’ style atmosphere, seeming very official and secretive, as signified through the low tracking shot of the footsteps in the sterile surroundings. Conversely, what audiences are met with are characters who cannot control their power, or lack o it. This is also where viewers are met with a clear typical convention of the Coen brothers: profanities, faux-clichés that make them more cliché, and the fact we are meeting a character at a heightened state of personal decline. It is clear from the offset the characters are the driving force behind the plot.

Additionally, the Coen brothers play on Grice’s Maxims, often blurring the boundaries between each one. Chad could be the maxim of quality, yet the CD makes him also become the opposite of this as he ties to blackmail Osbourne. Osbourne could be seen as the maxim of manner, as he is clearly unambiguous with what he feels about people, yet losing his job and his memoir being found leads him to a state of decline. This suggests the Coen brothers do not use the narrative to enhance the characters, but experiment with them and see how they change when their surroundings and ideals change.

Like with most of their films, for example ‘Fargo,’ ‘Burn After Reading’ can only loosely be applied to Todorov’s narrative structure. The introduction to the equilibrium coincides with the disruption, as the first part of the film is mainly an introduction into these multi-faceted characters rather than the narrative. However, once the narrative does begin, it is clear there is somewhat of a formula. From the first part of the film audiences know Osbourne and Katie’s marriage is unhappy; Katie is having an affair with Harry, and Linda wants plastic surgery but cannot afford it. These are crucial elements to the narrative as they become the driving force behind the characters once the disruption of the narrative begins.

The first time audiences see the link in the narrative strands is when the disruption of the narrative begins. This is when Linda and Chad discover Oswald’s CD, mistaking it for secret government files. The fact that it was these characters that discovered the CD suggests the ‘intelligence is relative’ theme throughout the narrative once again, as if this were any of the other characters (for example Harry) they’d see this was simply a memoir rather than confuse it for the confidential information Chad and Linda see it as; an important concept since if this were to happen to different characters it would completely change the narrative of the film.

The narrative also begins to develop at this point as Linda and Chad recognise the disc belongs to Osbourne, resulting in them trying to blackmail him and failing, so instead take the disc to the Russian Embassy. A second narrative strand is developed after as Harry and Linda meet through Internet dating. All characters are now connected, resulting in a rise in tension for audiences as this is most likely to have a detrimental effect.

The equilibrium is then restored through the fact Chad infiltrates Osbourne’s home but is trapped by Harry, who then kills him as he believes Chad is a spy – another link to the tagline. The scene where Harry shoots Chad is important as it encompasses the Coen brothers’ style – unexpected, unconventional and breaking the rules (at this point they might as well just have Grown Woman playing every time they walk into a room). There are no action codes or hints to what Harry is going to do to Chad — in fact, audiences believe Chad to be quite safe as the shots are consecutively through his point of view in the scene.

Finally, the complete reestablishment of the equilibrium is when the CIA agents comically disregard almost the whole film of what audiences had just sat through. They restore the narrative in a few sentences, and audiences find out what happened to the characters, for example Linda being paid off – a deal she initiated so she could pay for plastic surgery. This close of the film makes ‘Burn After Reading’ a circular narrative, as we begin where we started, and the goals most of the characters had at the offset of the film are achieved.

The Coen brothers’ idiosyncrasies are connoted through the binary oppositions they create with the narrative. From husband vs. wife, to masculinity vs. femininity and intellectuals vs. ‘morons,’ the themes are usually themes that have been explored in other texts, yet they have a post-modern elements due to the fact the Coen brothers often explore them in an unpredictable way, for example the husband and wife theme is reversed through the fact the archetypes of the characters are also reversed: Osbourne is, or at least becomes, the stay at home husband, whilst Katie drives the plot and marriage forward with her ruthless nature and affair with Harry.

The narrative proves to be post-modern once again as the ending is not created to satisfy audiences’ needs. The ending, which finished with viewers not seeing any of the characters but instead hearing about them, connotes the juxtaposition of semantic codes within the narrative vs. semantic codes that are relevant for the audience in real life. The Coen brothers have become self-conscious when creating the film at what audiences could interpret from it, and how they feel — they realise this film can’t provide audiences with something that will greatly impact their lives, but instead of pretending to, they remain authentic and dismiss everything viewers had just seen — for some this is frustrating, for others another comedic element.

‘Burn After Reading’ finishes with the theoretical bomb under the table going off, as, while there were many other points in the narrative in which it could be said to have gone off for Chad, Linda, Harry etc, this is the moment the bomb goes off for viewers, as we realise there was no point to the film; the majority of it is meaningless, and the Coen brothers reassure us that it is okay through the choral storytelling, when the head of the CIA closes the book on the inexplicable tale. Audiences realise that, as powerful and in control as Harry may have felt controlling his string of affairs, or Katie hiring the divorce lawyer, the people who had the power the whole time were the CIA. However, this is quickly juxtaposed with the aerial shot quickly zooming out of the location until we reach the sky, connoting the reason for the use of the tagline — once again, ‘intelligence is relative.’

(BTW: In case you were somehow wondering why this sounded like an essay for school (are you psychic??) that’s because it is [minus the Beyonce reference]!! I was too lazy to write up a separate review and, not to brag, this got full marks so….. waiting for my call from Matt Zoller Seitz to write for…)