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.


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Review


The third instalment of the four-part billion dollar franchise, ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1’ is probably the most forgettable film of the franchise. This is largely due to the inevitable decision to split the final novel into two halves in film form, so as to capitalise off of teenage girls’ emotions rather than, y’know, ~deep artistic reasons~. I don’t really know why so many people were shocked by this decision, since it was pretty obvious it was going to happen after how much money Harry Potter and Twilight raked in but, I digress.

I was pretty cynical going into this film as Collins’ final book didn’t cut it for me — it felt like nothing happened and then suddenly you were down to the last ten pages and (spoiler) literally everyone dies within the space of a mili-second and you’re left asking what the fuck just happened. Therefore, artistically and narrative-wise, I felt the decision to split this film in half was just a murder to the potential that Francis Lawrence could’ve done with the original text in one film, but obviously money was to be had here and the infamous Men In Expensive Suits wanted as much of it as they could get.

My cynicisms on this factor of the film were correct — it was far too long winded, there was no clear cut Act 2 or 3, and the script felt a little too generic ‘Hollywood action blockbuster’ for me.

However, whilst I did find my perpetually single self rolling my eyes at every scene of Katniss running to Gale/Peeta, there were some positives to the film. Like, the fact it was actually good, but being ‘good’ after Catching Fire is obviously going to underwhelm.

The length of the film and how little plot there was to fill the spaces allowed for Lawrence to peer into the lives of the characters more than he would have if it had been just one film. It is here where I’m kind of happy it is a two-parter because, unlike most book-to-film adaptations where you never get a clear sense of who these characters are and how they work, this extended time with side-characters like Gale, Prim and Effie makes you appreciate how many facets they have, and how, in spite of the giant landscapes surrounding the characters, they can never be washed out or silenced since they want something, and I mean ‘want’ in the terms of how Shakespeare used it – wanting something they lack in, in this case equality, rather than wanting something aesthetically, for example how I want Suzy Bishop’s whole wardrobe in a poor attempt at making my life feel like a Wes Anderson film.

In terms of directing, I think Francis did a wonderful job since it felt that rather than trying to make the film more exciting and action-packed than it’s supposed to be, he embraced the fact it is a filler film. The lack of plot allowed for time to pick up on micro-elements that would otherwise have just gone unnoticed to the majority of the audience, including Katniss’ wardrobe, the fact Lawrence is leaving shots with unfamiliar characters rather than constantly following the film’s protagonist (e.g. in the meeting room with Coin and Plutarch — we do not know and cannot wholeheartedly trust these characters, so leaving us with them feels like we are being let in on a secret), and the metaphors — particularly those involved with animals like the deer and Prim’s cat Buttercup. At first I thought it was some PETA (or Peeta haha…I hate myself) thing trying to make everyone vegetarians, but then I realised the DEEP MEANING behind it that, like, Katniss shining the torch that Buttercup chased whilst everyone was laughing was a mirroring of what Snow is doing to the Capital and also how he is using Johanna and Peeta and Annie as these metaphorical lights that Katniss and Finnick will never be able to reach and I’ve run out of pretentious stuff to say!

In short, the film feels as though it’s saying “just wait for Part 2,” and whilst I definitely will see Part 2, I’m not sure if I am going to be waiting for it.


All this happened, more or less

ACH! Awkward new beginnings. Where to start? Well, my name is Sinead, I am perpetually single and I’ve made this blog to talk about films, books and stuff in pop culture/the world.

I’m aware for the, like, first few years of this blog it’s going to be really unsuccessful, but that’s okay because it’s probably best people don’t read my angst and hormone fuelled opinions until I am out of that period and can join everyone in chuckling over my poor, poor adolescent self while swirling a glass of wine in my hand (I hate myself for writing this).

ANYWAY, I supposed I should say stuff I’m into? Books-wise I adore with all my heart and soul and entire existence Dostoevsky. If he was alive and 17-18 years old I’d TOTALLY date him if y’know what I’m saying. I also love Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own = A MILLION HEART EYE EMOJIS) and RookieMag is my bible. With films I can never write down what I love because it either sounds ridiculously pretentious or way too shallow, so let’s go for a happy medium and say Wes Anderson. I do really really want to expand the directors I watch, though. I just feel really ignorant and closed off, yet I’m a film! student!

Basically, in short this blog (such a bad word) is going to be reviews/criticisms/discussions of stuff I wanna talk about.