"Logic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world.
Logic is transcendental..."
— Ludwig Wittgenstein
Caleb Smith [Domhnall Gleeson], a programmer at the world’s largest internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the exceedingly private mountain estate of the company's brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman [Oscar Isaac]. Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to conduct a Turing test, evaluating the capabilities and, ultimately, the consciousness of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence. Ava [Alicia Vikander] is a breathtaking A.I. whose emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated, and more deceptive, than the two men could have imagined…"A sentient creature with an emotional, internal life, just like all of us, trapped in a glass box,” reveals Writer/Director Alex Garland.
To bring about the daring and pristine EX MACHINA, Garland turned to his longtime collaborators, especially Set Decorator Michelle Day SDSA and Production Designer Mark Digby.
The main set was Nathan’s stunning, isolated research compound, which Digby, Day and their teams created from a hybrid of real spaces: the eco-lux Juvet Landscape Hotel plus a nearby residence by the same architect in Norway, and stages at Pinewood Studios, UK where they produced the subterranean living quarters and laboratory. The ultra-modern minimalist residence and lab set amid untamed terrain gave a visual representation of wild innovation, highly controlled…the boundless possibilities, yet a confined and confining structure.
Day praises Garland’s approach to filmmaking, “His fundamental belief is that we are a group of filmmakers working together equally. It is an amazing gift to me personally and a mini-hurray for our profession that my credit moved out of the roller to the card [main] credits, something Alex made happen.” Garland replies, “I’m not interested in the auteur theory of directing, I am much more into the craft of it. Collaboration allows us to explore and then hone to the essence.”
Garland delves into to this fascinating process in a conversation with SET DECOR:
SET DECOR: Thank you for taking the time to talk about the set decoration and Michelle Day’s work on the film.
Director/Writer Alex Garland: No, actually, it’s the other way around. Thank you. It’s very good to be able to talk about it.
Meesh/Michelle does stuff that directors get the credit for, because nobody knows what people like Meesh do and what they’re responsible for. I really feel quite self-conscious, very self-conscious actually, about the way [the credit for] her work gets kind of rolled up into other people’s work, when I know specifically what she’s done, what kind of input she’s had and the reasons I turn to her.
There is a moment near the end of the film when Ava, wearing a white dress, walks past a painting of a woman in white dress. This came from Meesh. The painting is by Gustav Klimt…it’s a portrait of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sister. Wittgenstein’s philosophy is key throughout the film—the name of Nathan’s company, Blue Book, is based on a collection of notes by Wittgenstein in which he theorized about thinking and consciousness as a symbol-based linguistic game.
SET DECOR: You mentioned the Klimt painting in an interview with Lauren Bradshaw:
“…Ava, at that moment, is wearing a white dress that echoes the painting. There are all of these strands being drawn together and that was Meesh doing the research into art, into Wittgenstein, into finding this beautiful painting, and knowing which wall to put it on. She knows because she has a nuanced understanding of where a director and a director of photography are likely to want to put a camera. She’s thinking about all of that. Because we know each other very well, Meesh sometimes puts these things in as surprises. I didn’t know that was going to be there until I walked onto the set and there it was. My jaw dropped. I thought it was such a smart, elegant, beautiful idea. Immediately the Director of Photography, Rob Hardy, and I decide we have to do a shot where Ava walks past the painting. Meesh is really the one that created that moment. Rob and I might capture it, but it’s Meesh’s brain that it came out of.”
Garland: That’s exactly what happens, really.
The process starts early with her. It just so happens that I saw her yesterday, and the reason I saw her is because at the moment, we’re trying to set up a movie to shoot maybe in March or April of next year. Over my whole filmmaking life, which is about 15 years, I’ve worked with the same group of people. Meesh has worked on every film I’ve worked on, and Mark Digby, the production designer, and several other people on the crew I’ve worked with again and again.
One of the first things in that process, as it was on the previous movie as well, is to say to Meesh and Mark, “Here’s the script. What are your thoughts?” And one of the things Meesh does initially is look for images and photos for reference, definition and inspiration. They may be to do with set, but often they end up being for many aspects. When Alicia Vikander’s character, Ava, puts on a cardigan and white stockings and has a short pixie haircut, you could attribute those things to wardrobe and hair, for example, but actually they came about because in that process, which I’m also going through now with Meesh on this other movie, Meesh found the images and said, “Look, here’s a way of presenting Ava where she looks feminine, but she also looks quite chaste…”, and, “What do you think about this pixie haircut? It could help make her look young.”
So Meesh’s influence, in my point of view, extends well beyond things to do with sets and the general props and the props that inform characters, like the paintings on the wall. It’s much more holistic. I talk to Meesh about every element, really. I think she has great talent.
As I said, it gets manifested in the sets and props, but she actually starts from the position of the character. She understands character. She thinks about character, and then she thinks about what represents that character on an internal level to determine how to represent it on an external level.
Now that works for sets and props, because she’d say, “Well this is the kind of painting that he’d have.” Or, “This is the kind of wine they would drink.” But it can also spread into everything else, for example, the cardigan.
SET DECOR: Yes, it’s that delving deep into the character and then the transmission of it in every way that the film shows.
Garland: Yes, exactly. So I think of Meesh as being sort of character-centric. There are varied H-of-Ds [heads of departments] in the production, each thinking in different terms from their POV, all bringing something incredibly valuable—but what Meesh does specifically, in my mind, relates to character.
So to give another example, in the previous movie we worked on together, DREDD, there’s a character called Ma-Ma who gets stoned a lot, she’s constantly getting high. Meesh said, “Let’s have a bath in the middle of her room—not a bath where you get clean, a bath to lie in and get stoned.” And some of the best imagery in that film, is of Ma-Ma being high, trailing her hand in the water and watching these iridescent water droplets fall from her fingers. Again, it really came from Meesh thinking, “Here is an interesting thing for this character to do…to get stoned in a bath.” And it’s her idea to position the bath in the center of the room, just because it’s a good place to get high.
In the script it was a settee, and Meesh said, “Let’s make it a bath.”
SET DECOR: That’s a perfect example of something Michelle had mentioned to us: One the reasons she loves working with you is that you have “really progressive ideas about filmmaking.” Because of that approach and your collaborative spirit, and with everyone having worked together so much, she says all the energies can be focused on maximizing the resources for these great scripts that you hand them. So it really is a full loop there.
Garland: Yeah. That’s great. One of the things about her is that she comes from a background of making indie movies and being resourceful…and using the resource in the right way. You know, don’t be profligate. Don’t get 20 versions, get one perfect version.
Actually, we all, in a way, come from that same background. And it does create a kind of camaraderie, a sort of sharing, and that kind of attitude. I’m glad Meesh calls it progressive. That’s the right thing to be, as far as I’m concerned! A part of it is that indie-movie sensibility, and although our budgets have expanded a bit, you know, I think we hold on to that sensibility as much as possible.
SET DECOR: As the master designer Dieter Rams, whom Michelle references in some of her set dressing choices, famously said, “Less, but better.” And it comes through in a heightened way in the look of this film. It’s impeccable. And it’s an impeccable script. There is no waste, no excess – it’s very clean, very tight.
Garland: Movies can lean toward excess. We all know that.
SET DECOR: Yes, and some of it we love, you know. Occasionally, it works.
Garland: Oh, it can work incredibly well. The excess can be part of the thrill in a way, and the scale of it, but we just aren’t working at that level. And I think it’s not really in our aesthetic. What we’re trying to do, all of us together, is to make bold moves and make them precisely. One of the best things about Meesh is that she’s not timid. She’ll do something very, very bold, and it will also be quite precise as well.
SET DECOR: We mentioned Klimt. What about some other key art pieces, the Pollock, the Titian?
Garland: The Pollock was slightly different, because that was in the script. There was something about what Pollock was trying to do as a painter that had to do with the automatic, to try to paint in an unconscious way, that fitted in a thematic…and actually a literal way…the issues that the film was talking about. So there was a Jackson Pollock painting specified, discussed in the script as a plot point, as a theme point. What Meesh does, is she extrapolates from that. Nathan is wealthy—money places no limits on his desires. He’s intelligent and cultured. So she says, “He’s got this Jackson Pollock. Well, that’s not going to be the only artwork he has. What if he has a Titian, for example? What are the artworks he would have?”
There’s a direct reason why a Pollock would be interesting to Nathan. While the Klimt is a more subtle reference, yet very specific…a painting that relates to the naming of Nathan’s company and the philosopher Wittgenstein. This is an incredibly appropriate painting for Nathan to have in his bedroom.
[Editor’s note: Check the photographs and captions re: the Titian.]
So basically, there’s something in the script, and what Meesh does, is she picks it up and runs with it.
SET DECOR: Perhaps another example would be the way the wall of Post-It notes almost looks like a piece of art as well, even referencing the Pollock in palette and scope…
Garland: The Post-It notes…the idea behind that was a kind of juxtaposition…the film has many. You’ve got this very large and wild outdoor space and then this extremely claustrophobic, overly controlled interior space—one of them made by nature, the other made by man. What you have in the film is a lot of digital stuff, including a wave of artificial intelligence that has been coded into a machine. The Post-It notes are not digital, they’re scrolled by hand, they’re jammed onto the wall in a fluid map-like pattern that only the person who’s sticking the notes on the wall can understand. So that was a visual juxtaposition of the digital and the analog.
SET DECOR: Another compelling juxtaposition was the corridor with the gallery of faces, of masks…the emptiness and link to humanness jointly portrayed…
Garland: Yes! While we were in pre-production, the place where I set my computer up to write, doing re-works on the script and stuff, was a large desk shared with Meesh. She was next to me, sort of at a right angle, and what that meant was that as Meesh was going through images, we could just have a sort of continual flowing conversation.
And one day, I saw that she had collected a bunch of images of masks. I didn’t exactly know why she had been collecting them, but immediately I thought, “These look fantastic.” She got hold of about probably 20 actual masks, and then we just laid them out on the floor. They were all kind of “folk” in some respects, but the grouping left room for using this face of Alicia as Ava that we had also made. And so it was really a question of us just standing there and trying to work out which were the most interesting ones to lead up to the one of Ava.
The idea that was in a very loose way an interpretation of that very famous image of an ape that starts to walk upright and then he becomes an upright homosapien…a timeline of the evolution of man. It’s essentially a mask version of that. So it begins with a very primitive folk art mask that looks a bit like a pig and ends up with this much more elegant and refined version of Alicia Vikander’s face.
SET DECOR: Yes, we see it in the film. The progression does show. It does translate. As an audience member, it was a wonderful reveal.
Garland: One of the interesting conversation points we always end up talking about in film, is what registered with people. And of course, the way it works is that it registers with some people and not with others. It’s part of the subjective response. What I think Meesh does, is she takes the position that if the person is going to look, they’re going to get rewarded.
SET DECOR: Yes, that’s speaking to a set decorator’s heart. There are many visual rewards in this film, including set dressing throughout the residence with subtle references to the vessel for the brain such as skulls, heads and totems.
Could we talk about the living and work quarters, this very effective embodiment of the duality of nature and modern man?
Garland: Yeah, sure. This has a bit of the indie-filmmaking embedded as well, because what happened there was, when we did a reckie in Norway—as you can tell, Meesh is a key person in the production—she had found some possible buildings that we could use. So she and I and a locations manager went around to a bunch of places.
The one we originally thought we were going to film at didn’t work out for various reasons, one being that it was just too expensive. We didn’t have the money to do it. We’d have to spend too much on greens and the gardener—it was like insanely expensive. We couldn’t make it work.
And so we ended up discovering the property you see in the film…and then partly what happens, to be honest about it, is because that’s where you’re going to shoot, you then tie that look into the overall aesthetic of the film.
SET DECOR: Mark has described it as, “Nathan is a man of great taste, intelligence, and discernment, and his home is about searching for perfection in the least adorned way. He lives in this modernist space made of post-modernist materials. It’s about concrete, it’s about glass; but it’s also about how these man-made elements frame a fantastic natural environment. It’s a mirror of how fake skin and mechanics frame Ava’s inner emotions and intelligence.”
Garland: Yes, it’s true. The other place we were looking at was quite Brutalist. It was a bit of massive concrete, which was not trying to open up to nature and bring it in. It felt almost defensive. I sometimes think about that, because it would have made for a different film. I’m not sure it would have made for a worse film—it was a really better location in lots of ways, but it certainly would have been a different film. It would have been less elegant. More brutal.
SET DECOR: As it turned out, though, this incredible setting that you chose gave a base to a modern eco-architecture/design, which was so fresh and innovative.
Garland: Yes, and the sets we did at Pinewood Studios were built to that location’s layout. So the film can’t lay claim to everything about that house, because we were corralled there by good luck and by no money!
SET DECOR: Ah! The gods putting something in your way…
Garland: I have to say, usually on a film, I’ve tended to feel the gods were working against us. You know, the sun is going behind the clouds, suddenly the rain washes away one of your sets, or some disaster…there seem to be many, often…but on this particular movie, we were blessed. I mean, we were insanely, ludicrously blessed day after day after day.
There’s a shot at the end of the film where a helicopter takes off. It’s one of the only crane shots we’ve got in the movie. The helicopter takes off from a highland field and flies away from us. It’s magic hour, the sunlight is slanted across the landscape and just catches off the side of the helicopter. And by the time that helicopter flew back again, the sun was below the mountains and we were done! That shot is like a Terrence Malick shot. It’s the kind of thing you hear that people waited three weeks to get, and we got it in like an hour and 20 minutes.
SET DECOR: And it was, indeed, an awesome shot. There were many! Thank you for such a thought-provoking, impeccable film.
Garland: Well, that’s really kind. But you know, because you do know, it’s not thank “me”, it’s all of us…
SET DECOR: All right, “Thank you” in plural!
Garland: Yeah, exactly, cool. [He laughs]
And the thing is, everything we’ve talked about Meesh for this film applies to all the other films as well.
SET DECOR: That’s fantastic. We appreciate your awareness and acknowledgement…and we look forward to covering the next one!