A striking contrast in the outset: an abundance of glass walls and virtual images (monitors, mobile screens) in a modern office building is cut to an aerial shot of solid, glacial mountains. Immediately after arriving at the main location where Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) meets his hi-tech tycoon employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Ex Machina's production designer Mark Digby sets the tone for what follows in a series of spatial and design contrasts between virtual and real, organic and artificial. Every window in the film, whether an architectural one or a computer window, opens to new images, to landscapes, physical and mental.
Set almost entirely in one house, in Ex Machina the space of the film is also a parallel narrative supporting the main storyline. This is, among other things, a post-digital variation on the theme of “mad scientist.” There’s the eventual dysfunction of the scientist's over-designed laboratory, his competition with God, and the inevitable grandiose plans that go awry. It is Frankenstein’s lab channelled through Silicon Valley ambitions. Yet, Mark Digby deliberately eschews the design traditions that come with that whole genre. Instead, he opts for subtle paradoxes: there’s glass, but there’s no transparency, there’s concrete, but there’s no sense of security. Nothing is as it seems.
Digby’s close and lasting collaboration with British directors Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle, and recent screenwriter turned director Alex Garland has touched different genres and design styles, enriching the visual experience of films while always adding something new to the narrative. One evening at the BFI Southbank in London, I spoke with him about Ex Machina.
NOTEBOOK: Your design shows a real and architectural sense of space. Is architecture your original background?
MARK DIGBY: This probably would be disappointing to you, but I didn’t do architecture, design or art. Essentially, I didn’t go to college. So I guess my background is visuals: the visual art forms, and an interest in design. I like photography, fine arts, architecture, film. I’m drawn into things that you see and could be pleasing or displeasing. Essentially, I tried to do engineering at university. I didn’t do very well at that. I did accounts. I worked in a shop. I worked in a factory. I didn’t come from a family who had a great access to the arts or film. We didn’t go to the film theatres a lot. Never to the galleries. But I had a film awakening probably at my late teens, going and discovering loads of stuff. Going to places like the National Film Theatre. I did a bunch of stuff and things until I hit theatre and from there I plunged my way to the design side of it to get where I am.
NOTEBOOK: How much cinema was part of this self-educating process?
DIGBY: I wouldn’t say I’m a film aficionado. I like film and have seen a bunch of films. And from there, I’ve brought that with my career to understand what I think works in a film or doesn’t. I don’t have an in-depth knowledge, but I have a sentiment. I watch a lot of films, but I don’t study them. What we like to bring along as the design team is a sentiment and a volume control of that sentiment. It’s about the ability to hit the right volume and be discerning about the design points.
NOTEBOOK: In films, since the Cold War, the adventurous combination of concrete and glass has been something for the living space of the dubious characters. Modernism equated subversion and even perversion. That seems to have change very little since the 1950s. How much did you intend to confirm, or to challenge that cinematic convention in Ex Machina?
DIGBY: We weren’t aware of it. We were totally character driven. Now you mentioned it, of course, I understand that. There was a great danger and we needed to walk away from the James Bond baddie cliché of the big palatial spaces. We tried very hard to work against the language of the wealthy villain and the language of sci-fi. You see it in many films where villains have this big, big studio spaces with one table in the middle. It doesn’t have to be like that.
NOTEBOOK: How much of the sets were built and how much of it was real location?
DIGBY: Well, to put it simply, if you see windows, it’s a real location. If you don’t, it’s built. And that was part of our design criteria as well. We wanted some of our environment not to have windows. We wanted some of it to feel prison-like or captivating, in its true sense. And other areas we wanted them to feel a bit softer. At the end, I’d say, 60% built,40% real location.
NOTEBOOK: What about the stunning house in the film?
DIGBY: That was a found location. The whole process and how we came to where we were is an interesting thing, not only in terms of the actual physical location journey, but even in our design process. Our design process is based around characters and story. We didn’t have the spaces around which we write a story, it was the other way around. Now we have these characters: where would they live? We like to fight cliché and familiarity, unless it’s needed. After reading the script, we imagined a bit of a modernist Californian palatial structure: white, big, impressive. We imagined they live in these highly stylish but very roomy buildings. And we did go along that journey. But actually we had trouble getting access to the buildings fitting billionaires. We could get into millionaires’ houses, but they seemed to be small. That forced us to have a bit of rethink. Along that journey we started to realize that Nathan’s character is very much about business. He focuses on what he needs, a man with all resources. He doesn’t need to be ostentatious. He doesn’t need more room than he needs in this project. So he can have a small space. But to give it the ostentatiousness and the security, that small space could be in a big natural space, because only truly rich people can own land in a stunning natural space, and perhaps in a national park. Then when you tick these boxes and look at the character, you say, ‘hey, he can live in a shed practically, as long as he got enough rooms for everything else.’ Then we started to tone down the shape, the size and the space of living areas.
Nevertheless, along the journey looking at these fairly big, modernist, isolated houses, we went to glacial environment in Alps in Switzerland, but also in Sweden and Norway. On one of our trips in Norway, we were recommended a hotel set in a fantastic environment. It was giving us some of the things we needed, but not everything. It wasn’t big enough. The owner said, ‘well the architect who has designed this is just finishing off a private residence half an hour away from here. Why don’t you go and talk to him?’ So we went to talk to the owner and it was perfect for us to use that space—allied with the hotel, as you often do in filmmaking. It provided a continuity of architecture. In fact, where we first arrive in the film is the hotel; we then cut to the living room of the residential house and then we go down into our studio built sets; and we got back up again into the house and the hotel.
NOTEBOOK: Were certain sets made in the studio? If so, which ones?
DIGBY: There is another interesting point about filmmaking and the journey you go on that actually sends you in new directions which are often fortuitous and serendipitous. I’m going back a couple of steps: In Norway, we had found this round, bunker like glacial museum, Bre Museum, very much a conical, brutalist type of concrete building. We decided to marry the exterior of that building with our interiors, so we started building our spaces in the studio based on that. In the film, we have curved, subterranean rooms in some of the spaces because of that building. But at the end we didn’t use that exterior. Instead, we used a smaller, rectangular building. What we built was done in Pinewood Studios in England.
NOTEBOOK: There are many fascinating details in the design of the film, one of which is a conscious “overdesign” in the house, meaning that every detail is so vigorously planned that leaves no room for chance or improvisation, a tyrannical order which suits Nathan’s character. How did you achieve that effect of giving an edge to the cosy looking spaces? They are both comfortable and suppressing.
DIGBY: Nathan wants anyone visiting him to feel slightly uncomfortable. He wants them to know that they are captivated and imprisoned in this place and can only get out with his permission. But he also needs them to feel welcomed. So there is a juxtaposition through all those rooms with the soft and the hard elements.
Caleb’s bedroom is a fantastic space. it’s very hard because it has no windows and it’s dark. But it is furnished with soft, beautiful woods, pleasing colors, pleasing light. And I think there’s a duality in this juxtaposition well throughout the design: we were bouncing man-made with the natural. For example, in Ava’s space, we always see a natural garden behind. But we’re enclosed in a man-made structure. But that picture is always there, reminding us of naturalness, which mirrors our whole story, about natural human and the man-made human. Same about upstairs, when you see the beautiful wilderness, but from with an enclosed space.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a very rich use of objects, tools and props in the film where they eventually become part of the mise en scène. For instance, the paintings: was it your idea to use those particular paintings by Pollock and Klimt?
DIGBY: There two separate entities to that and the answer is both yes and no. Pollock was in the script and lot more detailed, explaining the idea of copies, that if you replicate a Pollock, does it have the same value as the original? Exactly in the way that you replicate a human brain; is it same as a real human? So in the script it was a hand painted, dot-by-dot copy of the original and the question was how much did that matter.
As a wider sense, this is definitely a man who collects art and is discerning about his art collection. We needed substantial art to be there, Pollock one of them. Other items are around to match that criteria. One of the other paintings we had was the Three Ages of Man in the office.
Now the Klimt is really interesting. We looked at different pieces of art and were drawn into Klimt. And this was also a long, tall painting as opposed to landscape, serving the spatial orientation we needed. Now, the subject matter is in fact related to Ludwig Wittgenstein. Nathan’s company is called Blue Book, an homage to Wittgenstein’s Brown and Blue Books which are probably all about learning linguistics and thinking, which fits with Nathan’s ideology and what is he trying to do. Now we have a painting which is connected to the Blue Book which is connected to Nathan. I’d like to think all our design is sublime in the true sense. So we have that Klimt painting with a woman in white dress that works very well. Now Alex [Garland] hadn’t seen that painting at all until the day he came to shoot. Of course he could have whisked it off the wall but he loved it. And the reason he loved it—and we didn’t know this yet—was that in the final scene of the film there is Ava in white dress. So he was actually rapturous about it.
NOTEBOOK: I imagine there was some adjustment work needed to unify the spaces in the film, especially between the actual location and the studio sets?
DIGBY: Yes. The Pollock room has a piece of rock coming through the space. We built that in the studio, but as you’ve seen, the actual place, the living room, had a piece of rock coming through. We wanted that to feel similar—the design of the concrete and the angles and the spaces needed to marry.
NOTEBOOK: One of the themes of the film is duality, manifested in double images and reflections in the glass. Was that concept part of the script which inspired the design or it was the director who used the potentials of the set to underline that particular theme?
DIGBY: I think it was perhaps a happy accident. It wasn’t in the script. But as filmmakers we all know that glass is a wonderful thing. As visualizers and photographers we all know that glass and mirror can allow for depth, division and reflection.
When I read the script, it was fantastic, but set in one house with three people, two of them talking about existentialism for two hours, and much of it is one small room. How do you make it interesting? One of the ways to do that is to use things like glass. And the cameraman or the director finds out about those reflections and dualities while filming. It wasn’t fully pre-planned. They were discussed, but they were not planned. They were organic. You put together a world and you see where it goes. We also needed, perhaps because of the script, to be in a room with a certain amount of glass. Because Caleb needs to be in the room and looked through somewhere else. Again, the initial thought for an observation room is a concrete-walled room with a single window. But then you can only see one direction. So why not putting them in a glass box? Then you can see 360 and it’s far more interesting. Another interesting thing about that room is that it’s the reversal of the classic observed and observer situation where the observed is normally in the box and the observer can walk 360 around it. Now, in Ava’s room it’s the other way around. Caleb walks into a square, glass room and she is able to walk around it, if not 360, at least 270.
NOTEBOOK: Is there anything else you want to add?
DIGBY: I’d like to think that it comes across, as we certainly thought very hard about every aspect of the film and the design. It wasn’t in the traditional sense when you say, "this is the style of architecture I want," but rather you ask, "does it work for the character?"