In this exclusive interview, we sit down with ‘The Machine’ director Caradog W. James to discuss making an indie film, being influenced by other directors and unhappy endings. Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS so read at your own risk.
How long a process was it from the conception of the film, to writing it, getting the financing and then ultimately filming and editing?
We are in year four now of the whole process. It took a year to research the script. I read basically every book I could on AI, robotics, how quantum computers are made, quantum mechanics – although they were really difficult books to get through. I only managed to get through half of one chapter of Penrose’s book ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’, which is really interesting. It is about how organic brains might fundamentally be organic quantum computers, and what I was trying to understand was what consciousness was and therefore how it might possibly be conceived in a machine in a virtual world. John Giwa-Amu, the film’s producer was lucky enough to get an interview with a guy at the MOD (Ministry of Defence) who was actually building intelligent machines for the British government as part of their weapons program. He was explaining how they had now mapped a mouse brain to an exact computer replica and now they were at the stage where they had mapped a chimp brain. After speaking to him, it didn’t seem like a big leap to me for the next step to be a human brain and what would be the difference between the original and the virtual copy. Do they both think and feel and desire in the same ways? Where is the humanity within the difference between human and machine? Another part of the research was an article I had read in New Scientist about how AI was being taught to interact with the world in the same way that severely disabled children are being taught to interact. Especially kids on the Autistic spectrum, with Rett syndrome, and with brain injuries because these children and the AI both has challenges deciphering information and deciding what is important and what is just background noise. So, I went and met with some families with autistic kids and they were very inspiring and that became the ‘hero’ of the story – that was Vincent’s journey.
After that it was about a year of draft after draft or writing the script and probably about a year of John and I traveling around the UK meeting with potential investors. I would pitch the story and John would pitch the financials, the budget, how they would recoup their investment and we kind of raised the money cheque by cheque from the private sector.
Filming was four and a half weeks. So all that work (laughing) goes into four and a half weeks of filming.
The editing took about six months, and then six months of promoting the movie and we are still doing that now.
And the whole film was done for under a million pounds (£1,000,000)…
Yes, just under a million. John and I both come from short film backgrounds, so we have never had a lot of money to make our films, so we just used the same techniques we used to make our short films for four hundred quid and just expanded that approach to a feature film.
The movie has some subtle nods to Blade Runner, from the ‘Turing Test’ to Tom Raybould’s futuristic retro soundtrack – was that planned or just a by-product of the theme and genre?
You know, I have had some praise and some abuse for the ‘Blade Runner’ stuff. Obviously ‘Blade Runner’ is the granddaddy of all the ‘thinking machine movies’, but the truth of the matter is before I started on the script, I stopped watching or reading sci-fi because I didn’t want to be directly influenced by other filmmakers stories. Now, I will be the first to admit that there are loads of shots in the movie that are a result of other directors, because I didn’t go to film school – I learned about making films by watching the work of people like Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and John Carpenter. These were the films I grew up on and these are the DVDs I watched again and again to learn how to tell stories visually, but all of the ideas come from research. For example the Turing Test questions are real Turing Test questions and I watched many tests to find the right questions that I thought were the most cinematic and interesting and the way that I could then enable Vincent to spot the machine and see the potential in it. So in a way it is quite frustrating when people say ‘oh you just ripped off the scene from ‘Blade Runner’, when actually (laughing) loads of research went into all those different things and I totally forgot that it is a Turing Test in ‘Blade Runner’, but it was because I was so intrigued by the real world stuff that it is in the movie – much more than any desire to reference another film.
The other thing is, I am quite a geeky guy from a science point of view, but I can’t forget (laughing) that everyone who went to see ‘The Machine’ or watched it on VOD etc., have seen maybe every single sci-fi movie on the planet, so to them everything is kind of passé. For example I have not seen ‘Battlestar Galactica’, but a few people were like ‘ah yeah that happened in Battlestar Galactica’. Other fiction was not what I was looking at but you tend to forget other movies that have tried to explore this subject matter before.
I suppose all filmmakers run the risk of that now with anything. If you do a dinosaur movie people will find comparisons to ‘Jurassic Park’. Anything can draw a parallel if you look hard enough, especially where technology is involved.
Definitely. The facts have kind of caught up and out stripped the fiction. It is amazing where the technology will take us over the next fifty years. The stuff that exists now feels like science fiction and the conversations I have had with roboticists and the guy from the MOD – it is incredible the progress we are making towards true AI, implants and the melding of technology and flesh is going to take us in many surprising directions I think.
At one point Vincent promises Ava that he will not use her face for the machine and ends up doing exactly that. Do you think that was out of convenience or a way for him to keep her alive?
I think that Vincent blames himself for her death, so I always saw it as him kind of rubbing his own face in it – by having her around, by having the same face there on this machine he can never forget that he was culpable in her death. That’s how I saw it, but it’s interesting; once you make these things they are open to interpretation. Also, Vincent is a very ambiguous character. I didn’t want him to be a clean cut hero – he is quite complex in terms of never making clear cut decisions and he is not beyond lying to people to get what he wants.
At the beginning of the film he is not all that likable actually.
No. He is ruthless in the pursuit of the one thing he cares about, which is fixing his daughter. I was really impressed with how Toby Stephens totally went for that and enjoyed playing the ambiguity of the character rather than fighting against it and trying to make him a hero. He fully embraced that reality of the man who is morally compromised, which I think is much more interesting than the traditional ‘goody two shoes’ hero.
It is ironic that he uses Ava’s likeness and voice to keep her alive, yet never gives her a name. Not even a fancy acronym. He and Thomson only refer to her as ‘Machine’.
Yeah; it’s like with child soldiers or prisoners. It is a way of dehumanizing or putting a cap on someone’s feelings about themselves. That was the idea behind that. It is all part of the brainwashing they are trying to put over ‘The Machine’ and Vincent, although he has plans for her and comes to genuinely care for her like he cares for his own child, knows he is being watched all the time. For me, I always thought that Vincent is such a clever character that he would know he is being watched and would know Thomson isn’t a man to be trusted, so he has this plan but he keeps it to himself, as he hasn’t got a sidekick he can explain stuff to, on the of it surface he seems perhaps more naïve than he actually is, or how I wanted him to be.
As ‘The Machine’ is learning and her emotions are growing, she professes her love for Vincent, yet it goes unnoticed by him. Or so we are lead to believe anyway. It is apparent to us by this point that he has feelings for her, which are more paternal than romantic. Did you ever consider going in that direction?
I never saw them as having a romance. I always saw it as like a father/daughter feeling of family and caring but not attraction. And from her as well; she is not looking for any kind of sexual relationship with him. She is just looking to be valued, to be treated with humanity, to be cared for. The basic human needs. While researching, one of the more distressing experiments I saw was Harlow’s Wire and Cloth monkey experiment. In Harlow’s initial experiments infant monkeys were separated from their mothers at six to twelve hours after birth and were raised instead with ‘surrogate’ mothers made either of heavy wire or of wood covered with soft terry cloth. In one experiment both types of surrogates were present in the cage, but only one was equipped with a nipple from which the infant could nurse. Some infants received nourishment from the wire mother, and others were fed from the cloth mother. When Harlow scared the monkey and even though the wire mother was the source of nourishment, the infant monkey spent a greater amount of time clinging to the cloth surrogate. He assumed that the monkey and in some ways children were like parasites in so much as they just cling to the person or thing that gives them food. Ultimately this showed it was comfort that they needed and wanted – a feeling of being safe, and that was the idea I was trying to explore as well.
The majority film is shot in a very cold manner – concrete and steel structures with harsh blue light with a subtle ‘non JJ Abrams’ use of lens flare. This only enforces the evil overtones of the Ministry of Defense research lab and motives. When Vincent wakes up in the morning, he is bathed in a striking red light and all scenes with his daughter occur in natural light or daylight. Was this entirely by design?
Yeah definitely. I plan everything – every scene, every shot – in terms of how it’s lit and how I move the camera is all kind of planned in advance. For me the movie is a real journey from darkness into light. If you notice, the only sunlight in the whole movie is at the very end and that was always my plan for the film, that it’s an emotional journey but not in the way that you might imagine because Vincent doesn’t get exactly what he wants at the end of the movie – he has saved his daughter but he has lost her at the same time. This is what I mean about studying other filmmakers; I love studying movies and understanding how light can be used to move an audience and to convey emotion and that’s always a lot of fun.
None of the machine language dialogue spoken by the soldiers or Suri is intelligible to the audience. I felt it added to the overall vibe as you were forced to guess what they were saying just based on body language and expression. Did you ever consider adding subtitles to these scenes?
We thought about it but at all the test screenings that we did, whenever we asked questions to the audience about the plot with the soldiers, they knew. They knew what was going on and so it seemed to me that the subtitles were not only redundant – because people were getting what I wanted them to get – but also I thought the subtitles would take away any sort of mystery that those characters had. You find out their motivations through their actions rather than explanation, which I think is good.
The final scene is heartbreaking in how it is so bittersweet. We see that Vincent and ‘The Machine’ are now almost living as man and wife and he has managed to keep his daughters consciousness alive within a computer. When she says ‘I want to play with Mommy… not you’, you can see the pain in his eyes. Yes, he has kept her alive in some fashion but she is really nothing more than another colder digital machine. You could have given this the ‘Hollywood ending’ where they all go off into the sunset and live happily ever but didn’t. Now granted this is the final scene of the film but it was also the scene that really stayed with me long after the movie was over. How key was this scene to the entire film?
It was really fundamental to the story. It is very hard for me to have confidence in a project until I have nailed the ending, so I was very certain this was how the film should end. In fact, it was so important that we changed the whole schedule. It was shot in Wales and the weather can sometimes be less than accommodating. We had mapped out the schedule for the movie and found out the night before principal photography was set to start, that the next day we would have a sunny day, so I pulled that scene right to the first day of filming – which I would never normally want to do because you want everyone to kind of got into the groove before they do one of the most important scenes in the movie – but we had to have the sunlight. So yeah; everything was moved so I could get that scene the way I wanted it.
It also causes a major shift in the colour themes we touched upon earlier, as now ‘The Machine’ and his daughter are with him in a very serene sunlit outdoor setting, yet the scene itself is one of melancholy.
He was too morally compromised to just have a happy ending. He had participated in the experimentation and death of war veterans to save his daughter – in his mind he justified it – but objectively he was just as morally comprised as Thomson. And also the truth of it; Thomson warns of the ending when he speaks to Vincent and says ‘What happens when one machine designs another and that machine designs the next generation?’ Within a few generations, humans would be so far behind we would be like ants to them. The ending is the beginning of that. Soon humanity will be left very far behind.
Based on its success and critical acclaim, any plans for a sequel?
Yes, we have a sequel in the works which is very exciting. The budget will be about the same and we plan on raising the funding privately again.
Have you considered partly crowd funding as a way to raise the money and also giving the fans a greater investment in the film?
You know what, we have. Someone mentioned that and we thought that might be a really good idea.
What is next on the agenda for Red and Black films?
We have a horror movie called ‘Don’t Knock Twice’ which we are in the process of funding. I am very excited about that. It’s a really great script that I have been working on with the writers for about the past six months going through different drafts and now we have one we are really happy with, so that’s going out to cast right now actually. It is a supernatural/horror in the vein of ‘The Shining’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Conjuring’ – it’s not about gore but about madness and fear. The plan is to do something genuinely terrifying.
Also Paramount and Warner Brother have been in touch about other projects, so we are reading scripts and carefully planning what to do next.