Ex Machina creator Alex Garland considers the notion of free will and the power of big tech in eight-part thriller Devs, his first television series.
Alex Garland first found fame as the author of The Beach, the novel that inspired the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring movie of the same name and saw a generation of backpackers search for paradise in Thailand.
More recently, however, he has evolved into an accomplished screenwriter and director, most notably in science fiction, where his credits have included Ex Machina and Annihilation. He also wrote zombie horror 28 Days Later and space-set Sunshine (both of which were directed by Danny Boyle), adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the big screen and penned comic book adaptation Dredd.
Garland’s latest project is equally ambitious, beautifully constructed and brimming with far-reaching ideas, but this time lands on television. For his small-screen debut, Garland has written and directed Devs, an eight-part multidimensional tech thriller that stars Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman and Alison Pill.
The limited series focuses on a young software engineer named Lily Chan (Mizuno), who works for Amaya, a cutting-edge tech company whose buildings sit in vast swathes of forest in Silicon Valley. After the apparent suicide of her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman), Lily suspects foul play and begins to investigate. She quickly realises that all roads lead to Forest (Offerman), Amaya’s enigmatic CEO, and Devs, the company’s secret development division where Sergei recently began work alongside Katie (Pill).
But beyond the thriller structure of the storyline, Devs is an in-depth exploration of quantum computing, reality, intellectual espionage and paranoia, the latter dramatised by a giant statue of a toddler that towers over the Amaya campus, its eyes constantly watching over those who work there.
Garland says several things inspired the series. “One of them was really simple. It was just about this weird idea called determinism, which is that everything that happens is a result – cause and effect – so that ends up leading to a place where we lose free will,” he tells DQ. “That’s a strange idea because we’re all sure that we’ve got free will, but the argument [against it] is actually very strong. So there was something interesting about that.
“Then there was the arrival of this really spectacular new form of computing called quantum computing that has immense potential locked within it, and then I suppose a bit of nervousness about the scale and power of the big tech companies.”
All of those topics are wrapped around a thriller in which Lily looks for answers into the disappearance – and supposed suicide – of her boyfriend. “It is fundamentally a murder mystery and, in the process of trying to figure out the reasons for this murder, that’s when all this other stuff begins to unfold,” Garland says.
From the first two episodes, all his ideas are thrown into play, from the power and cultish appeal of Offerman’s Forest to the work of the secretive Devs department, which takes place in an incredible cube-like structure. Viewers’ heads may well spin initially, with Garland likening his creative process to having a one-man argument.
“I think about the issues and try to understand the science and the philosophy and try to come to some kind of conclusion,” he says of developing the series. “I’m not really thinking about story at all. I’m really just struggling to understand and get my head around these themes. Some of them are quite straightforward and some are actually really complicated, and they’re so complicated that you can’t make them simple. You just need to dive in and do your best.
“Then, after I’ve been really obsessing about a subject, suddenly, a story just appears – it literally could be while I’m doing the washing up. I’m thinking about what I’m doing to get some bit of dirt off a plate and, suddenly, a whole story pops into my head. It’s weird. It’s not very thought through. I can remember in the old days I was constantly writing story ideas down on cigarette papers because that was the only bit of paper I’d have on me. Then I’d have this huge collection of Rizlas with little scribbles on them in my wallet.”
While some of the themes covered in the series (not to mention the work undertaken by the Devs team) are certainly complex, Garland says his intention is not to challenge viewers but to challenge himself. “I’m trying to make it as clear and exciting and elegant as I possibly can,” he says. “But the issue is if you simplify some of the science, you end up making the science false; and if you make science false then any philosophical implications also become false. Then you think, well, what’s the point? It’s not about trying to throw down a gauntlet.”
He goes on to describe Devs as a companion piece to Ex Machina, his 2014 film about a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who is given the chance to evaluate the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid robot (Alicia Vikander). But Garland admits this correlation won’t become clear until later in the series.
“In some respects, it just gets stranger and stranger and goes deeper and deeper down this weird rabbit hole,” Garland says. “The film I worked on before, [2018 Netflix release] Annihilation, was effectively like a hallucination in the form of a film, and everything in it works via metaphor and some dreamy, trippy state. This is not like that. This is much more like Ex Machina; it’s grounded in its own walls and it stays within those lines. But those lines then do take it to a very strange place.”
Central to the series is Lily, who viewers follow on her journey to discover what really happened to Sergei. “I wanted her to be an unusual female lead and to have some qualities about her that were elusive and hard to pin down in a particular way,” says Garland, who reunites with Mizuno after the Japanese actor appeared in both Ex Machina and Annihilation.
“Often what happens in mainstream storytelling is everybody involved in it wants the audience to like the characters in a particular kind of way. When they test films and somebody says the character is unlikeable, that freaks everybody out and they’ll start reshooting and recasting. It’s not that Lily’s unlikeable – I think she’s very likeable – but she’s not conventionally likeable. She’s not likeable in a mainstream way, and I knew that Sonoya would be a good fit for that. It’s just in her wheelhouse.”
As for Offerman, Forest is far removed from the actor’s previous comedic roles, most notably as Ron Swanson in sitcom Parks & Recreation. Here he’s a laid-back, messianic figure sporting long hair and an impressive beard who leads the employees of Amaya with notably coded statements. When Sergei asks what he will be doing for Devs, for example, Forest replies: “I’m not going to tell you. I won’t need to. Just sit, read code. Take your time, and don’t worry. You’re going to figure it out. I know you are.”
Garland says Forest was designed with the intention of avoiding commentary on any one real-life leader of a big tech firm. “I wasn’t interested in saying anything particularly about [Apple co-founder] Steve Jobs or other people like him, [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg or whoever it happened to be,” he says.
“I wanted him to have some of the qualities of those guys, the slightly cultish vibe they create around them, but also to have his own particular warmth and tragedy and very human stuff. Often when we think about those guys, we don’t think about warmth, we think about other things – power and hypnotic or cold personalities – and I didn’t want Forest to be like that.”
Writing a TV series has much more in common with penning a novel than it does a film script, Garland argues, describing features as “economic and contained,” like a long short story or novella. “If you really wanted to film a novel, you’d end up with an eight-hour story, and that’s what Devs is,” he says. “Years and years ago, I worked as a novelist so I did think it was like this, but it’s also like film in most other ways because you have to stand on a set and figure out where to point the camera and then figure out where to cut together the images.”
But it was the opportunity to collaborate that led him to move away from novels and towards the screen. “A novel, you write on your own in a room. And a movie, you write as part of a large team,” he says. “As soon as I started doing it, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
The creative team behind Devs is made up of some of Garland’s frequent collaborators: composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, cinematographer Rob Hardy, production designer Mark Digby, set decorator Michelle Day and VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst. The Insects – screen composers Bob Locke and Tim Norfolk – also worked on the soundtrack, which bounces between jazz-inspired riffs, booming robotic chords and soaring choral themes.
Garland describes working with his core team as “getting the band back together,” having sounded them out early in the writing process to ensure they were available and willing to sign on. But while he has his own clear ideas about how he wants the show to look, he says he’s also very open-minded when it comes to the thoughts of those around him.
One notable aspect of Devs is the production design, with the muted tones of Lily’s apartment juxtaposed with the gold, metallic and reflective surfaces of the Devs facility, the centrepiece of Amaya that stands like a concrete temple in a woodland clearing. Offerman’s Forest breaks down the design: “A lead Faraday shield, a 13-yard-thick concrete shell, then a gold mesh, then an eight-yard vacuum seal, totally unbroken, then the labs and the core – the machine.”
The labs appear within a cube inside the building, appearing as if floating by electromagnetism, with a hovering elevator transporting workers through the vacuum seal from the outside to the inner chamber.
“I’ve never done any project with Mark and Michelle where they haven’t done something that has elevated any of the ideas I’ve had. Having clear ideas about what you think it should be doesn’t mean other people can’t have better ideas, so I always try to recognise ideas when they come around,” Garland says. “One of the things I have seen sometimes before with directors was people being very closed-minded and not able to hear what the people around them were suggesting, and that usually was to the detriment of the film.”
Produced by FX Productions, the show is exec produced by Garland alongside Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich of DNA TV, as well as Scott Rudin, Eli Bush and Garrett Basch of Scott Rudin Productions.
The show was filmed in Ealing Studios in London and Space Studios in Manchester, England, with location work in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, California. Garland says it was a dream to film at Ealing, having grown up with the studio’s famed comedies, and describes Space as an “absolutely stunning new studio” that fulfilled his needs for an enormous stage in which to build the Devs facility.
“We needed an unusually huge sound stage and we were lucky that one happened to be built that we could have access to,” he says. “The Devs’ cube, where the sharp end of the sci-fi stuff happens, that was all one 360-degree se, so the space we needed was cavernous, like an aircraft hangar.
“If you imagine the cube is about the height of a two-storey building, we built the middle section and then made that 360. So if we want a wide-angle lens of the glass elevator floating across a vacuum seal, there’s a VFX addition that happens for the top and bottom. But if you’re on a tighter lens, then it can all be in camera.”
With the series launching in the US tomorrow on FX on Hulu and coming to BBC2 in April, Garland hopes viewers will enjoy the ride. “It’s a strange thriller that moves with a weird propulsion but also includes some really interesting ideas that have been presented by science and philosophy and offers them up in an intriguing manner,” he adds. “All of that notwithstanding, I just hope people like it.”