Alex Garland is the writer behind (among other things) 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Additionally, he’s the writer/director of Ex Machina and Annihilation — two blisteringly original films that have managed to stand out amongst the flood of genre options over the last few years. In his latest effort to approach science fiction through a cerebral, inquisitive lens, however, Garland has turned to television with Devs.
Why? That’s a question with fading relevancy, but as Garland told us recently when we discussed the series, tech god skepticism, and Oscar Isaac dance memes, the difference between the mediums matters a great deal here. Specifically, as it pertains to what he’s been able to do with the story, utilizing both the space and freedom that comes with this opportunity to build on a strong foundation and pursue big, ponderous questions.
What’s the origin of Devs and what story are you looking to tell here?
It’s about trying to get my head around quantum mechanics. And I’m not someone who has any kind of background in this stuff. I was terrible in school. Anything to do with math or science or anything even close to that. In fact, I was prevented from taking the exams that you do in the UK when you’re 16. The school basically said there’s no point. Oddly, later in my life, I began to get interested in this stuff; and in particular, I got interested in quantum mechanics because it turns out to be by far the best means that there is of explaining the world around us. So the first thing was that I needed to try and understand that stuff better and the implications of it. And there’s this weird thing [that has] to do with free will where, in effect, the way that quantum mechanics works is very counter to our lived experience and world. The way we think the world works is not really how it works at all.
Really weird stuff happens in quantum mechanics that doesn’t intuitively make sense to us. As an example of that, all of us have a really, really strong sense that we have free will. It’s such a strong sense that we don’t even question it, but then when you start to dig into it it becomes harder and harder to see where free will might exist and you end up in a place where you think, “well, maybe it really doesn’t exist?” And then, what are the implications of that? That’s a really long answer.
No, it’s great. Can you tell me a little about beefing up your knowledge on subject matter like this?
It’s partly because I’m interested in the subject matter. That’s the starting point, but then once you’re interested in the subject matter and you’re trying to tell a story about it, then you’ve got to try and tell the story as accurately to the subject matter as you can. Because if you go down some flight of fancy that completely starts to detach itself from either the science or the potential of the science, then, in the end, you’re not really talking about anything. It’s really just an adventure story and there isn’t really any contained meaning in it. I think an example of this would be something like Ex Machina where there’s nothing close to the kind of artificial intelligence today that is showed in that film. There’s also nothing close even for the robotics on display, the way the robot looks. But, it’s within the realms of speculation that you could have a robot that looked like that. You could have artificial intelligence that was as sophisticated and self-aware as that. Nothing is in conflict with the subject matter and the themes and the arguments.
In earlier films, I wasn’t rigorous with that. So in a film like Sunshine, I found that often the thing was kind of fuzzy and I wasn’t as sharp about stuff as I should have been. And so I tried to plus up my act a bit and get better and more rigorous with that stuff.
You’ve mentioned re-assessing Sunshine in the past. Is that an important part of your work? To go back and look at the things that you’ve done and try and grow from them?
Yeah, definitely it is. Because I really try to see the thing for what it is, and not be sort of…
Definitely not precious, terrible to be precious. More sort of delusional. I’m not as good at this job as some other people are and so I need to work really, really hard. If I’m interested in getting better, I have to work really hard. I have to try and figure out what people are doing, how they are doing it, and which parts of these things are things I care about and which parts are things that I don’t really care about. And part of that has to do with looking back and thinking I was too lazy there or I was kind of numb there and I try and make it better. I mean, that’s just to do with the private journey you’re on, I guess. It doesn’t mean the journey is particularly important or necessary. It’s just the one that you happen to be on.
Can you define the value of casting someone like Nick Offerman where the audience has that familiarity and he’s someone who’s adored? Similarly with Sonoya Mizuno, who’s lesser-known. What are the benefits to their resumes and audience expectations for what their characters are?
It’s pretty similar with both of them and it may actually be similar with all of them, in a way. But it’s particularly true with those two. Whatever Nick’s done before, whatever Sonoya has done before, they’ve got a kind of soulful quality about them that you feel underneath whatever’s going on. Something like a kind of sadness or thoughtfulness or uncertainty or self-doubt — it’s that kind of thing. And a lot of actors don’t project that at all. If anything, they project these incredibly confident people who are so comfortable in their own skin and are incredibly charismatic and they use their smile, that charming smile, almost like a kind of a card trick that they can pull out whenever they need to. Nick and Sonoya are just not like that. There’s something going on behind their eyes, which I see as kind of soulful and kind of sad.
The show does a really great job of slow playing what’s going on, but I’m curious about the process here versus what it’s like when you’re working on a film. The challenges of plotting out when to reveal something and when to pull back.
My experience is that it was just a hell of a lot of freedom. It’s partly freedom because of the amount of time you have. And so, you know, there are things you actually get in a movie out of necessity — expositional scenes and information dumps. We slightly cringe when they happen and feel they’re a bit clunky, but we also know they kind of need to get it out of the way because then you can get on with the story. So it’s sort of like they feel sometimes like a bit of a necessary evil and some people handle them better than others. But basically, they’re there. And television really frees you from that. You can get there really slowly. You can just drip feed it and sort of introduce an idea.
In episode four, ideas having to do with the multiverse begin to creep in and then get expanded upon. But I don’t need to bring in the multiverse in minute 25. I can wait until I’m four hours in or three and a half hours in [to the overall story]. So there’s a little freedom in that. But there’s also a lot of creative freedom because unless you are very successful filmmaker of a sort that I’ve never been, you have to really fight for creative freedom. So I’ve had creative freedom, but it’s often been the result of a war of attrition where I’ll just be saying, “No, I’m not going to change it. No, I’m not going to change it. No, I’m not going to change it.” And you keep saying that for two years and then you’re out. Television doesn’t have this sort of impending stress with the opening box office weekend that then dictates everything about the life of the film. The whole mechanism is different. So FX never placed a single creative constraint on me. There wasn’t a single one. It was so different for me that it was almost disorientating. I had to figure out what to do with the freedom, in a way.
You mentioned Ex Machina. There’s a tech genius/tech God at the center of that and this, though they’re obviously different. What’s your fascination with this kind of character?
As the story of Devs goes on, you’ll see that it is increasingly a critique of the idea of a tech genius. There’s actually a line that one of the characters says about Forest in a later episode which, in some ways, gets to the heart of part of the argument. Someone describes him as a tech genius and then someone else says, “He’s not a tech genius, he’s an entrepreneur.” I think we have a way of giving these tech leaders a kind of messianic quality. In fact, it’s not just us giving it to them, but they often seem to take it for themselves as well. And I often get a sense of discomfort and worry about the idea that there’s a lot of Kool-Aid getting drunk. And so I guess the position I’m coming from is something like skepticism.
With Ex Machina, the Oscar Isaac dance that broke out as a GIF and a meme — as the creator of something, to see that little moment take flight, what does that feel like? Because it’s obviously not connected to what the story was, it’s just this thing that people really took to and really had affection for.
Oh, I don’t know really because I suspect that the thing you’re talking about, like a GIF, is something that really exists in the context of social media. And I don’t have an Instagram account or a Twitter profile or anything.
You are aware, though, that that moment broke out and that people really took to that specific scene.
Well, I am, but only because people have told me. But that is different from experiencing yourself. It’s just a bit detached. I mean, I guess it’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing. My real feeling about that scene was mainly just that it was funny. I just thought this film was so fucking serious and it’s good to do something irreverent and just fuck with it a bit. And then I think it’s sort of inherently a bit daft and I guess that’s what people reacted to. It’s just like a bit of Monty Python almost, isn’t it? It just sort of disrupts everything.
The two-episode debut of ‘Devs’ is streaming on Hulu on with new episodes rolling out weekly going forward.