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Alex Garland on Devs and the Zen State of Video Games

on March 05, 2020, 12:00am

“What is Devs?” rogue computer engineer Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) asks two-thirds of the way through Alex Garland’s new streaming series of the same name. At this point in FX on Hulu’s new limited series, she’s been pushed to her limits. Her boyfriend (Karl Glusman) has disappeared one day after joining the development team of the fancy Silicon Valley megacorp they both work for, Amaya. She’s been gaslit, chased, and kidnapped, all in the name of Amaya’s super-secret new project, a technology so enigmatic and overwhelming that it might just change the nature of our universe.

If you know Garland’s work at all, you’ll find many familiar rhythms in Devs. Inside its honeyed, intricately designed labs you’ll find thematically rich observations on the nature of science, technology and the nature of the universe, wrapped up in a hypnotic, aesthetically distancing aesthetic package. More than a techno-thriller about a mysterious, all-powerful Silicon Valley conglomerate run amok, Devs also finds time to pull at the metaphysical threads connecting past and present, probing the nature of free will itself. It’s heady, stylish stuff, touching at transcendence while offering few answers — the kind of ride fans of Garland’s last two films, 2015’s Ex Machina and 2018’s Annihilation, will easily gravitate toward.

Leading up to the March 5th release of Devs on FX’s new Hulu-exclusive streaming service, Garland sat down with us for the latest installment of our Conversations with Consequence series. He’s a soft-spoken guy, couching big, heady ideas in a forthright, thoughtful demeanor and approachable London accent. Together, we spoke about the professional, aesthetic, and philosophical concerns at the heart of his works, and got a little personal about the nature of the universe along the way.

On moving from movies to the larger canvas of television

devs alex garland fx series ex machina

Ex Machina (A24)

It was intense. Actually, the timeframe for making Devs was basically the same as making a film, around two years from writing the first page to handing the locked show over. The process of making it was super fast; you have to shoot, cut and edit really quickly. But mainly, it just felt liberating to have that much time and scope.

Maybe this is too practical and boring, I don’t know, but there are some weird things about TV in terms of the way it works, where the budget on an hour-by-hour basis of Devs is about the same as Ex Machina — just under $15 million, which is about seven and a half million dollars an hour. That’s basically what we had for Devs. Ex Machina has four cast members and one location, a soundstage in Norway, and we spent every penny.

Somehow it scaled up [for Devs]. It was a freedom from a certain kind of indie filmmaking, to what felt like the resources of a big movie. You could do helicopter shots of San Francisco and build enormous sets on soundstages. On every level, from the practical filmmaking to the creative writing, it just felt liberating.

On Devs’ eerie Silicon Valley campus

Devs TV Review

Devs (FX)

Often, these things have some kind of real-life counterpart. So if you’re an engineer who works in quantum computing, you’d recognize very quickly that the structure of the quantum computer in the Devs lab is based on actual quantum computers. Then we sort of run with it a bit.

For example, the Devs lab itself came from a friend of mine who works in a particular area of tech, where secrecy is incredibly important. He told me about trying to construct the most secret space and what you would do, Faraday cages and stuff like that. But one of the things he talked about was that, if you could surround your lab in a vacuum, that would allow for a certain level of secrecy, because you would know anything that was passing through it. You take that idea, you go on an imaginative process about how to visualize it.

Key to the Devs part of that is the hyperreal nature of it. I wanted the technology to exist in the most magical-looking space. So that’s where we got more and more dreamy and sort of lyrical, I guess.

On the cultish nature of Silicon Valley tech companies

Devs TV Review

Devs (FX)

[Our context] was the same context you’ve got, and we’ve all got, because we’re all interacting with it one way or another. Even if you’re not working in the rarified world of Silicon Valley tech companies, you know exactly what they are. The people there aspire to the idea of having a startup company that takes off, or wish they could. So all of this stuff is imbued in our day-to-day life at the moment.

There’s something else going on as well, which the show is at least accommodating as an idea: I sometimes think Silicon Valley, in its way, is more capitalist than Wall Street. But because most people are wearing hoodies and sneakers, it doesn’t feel that way. You know? Wall Street people almost display capitalism with sharp suits and BMWs, but Silicon Valley’s got a more hipster vibe, but there is still a completely naked pursuit of money and power.

On writing about liberating apocalypses

Devs TV Review

Devs (FX)

I think what it is, is that there’s often beauty in these things, there’s something seductive in them. Nuclear power is seductive, you know? Nuclear bombs are seductive. We love telling stories about our own destruction. We do it again and again and again, on all sorts of different levels — cosmic, domestic, all points in between. The only thing is that, for me, Devs is not so much about anything destructive, but reductive. It’s about how, despite all of these power states, really it’s just individuals with their own preoccupations with love, whether it’s romantic love or a father for a child, or colleagues. Really, when you break [the characters of] Devs down, what you really see is lots of couples.

On pre-determination or free will

alex garland domhnall gleeson and alicia vikander in ex machina 2015 large picture Alex Garland on Devs and the Zen State of Video Games

Ex Machina (A24)

I sort of oscillate between [those two viewpoints]. The existential stuff makes me feel existential, but sometimes I find it weirdly life-affirming. One of the things I like doing is reading about the physics of the larger universe before going to sleep, so I read about quasars or pulsars.

For whatever reason, it makes me feel calm; I get some sense of the scale of space, and our place in it, which is obviously really small. And rather than making me feel bleak, it makes me feel relaxed.

I don’t think I’ve got a choice, really. It’s just the way things are. Leaning one way or another ends up not changing anything.

On heady sci-fi concepts even he doesn’t fully understand

Annihilation (Paramount Pictures)

Annihilation (Paramount Pictures)

We’re not quantum physicists, of course, so it’s hard to have a strong grasp on it. A lot of these things end up being personality-based. I like finding things that I didn’t expect would be true. Counter-intuitive truths are my favorite kinds; I get a sense of delight from them. So having a sense that I do have free will, and then discovering a strong argument that I don’t have free will, actually engages me where I think it would repel some people. In the end, it’s the counter-intuitive nature of quantum mechanics that’s my favorite thing about it.

On whether Devs’ weekly release affects how he filmed the story

Devs TV Review

Devs (FX)

I don’t know, really. I grew up in a time where there was no streaming, and you had no choice: things were typically delivered on a weekly basis. That’s just what I was used to. I’m not really sure which is the right way to look at it. I don’t think there is a right way. What I do know, though, is that there are some things that you would probably get if you’re watching them back to back that you won’t get on a weekly basis. A lot of that has to do with imagery and music, with the way episodes start and end. The music used at the end of Episode Six, for instance, which is Crosby, Stills, and Nash, slams right up against episode 7, with a cross-cut between some Inuit singers and Steve Reich’s “Come Out”, which is, you know, very avant-garde. So I guess that wouldn’t happen if you watched on a week by week basis.

But what I was thinking when I made it is that eventually, whatever the first broadcast version is, it will end up on streaming services as a whole. So in the end, I think I was probably aiming myself at that finished state, right? Other than whatever the starting state might be.

On what video games spark Garland’s creativity

I like the Dark Souls games. They’ve been going for a long time, and, for whatever reason, they just occupy a particular space in my head. They’re, in some ways, very old-fashioned games, because they’re difficult. And games have gotten easier and easier and easier. I mean, I actually started playing video games way back with Pong and stuff.

But when video games morphed into being slightly more sophisticated, there were games like Maniac Miner and Jet Set Willy, which would be distant history for most people. But they required the most obsessive kind of playing to progress with them — they were down to the pixel of being able to execute a jump properly. They were really, really difficult. You got into kind of zen state, while you were playing them.

The Dark Souls games allow me to access that same sort of zen state. But they’ve also got a very pervading atmosphere, which to me is like a dream. So it’s partly that contact with an old kind of video game playing. There’s also something profoundly imaginative and strange and unexpected every time I get to a new area in one of those games. I’m always surprised by where I’ve ended up, where the game has taken me.