Alex Garland: "Devs is like a broadening of Ex-Machina"

by Gabriel Lerman March 20, 2020
Fillmmaker Alex Garland

amy sussman/getty images

Ever since he wrote his novel, "The Beach", which was the basis for the film directed by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Alex Garland has been giving the world amazing stories. He was also the screenwriter behind two more Boyle directed films, 28 Days Later and Sunshine, plus Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go and Pete Travis' Dredd. He became a writer-director with the sleeper hit Ex Machina, which gave Alicia Vikander one of her two Golden Globes nominations in 2016, and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. He also wrote and directed Annihilation in 2018. Now he is back with a TV show, Devs, currently playing on both FX on Hulu, in which a computer engineer (Sonoya Mizuno) investigates the mysterious death of her boyfriend at the high-tech company where they both work. In the midst of the coronavirus chaos, Alex made some time to chat with us about his show and the need we still may have for science-fiction.

Do you feel we are living in a science-fiction movie right now?

Oh God, it kind of feels like it doesn’t it?  I rewatched the old Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion the other day and just like everybody else, half the people in the world, I did exactly the same thing.  And I was kind of amazed how prescient it was in so many respects, the script I think was Scott Burns and it’s a beautifully made film.  And I don’t know if that is exactly science-fiction, I guess it is, but it felt very kind of on point in lots of ways.

And even if we haven’t seen the zombies out yet, do you feel some familiarity because of the research you had to do for 28 Days Later?  Did you learn anything that could help you now?  (laughter)

That was just a dumb zombie movie. 

You said in an interview that Devs is a perfect companion piece for Ex-Machina. Why did you want to go back to that world?

Because they have a very specific subject.  And there was an important part in the argument that from my point of view I felt I hadn’t told. So I wanted to expand on it in a very particular kind of way. And I wouldn’t say it's not exactly a continuation, Devs is like a broadening of Ex-Machina.

So if you keep going in that forest, you may find this other building where this AI is being developed?

Yeah, something like that.  You would have to go to Alaska to find the other half. They kind of take place more in a very similar world.  And so they both come on a similar premise, which is if you take a particular idea that relates to contemporary science and then you make an assumption, which is okay, what if that actually happened because they are a particular kind of science-fiction because they are speculative about something that could be real rather than something that could not be real. And sometimes people use the thing that can’t be real as a really good way of holding up a mirror to contemporary issues or society or whatever it happens to be.  But this is doing something slightly different, it’s saying this could be an outcome from a specific, scientific development. 

What were the specific things that you were curious enough about to spend eight episodes with them?

I was interested in things to do with tech and the way we perceive them.  And some of that is about the way they take power and some of that has to do with the way we give them power.  And then I was also interested in trying to present a version of physics, specifically quantum mechanics, that gives an account of what our world is like but the account that it gives is very, very strange. 

A scene from the series "Devs", 2020

Nick Offerman in a scene from Devs.

fx/hulu

 

How difficult is it to translate something so complicated as quantum mechanics to the regular viewer?  Did you have any trouble with it?

Not really.  But I made an assumption which is that the viewers that would like the show would be people who already had an interest or were ready to have an interest, they were willing to take on the idea.  I think that I had to make an assumption like that, otherwise, I would never really tell a story that was seriously grounded in physics and quantum mechanics.  But I also think that there’s actually quite a lot of those people out there, those people who enjoy and appreciate the strange worlds that I conjure up.

Can you talk about creating the physical world of Devs, the office and specifically that giant girl?  Was that real or are you just editing in post?

Yeah, it’s post, it’s a visual effect.  So we took the little girl, who did a 3D stand and we actually took a sequence of photographs of her in this little room with 300 cameras all around her. And of the gestures she made, just by chance was that strange gesture with her hand cupping something unseen.  And this expression of kind of slightly serious, thoughtful, on this very beautiful face she’s got. And so just by chance, it gave us the shape to the statue.  And then in terms of the overall design, most of it is sourced in some ways by something directly relating to Science or process.  For example, the object at the core of the machine, the actual quantum computer, that for some people I think looks like a chandelier or maybe looks like a kind of slighted, imaginative fantasy actually is based very, very closely on what an actual quantum computer looks like.  So I mean we kind of elaborated on it a bit, but in terms of where we took our visual cues, it was just from actual, real machines.  Then what we tried to do was, in general, make the laboratory feel as magical and lyrical and mysterious as possible because we wanted the sort of scientific heart also to be the most sort of poetic heart I suppose to the story.  And in the tempest, the little girl was like a kind of colossal representation of her father’s obsessions. And we wanted it to have the feeling of a cult.  So the statue was placed among the amphitheater as if to suggest that the employees are all sitting in a semi-circle and gazing on this vast figure.

The character played by Nick Offerman is putting so much effort and money and obsession into just to see his daughter again...

 I am very glad because the whole point is that in and around the big strange scientific ideas and the view of the world that they suggest and the philosophies that they suggest, actually, we are just a group of individuals that primarily what we do is we care about other individuals.  We care about our children, we care about our code, we care about our partners, we even care about our ex-partners.  And so in a way the sweetness there is ultimately the point.

Ex-Machina was a sleeper hit, but you had a lot of problems with distribution at the time.  Do you feel like you got sweet revenge in that sense?

Oh no, I’ve always understood why the people making the decisions and making the decisions they are making.  So I don’t actually resent them for it. I think I didn’t arrive on this earth with the right to make a 60 million dollar movie and if somebody gives me 10 or 15 million dollars to make a film, and then I deliver it and they say I am now going to lose another 20 million dollars on this movie, I understand why they feel anxious. And although retrospectively, A24 decided to take the gamble and they picked the film up and they were rewarded with the gamble. At the time that was still a gamble, it was by no means certain it was going to happen.  So I have actually got sympathy for those people in a way.  They’ve got their sets of concerns and quite often they are worried about losing their jobs, if they make a bet on a movie and the movie doesn’t work, they might get sacked.  And maybe this is too industry-related, but one of the things over the years I have been working on films I have really noted is that it’s very, very often the case that the people you are working with at the beginning of the film are not the same people you are working with at the end of the film.  So I kind of understand why they would be nervous. 

I asked you around the time of Ex-Machina how far we were to see an Ava in real life and you told me that it would happen very far in the future.  What about the research we see in Devs?

Even over the time, I was making Devs, (…) the truth is, there was an achieved quantum supremacy, which means they were doing things in a way that a classical computer could not do and better than, basically what it thinks the other computer couldn’t do.  And I think in terms of some of the most extreme areas of where Dev goes, exactly like Ava in Ex-Machina, they are a long way off. But they are not so far off that it means that we shouldn’t start thinking about the implications.  And so it’s in a kind of twilight space between something we need to think about, but still isn’t going to happen imminently.

Something we saw you advanced in Ex-Machina was the diversity.  And in this show, we see a lot of diversity...

Actually I had a specific origin, which was, I am politically a liberal and so I try to be self-aware about these kinds of issues.  Then it was pointed out to me, in fact, it was pointed out to me by Sonoya Mizuno while we were making Ex-Machina, that if I was asked, in fact, I was asked by her, to list all of the well-known Asian actors, what was the list of names I would come up with?  And what I discovered was that the list was extremely short.  And I think I just felt surprised at myself that I had never noticed something as obvious as that even though I am someone who tried to be aware of it, I just completely failed to do so.  And so once that was pointed out, it was then impossible to ignore.  So I just think I would attempt to address that thing that Sonoya had pointed out.

Do you think that when this crisis is over, we will stop making science-fiction for a while, that we will just want to see love stories?  Or do you think we will always need science-fiction as a society?

I think that when you break up society into what is not one group but many, there will still be people who require it. I think what happens essentially is that it not so much dictated it by what the viewing public is asking for, it’s dictated by what the compulsions of the writers are, and even sometimes the compulsions of the executives, because the executives choose what they are going to finance or not finance.  And in the end, it just reduces to the obsessive/compulsions for quite a small group of people. And I think there are very few writers who are able to successfully think I know what everybody wants and I am going to give it to them.  People might try, but they don’t usually succeed.