For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this interview with Devs writer/director Alex Garland from the latest issue of Backstory.
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SPOILER WARNING: The following features an in-depth discussion of the plot points of Devsso tread lightly if you haven’t seen.
By Danny Munso
Alex Garland is unrivaled in the current world of sci-fi storytelling. No writer-director has pushed the medium forward in as new and interesting ways over the past decade-plus, beginning with his scripts for Sunshine and Never Let Me Go and continuing with his crafting of 2014’s brilliant Ex Machina and 2018’s mixed bag Annihilation. So when word got around that Garland was making the move to TV for a new and original sci-fi miniseries, fans of the genre took notice. The resulting show, Devs, does not disappoint.
Garland stories are always full of giant ideas — usually based on actual scientific research — and his walk-up to Devs was no different. “It was just the question of free will and whether we actually have free will or not,” Garland says of his initial musings. “What interested me is there’s a scientific way of looking at it and a religious way of looking at it. In Christianity, all of our rewards and punishment are based on the idea of free will. Our actions on Earth define whether we spend eternity in the good place or bad place. Science has another side to it, which is if you follow a very physicist way of looking at the universe, free will vanishes. So I had these two things spinning around my head, and both of them create paradoxes, particularly the religious one. If you’ve got free will, then God is not all-knowing because God doesn’t know what you’re going to do next. But if God is all-knowing, then you don’t have free will. It’s very hard to get around that as a problem. It’s the kind of thing people try not to address. They simply ignore it and move on. These things were batting around my head, and the story formed out of that.” Garland couldn’t imagine cramming all those thoughts into a two-hour film, but he found an eager partner in FX, which gave him a film-style budget and eight episodes to go far and wide. “If I did this as a movie, I’d have to focus on one thing, and if I did that everything would be diminished.”
While no summary truly does Devs justice, the show centers on Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), who is looking into the disappearance of her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman). They both work for tech giant Amaya, and its eccentric founder, Forest (Nick Offerman), and Sergei disappeared after being invited by Forest to join the mysterious Devs division. What Lily doesn’t know but we as the audience do is that Sergei was actually a Russian spy discovered by Forest and murdered after his first day there. Lily’s investigation becomes one of figuring out exactly what Devs is doing as it builds a machine created by Forest and his right-hand woman, Katie (Alison Pill), that can show projections of both the past and the future.
This is just the latest Garland work to tie together science and religion. His films are littered with religious overtones and undertones, and in Devs the first historical image we see from this boundary-breaking machine is indeed Jesus being crucified on the cross. What makes this leap all the more shocking is that Garland is an admitted atheist — and yet he innately feels the connection of science and religion, two things often seen as opposites. “I think basically what happens is we arrive on this planet and try and make the best sense of it that we can,” he explains. “It’s confusing. It’s difficult. We never really feel that we get a total understanding of it. Science and religion are both very earnest attempts to try and make sense of the confusing state we find ourselves in and to provide us with a sense of comfort. I personally am not religious, but these two things feel like very legitimate ways of trying to understand the world we live in.”
Garland’s writing process begins with him sketching out rough story beats on paper. For a movie, he might fill up a page and a half, but Devs filled up roughly four times that. That is the writer’s only pre-planning, as he prefers to jump right into the actual scripting to immerse himself completely. As he tells it, maybe too completely. “Usually, when I start writing I completely drop into a hole,” he says. “It’s common for me to get overdue bills or parking tickets that I had completely forgotten about because I’m so deep in the hole of writing. I tend to not come out the other side until it’s finished.” It took almost five months before Garland had a Devs draft of all eight episodes. “That’s when I can tell whether the thing is working or not. If I run into a brick wall, then I’ll stop because that often means something in the masts of the story deep down isn’t working.”
Devs follows a unique structure. The main propulsion of the first five episodes is Lily’s desire for the truth about Sergei. But by the first minutes of the sixth episode, she knows exactly what happened and why. The final three episodes are where the show really gets a chance to geek out, going deep on both the theory of free will and the theory that there are multiple worlds that exist all simultaneously. From a writing standpoint, it would have been easy for Garland to use Sergei’s disappearance and death as the through-line to all eight episodes, but he chose to follow his narrative instincts where his imagination took him. The final three episodes of Devs can be frustrating at times because of how much information is presented in them, yet they are also the most wonderous and thought-provoking. “It felt organic to structure it that way,” he says. “One of the things I learned halfway through my writing career is once you decide on the themes, you have to stay true to them, and if that leads the story in unexpected directions, that’s what it does. It’s good to know proper structure, but it’s also good to abandon it.” Garland explains how excited he was after watching the unique structure of Bong Joon-Ho’s Best Picture winner, Parasite. “It showed me how boring a lot of film writing is. There are a lot of structural things in Parasite that would never get through the studio process. I think we should break structure more. There’s something about the rhythms and expectations of narratives that I think are good to subvert if you have a chance to subvert them.”
If Devs has a weakness, it’s in the characters that populate Garland’s world. Because of their nature and work, they can often come off a tad cold. But that’s precisely the thing that makes them uniquely fascinating. That is especially true of Katie, Devs’ main designer and Forest’s girlfriend. Katie believes with every fiber of her being that free will does not exist. She has a deterministic view of the universe, and that colors every decision she makes in the series, including ones viewers may find puzzling. In the series’ final movements, she allows a coworker to fall to his death and watches the man she loves march to his own demise. She does these things despite knowing they happen and makes no attempt to stop them. Yet she doesn’t act out of cruelty. It is simply her belief that no matter what she does, these events will — and must — take place. It’s a fascinating head space for a writer penning that character. “Katie’s view of the world is not like anyone you’ve ever met,” Garland says. “What would it be like if you truly believed in a deterministic universe? A lot of her notions about morality are completely at odds with what we’ve grown up to expect. My way of thinking about it was her and Forest were priests. Forest is a priest with doubt and Katie is a priest with absolute certainty about what she believes in. It was an interesting character to writer, and Alison seemed to understand her deeply and just nailed her the whole time. To me, she’s not cold—she’s just different.”
Though Garland’s grand ideas and explorations of science are a main attraction to his most ardent fans, they can be off-putting to the casual viewer. The writer realizes this, yet he believes he cannot develop his stories in a way that panders to his audiences. “I really don’t like the idea of dumbing down,” he says. “There are types of stories that are mass market and mainstream and only interested in making you laugh or making you scared, and that’s absolutely fine. But there’s also space for stories that are thoughtful and reflective or paced differently, and all of them have a good right to exist. I just see myself as making things for people who are curious and interested.” That said, Garland acknowledges he doesn’t have the narrative real estate to fully explore the show’s ideas and theories. “I don’t want it to be a lecture. It’s still a story, so sometimes it’s about giving a fair account of something and then anyone who is interested can go onto Wikipedia or watch PBS and go on their own journey of following this stuff. If people are interested in any way, that’s good, but I do think there’s a value in letting people know that principles like determinism or the ‘many worlds theory’ [of quantum physics] are not just sci-fi thought experiments. They actually might be true. I would like it if people watch Devs and realize these aren’t just crazy and pretentious ideas—they are things that some very serious-minded scientists believe might actually be the case. I think it’s worth people opening up their minds to fascinating and strange aspects of life. If I’m encouraging people to think about those things, then I am pleased.”
Garland was in the middle of penning his next project — another TV series whose plot he is keeping under wraps — when COVID-19 hit and shut down the world. While that left him with ample writing time, it also presented another problem. “I was deep into this story, but it’s set in the here and now,” he says. “We don’t know what the world is going to look like on the other side of this. For example, are you going to be seeing 50 percent of people walking around in masks? Are people still going to shake hands? Are they going to go to bars? I’m just not sure on a granular level how the world is going to work, so I had to put aspects of writing that on pause. When this is all over, I’m going to have to retrofit it.” As with a lot of filmmakers — not to mention the rest of the world — Garland is in a holding pattern, left to ponder a future that not even the Devs machine could have seen.
Dig what you’ve read? We hope you’ll read the rest of this article to learn more about what writer-director Alex Garland had to say about making the first season of Devs.
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For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41, view our Table of Contents.