Alex Garland talks quantum physics, mortality, and Devs
Warning: This article contains spoilers for all of Devs.
When Entertainment Weekly first spoke to the cast and creator of FX's Devs at New York Comic Con last year, they teased that it was a show about "everything." Six months and eight episodes of gripping sci-fi television later, we can see they weren't wrong. What started as a San Francisco tech thriller featuring Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) investigating why her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman) died so soon after starting a job at the titular tech division run by the enigmatic Forest (Nick Offerman) eventually became a full-blown meditation on quantum physics, mortality, and the nature of the universe.
Behind it all was Alex Garland, who wrote and directed every episode of Devs. EW caught up with Garland, who previously made his name writing screenplays for iconic genre hits like 28 Days Later and eventually directing his own films like Annihilation and Ex Machina, to pick his brain about the show's many twists and themes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Devs is your first TV show after working in movies, but it was entirely written and directed by you. Did you envision it as an eight-hour movie?
ALEX GARLAND: No, definitely not. Actually years ago I made a transition from writing novels, which is where I started, to writing film screenplays. I had a lot to learn in the shift of medium. In some ways they’ve got a lot in common, but they’ve also got some fundamental things you have to learn as you move. I was fully expecting that to be the case in shifting to TV. I definitely didn’t see it as a movie. I went into it thinking, "what do I know I have to learn? What should I be concentrating on?" In the end I think it was having worked writing novels that weirdly became more useful to me than working on films. There’s something about the width and breadth of a novel that has something in common with television. A chapter of a novel has something in common with an episode of a TV show, because it’s telling a discreet narrative as part of an overarching narrative. When you finish a chapter, consciously or not you provide a reason for why you might keep reading, so I guess that’s similar to TV as well.
Did the story of Devs come out of Silicon Valley and you wanting to tell a story set there, or did it start with these ideas about determinism and quantum physics and you thought Silicon Valley would be the best outlet for it?
It was definitely both. To an extent we’re all living in Silicon Valley, because we all live within reach of Silicon Valley. A couple years ago I went to a part of the world with remote areas within it. I had been there before in my early 20s, and one of the things I was really surprised to see is that rural communities looked exactly the same, nothing had changed and everything was functioning the same way, but there was one massive difference: I kept seeing smartphones. They were Chinese-made smartphones, but still smartphones. So where isn’t the reach? I was interested in that. But then I was also interested separately in stuff to do with the science and philosophy of determinism and quantum mechanics, partly because quantum mechanics, as far as we know, is the most fundamental way we have of describing the world we live in.
A few weeks ago I talked to Nick Offerman about his role on the show, and he said that towards the beginning of production you sat everybody down and delivered a college lecture-quality discussion of quantum mechanics. Is that an accurate description?
That’s a very flattering description that college professors would probably take issue with. I just basically talked through some basics of quantum mechanics, specifically relating to the measurement problem and stuff to do with superpositions of particles. The basic line is, quantum physics deals with the LEGO blocks that make us all up. There are some things about quantum mechanics that are very strange and very counter-intuitive. It’s far from fully unraveled. What the show does is present two different interpretations of quantum mechanics. What I was doing was talking through those two interpretations. The easiest Wikipedia-type explanation to aim for is an experiment called the double-slit experiment. So I started by talking through the double-slit experiment, and then talking through some of the interpretations. But college level? I doubt it.
Nick is obviously one of the big presences on the show, but another is Sonoya Mizuno, who you’ve worked with before on other projects. What made Devs the right fit for her to take the spotlight?
It was a bunch of things, actually. The main thing is that, partly because I’ve worked with her a couple times, there was a particular aspect to the performance that I knew she was right for. It’s not easy to reduce to words, but I think the best way I can reduce it is to say she has a strange energy about her, an unfamiliar energy. It’s a mixture of quite jarring and quite odd. She always feels slightly out-of-reach in the performance, and that’s exactly what I wanted that particular character to have: An energy that wasn’t really like anybody else that was surrounding her in the cast. It’s quite weird, quite elusive. It makes for a very unfamiliar form of protagonist.
I was so fascinated by the way that in the later episodes, the debate about whether the universe is deterministic or made of many possibilities is centered around the question of Lily’s prophesied death at a very specific time. When we’re debating predestination and determinism, is it always really a conversation about mortality?
Mortality is this weird thing. It’s a near-constant preoccupation that nobody feels aware of being preoccupied by. We’re preoccupied by it at moments, like when somebody gets killed; we’re preoccupied by it at this moment, when something like corona is ripping its way around the world. But normally fear of mortality gets sublimated and channeled into things like gym memberships, church, over-concern about the importance of a working life, or the continuity we get out of our children. It all gets cordoned off into these strange areas. But underneath it is this absolutely base truth: It’s the one bit of determinism that we all feel really confident is gonna happen. It’s also the thing that we spend our imaginative lives trying to find ways to avoid happening.
Devs is interested in mortality as an abstract question, but we also get up close and personal with some violent killings, from the first episode to the last. Why did you decide to depict them that way?
In the context of the moral universe that the show then creates, the brutal killings are weirdly in a grey moral area -- either because they are determined anyway and so there’s nothing one could do to avoid them, or because the killings are in some respects temporary. So when Katie (Alison Pill) and Forest react very blankly to someone’s death, it’s partly because they know the project they’re involved in will render that death meaningless. I remember one of the first things I said to Alison was that the key thing to understand about Katie is she lives in a very weird moral universe, and it’s not like anybody else in the world.
Where the brutal nature of the killing is concerned, that’s a slightly different thing for me. It changes from project to project how one chooses to approach this kind of thing, but for Devs I wanted to make sure the killing was brutal, not seductive or carrying that slightly pornographic vibe that violence can have. If someone’s getting suffocated, it’s not something that’s over seven seconds later, which is weirdly the way filmed stories tend to present that kind of thing. I wanted to make people sit with it. Like for the fight between Anton (Brian d'Arcy James) and Kenton (Zach Grenier), I remember early on being presented with something a bit more like a Bourne Identity type fight, and I said no they’ve got to be two middle-aged guys scrapping for their life. These aren’t healthy killing machines living in a hyper-real state of violence, they’re a couple of middle-aged blokes and neither of them want to die.
Your use of music in your films is so beautiful, like how Annihilation starts with that one simple song and then breaks it down and rearranges it in parallel to the effects of the Shimmer. Devs also plays with music a lot, from the cathedral sounds of the golden pyramid to the Steve Reich song that scores a montage of ancient peoples. How did you approach using music in this show?
It really varies on a case-by-case basis according to what’s happening in the narrative. The Steve Reich song for example, that was cross-cut with these beautiful Inuit singers. It was about the interesting juxtaposition or different ways we have of communicating the same form, which is music, and the incredible range of what that constitutes. It was connected to seeing an incredible range of history. It was about making the scope of the music fit the scope of the imagery. But that would vary. In a way, the John Martin track that’s playing when Kenton is arriving and Jamie (Jin Ha) gets killed, it’s because the track has an earnest sweetness; there’s nothing ironic about it. At one point Jamie gets off to bring Lily a glass of water and he does this sweet thing where he cuts a lemon and puts it on the glass like he’s bringing it in a restaurant. It’s the kind of thing that boyfriends who love their girlfriends do, so there the music is about Jamie’s sweetness. He’s a sweet boy who’s in a non-transactional relationship with Lily, so it was meant to sit alongside that.
The last scene of the show is Lily and Jamie hugging. To what extent is Devs the story about Lily and Jamie reconnecting and their journeys towards each other?
It’s the fundamental ending of the show. What the show does is it lays out some of the big strange landscape that we live in. Maybe we live in a deterministic universe or maybe we don’t; quantum physics might suggest we live in one space where the LEGO bricks have superpositions, or it might suggest we live in a massive number of parallel worlds that slightly vary from each other. There are these huge thoughts that have been created by brilliant scientists and philosophers, but in and around that, really what’s happening is people who feel things for one another: Lily for Jamie, Jamie for Lily, Forrest for his daughter, Katie for Forrest, Stewart for Lyndon, Lyndon for Stewart. That’s all that’s really happening at the end of it. One of my favorite connections is the way Katie feels about Forrest in the end. But yeah it’s all of the big things rolled into something quite simple.
I love that scene of Forest talking to Lily where it’s flipping between multiple parallel worlds where they’re having the same conversation. Is the idea of many worlds both inspiring and depressing? You might live in the good world where Forest gets to reconnect with his daughter, or one of the bad ones.
I think that’s essentially it. The thing about the many worlds interpretation is that it gives you an endless amount of darkness and an almost endless amount of light. Your lived experience within it is both very very small, and also very profound. It’s full of these unbelievable extremes, and in some ways it’s very sad but in other ways it’s a comfort, and in that way it’s a lot like the existence we’ve got, whether we believe in many worlds or not.
That scene in the finale where Forest comes face-to-face with proof that his interpretation of the world around him is wrong, all this time he’d been forcefully denying reality but now he can’t, has an extra resonance in the age of coronavirus. I wonder if this pandemic will force people to confront reality and acknowledge if their worldviews are wrong?
I hope so. At the end of the day, the thing that really attracts me to science is it’s got this fantastic humility. Scientists will accept being wrong about something. If there’s proof they’re wrong, they’ll accept it and move on. The rest of us don’t do that. One of the things I hope, if something’s gonna come out of this terrible dark wave sweeping across all of us in the form of coronavirus, is it might force us to think about things like climate change differently. We’ve been able to ignore issues that deal with climate change, partly because we choose to, and partly because we don’t feel the world substantially changing around us, so it doesn’t make us feel fragile. What coronavirus does is show us that we are fragile. You could easily use coronavirus as a lesson about our environment. If there is any positive that could come from it, that would be a good lesson.
One of the show's most interesting casting choices is Lyndon, a male character played by female actor Cailee Spaeny. How did you decide to cast Lyndon that way? What did you like about the cast as a whole?
The starting point towards finding Cailee was that I couldn’t find young men who looked young enough in the right way. It’s something to do with the physiology of boys past a certain age: The way the shape of their faces changes, the way their shoulders change. There’s a whole structural difference that happens. Sometimes it was as simple as I didn’t want Lyndon looking like he had to shave every day. Then I thought, "actually in a way, with the vision I’ve got in my mind, you’d be better off getting a girl to play this boy." I discussed it with the casting director Carmen Cuba, and she suggested meeting Cailee. Cailee walked in through the door, and almost as she was sitting down, I thought "yeah, this is it." Then she read, and I had to stop myself from saying "look you got it, we’re done here." But I did say it as soon as she left. She’s the only person who lasted that long.
What they are in a way is my dream cast, because they’re all actors but they didn’t seem to me to have any real hierarchy between them. There was a lovely, friendly energy between all of them. There’s something slightly off about all of them, something unexpected, in one way or another. Even before we shot a frame, I was thinking, "wow, this is an amazing group."