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Devs creator Alex Garland challenges you to feel his quantum weirdness

The Ex Machina filmmaker reflects on how finding the perfect TV show feels like finding the perfect book sometimes.

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Devs creator Alex Garland

FX

Some TV shows let you switch off your mind. Hulu's mindbending new drama Devs is not one of them. In fact, creator Alex Garland challenges you to dive in and wrap your brain around the weirdness.

Dressed all in black, the soft-spoken Garland cuts a serious, even somber presence as he joins me in CNET's San Francisco office. In his TV debut, the director of Ex Machina and Annihilation tackles the dark side of Silicon Valley in the style of a 1970s conspiracy thriller updated with ultramodern sci-fi-esque themes like quantum mechanics. If you loved puzzling out the existential twists in Westworld, Devs could be for you.

Devs is not the kind of TV show you can watch with your brain unplugged...
Garland: There's a lot of TV out there -- and there's nothing wrong with it -- which is purely there to entertain. This is a different kind of thing. I'm certainly not the only person doing it. But it fits into a different category. I think it would be hard to make sense of Devs unless you followed it quite closely. That's probably least of all to do with the plot. It's more to do with some of the concepts it's offering up.

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Alex Garland in CNET's San Francisco office.

CNET

Why quantum mechanics?
We live in a quantum mechanical world. We're not detached from the underlying reality of our existence. We are part of it. If you're going to talk about things that are fundamental, then it makes sense to talk about them in a quantum mechanical way.

Why now?
There are kind of strides being made in the area. I'm particularly talking about quantum computers that rely on quantum mechanics in order to work. This new area of technology opened up a story possibility and a sort of philosophical possibility.

How different is writing and directing TV from working in film?
TV allows a lot of breadth. And a lot of time. That's not necessarily just time to tell a longer story. It also changes the tone of it, or it allows for a different kind of tone. It allows it to be slower and more thoughtful.

You directed and wrote all eight episodes of Devs. That's not generally the norm on TV. Did you think about having a team of writers or other directors?
I certainly would have had to have written all of them. Where directing was concerned, there were people who worked within television who were saying: "It's not a good idea to direct all of them." Partly because the role of the writer is often as a kind of executive producer. So while later episodes are being shot, earlier episodes are being edited and the executive producer needs to be part of that process. And in the end, it turned out to be much less difficult than anyone was saying, because my job as a director is incredibly supported by a large group of people.

I assume you had some consultants to help you with the quantum mechanics part of the show?
Yeah, sure. The first person was Andrew Whitehurst [visual effects artist who won an Oscar for his work on Ex Machina]. Andrew and I talk about science and particularly physics quite a lot. He's a good person for me to test stuff out on an early stage. And later, it's to do with trying to find people who work in the relevant fields who are willing to read a long script. I was given a lot of assistance by people at Google. There were people who work in Google's quantum computer labs who were very helpful and generous with their time.

Does Amaya compare at all with the Facebooks, Googles or Amazons of the world?
Sort of, but Amaya isn't really like any of them. Because Amaya focuses on one thing, which is the construction of quantum computers. Google has a quantum computer division, but God knows how many other things they're involved with. So there wasn't really a real-life counterpart. 

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Nick Offerman in Devs.

FX

Nick Offerman plays Amaya's CEO. He's called Forest, wears flannel shirts and he made me think of what's becoming a cliché of your typical Bay Area CEO.
It's slightly more complicated. I would argue he's not like the cliché because the cliché is of a brilliant tech genius that leads their company and Forest is not a tech genius. He's driven by completely different things. I can see why people would think that but it's a kind of misdirect. There's a few misdirects in the series.

How did you research Silicon Valley culture? The show feels very authentic...
By spending some time here. And by sort of trying to steep myself in it and think about it. The truth is I do quite a lot of traveling, and I can be in very remote areas of the world and see people using smartphones. The reach of Silicon Valley is very, very far. I can have a sense of Silicon Valley and the world contained here whilst living in London.

What kind of viewer did you have in mind for Devs?
Viewers who are thoughtful and want to become engaged in the story. There's some watching experiences where you sit back and the story is something that is done to you and you are passive. That's a perfectly good way to watch and it's also a perfectly good thing to make. But there's another version where, if the viewer does not engage their own imagination and their own thought processes and step forward into the story, then the story won't really function. That's true of this TV show. If you watch it in a passive way, it will feel sort of empty -- and probably kind of pretentious and unnecessarily weird.

What TV do you watch?
What I'm watching a lot at the moment, partly because my son loves it, is It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. That's not asking you to step forward, it's asking you to laugh and just enjoy it. Before that, a really fantastic show called Chernobyl. Very different thing, but equally terrific.

All the streaming services are making it possible for shows like yours and so many others to be out there. But as a viewer, it's a bit overwhelming sometimes...
Yeah, overwhelmed to the point where you don't bother trying to get a sense of everything out there. That would be a full-time job. I think probably it's a little bit closer these days, to walking into a bookstore. There are thousands of different titles on the shelves and most of them only give themselves to you by the profile and some letters on the spine. So you browse, you search, a friend of yours says you really need to check this out. And you filter your way through everything.

How much does Facebook or Google know about Alex Garland? Are you private with technology?
Well, I don't think any of us are able to be private. That's not a choice we get to make. I would imagine Facebook knows less about me than Google, partly because I'm not on Facebook.

But then, as I was saying that, I was thinking that's probably really naive [chuckles]. One of the characters says it in the show: Nobody has a private life anymore. And I think there's a degree to which that's true. I'm not actually sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing...

Devs is available to watch via FX on Hulu now. New episodes stream every Thursday.

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