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Devs: Alex Garland reveals how the concept of free will inspired his twisty FX series
With the announcement that Alex Garland’s eight-episode limited series, Devs, will debut in early March 5 as an FX on Hulu exclusive, the director/writer brought his cast to the Television Critic’s Association winter press tour in Pasadena to reveal a little more about the origins of the series idea.
Set in the now, Devs explores a Silicon Valley tech company called Amaya, run by Nick Offerman’s enigmatic, Forest. Inside his company is a highly specialized group known as Devs, which is working on a quantum physics project protected from the outside world.
Long fascinated by the intersection of humanity and technology, Garland told reporters that he became interested in the idea of determinism years ago.
“I had a thought of, 'Can I think of anything spontaneous and not attached to a prior cause?' And I [decided] that I can’t think of anything at all not attached to prior cause, so maybe there is no free will?" he said. "That it’s not a fanciful suggestion, but that it really, really might be the case is quite arresting. And that was the moment where the story started to cohere.”
In our current climate of tech giants like Google, Facebook, and others having massive impact on humanity — and creating without any tethers — Garland’s series dives headfirst into the esoteric concepts of existence and free will that are, in actuality, on the cusp of being manipulated by technology.
After 15 years of personal research, Garland said he endeavored to tell a narrative that wasn’t reductive, but allowed audiences to ponder the huge concepts that most people don’t consider as they interact with their daily machines. He admitted that the scientific and philosophical ideas are "irrevocably complicated.”
“They can’t be reduced to sound bites,” he shared. “But I don’t want to reduce the truth of the thing. Doing that is a real disservice, by making real things false.”
Trying not to overwhelm audiences, Garland added that the show is about “not dropping too many hammer blows, so drip feeding [concepts].” He has an underlying faith that audiences will be interested in these ideas that can play out over eight hours, and give them a better span of time to gestate the bigger themes.
Part of Garland’s real world prep included visiting the Google Quantum Labs outside of Santa Barbara along with series lead, Sonoya Mizuno, who plays Lily Chan, a security employee at Amaya.
“They don’t open that space to anyone,” Mizuno explained about the non-public research facility. “We walked around their quantum computers, which is not that dissimilar to Devs. They have beautiful, intricate machines that look more like modern art than technology. It was fascinating to see people working with computers to get them up and running as they are in the show.”
“And we got to sit in on a meeting they have every week, where they all gather in a room and discuss progress and how close they are to achieving the quantum computing projects. It was interesting to observe the characters, the gender imbalance, the quirky people and, most of all, the language they were speaking was mind blowing. They were hyper-intelliegent. It was impossible to understand. One would tell a joke and I would be [lost],” she laughed. “But it grounded what we were doing in real truth that is not far away.”
Asked if he is personally worried about where humanity is in terms of monitoring technology in our lives, Garland admitted he is very concerned, despite being an optimist by nature.
“It’s very clearly the case, that technology is happening at a rate we are not able to keep up with. And it’s not the first time it’s happened," he continued. "There was a period of time [where] society decided to reject monarchies and instead, have prime ministers and presidents because of the awareness that focused power has problems. It created checks and balances we’ve been comfortable with for a hundred years. Now, tech has no checks and balances, and it’s literally dangerous. Social media, particularly, and broadly, the internet, we’re not able to keep up with the implications, and how information is disseminated in a distorted way. We know this is happening and it’s scary and literally problematic.”
Devs will drop with two episodes on Thursday, March 5, and then drop weekly. By the end, Garland hopes the conversation continues. And personally, he hopes to do another TV series with exactly the same cast and crew, tackling a new thought-provoking narrative.
“The truth of process is collaborative, and interesting things happen over time. I like it. Productions often explode at the end and dissipate and you never see them again. But I want to see them again and have them in my life," he concluded.