It makes sense to ask Alex Garland big questions, given that his work deals with heady concepts like the nature of consciousness and the human drive toward self-destruction and whether the future is pre-determined. But if you’re going to engage with the director of Ex Machina and Annihilation about science and magic and fate, be prepared to really dig in to those topics. Because Garland isn’t just a science fiction writer. He’s a devotee of science, and approaches everything—from his work to a casual conversation in a hotel lobby—with the precision and humility he admires in scientists.
Garland’s newest project is Devs, an eight-part, FX On Hulu series premiering new episodes Thursdays. The show stars Nick Offerman as the mysterious CEO of Silicon Valley tech company Amaya, alongside Sonoya Mizuno as Lily Chan, an engineer at Amaya who sets out to uncover the secrets of the company’s enigmatic development wing after the disappearance of her boyfriend, Sergei (Karl Glusman). We interviewed Garland in the aforementioned hotel lobby, in Chicago, where he spoke softly and deliberately.
The A.V. Club: Something I was thinking about a lot watching this show was this idea of a techno-utopianism, and this earnest belief that many in Silicon Valley have that tech is going to save the world. Given that your work doesn’t engage in absolutes in terms of utopian or dystopian sci-fi, how did you engage with this idea in Devs?
Alex Garland: One of the things that got me started on the show—and maybe this correlates exactly to utopia—it was to do with a sort of cult vibe. Utopia would be cult-y in some respects, because it would be so keen on itself. Maybe that would tilt it into being a dystopia. Neither of them really exist, though. Anyway, the thing I felt was more to do with the sense of a lot of Kool-Aid being drunk. The Kool-Aid could be contained within a tech company, and it could also be in the consumers of the products. The tech companies and product launches would have churchlike vibes.
AVC: There are definitely people out there who admire tech CEOs. Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, for example, have their fans.
AG: I remember when Steve Jobs was doing those product launches. There was an incredible sort of fever around them. And so part of it is about that fever, and that sense. But I also think, although that’s what I had in mind, if someone had asked me what you just said early on, I would have said, “Yeah, they are selling utopia.” You do get a sense in and around that area—not just on the [tech] campuses, but almost in the restaurants and the bars and the shops and at Stanford—Silicon Valley has a sense of its own idyll and perfectness and that everybody else is implicitly aspiring to [be like them]. Whether they are or not, there’s a sense that that’s what everyone else is doing.
AVC: Do you mean in the sense of “this is the pinnacle of humanity?”
AG: [The sense is that] this is where it’s happening. That there’s nowhere else as buzzy, there’s nowhere more exciting. There’s no place where the sharp edge of technology—which gets conflated with science—is sharper than this place here. And, to be fair, in some ways that’s true. It’s one of those states that one instinctively thinks must be illusory, but when you actually look at it, you think, “Well, maybe it’s not that illusory after all.”
AVC: San Francisco is very much part of the story, and you work some very San Francisco details into it, like the homeless gentleman who lives outside of Lily’s apartment. Were you trying to comment on the city itself, or did you pick it simply because you want to do a story in tech?
AG: Do you mean to do with the wealth and poverty disparity?
AVC: And also what you were just talking about—the city as a grand experiment.
AG: What I think is that if you’re telling a story set in [San Francisco], those things are so obvious that it would be a deliberate omission if you chose to not include them, but they have no insight in themselves. I don’t think there’s any claim one can make for putting them in, because they’re so fucking obvious. They shout at you as you’re walking down the streets. But, the show is broadly attempting to mirror something real, so that could be on lots of different strata.
AVC: Devs takes place in a very specific place, and it’s set in the now, whereas Ex Machina and Annihilation are more abstract in their settings.
AG: Annihilation definitely is. I think Annihilation is essentially a cross between a nervous breakdown and a hallucination. It’s fundamentally a hallucinogenic movie, I think, and it only really functions as metaphor—in my mind, anyway.
This is more of a companion piece to Ex Machina. It takes place in the same zone. Ex Machina was set in the future, absolutely, because it had advances in robotics and artificial intelligence that we definitely don’t have. Even in the mountain lairs of the tech geniuses, that’s not happening. And Devs does the same thing. What it does is, it takes a single idea and displaces it from our times. If, in Ex Machina, you’d gotten on a helicopter and flown to San Francisco, it would have been the same San Francisco. The two stories are literally companion pieces.
AVC: In the opening of the first episode, the idea of determinism is brought up, and the future all being on sort of a set track...
AG: Determinism is sort of its starting point, and then it moves on. It takes the principle of determinism, which is quite simple to express and is expressed quite simply within the episode, and uses it as a sort of suggestion that we live in a non-magical universe. Everything that happens is the result of cause and effect. Things don’t spontaneously come into existence. And then it starts to riff from there. [The show] asks you not necessarily to agree with the idea, but to buy into the concept. It’s a bit like Ex Machina in some respects, in that it’s the playing out of a sequence of thought experiments. And the first card it puts down is determinism.
AVC: So how deep do you go? Are you doing a lot of research, or is it purely philosophical?
AG: It’s not really research, but yeah. It’s just reading and watching lectures on YouTube.
AVC: When you’re writing about these concepts, do your own ideas about them develop as you’re writing?
AG: What happens is, the story only starts to form in my head at the point I feel I’ve formed my own opinion. Now, the opinion doesn’t have to be—in fact, it isn’t—“I know what’s going on here.” Because you’d be an idiot to say, “I know what’s going on.” It’s more that you start to feel where your leanings are, where your inclinations are.
Often what you have in these things—very, very frequently, actually—is it’s like, you’ve got four possible interpretations of something, right? And none of them are proven. You could have very articulate, intelligent people arguing strongly for any one of them. I can’t point the finger and say who’s right and who’s wrong. But what you can do at a certain point is begin to get a measure of your own temperature. And once I’ve got that, that’s the point where I feel I can start writing.
AVC: Do you tend to lean more toward the purely scientific, rational belief that there’s no such thing as magic? Or are you interested in the more out-there, woo-woo type of ideas as well?
AG: I’m an atheist, and I don’t just admire science; I kind of love science. I think that one of the guiding principles behind a lot of my writing comes from that. I often feel that my enthusiasm for science is then met with skepticism, but it’s not the skepticism of saying, “Science is wrong.” It’s more, “Science is boring,” or, “It’s cold.” I think people think science takes magic away from the world, and it says, “These are the answers to the questions.” And that there’s a kind of inherent arrogance in saying, “These are the answers.”
My sense of science is not like that at all. My encounters with scientists are usually with people saying that they don’t know what’s happening. And they are quicker than anybody to say, “Well, I don’t know, but what I think might be the case is this.” And so there’s a lot of humility in science, I think.
There’s also a very interesting thing that scientists do, and as far as I can tell, they’re almost unique in this. You can have someone who has a theory that they research passionately, and believe in passionately. And then for some reason it gets disproved. And when it gets disproved, properly disproved, they then abandon the theory and they say, “Well, that’s a bloody shame. I was wrong. I spent 20 years of my life doing this, but it turned out to not be the case.” That is really not what people normally do when they get a bit of contradictory evidence. What they do is ignore it.
AVC: Or they get angry.
AG: Quite, yeah, absolutely. They ignore it and they get angry. They get defensive. And that feels like it’s the defining clamor of our lives. And so I like that humility in science. I also think that science contains really extraordinary poetry. It has these beautiful, strange ideas that have as much poetry in them as anything else. I mean, there’s literally Philip Larkin poetry used in Devs, in episode seven. And science is as poetic as that Philip Larkin poem. It contains huge philosophical implications, and it describes things that are awe-inspiring, like quasars, or black holes, or our history, or our future. And it’s not exactly dispassionate, because it all stems from an interest in the world, a sort of passion about the world.
AVC: You said you had a great experience working with FX on this series.
AG: Yeah, very.
AVC: Creative freedom and all that...
AG: Specifically that, yeah.
AVC: So are you done with making films, then?
AG: I think one always has to be a bit careful about these things, because talking about one’s own experience does sound as if one’s making a broader statement. Film at the moment, by my reckoning, is in a very healthy state in many respects. A film like Parasite comes along, and it demonstrates how tedious and repetitive most stories are, and our weird obsession with going through these same beats again and again and again, like children with nursery rhymes or something. Parasite comes along, and it just shows everyone what can be done.
And it’s not the only one. A24 just released The Lighthouse—I went with my son a couple of weeks ago, and I loved every frame of that film. I thought it was so brave in the way it followed through entirely on its own convictions, and other reasons apart from that, as well. So I’m not saying anything about cinema in general, but I’d had a hard time in some respects.
AVC: Did you not have the same kind of freedom you did with Devs?
AG: No, I did. I just had to fight for it. So it ended up in the same place, but the experience was bruising and required, you know, turning brinksmanship into your comfort zone. And that’s very different from the experience I just had making Devs. But at the same time, it’s hard to tell the extent to which one’s unconscious plays in. So although I might overtly refuse to be guided by the concept of box office or opening weekend, I also know it exists. And I know that actually, on some level, I’ll be judged by that. And so does that play into my thinking somewhere? Well, it probably does.
So, you know, it’s hard to unravel. But certainly what I felt making Devs was that by the time I offered up these eight scripts to FX, they’d seen what happened with [my] previous projects, so they knew what they were getting into. There wasn’t this thing of delivering it and them saying, “What the fuck is this? This isn’t what we bought into,” and me saying, “Well, read the script again.” It was all there—or not all, but the blueprint was there. And they knew what they were getting, and they were happy with it, and they said, “Go ahead, do it.” I’ve never really had an experience like that.
AVC: Having written novels, films, and now a television series, are you fairly agnostic when it comes to what format you use to tell a story?
AG: Totally. I really am. One thing is that all the different mediums—from my perspective, at any rate—have much more in common with each other than they do that’s different. Although they do have differences.
AVC: Sheer length, for one.
AG: Absolutely. But I knew almost exactly [from] the moment I started jotting down thoughts about Devs that this wouldn’t function as cinema, because I wouldn’t have time. It would force either huge information dumps or drastically changing the ideas contained within the overall idea. So I never thought of it as cinema. I think I found some kind of commonality—again, this is just in myself—with novels. There was a link between television and writing novels that took me by surprise, actually. But, as I said, all these mediums are much more like each other than they are different.
AVC: In a film, would you have been able to do the—I hesitate to call it a “trick,” but it’s the first word that comes to mind—of having the protagonist shift from Sergei to Lily?
AG: You could do that [in a film]. It would be seven minutes in rather than 30, though. But actually, what the series is doing—sometimes overtly, and sometimes much more discreetly—it’s using an expectation as the means to drive a performance, basically. It’s happening in lots of different ways, with lots of different characters. In some respects that’s playful, and in other respects, political. And the two things are embedded.