Alex Garland has made a name for himself as a hard sci-fi auteur who’s impressed critics, general audiences, and the art-house crowd with the likes of Ex Machina (2015) and Annihilation (2018). Like many auteurs as of late (Nicolas Winding Refn for instance), Garland is crossing to the smaller screen with Devs via FX (Breaking Bad, Mad Men). At NYCC he showed up with much of the cast and crew to talk about the show.
Devs is described as a high-tech suspense thriller about a young software engineer who investigates the secretive development division of her employer, which she believes is behind the murder of her boyfriend. Devs is to be released in the spring of 2020. This series will be eight episodes with no stated plans for another season.
We were first shown a scene where the character Sergei (Karl Glusman) is led by his boss Forest (Nick Offerman) into the Cube, a levitating room powered by electromagnetic fields. He goes in and sees a humanoid quantum computer and says it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. He’s seated down and ominously told to just start working by an elusive Offerman.
Immediately after the clip was a trailer, which shows Karl’s character and Sonoya Mizuno’s character, Lily, being hired by Offerman. Ominous images abound with eerie symmetry and ravishing golden colors. We see glimpses of dead bodies and Nick Offerman’s cool exterior cracking briefly. It’s quite vague on its own. However, it looks highly reminiscent of Ex Machina’s base concept of a young person being hired by a possibly evil boss. Yet, the trailer hints at visual beauty on par with Annihilation.
According to Garland, we’ll find out the intentions of Dev fairly early. Later on, the audience members at the panel were shown a clip from episode 4 where Lily is being driven home by Kenton, the head of security played by Zach Grenier. He says he knows everything and that he talked to her psychiatrist and that she’s a suicide risk due to her history and behavior. She demands to be let out and he say she can’t do that. She responds by grabbing the strearing wheel—causing a crash. Bloodied, she climbs out and rushes away down the highway, almost being hit by a car. Kenton gets out but he’s too late to catch her, wounded himself.
As for the genesis of the project, Alex Garland said he’s always been “obsessed with science.” Specifically, he wanted to explore determinism, the belief that “everything that happens in the world is based on cause and effect” which could “take away free will.” The concept will be about quantum computers and how you could have a computer that could determine the future and the past. To do so would require a quantum computer that holds a “staggering amount of processing power.”
When pushed to speak in layman’s terms, Garland said the show is about a “simple idea: nothing ever happens that is random or spontaneous.” If one could tap into the origins of why you like tea over coffee, they could determine your future.
Sonoya Mizuno was then asked to speak about her radical programmer character, Lily, whose character is recruited along with her boyfriend to work for Devs. “We don’t expect her to be the protagonist. And we always talked about her being an unusual protagonist in doing things for her own reasons and reacting to events in unusual ways. And the unusual ways that she reacts to the events…propel the narrative forward.”
Karl Glusman said his character worked in an AI division “working on a simulation program to predict the movement of a very simple organism.” This beaks his bosses interest, “because it directly applies to what they’re working on.”
Citing Silicone Valley as an inspiration for the show, Garland said the secretive company is simply named after “development.”
Playing the character of Jamie, Jin Ha said, “the show begins at two years of Lily and Jamie having not spoken after having been in a relationship for many year before that.” His character works in cyber security. “Lily solicits my help. And then kind of as we pull the thread on that mystery, there’s also a side narrative of how our relationship develops…alongside that journey that we’re taking in terms of investigation.”
Cailee Spaeny, playing Lyndon, said, “Lyndon is one of the employees in the Devs program and she’s brilliant and kind and passionate.”
Stephen McKinley Harrison, a beloved character actor, plays Stewart, who’s “kind of old school and he really thinks that scientist should know a little bit more about art and politics and have a bit more humanity. And that they are dangerous if they don’t.”
The chilling character of Kenton is played by Zach Grenier. On his tough guy role, he said he’s the head of security with a “great amount of loyalty, not only to the company but to Forrest.”
As for research, Karl said he contacted a programmer who “went through this lengthy background check” which helped him get into his role. “When it comes to AI, I bought this little book at Barnes and Nobles called AI for Dummies.”
Likewise, Jin Ha got in touch with a consultant for the show. “Alex connected us.” Psychologically, this helped him because the job is all about “preventing hacking…he’s constantly thinking ahead of what are the worst case scenarios and how can I best prepare for that?”
Stephen Henderson was incredibly impressed by Alex Garland and the world of Devs. “He just drew me into the world right away…the stakes were personal.”
Zach Grenier was equally impressed with the technical preparation. “There were these amazing scripts that we were rehersing…in the most intimate way. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
On the subject of rehearsals, Garland said “rehearsals are unbelievably important…there’s no downside to them as far as I can tell.” Having worked in film and television for about twenty years, he spoke from experience when he said: “The atmosphere on set is incredibly important…I’ve worked on sets that are toxic, where everybody hates each other…one of the things that rehearsals do is they’re a sort-of leveler.”
He continued to talk about the story inspiration and how he wanted to explore the “sometimes disturbing power of the tech companies…we now have corporations that have more power than countries and they have no checks and balances on them at all” as opposed to something like the American Constitution.
Garland strove for real sets, including the Cube set. Although it was hard to get a large enough sound stage because Marvel has been using them for about seven years.
Jin Ha said the practical sets were “extraordinary” and that it was great to be in real spaces “to play in.” He continued, saying, “They built the [my] apartment, ceiling included” as opposed to his years in the theatre.
Stephen Harrison commented on the sets as well. “Everything that wasn’t glass was stainless steel…or would leave a fingerprint.” Apparently, people had to come in and “clean away fingerprints for each take.” But he appreciated it because it brought “reality to the proceedings.”
There was time for a few questions from the audience. The first asked why Garland chose to make a show instead of a film. Garland responded by saying he’s had plenty of trouble in making films and TV was easier. “Ex Machina was sold…to A24. We had problems with Annihilation…I was sick of it.” He began to think that “maybe this isn’t the right space for me.” However, another reason was that “on a writing level, I wanted the eight hours.”
Another question was pitched to Garland from a super fan that asked if he’d ever return to novels. Garland drew a parallel between the mediums. “An eight part TV series is incredibly close to a novel from a writing point of view…films are much closer to short stories or novellas.”
The last audience question asked if FX interfered with Alex Garland’s vision at all. He promptly responded with a confident “Yeah, total freedom.” On previous films, things would get out of control and turn into “real screaming rows” over creative decisions. However, “with FX, completely the opposite.”
The moderator, Damien Holbrook closed off by asking how Garland felt about the project since he wrote and directed everything. In response, Garland once again proved his confidence in the project. “I couldn’t love it more.” Asked whether he was grateful to the crew, he said, “totally.”
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