Quantum Entanglement: Creator Alex Garland on the Battle Between Determinism and Free Will in His Hulu Series, Devs
“I throw a spear into the darkness. That is intuition. Then I must send an army into the darkness to find the spear. That is intellect.” These words were spoken by 62-year-old Ingmar Bergman to drama students at Southern Methodist University in 1981, but they’ve been true for artists throughout the ages. And it’s this timeless creative method—throw and retrieve—that writer/director Alex Garland deployed for his FX Hulu science fiction series, Devs.
Garland—who began his career as a novelist with the bestselling The Beach and more recently has made his mark as a director with Ex Machina and Annihilation—doesn’t underestimate the nuances a more intuitive approach can generate. As he explains below, the connections he’s able to make while shooting and editing are the products of a process that begins with his own “deep immersion” in the subject material. Only later, from a vantage point, is he able to respond with the answers to the work’s original questions.
This exercise becomes very complicated when the rabbit hole Garland throws his spear into is, as it is in Devs, a quantum one encompassing the entirety of human history.
In the eight-part miniseries, Devs, a development subsidiary of tech giant Amaya, builds a quantum computer with a number of qubits “that seems pointless to express as a number.” With determinism as their heuristic, the Devs team discovers that the past and future can indeed be measured by cause and effect. Free will doesn’t exist—everything that’s ever happened in the world has a physical cause. Nick Offerman plays Forest, Amaya’s CEO, who has named the company after the daughter whose death he blames himself for. Her giant statue looms over the complex, and Forest lingers on a fuzzy image of her that his supercomputer can “predict” back to. Subsuming his grief within technology, Forest pushes his Devs project ahead in total secrecy. The purpose of its research is unclear. There’s no governmental oversight, no checks and balances. When a newly appointed employee of Devs, Sergei (Karl Glusman), disappears, his girlfriend Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno), an encryption specialist at Amaya, suspects foul play. Her quest to discover what happened to Sergei and uncover Forest’s larger design reunites her with her estranged hacker ex Jamie (Jin Ha), pits her against Amaya’s murderous security officer/fixer, Kenton (Zach Grenier) and leads her into a mystery that’s less about corporate espionage and more concerning a philosophical debate—determinism vs. free will—that goes back centuries and spans cultures.
Of course, 20th century research into quantum mechanics and theoretical physics has reframed this debate, and Garland has instinctively allowed the intricate form of Devs to be a reflection of the series’ head-spinning contents: the Everett principle, multiverses, every potentiality and version of the world existing all at once. These concepts seep into its characters, its edit, its cinematography, its sound. Unraveling it all following the series’ debut this past spring, Garland goes back to retrieve the spear a long time after its original throw.
Filmmaker: The concept of quantum superposition echoes through so many elements of Devs. Those coexisting schisms naturally manifest strongest in characters who have experienced tremendous loss because the better potentialities—the versions of their lives without those losses—become more palpable and resonant. So, in creating Devs, was it just inevitable that Forest and these characters would reflect the show’s quantum principles?
Garland: Characters always have to live in a world. The world is the story and the landscape. Inevitably, the preoccupations of the story end up bleeding into the characters, and they end up reflecting themes and structure. It’s just the kind of function where A follows B to B follows Z and so on. It’s not exactly consciously that I’m choosing to do those things, it’s more that at a certain point I realize what’s happened. Once you’ve realized, you can lean into it. So, you have Forest talking about the state he was in when he lost his daughter, and that is partly a state of knowing something [that his daughter is absolutely gone] and partly a state of not knowing something [not being able to comprehend that she is gone]. That felt true to the character, but I can also see that it was true to the strangeness of the superposition of states.
Filmmaker: Many episodes open with a montage of images we don’t see again until later in the episode or subsequent episodes. This is one of many examples where the show wraps itself in the idea of superposed states, and a past, present and future that co-exist.
Garland: That actually began as me wanting to avoid the little montage that was initially “Previously on Devs.” So, I thought I’d start with a montage that is this weird refracted version of it, that isn’t previously but what’s coming. Sometimes it’s what’s coming, sometimes it’s what happened. It was an area where I could play with form, and I got more and more into it as content. It gave me a chance to do some of the stuff I like doing, which is weird collisions of sounds and crosscuts. It sets a tone for an episode and says, “Some of this narrative is not going to be explicit, it’s going to be given or received by osmosis.” At least, that’s what I hoped it would be.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene where Kenton breaks into Jamie’s apartment and drags him into the bathroom to threaten and possibly kill him. In the previous episode, the camera frames a shot from within the bathroom and pushes back as if to tell us where it’s going next.
Garland: I don’t go into a shoot with many thoughts about how something will be edited. After a while you start to shoot for the edit—not the whole time. Very often, you’re just getting a master of the scene, two mids, two closeups and one other shot. There’s a meat-and-potatoes craft aspect to a lot of it. But then you do start cutting scenes in your head. Not that they exactly appear in that way when the edit is finished, but they become like pencil sketches, and at a certain point the pencil sketches get pretty detailed and explicit. But the whole thing is sort of feeling yourself towards something. In the beginning of the process it’s pitch black, and in the end it’s the body at work.
Filmmaker: It always takes time for a set to operate intuitively. Directing all eight episodes, did you feel that you took on different stages and modes of working that you hadn’t in the shorter span of a feature?
Garland: There’s always a weird thing that happens to me with directing. I’m not on a film set several times a year, I’m shooting something once every two and a half years maybe. There may be that gap between each film set. On the first day I’m always like, “How the fuck do I do this again? When do you say cut?” Or, “Oh shit, I shouldn’t be standing there.” Then you get over that, and you remember. Maybe two weeks after that, hopefully less, you get into a groove. That’s when you really start directing. You can start to hold the whole thing suspended in your head a bit. Then, maybe halfway through, it got into this weird sort of Zen state for a lot of us. It’s partly because it’s so intense. In some respects, TV is a sprint because you’re shooting so fast, but in other ways it’s a marathon because you’ve got to keep going for another six months.
Filmmaker: Then, like with writing, you realize what you’ve done later.
Garland: In the edit you find out if you had a good intuition or a bad one. As a director in the edit, what you get confronted with is the really bad decisions you made. I’ve never gone into an edit without seeing something and thinking, “How can I be so stupid? This is the most basic filmmaking grammar, and [I] just pissed all over it.” The nice thing is, sometimes the crazier bits of your intuition are where you find some magic. But much of it is wondering what the hell was going through your head when you said, “Let’s not bother getting a closeup” or whatever other thing the scene needed.
Filmmaker: Each episode begins and ends with its own song. By the time we hear that song again its meaning has evolved in the same way the images we saw earlier have. But your use of Steve Reich’s 1966 experimental tape loop composition “Come Out” [made for a benefit for the imprisoned Harlem Six] is different. It’s the only piece of music that’s used once and then doesn’t return in the end. Its compositional form also echoes so much of the show’s own form and ideas.
Garland: The crosscutting between Steve Reich and the Inuit singers with the imagery was pure, intuition-based filmmaking. Retrospectively, you see there’s structure in it. The intuition isn’t arbitrary. It comes from being deeply immersed in a subject, the themes and the material you have to work with in the edit. It’s like intuition is fully formed thought, but your brain hasn’t given you the words for that fully formed thought. Initially, you can’t quite explain it. It’s just “take this bit of music, put a cut in it there, crosscut it with this one and stick it with this image.” It’s a bit of a stream of consciousness that comes from somewhere that isn’t a stream of consciousness at all. It’s really structured. It’s a bit like that speech with Forest talking about the twin states of grief.
What I was interested in was repetition and weird points of commonality—overlay. Also, really hard juxtapositions. So, you’re hard cutting between Steve Reich and the Inuit throat singing over these beautiful landscapes and cave systems. Then, you do a hard cut to what you probably first see as trees, then a car pulls around the corner. It’s sort of about things that feel like they shouldn’t be together but do go together. What Reich does is take a single phrase, then overlay and phase it until you’ve reached this strange sort of blur, which nonetheless has some kind of sense and feels like the path from a single world into many worlds. But maybe that’s too prosaic.
Filmmaker: Why is it the only piece that doesn’t come back in the end?
Garland: Because we had left the structure behind. [Episode] seven was now flowing into eight. It’s a bit like genre right? Within genres there are rules, and as soon as you’re given the rules you’ve got a free gift because you can now subvert them. You can work within the genre, which is great because it gives you a shorthand, and it also gives you an effect to surprise people with in an easy way. [Viewers] feel comfortable, they feel like they know what’s coming, then you can try and curveball them. Structure’s a bit like that, too. If you set up parameters early on you’ve got a way of suddenly breaking them. It happens a lot with music in the editing where you deliberately try to be jarring. It’s calibrated to be a good jarring. It shocks you, but it kind of makes sense, like chucking disco into Ex Machina.
Filmmaker: You’ve talked about your egalitarian approach to the typical set hierarchy, that directors get too much credit for the qualities of a film over others. That’s epitomized here by the fact that the halo lights in the trees leading up to the Devs lab, one of the show’s most iconic images, was a suggestion from the show’s gaffer [Lee Walters]. I like that shot that crawls low and tilts up to Forest with the emanating halo revolving around his head like a messiah.
Garland: I feel like a lot of directing is craft. It’s not just talking about where to put a camera or character motivation or something like that. Some of it’s about feeling comfortable with other people’s opinions or hearing their ideas, making sure you keep an ear open. I think what can happen with directing is that it can become this sort of fear-based exercise where you feel as if you’re expected to have the answers to everything. You feel like you know what the right way to do something is. Then somebody comes up with an idea that is in conflict with it, and you freeze up because the thing that was making you feel secure in yourself has now been undermined. Suddenly people start freezing up, losing their temper or getting snappy. If you ignore all that and relax, you can approach it like there’s a big hole in the road and a bunch of you standing around it wondering how you should fill it. It’s not just that it takes off pressure—you get better ideas. If I didn’t listen to Lee, we’d have something less good. A gaffer works with light every day. It’s about making sure you shut up and listen whenever you’re confronted.
Filmmaker: Stewart [a Devs developer, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson] often scolds Forest and Katie [Forest’s girlfriend and lead developer, played by Alison Pill] for not knowing history. There’s a real disconnect demonstrated when they mistake Stewart reading the Philip Larkin poem “Aubade” for Shakespeare, and again when Stewart implies he is Antony to Forest’s Caesar, stalled at the door—culpable. There’s an exhortation there that isn’t put across to Forest, and the show doesn’t make the connection for unfamiliar viewers. What’s the implication of this disconnect?
Garland: The way technology works and the way it’s developed is typically about forward thinking: “I think we can do this if we marshal these resources or write this bit of code. We’ll have a breakthrough that will take us another big step forward.” Concurrent with that is technology companies having massive amounts of power. So, you have a lot of power without many checks and balances in something that is voraciously forward-looking. What someone like Stewart is saying in the most basic terms is to not forget lessons from the past. The lessons are taught by history and culture. You ignore those things not at your peril, but at our peril. So, for Stewart it’s problematic that he could be quoting a 20th-century poet who might be being confused for Shakespeare. If you don’t instantly know that Larkin literally can’t be Shakespeare, that doesn’t seem like the kind of person who should be making big, fundamental decisions about our future. That’s not about being elitist, it’s just that the past teaches us lessons. If you’re not interested in those lessons, bad news.
Filmmaker: But then the show doesn’t quite condemn them or make them out to be “bad.”
Garland: They’re a bit like priests. Forest is like a priest with doubts, Katie is like a priest without doubts. But they have their belief system, and it’s based around what they feel is an incredibly strong and irrefutable argument. A morality flows from that. It doesn’t mean they’re bad. They might be wrong, but they’re not bad.
Filmmaker: There’s also this subplot about the American government trying to get oversight on Devs and stamp its brand on it. Also, Kenton’s rant on the “Chinese Century,” which is, to him, the 20th century because the Chinese government declared martial law and violently “controlled” the protests in Tiananmen Square.
Garland: Most of that stuff is just about power: where it resides, how it tricks us and how we trick ourselves. Power’s always very wrapped up in vanity and narcissism. America’s a very interesting country, but it’s an unbelievably vain and narcissistic country, too. You can say something similar about all power structures, so that then includes tech companies as well. What Stewart would say, if Forest stopped to ask him, is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It needs checks and balances. Forest doesn’t have the capacity to really think in those terms.
Filmmaker: Is there currently any government oversight on any tech company with a quantum computing team?
Garland: No. It’s tech companies that are leading the way, and it always is. The only oversight, broadly speaking, is capitalism. That may or may not be a good oversight. I’m pretty sure it isn’t, but I’m a 50-year-old lefty.
Filmmaker: Do you agree, more or less, that our world is deterministic?
Garland: Probably. Quantum mechanics make a pretty good case that you can’t do total cause and effect because it may work in a very probabilistic way, not in a way where A happens, therefore B happens. But that doesn’t necessarily lead you to free will, because [decisions] that are effectively arbitrary still aren’t decisions any more than [they are] in a purely deterministic state. Probabilistic states, in other words, are not controlled by your will, so you still don’t end up with free will. I instinctively lean towards that because the argument feels very strong. If someone then gave me a very strong argument against it I might switch. But at this point determinism, or at least a lack of free will, seems pretty likely to me.
Filmmaker: In all of your films and in Devs there is an unsettling ending that is posited as being happy. I don’t initially agree with those endings as being happy. The endings tend to accept a notion or resolution that feels alien to me. The couple in the end of Annihilation are reunited but are not at all who they once were. In Devs, there’s an acceptance of the idea of living in a simulation that didn’t sit well with me, either. But over time, I warm up to these things you suggest we accept.
Garland: If that’s your response to it then I’m really pleased. From my point of view, that’s kind of the ideal response. I like the idea of being conflicted about it, but also on reflection it not seeming quite like what it initially appears. My sense is that it’s a happy ending in a way because, despite all of these complex states we all find we’re living in—these terrible uncertainties, that everything has a way of making us small and powerless and that maybe without our free will the world we view as so special and unique is actually far from it—none of that impacts the things that end up being the most important: how we feel about our children, our partners and our friends. It’d be a happy ending if we were able to create an afterlife with this Devs machine, [a life that’s] as meaningful and has as much primacy as the previous life. It’s one of the great goals of religion. We’d be freed of a fundamental tragedy.