Devs exec on Alex Garland’s TV debut and filming in Manchester

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“One of my highlights was taking Nick Offerman (Parks & Recreation, Fargo) to the away end at a Manchester City v Arsenal game at the Etihad. So he definitely got a taste of the city,” Allon Reich, Executive Producer and Founder, DNA.

Reich was speaking to Prolific North ahead of the UK release of Devs on BBC Two.

Devs is described as “a struggle between fate and human nature, quantum physics and philosophy” and it’s the first television series from Alex Garland. Garland made his name as a writer on films including The Beach, 28 Days Later… and Sunshine. More recently, he’s become an acclaimed director, with futuristic psychological thrillers, Annihilation and Ex Machina.

It’s the same team which worked on these latter films which has been used for Devs.

The cast is led by Offerman, but central to the whole series is a golden, floating cube, which is the supercomputer behind it all. Despite looking like it could be a green screen studio, in fact the entire set was built on location at Space Studios, Manchester.

“To be honest, we were in a bind, because we couldn’t find any space in London for any of our sets. We were rolling forward in terms of pre-production and we knew we wanted to shoot in California for a bit, but we could not find any place in London,” said Reich, the Executive Producer of Devs and who’s DNA Films has produced all of Garland’s movies, as well as Trainspotting, T2 Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and Dredd.

“We had issues with studio requirements, we needed a normal studio, for interiors of apartments and then we had this ‘super issue’ which was the Devs cube, which is kind of like the sci-fi, hi-tech, secret development site of our quantum computer.

“So, we needed 25,000 sq ft and eventually, really just by the skin of our teeth, we managed to find some space at Ealing studios, for our domestic bits - the interiors of the houses in San Francisco.

“But for the cube, we would have needed to hire one of the major stages at one of the big studios around London - and they were all full. Then our Head of Physical Production at DNA, Cahal Bannon, said he’d recce’d Space Studios once before for a show and had remembered they were building this big stage.

“So he went up and found out that it was this state of the art, 30,000sq ft, never-used-before studio. At first we were thinking ‘logistically should we do it?’ The more we thought about it, the more we realised that it was just perfect.

“Then we could start planning how to get the show and people to Manchester.”

The DNA team hired the Manchester studio for a year, in order to complete the highly technical set build.

“What we and Alex always want to do, is to be as real as possible, so real people, real things. What we want to do is have actors in a real environmental where they can move around. Rather than on a green screen and put things in afterwards and try and pretend. In some ways, the big visual effects element of shooting in Manchester, was removals, because there was a lot of glass and a lot of reflections and that can be tricky,” continued Reich.

“If you’ve seen Ex Machina, you’ll know we’re well practiced in shooting with a lot of glass!

“The look is very particular. When people watch the show, I think the thing they’ll be talking about more than anything else is the set in Manchester. It’s important in terms of production that the designers, the Director of Photography, camera team and the VFX team are all the same people who worked on Ex Machina and Annihilation. So, we can be ambitious, due to that fact that there’s collaborations that have been established over two other productions.”

Sometimes a location can be just that and a cast and crew are flown in and just see the set and then leave. Reich explained that while Manchester is never seen on screen, the city did play a large role.

“[Space Studios] was an absolute necessity and it worked better than I could possibly have imagined. The studio was pretty much brand new, it had all the infrastructure and the support and it worked extremely well,” he said.

“Remember, this is a show for FX, which is one of the biggest US cable networks right now and for the viewer, the entire drama takes place in and around San Francisco, so in their eyes, it’s completely American.

“So it was an international cast, supplemented by some local teams in Manchester. And Manchester was terrific in that respect in terms of the crew and also for the cast. It’s a fantastic city to be in. One of my highlights was taking Nick Offerman, who’s one of the biggest names in it, to the away end in the Manchester City v Arsenal game at the Etihad. So he definitely got an interesting taste of it!

“The cast loved it and they took advantage of being in Manchester, in terms of restaurants, bars and just enjoying themselves. And also we had to shoot a little bit of caves and cave paintings, which we ended up doing in the Lake District.

“And we’d work our filming around Manchester, so we’d start a little bit later on the Monday, so some people would get the train up, then finish earlier on the Friday, so that people who needed to get back to London could do that. The studio’s 15 minutes from Piccadilly, the train’s 2 hours. Frankly I could spend longer driving from my house in North London to Shepperton.”

This wasn’t just the first television series for Alex Garland, it was a first for Reich, how does filming a series differ from doing a film?

“It was certainly longer. There were 100 days of shooting. But that 100 days included various hiatuses, we shot in California, then we’d take days off for Christmas, then we’d do a bit of cutting, then we’d be back on location.  So we needed a different kind of stamina.

“We had all the scripts written, which I’m told is unusual in TV, I gather, but are essential in film, and we shot it very much like a film, in that we shot everything in San Francisco, then another location in California, then we went to the studio and shot everything there and finally came to Manchester.

“This is how we’d shoot a movie, rather than an episodic TV show, but it’s important that it was very much written as a television series - every episode has its inner rhythm so a beginning, middle and end. The production though, was quite like a film.”

Would they do it again?

“We all absolutely loved the challenge of it. It’s fantastic, it’s something we’ve never done before and we’re already in discussions with FX, because Alex has another idea for a TV show, that we’re just looking at at, the moment. So we’ve definitely got one coming down the track and with Alex we’re planning another ambitious show on a similar scale.”

Back in Manchester, Rob Page, Commercial Director at Space Studios said:

"Devs is a world class international production which has been made in Manchester and has brought still more skilled crews to work in the city as well as providing  employment for local industry experts.  

“Devs was the first production to fully occupy the 30,000 square foot Space 06 which opened officially in late 2018.  The team from DNA and FX were with us for a year and in that time we succeeded in keeping the great work they were doing totally confidential.  Manchester has many things to be proud of and we know that DEVS is one of these and can't wait for the series to air on BBC Two in April."

Episodes 1 and 2 will air on BBC Two on 15th and 16 April at 9pm. The rest of the series plays out weekly in the same slots, but will be available in full on the iPlayer from the 16th.