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May 11, 2017

Art of Darkness

The showrunners of Westworld reflect on its posthuman fantasy, where dark impulses come to light in a vast and disturbing realm.

Ann Farmer
  • Ryan West
  • Ryan West
  • Ryan West
  • John P. Johnson/HBO

In creating HBO’s Westworld, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy envisioned a future in which androids look, move and talk exactly like humans.

By the end of the series’ unsettling first season, they were also reasoning like real people and reacting with behavior characteristic of humans, albeit lifelong victims of abuse. The writer–executive producer duo — also husband and wife — talked with emmy contributor Ann Farmer about the challenges of pulling off such an audacious show and what to expect in season two. Spoilers ahead.

Your series, based on the 1973 Westworld film written and directed by Michael Crichton, is set in a vast Wild West–themed amusement park populated by androids (referred to as hosts), who are treated as objects of violence and sexual fantasy by visitors to the park. How does your story compare to the original?

Nolan: Crichton had a particular genius for where our technology was taking us and the dark corners we were painting ourselves into, which the feature didn’t have quite enough time to explore.

So, for Lisa and me, it was a great opportunity with an episodic series to really dive into so many ideas from the original feature and some of the ideas that we had been interested in. In particular — and this was building on the suggestion by [producer-director] J.J. Abrams, who came to us with the series idea in the first place — to focus the narrative on the artificially intelligent hosts of the park themselves.

Visitors to the park plug into their most base and destructive impulses, killing, maiming and sexually assaulting the hosts for fun. At the same time, Dr. Robert Ford [Anthony Hopkins], the creator of these androids and their theme-park story loops, talks about how a good story tells us something deeper about ourselves and our world. What is this series telling us about humans?

Nolan: [ Laughter ] Not necessarily anything good. When we started developing the series, we hoped to portray some of the positive experiences within the park. But as we continued to write — and to write from the perspective of the hosts — everything tilted a little darker with regard to our vision of humanity with this project.

The season ending suggests that the androids will, in the second season, possess the self-awareness and ability to finally defend themselves and to potentially behave in the same cruel manner as the humans. But it could also provide them the opportunity to evolve.

Joy: I think you are touching on the crux of the issue — what happens to a dream deferred. We came to this storyline with Dolores [the android played by Evan Rachel Wood], this peaceful rancher’s daughter who just longed to get away with the man she loved. But in the end, she survived so much darkness and so much abuse by these guests — so does this change her?

I guess we’re going to learn that next season?

Joy: Yes, it’s a lot of what our characters will be learning and figuring out: who, now that they are free, will they become?

This is a dense, complex story. Did it concern you that some viewers weren’t going to necessarily get it in one viewing?

Joy: That was part of the fun. Part of the DNA of this series was that we were going to pack it with a lot of different ideas and different surprises and turns.

And that sometimes the audience might anticipate them and sometimes it might take more than one viewing to fully absorb all of them. I think the most important thing wasn’t necessarily understanding all the ins and outs of the plot. But it was feeling a connection to those characters. It’s caring what happens to them.

What was it like, watching the viewers react all season, sometimes accurately predicting plot twists — like how one of the main programmers [Bernard, played by Jeffrey Wright] turns out to be an android?

Nolan: We spent an awful lot of time — and our cast and our crew put a lot of effort and energy — into marrying the narrative with hidden levels, hidden meanings. Not for the sake of it, not because we wanted to create a puzzle-like aspect to the show, but because part of the appeal for us of the narrative was a protagonist, or set of protagonists [the hosts], who didn’t understand the nature of the world they lived in.

So we wanted to put the viewer into the position of understanding the deeper meaning of their experiences and their memories. It’s been gratifying to see the audience singing along, if you will.

Viewers were also theorizing, correctly it turned out, that William [Jimmi Simpson] and the Man in Black [Ed Harris] were the same characters in different time frames. What were the challenges of casting those two roles so that this premise ultimately appeared plausible?

Nolan: We cast Ed first. Then the challenge was to find a younger actor whom you would, in the final analysis, believe could be the same person on the far side of a long personal transformation. We wanted to break the audience’s hearts with this transformation of someone who comes into this place, innocent in a sense, and benign and decent.

And then understand that he’s metastasized into this very different person… We were thrilled with the way those actors bent their performances toward one another so that you could see some continuity and connection.

This was a hugely ambitious first season visually, as well. Jonathan, you directed the pilot and the finale. What was it was like to shoot in such iconic, sweeping western landscapes?

Nolan: We found ourselves walking in the footsteps of giants like John Ford, who, after getting tired of Monument Valley, kept exploring Utah until he found a place called Castle Valley, which is where we wound up shooting.

You get out there with a camera and you’re overcome with the physical beauty of the place…. The advantage and support of the network to go out there and do it right were invaluable.

The actors playing androids operate in different modes: they sometimes appear machine-like and, in the next moment, indistinguishable from humans. What were the challenges of switching from one mannerism to another?

Nolan: We spent a lot of time researching it as we talked to our actors... thinking it through, thinking about how much we would have to manipulate their performance, and hoping to do as much manipulation in the camera as possible.

We did extensive testing, like shooting their reactions — blinking or smiling — at high speed. We used some of that in the final product. But we also had the fortune of working with an extremely talented cast who didn’t need much embellishment or punctuation or help from us.

The actors playing androids also had to be able to freeze their motion whenever they were placed in pause mode.

Nolan: We win the mannequin challenge [ laughs ]. We did have to buy a stuffed chicken. The animals weren’t quite as cooperative.

Joy: The actors were so committed that they would sit there, not blinking, until tears would run from their eyes.

There was a mystery driving the first season: who was guiding Dolores, Maeve and other androids toward self-awareness? How important is that mystery anymore?

Nolan: One of the great privileges of working on this series has been working with Tony [Hopkins] and his ability to convey brilliance and ambiguity and this slippery sense of not understanding if he’s the antagonist or the protagonist.

We come to the realization that he has been the one, in the present tense, guiding the hosts toward an awakening, guiding them toward some kind of climactic confrontation, which is borne out in the second season.

Are we going to see Anthony Hopkins again? After all, there is that song teaser in the pilot, “There ain’t no grave can hold my body down.”

Nolan: Yeah, you never want to count anybody out in this show.

There was a lot of nudity this season. Each time a host was maimed by a visitor, it would be removed to a hidden laboratory, for repair and for its memory of the incident to be erased. How was it for the actors to be nude so much of the time?

Joy: It’s not in script, nor, I don’t think, on the screen an experience that’s sexual at all.

It’s nudity as an exploration of the hosts as a machine. In terms of the plot, they are sitting there in this dark lab, with females and males unclothed by design, by the technicians, to dehumanize them — so that the technicians wouldn’t feel bad about patching them and sending them back up. There was something both vulnerable and beautiful about the nudity.

Maeve [Thandie Newton] was an easy robot to root for. After she develops awareness of the destructive loop she’s caught in, she almost escapes the park on its visitor shuttle — but she decides to return. We’re not sure, however, if she’s acting on her own cognizance or was programmed to do that.

Nolan: One of the things we held in reserve was hand-held photography. We knew there would be wonderful opportunities to use it to suggest the moments in which hosts were coming alive. The first hand-held shot was of Thandie, when she decides to get off the train. The moment she gets off the train, that’s her. She’s sticking around, and her destiny is definitely in her head from that moment forward.

In an episode recap, you suggest that humans will one day be surpassed by our technical creations. Do you think cyborgs could, one day, rule the planet?

Joy: [ Laughs ] Let me put it this way: my car is already a better parallel parker than I am! You’re beginning to see places where the capabilities of AI are growing so exponentially that there’s literally no way for humans to catch up. It’s another question as to whether AI, like the ones we explore in Westworld, will exist.

Nolan: We definitely think this is the story of our time, of our moment. Michael Crichton did as well. And we’re fascinated and a little alarmed to see how it plays out over the next couple of decades.

Do you already know the ending to this series?

Nolan: We do. We do. We don’t have everything in between figured out. One of the joys of television is the feedback loop from your cast and your crew and your writers and your directors. And certainly you find things along your way…. But we’ve served them hopefully a complete meal with the first season.

The challenge becomes, as we move the story forward, to ensure that each chapter is satisfying on a certain level.

This interview was edited and condensed.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2017

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