Interview: ‘Westworld’ Creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy on Building Their Intellectual Lego Set

Westworld interview - Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy

Photo by John P. Johnson/HBO

Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are hardly beholden to Michael Crichton‘s original 1973 film. With their reimagining, they’re telling a different story in the same location. Crichton’s movie is more of a springboard for this sci-fi drama, which deals with identity, consciousness, the relationship between man and maker, and more. Joy, Nolan (who directed the pilot), and all involved let their imaginations run wild with Westworld, which presents a future where humans can pay $40,000 to live the day in the life of a cowboy or outlaw.

The series is executive produced by filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who’s been wanting to remake Westworld for over 20 years. A few years ago, Abrams brought the project to Nolan and Joy, and the two couldn’t resist the opportunity. They clearly set their sights high, because HBO’s new series is every bit as ambitious as it looks. Nolan and Joy’s take on Westworld places more emphasis on the hosts, the artificial intelligence in the park. By shifting the focus to the A.I., Nolan and Joy raise all sorts of new questions regarding Westworld and its employees and visitors, and the two writers and producers were kind enough to discuss some of those questions with us recently.

Below, read our Westworld interview.

You both save some exposition that’s expected of a pilot for the second episode. How did you want to establish the world with the first? What were some lessons learned in making this pilot?

Nolan: Yeah, I tend to prefer film or TV where I’m allowed as an audience member to do some of the math myself. At the same time, I also like stuff that’s layered and dense. We knew we wanted to tell a complicated story, but we also knew from the beginning, when J.J. first approached us for the project, his suggestion had been to consider the perspectives of the hosts. We took that suggestion and ran a country mile with it, up to and including and turning inside out the entire narrative where we could.

The really interesting thing that we ran into, and we should have anticipated it and wrote in that direction… As we were cutting the episodes and working, especially with the visual effects, the very subtle visual effects with the actors’ performances … Most of the brilliant acting is done by the actors themselves, but we also did tiny little adjustments to their performance that the speed at which their eyes would blink or their cheeks bulge.

What we found validated the approach that we took was that the second you went too far with that, the second you push their performance too far into the uncanny valley by fiddling around with those effects… This maybe says as much about the audience as anything else, but people who were watching the episodes would immediately stop empathizing with it, right? Not all of the people watching, but it sort of speaks to how much empathy I think the audience member has.

You would approach this really interesting moment where you could adjust a blink or a smile or a glitch to a certain point, and past that point, the audience stops thinking of Dolores or Maeve. What was interesting is that the second you stop thinking of the hosts as alive and start thinking of them as robots, you did not empathize with them anymore.

For us, starting with the hosts and starting with their story was critically important, even if it might leave some audience members hungering for a little more conventional explanation of how the world works. They’ll get a little more of that in episode two, but it was important for us that the audience buy-in with the hosts right out of the gate. It’s really just trying to make sure that you’re sympathizing with the hosts rather than the guests who are coming in. Hopefully, in episode two, you approach the guests with a little more suspicion because you’re already rooting for the hosts to rise up or escape.

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