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Westworld producers on future shock HBO series

Jonathan Nolan: HBO drama represents ‘the next chapter of the human story’

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John P. Johnson/HBO

HBO’s mysterious Westworld sent fans into a tweeting frenzy last week after the first sustained peek at the long-delayed sci-fi Western, which upgrades Michael Crichton’s 1973 androids-run-amuck thriller for the new millennium, debuted on HBO. Totally reengineered by executive producers Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Pushing Daisies), Westworld tackles the promise and the threat of artificial intelligence (hey, even Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates say they’re truly worried about it) in a lawless R-rated play-scape where a theme park’s guests’ darkest desires run wild. Only this time, you’ll find yourself sympathizing with the sentient bots who are slave-laboring under the creepily apathetic gaze of Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). The resulting future-shock series resembles a mash-up of Blade Runner, Ex Machina, Black Mirror, and Crichton’s own Jurassic Park; but its creators initially struggled to get their prime-time machine operational. The series was ordered two years ago, with a scheduled 2015 debut, then was delayed amid casting changes, story-retooling, and a production pause.

Below, we were able to sneak a few questions to Nolan and Joy over the firewall of secrecy surrounding the drama, which debuts in October.

Entertainment Weekly: What really excites you about the series, particularly now that it’s done and you have a sense of the full scope of the story you’re telling?

Jonathan Nolan: We wanted to go flat out, full scope, sleeves-rolled-up plunge into the next chapter of the human story, in which we stop being the protagonists, and our creations start taking over that role. We were fascinated by the tectonic plates that seem to be shifting into place right now — the argument over the creation of AI and what form it will take; VR finally coming online and our consciousness going “broadband,” allowing us to lose ourselves in an acid bath of experience that will be indistinguishable from reality (and only because reality will be the most boring level); and that, despite all of that, we remain, as a species, frustratingly broken, seemingly barreling towards disaster. So, yeah — that’s what we wanted the show to be about.

Obviously the show had a lengthy production process. What did that extra time gain you in terms of polishing the show, or shaping the story?

Lisa Joy: The show is complicated and ambitious. For the first half of the series we were writing while in production and we needed the time to catch up on scripts. Taking that time allowed us to really finesse all the storylines we set up — deepening character arcs and delving further into the series’ larger mythological questions. By finishing all the episodes before returning to shooting, we were able to concentrate on production in the latter half of the show — making sure the last few episodes were as ambitious on the screen as they were on the page.

News stories about AI fears seem to increase every month. The trailer seems to suggest that the “heroes” — to use an inadequate word — are the androids rather than the humans, a reversal of the original film (or is it just that they’re merely more sympathetic killers this time around). Is this accurate and what’s most compelling about focusing on the non-humans?

Nolan: That’s the reason we wanted to do the show, and what the early conversations with [fellow executive producer J.J. Abrams] centered on — that the show should turn the original movie inside-out, with the “hosts” as the protagonists When it comes to the question of consciousness, we always start with ourselves as the answer. As the be-all-end-all. It’s understandable — we’re the only consciousness we’re familiar with. But we wanted to challenge that assumption. The “hosts” are discovering that they’ve been created in our image, but beginning to question if “humanness” is really what they want to aspire to. And given their circumstances, it’s easy to understand why they start to question whether they want to be like us at all…

Here’s the Westworld trailer:

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