Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy take our burning premiere questions
You just saw HBO’s Westworld premiere. You now have questions (lots and lots of questions). We have some answers — or rather, some helpful clarifications — on some of the things you saw. Below showrunners Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan and Lisa Joy took our questions about that shocking scene, the structure of the park, how the robots work (what’s with those Reveries and that “violent delights” phrase?) and more. Think of this as your park map to the premiere — no spoilers for what’s ahead in the coming weeks, but some helpful orientation on that story-stuffed first hour (we had to watch it three times). Of course, if you rather know nothing and just experience the show as pure narrative, stop reading now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Okay, I’m going to try to start with a couple basic setting questions that you may or may not be willing to get into at this stage. You said during HBOs new behind-the-scenes video that Westworld is set in the 21st century. Wondering if you can reveal what year?
Jonathan Nolan: That’s something for the audience to discover. We very want as much as possible for the audience to experience the show from the host perspective — where it’s somewhere in the mid-to-late 19th century. So they’re just getting starting to get a handle on how that’s not the case.
Lisa Joy [to Jonathan]: Basically, James called you on giving away a spoiler on our behind-the-scenes video, Jonah. You were just busted, Mr. Secrecy!
I didn’t mean to get him in trouble.
Joy: Now I’m like: “Jonah, what are you doing?!”
Nolan: Um, who’s to say it’s not metaphorical? [Laughter]
So, moving on! The exteriors were shot in Utah. Are we supposed to assume the park is literally in Utah or a similar Western state, or might this all be set someplace entirely different?
Joy: At the risk of sounding like Jonah, exactly where and when we are is something we’re going to be exploring and revealing through the eyes of the hosts later on down the line. One thing I can definitely say is that later on we’ll see the ways the park is terraformed. Not only are the hosts and wardrobe and dialogue are designed meticulously, but also the land is also designed for the park.
One more orientation question, but I think this is one you can probably answer. The action cuts from the park to the behind-the-scenes team who operate on what our own Jeff Jensen calls — and I love this term — “the showrunner level.” But it’s like we see there’s this big above-ground facility on a cliff and also these areas underground below the park and it’s not clear what’s happening where. Can you give us a sense of what the cliff facility is for vs. what happens in those underground levels?
Nolan: We mapped it all out with the help of our intrepid production designer Nathan Crowley. So the idea is that most of the facilities are underground. We sort of pictured a 100-story building skyscraper that goes down instead of up, which for us was also a visual metaphor for the age of the park. When you’re in the older portion of it [far below the surface], the cold storage, it has been clearly repurposed from something that used to be more grand. The more functional bloody aspects of host maintenance are literally down further on the totem pole and when you get to the top of the mesa structure — that pool area you see in the episode — that’s a detox area from people coming out of the park. The idea being, you wrap up your stay in the park and spend a night or two on the mesa having a cocktail, reliving your experiences with a little R&R before you go back to the real world. So the shock of coming out of full vacation mode — or homicidal mode, or whatever your fancy is — is buffered somewhat by conventional modern luxury before you go back. The techs, depending on their station or pay scale, they have accommodations that map onto their importance. But in some moments in the first four episodes somebody makes a reference to “getting leave” so you get the sense the [workers are] in the park for several weeks at a stretch before they rotate home.
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When we’re told in the premiere that the park “hasn’t had a critical failure in 30 years.” Are we supposed to take the events in the 1973 movie as canon — that everything in the Westworld film happened in this universe – or was that reference not meant to literally be to the film’s events?
Nolan: It’s playful but not meant to be literal. We wanted to connect to the ideas in the original film, but also take a look at this place as a cultural institution that is not new — because these ideas aren’t new. They stretch back to when Crichton was playing with them. We wanted to consider the park in that capacity, as a cultural institution in the manner of a Disney World. We feel like there’s a long story here. Like there’s something so pointed and sad for us about the idea that Dolores, this sort of evergreen frontier girl next door. She’s been that plucky heroine for 30 years.
Joy: She’s that wide-eyed, innocent, always wondering “Oh, when will my life begin? When will it all start?” in that romantic, existential way in which all people do at that phase in their lives. “When will I find my love?”
She’s like a Disney princess.
Joy: Exactly, very much so. And then to take that Disney princess and put her through the ringer and explore some existential stuff.
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In the original film, the Delos company had different lands, not just Westworld but Roman World and Medieval World too. Are we meant to assume those other lands might also exist?
Nolan: I would assume nothing. We’ve got an awful lot of material to cover just with Westworld, but you want to stay tuned.
Let’s get into those pesky Reveries — the new gestures programmed by Dr. Ford that are seemingly causing the glitches. We’re told they’re tied to past memories. But we’re also told their memories are reset over and over again, which at first seems contradictory. Can you clarify how much of the host’s past is on their mental hard drives that they potentially might be able to access?
Nolan: How much they can remember is an important question for the season.
Joy: I’m looking at my husband going: “Can you be a little less vague, dude?”
Feel free to jump in and rescue this interview! [Laughter]
Joy: When I write a script, I have all the old versions of the script on my laptop. They’re saved as backups in case something goes horribly wrong. But I only use the latest configuration.
Nolan: It’s like Time Machine on the Mac.
Joy: Exactly. So there are past incarnations of their characters that are stored but the hosts just don’t have access to them — or aren’t supposed to have access to them. The Reveries work on a kind of subliminal level. What I think of them as — because I’m not a coder, Jonah is more into that world — for me it was imagining that consciousness and history are a deep sea and Reveries are tiny fishhooks that you dip into it and get little gestures and subconscious ticks. The hosts don’t consciously know where they’re drawn from, but they’re just there to add some nuance to their expressions and gestures. But dipping that fishhook in might prove to be a little .. fraught.
When Delores tells Bernard that her father told her the “violent delights” phrase, the camera then cuts back to her father continuing to speak. Are we supposed to assume there was more that he said in addition to that phrase and that she lied to him about it?
Nolan: No, I think it’s the phrase itself that’s important. The seemingly innocuous phrase that has layers of meaning behind it.
This might also be a bit confusing to some, as well: The hosts don’t know they’re robots. Yet they have a level in their programing that’s accessed while in those creepy “Analysis Mode” interviews with the tech staff. So they have some awareness that they’re robots on some root level?
Nolan: We wanted to play with the ways in which the hosts are similar to us and the the ways we’re different. Humans only have one sort of aperture for consciousness. There’s many different levels and lots of smarter people than me have tried to analyze how all of those pieces fit together: the conscious, the subconscious — all the Freudian-Jungian stuff. But with the hosts, those levels would be explicit. They would have a different architecture. This gave us great fodder [for Westworld programmer characters to] directly query the hosts’ subconscious. You could query my subconscious too, although a lot of it right now would be about cookies [Laughter]. So the ability for the technicians to directly query the subconscious of the hosts was such a fun way to play this dynamic and also hint at the levels of sophistication and control that are latent in the host that they’re not allowed to access. So, no, they’re not aware of their plight. They are aware on another level, but they are forbidden from accessing it.
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Another good twist is the Man in Black is no longer, seemingly, a robot. Which perfectly reflects the whole idea that the hosts are now the heroes and the humans are the villains. And I assume that’s the reason you switched that, but what’s your actual reason?
Joy: It’s tough talking to you because you really have an understanding of this place [Laughter]. Yeah, it was about subverting that. It was important for us to establish that connection with the hosts from the beginning. We’ve been trained to have a distance from those characters in other movies and TV depictions of artificial intelligence. To look at them as the Other. It was important for us to start within their reality, believing in their reality along with them and fully being sunk into that and once you develop that empathetic connection with them initially, it only makes sense that in order to subvert it you have to turn the whole thing inside out. So that was a lot of fun to play with. We started from the point of view because for us it was the most tenuous emphatic connection and if you didn’t nail it right on you might not ever get it. If you started from the guests, we already have that kind of human-centric bias. We had to shake that system. And then after that in future episodes you could expand the guest point of view a little bit more and the technician’s point of view a little bit more so that you really have this trinity of perspectives going on and I think the interplay between them and when different groups feel more human is part of the fun of writing this show and experiencing the show.
The Man in Black attacking Dolores really upset some critics [I make a case for why the scene was crucial in my premiere recap]. But that scene seemed to really dramatize the show’s central question: “Are these actions horrifically evil or are they merely destruction of property?”
Joy: You are right, in terms of the plot, it’s an issue of perspective. If you play a game like Grand Theft Auto you don’t go home afterwards and cry because you ran over a couple characters, because you do not give them personhood. We wanted to set up in this is the idea that these hosts could have personhood and to establish that connection. If you do feel a connection and have empathy for Dolores — which I do — whether that is right or wrong is a lens we’re seeing a bunch of characters through in the series. And it evolves, this is an ever-changing look at people and other creatures. For me, it was important to do that respectfully and to get from it the essential question: “This a terrible, terrible thing that is happening. If Dolores is a person, it’s unforgivable.” Then if you take a step back — and for a minute, you do really have to take a step back to get into the analytical, less visceral place — it’s like:& “If it’s just a robot, does it matter?” That’s a question we continue to ask throughout the series.
I wanted to also ask about Dr. Ford. He’s a bit like the John Hammond character in Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton wrote both, but his Westworld film lacked that creator character. Was there an eye toward Hammond when you wrote this?
Joy: The sad thing is I don’t think I’ve seen Jurassic Park. Not that it’s not an amazing movie, I literally didn’t watch film or TV until I was 23 or something. I have a lot of catching up to do. However, we did have a lot of influences from Prospero to the idea of Walt Disney, and we thought about theme parks and how that would work. And he’s this classic Promethean figure. It’s a bit of an archetype, but with Tony, nothing’s fully archetypal, because he always brings his own twist and sparkle to it.
Another change is the use of contemporary music in the Old West. It’s effective yet also breaks the immersive time period setting. Can you talk about your decision to do that?
Joy: The setting of the show is itself anachronistic. It’s a synthetic Western set in the future — and apparently in the 21st century, according to my husband…
Nolan: Why would I tell the truth in a behind-the-scenes video?
Joy: … so I think our way of doffing our caps to that is in music, mimicking that anarchism. So though they’re contemporary songs, they’re also played in this Old Timey fashion. It mimics the set-up of the series itself.
Nolan: And selfishly, we loved using contemporary music. Also the visual of the player piano is a visual metaphor for the hosts themselves, and is a standard feature of a Western narrative. And we found a company that could make the reels based on contemporary songs. So we have this player piano in our office which is pretty great.