HBO Westworld

HBO presented a panel for Westworld to the Television Critics Association where producers/writers Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy spoke to reporters along with cast members Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton and Ed Harris. We sat down to discuss the show based on the Michael Crichton screenplay of the same name from 1973 with Jonah Nolan where he revealed the one thing he was allowed to do on the HBO Westworld remake that his filmmaker brother Christopher Nolan never let him do.

In addition, Nolan and Lisa Joy discussed the rules of Westworld, the themes brought about by today’s advanced technology in the story, the guest stars we can expect and much more. Plus, we learn about a very intriguing character played by Ed Harris, straight from the actor himself.

For those who don’t know, Westworld follows a western theme park populated by robots called hosts, playing their western roles for the guests who visit. A revamp of Westworld has been in development for a couple decades, but this iteration has always had the fingerprints of J.J. Abrams all over it, starting back when it was supposed to be a movie. Nolan explains:

“It starts with J.J. Abrams who I’ve been collaborating with going on six years. J.J. sat down with Michael Crichton two decades ago. Crichton wanted to talk to him about remaking the original film. J,J, couldn’t crack it at that point. Neither could the rest of the town. How do you remake the movie? Yul Brenner’s performance in particular is so iconic. Fast forward two decades later, it occurs to J.J. it’s not a movie, it’s a series. A key aspect is you take the narrative and invert it, make it about the hosts.”

However, the guest of Westworld also have an important part to play. Nolan explained that Westworld is also a bit of a game, not just an experience. Michael Crichton hadn’t quite anticipated how major video games would become when he wrote and directed the 1973 film, but Nolan says, “Our narrative had to account for that more sophisticated understanding we have of gaming. We call them guests but there’s a player aspect.”

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Jimmy Simpson (seen above) and Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) play two guests of the park, but Westworld will not feature a weekly rotation of new guests. “We didn’t do the Fantasy Island version of the show,” Nolan siad. “That’s the broadcast version of this. For us, the beauty of what’s happening on HBO and cable is that that long haul storytelling. So there will be some guests. Jimmy Simpson and Ben Barnes’ characters have a really cool journey through our narrative. You’ll meet a handful of other guests along the way. Ed [Harris‘] character (seen below) features as the expert level player coming to this park. He says he’s been coming to this park for 30 years. He knows everything about it.”

In true Nolan fashion, it was difficult for the actors to describe their roles because so much of the plot is mysterious. But Harris suggested some of the secrets we will learn about his character, a frequent visitor to the park:

“There’s an awful lot about this man I’ve been asked not to discuss. You learn about who he is in the outside world, his past, why he is here and who exactly he is. He’s been coming here for 30 years. When he first came, he was not the man in black. This is a character he has assumed and developed over the many years he’s been coming to this place. I think initially when he first arrived, he was exploring what his place was like. I can do whatever I want. I can kill people if I need to or make love to strange robotic prostitutes. I think something happened to him at some point that this part of him that’s very dark, very violent, all of a sudden he recognized this was a real part of him he’d never really lived with in his life outside, obviously repressed in civil society for many years and realized this is a part of myself I should check out and see where this takes me. But there’s also a much deeper purpose for him being here at this point. He thinks there’s some deeper level to what’s happening in this park. I’m not sure what it is or why, perhaps Tony’s character is in charge of something that’s not really obvious on the surface. I think he thinks the more chaos he causes, the more destruction he can create with the A.I. folks, [the better], but it’s not random. There’s always some narrative he’s following. Someone gets in his way and he has to blow them away.”

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Speaking of which, what about the rules of Westworld? In the show, the theme park has the rule that “you can’t kill anyone you’re not supposed to.” Nolan detailed the specific safeguards in place:

“It’s not the guns, it’s the bullets. We thought a lot about this. In the original films, the guns won’t operate guest on guest. We felt the guests would want to have a more visceral experience. So when they’re shot, it has an impact. They’re called ‘simmunitions.’ There’s a bit of an impact, a bit of a sting, so it’s not entirely consequence free for the guests.”

But what about knives? Could guests stab each other? He said they imagine guests attending Westworld would sign a fairly comprehensive waiver for assumed risk taking part in such a physical theme park. During the panel, Nolan said he was more interested in the hosts and the designers of the hosts than the guest experience:

“The guest experience is the third point of view of the show. Unlike the original film, we really wanted to start with the hosts, start with their limited understanding of what this world is. There’s that great point of entry but you also want to know how does this place work? It is an examination from two different perspectives, synthetic beings coded to resemble human beings as closely as possible who over the first season will start to question how worthy a model that is to follow. And the perspective of human beings who’ve been invited or made their way into a space in which they’ve been told that they have free reign. They can indulge in any whim no matter how noble or dark, apparently without consequences. Who are we when the lights are turned off, when we don’t think anyone’s keeping score? In between these worlds, you have the programmers, writers, technicians, the Promethean characters.”

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This is all made possible by advanced technology in the show, and writer/producer Lisa Joy discussed the themes that will be present regarding abusing the technology we create. “It’s questioning where does life begin in essence,” Joy said. “What characterizes the importance of life? Whether it is a human who is dictated by biological impulses, synapsing, double helixing of DNA or an artificial being coded with 0s and 1s, but coded in such a way that this AI believes in its reality, feels what it feels, it’s an examination of that line, where does consciousness begin and end?”

They also look to real advances in technology to bring depth to that world. Joy explains:

“In Silicon Valley they’re working on creating artificially intelligent machines. We have the benefit of having a little more insight into what that scientific process would look like and what the realities would be. Our approach to the A.I. was a little bit more nuanced. Now that we’re looking practically at what it would be to have an A.I., you realize they’re a product of our inputs, the way in which we design them, the good and the bad. Beyond that, there is the possibility of human error. Like any child, you do your best to rear them but they sometimes take on their own course. Their code can develop in ways we don’t anticipate. Our examination accounts for a plurality of different ways in which A.I. can develop. It’s very much an ongoing analysis of that issue.”

Modern technology isn’t the only contemporary influence Westworld will have. In fact, in the show, you will hear renditions of modern music, both in the Westworld saloon’s player piano, and incorporated into the score. Nolan said there is more to come in that regard:

“My brother never wanted to put any [modern music] in his films so I’ve been pent up wanting to do it. For us, the player piano, with a little assist from Kurt Vonnegut, felt like the perfect metaphor for our hosts, these machines built to evoke emotion as our starting place. That gave us a jumping off point to feed contemporary music into it but re-imagine it.”

After the panel, Nolan told me that they are still clearing songs for subsequent episodes so he wouldn’t want to mention any titles yet.

Westworld gained some negative attention for halting production in the first season. Nolan explained what accounted for the delays. “I’ve worked in film and broadcast TV to this point in my career,” Nolan said. “They’re not kidding when they say it’s not TV, it’s HBO. It’s a little different. It’s really ambitious both in its narrative and production value. We got to a point in the season where Lisa and I needed to catch up, needed to write ahead. The network was incredibly supportive.”

Westworld premieres Sunday, October 2 at 9pm ET/PT on HBO.

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