Interview: 'Westworld' Creators Jonathan Nolan And Lisa Joy On Building Their Intellectual Lego Set

Photo by John P. Johnson/HBO[/caption]

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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And what the guests do the hosts is often unsettling to watch. It's interesting, though, that someone could have a completely different reaction to those images, thinking that's what the hosts are there for.

Joy: We found the same thing. It reinforced for us that entertainment is very subjective. We have what our interpretation of what you should feel and what we're trying to say here, but once you put it out into the world, it becomes communal property, and each individual internalizes it differently. I have to tell you, I was quite shocked myself when there would be scenes that we would write where I would think of it as this tragic scene and my empathies would be so rooted with the hosts.

I would talk to people, people I like, who would come at it much more from the gaming perspective of saying, "Well, what does it matter? They'll be wiped, and they'll be put back in the park the next day, and it doesn't really matter. They're just playing the game. They're just fulfilling their role." It was definitely a conscious calibration to try to combat that kind of wall that people have between themselves and the other, especially if that other is thought of as a robot or a gaming NPC, and to really enliven their plight and root ourselves as the audience with them and their condition.

The park is built on these narratives, and you see Dr. Robert Ford discuss what customers get out of these stories written for them. Is Westworld at all about the nature of storytelling? 

Nolan: I'm not usually drawn to stories that are about what we do. I don't think what we do, as writers or filmmakers, is terribly interesting. But here, the content was so clearly about interactive storytelling that it prompted us to ask questions about what we do that I'm still wrestling with, right?

We abhor violence in the real world, but we almost overwhelmingly enjoy it in drama. Storytelling is an odd phenomena. I've never done anything else. I've been doing this since I was a kid, and I hadn't had a lot of opportunities to stop and sit back and ask, "What is the purpose of what we do? What is it for? Is it simply entertainment?" Well, if it's entertainment, why is there so many common themes? Why there are so many things that people come back to again and again and again? Why is violence and transgression such a big part of that? For me, it was a really interesting opportunity to ask questions about the nature of storytelling. Why do we do it? What is it for? Does it connect to consciousness? Are humans distinct in their consciousness because we tell stories?

For us, the show doesn't propose to provide any answers. It's just, ultimately, asking interesting questions about why people would come to this place, what they would get out of it, what they'd be looking for, what people are trying to get out of the stories and games that they immerse themselves in. It was a really fascinating, for us, a fascinating form to play with those questions a little bit.

Going back a few years, when J.J. Abrams first came to you both with Westworld, what were some of the other original ideas that were discussed? 

Nolan: We can't tell you. [Laughs] In that first conversation with J.J., I think we talked about things that we will build should we be so lucky to keep telling our story if the audience digs it. Some of those ideas are places we want to go to in season three and four. The reason why Lisa and I couldn't say no to this project was it was an opportunity to play with almost all of the questions we were interested in, right now.

Joy: Thematically, it was so ripe with opportunities to explore. I mean, some of them, we've talked about already. There's the examination of human nature, the responsibilities of scientists, their creation, the role of storytelling and understanding our society and understanding ourselves. There are also other themes that I find really enduring, and it's the idea of a sense of self. Is it manufactured, or is it authentic? I don't just mean the hosts, who are programmed and must grapple with the issue of, "Is this me, or is this somebody else's idea of me that I'm living?"

Those questions define what the teenage years and the mid-life crisis years are, like, "Who am I? Who do I want to be? Am I living someone else's script, or is this my authentic self?" I think those are timeless issues, and then there are the themes of love, betrayal, and loss.

It's a theme park that invites adventure and larger-than-life action and stakes, and so you'll feel all those sweeping stories, and it's a great chance to examine them. In the case of love, Dolores has lived for decades now on the cusp with something, on the cusp of leaving her homestead and venturing out into the world. She lives in that hope, on the razor's edge of that hope for years and years and years.

There's something about that notion of idealistic love that we're trying to explore but also the idea of, "What is real love then?" People come to the park in order to sometimes experience the idea of romantic love, but it's a synthetic romantic love. Beyond that synthetic romantic love and that idealized presentation of love, what does it mean when all the artifice falls away? What's the kind of love that endures? That's something we're examining too.

Westworld Premiere

Mr. Nolan, in a previous interview, you mentioned some people in Silicon Valley were hesitant to talk too much about the state of artificial intelligence, just because of the competition involved. What sort of research were you both able to do?

Nolan: I'm a believer in doing a certain amount of research and then stopping before you do so much research that you find yourself lost in a thicket of ... Obviously, with the show, we're pushing into the future a little bit. We had some interesting conversations with some interesting people who had insight there. I think people were reluctant to be on the record talking about it because there is a bit of an arms race thing that's happening in Silicon Valley right now with AI.

Google and Facebook are two of the bigger players. This will become the essence of their business. The concept of an AGI or a machine intelligence that can approximate and think like we do makes what Google and Facebook do that much more efficient and compelling. Advertising is limited in its impact because it's so often wrong. It's showing you the wrong product. Consider all the time that you spent watching, you know, feminine hygiene commercials. It's being played for the wrong person, right?

The second that you can fine-tune that advertising and have it deliver to you the thing that you really want or the things that you didn't even know you wanted. For them, it's a market-driven reality. I think we're probably closer to it than we imagine we are, based on the conversations that we had. I mean, look, people were paying some attention when DeepMind beat the world Go champion earlier in the year, but that's a landmark moment. The press tried to bring attention to it, but IBM had beaten chess years ago, so the significance of the moment with Go was, "We don't have any more complicated games that we can play." That's as complicated as it gets, right?

The idea that we're now subordinated to the machine in all of our most rule-based intellectual pursuits means that, on some level, on a somewhat esoteric level, we're already there. Now, as you watch that creep into the softer sciences and everything else ... You know, I welcome the day when our robot overlords can take over the scriptwriting on our behalf, and we can just watch. [Laughs] That would be very exciting.

The limited glimpse that we had into the state of the art of what's happening up there made us feel ... I mean, that's just Silicon Valley. Who knows what's happening in China? Who knows what's happening in other places around the world? This is one of the reasons why we found the subject so compelling. We live in the moment before. We live in the moment in which AI could not exist. We're approaching it asymptotically. There will be an after.

I think part of the reason why so many smart people are going public with their concerns, whether you're talking Stephen Hawking or Elon Musk, that AI is being developed in a proprietary, closed way. Pushing for Elon's open AI initiative is an effort to make sure that at least everyone understands that this sort of stuff is available to people so when we make AI, it's not a proprietary, closed system. There's a lot of really smart people who are very worried about the way this is happening, but part of the problem is us.

By "us," I mean TV and television producers and writers and filmmakers because we've spent so much time dealing with this subject as science fiction. We've done such an effective job of making it seem like a dystopian nightmare that I don't think ... I love all those movies, but you have exceptional pieces like Her, the Spike Jonze film from 2013 that had a very nuanced, very original take on what our interactions with AI would be like, one that I found quite inspiring.

Otherwise, we've convinced everyone this is 30 years in the future, and it's dystopian. No, it's going to be more subtle and complicated than that. It's closer to us that we think. In fact, it'll probably happen, and we won't realize it's happened. I think that everyone is so focused on the singularity of the idea that will be this massive, on-rushing, and overwhelming set of events. I'm actually more interested in the idea, and the show certainly explores the idea that it could happen, that two things could happen.

One, that we could reach that moment more subtly than we imagine, that we could slip over that barrier without realizing it. Two, and this is a slightly more worrying version, that we would continue to move the goal posts, in part because we don't like things that challenge our primacy. We don't like the idea that our machines would be as smart as we are.

By some measures, the Turing test has already been passed, right? I mean, there's an international Turing competition every year, and a couple of years ago, a pretend 13-year-old boy from Russia, by the terms of the competition, won, right? The judges were unable to determine that this was a piece of software as opposed to a real person. Then with the immediate backsliding of like, "Yeah, but it wasn't but ... Yeah ..." I think this is probably going to creep up on us a little bit. Part of what the show deals with is the idea that we'll redefine what sentient is ever so slightly further than whatever we're dealing with in the moment.

Westworld Seasons

When it came to realizing Westworld, how thorough did you and everyone get with the rules and the inner workings of the park?

Joy: I mean, thorough enough that you look like an insane person at the beginning of the show. As we were starting out, we had a wonderful, creative, original movie, but we're really expanding it and converting the world significantly. Before even embarking on writing the pilot, we wanted to feel sure that we understood the story, where it could go and the depths of some of the things that we wanted to explore, and that included an understanding of the world and the rules of the world.

Though we don't explicitly address rules that much within the episodes, there is certainly an underlying rule set. The reason you don't explicitly address them is because we're trying to root it in the hosts' point of view and gradually come to understand how the world works with them, to be mystified by it sometimes but then to realize the underlying logic of it becomes clear. Certainly a part of the thinking about theories has been mapping out the loops of all the different hosts, some them major characters, some of them minor characters. It's really exploring a bunch of different storylines that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg on.

Then it involves maps of what Westworld actually would look like and different towns within it and what those towns would involve and the different mythologies that would exist there. That's a constantly fun thing to engage in. It's kind of like playing with a giant set of intellectual Legos and just building and building and building.

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Westworld airs Sundays at 9 PM on HBO.