How the Creators of 'Westworld' Built a Violent World of Robot Cowboys

We talked to 'Westworld' showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy about bringing their expansive futuristic vision to life.

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Sep 30 2016, 4:00am

All photos courtesy of HBO

Over the last two decades, HBO's original programming has become synonymous with ambition—but Westworld might be one of the channel's most expansive and audacious projects to date. Drawing from the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name and premiering this Sunday at 9 PM, the show chronicles a gigantic Western-themed amusement park that's less Six Flags and more Red Dead Redemption: Androids dressed up in dusty garb are the main attraction, and you can do anything you want with them—befriend them, drink with them, fuck them, even kill them. The robots—or, as the show calls them, "hosts"—are unable to inflict injury on the park's guests; without giving too much away, there's plenty of foreboding occurrences in the episodes sent out to press to suggest that the host-guest relationship won't remain neutral for long.

Explicitly tackling Big Themes—religion, technology, morality, and the nature of human (and inhuman) violence among them—while casting a captivating aura, Westworld impressively balances its weighty philosophical bearings with a heady and entertaining swirl of romance, murder, and mystery. If that description reminds you of ABC's mid-2000s sci-fi-tinged sensation Lost, you're not too off the mark; that show's creator and executive producer, J. J. Abrams, also carries an executive producing credit on Westworld with creators and showrunners Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Pushing Daisies, Burn Notice).

One of the many issues Lost faced was a lack of planning when it came to fleshing out and making sense of the show's mythology. Clearly, Joy and Nolan are taking pains to avoid similar pitfalls: In recent weeks, there have been reports that they and HBO have planned for a whopping five seasons of Westworld thus far. When I brought up that figure to Joy and Nolan in conversation earlier this week, they laughed before clarifying that their vision is not that specific just yet. "The fastest way to guarantee you don't get the number [of seasons] you want is to settle on a number," Nolan explained. "I've done this long enough to know that it's foolish to assume you can plan things out with that much precision—but when you embark on a series like this, you really need to have a sense of where it's going."

Creating a TV show with its own distinct world separate from its source material was important to Joy and Nolan, too. "The original movie provided a springboard for the world we wanted to create," Joy said. "When we initially embarked on this, we spent a lot of time committing to what we wanted to do in the pilot—where we wanted to go and how we wanted to build the mythology. In the end, we looked like maniacs, because we pasted all of these ideas on the wall of the room in which we were working. By the time we were done, there wasn't a window [in the room] to be seen. That's when we thought, 'OK, it's probably time to start writing so we can take this stuff down off the wall.'"

VICE: The show reminds me a lot of playing open-world RPG video games. Were video games something that you guys were thinking about while creating the show?
Jonathan Nolan:
Yeah, very much—I used to play video games, before we had a three-year-old.
Lisa Joy: And a TV show. [Laughs]
Nolan: A lot of interesting storytelling that's happening right now is in video games—which literally didn't exist when Michael Crichton was writing the original film. Now, video games are a bigger industry than film or TV. I've never worked in that industry, but we have friends who have, and I was fascinated by the concept of writing a story in which the protagonists' actions aren't part of the story. In games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, or the sandbox games that Bioware make, morality is a variable. How do you write a story in which the hero's moral component exists on a spectrum? That's a fascinating challenge.

I'm also fascinated by how non-player-characters in video games have their own lives. In Skyrim, when you walk into a village, you aren't necessarily the most important person there. The NPCs have lives that happen whether you're there or not. I was listening to directors' commentary from [video game developer] Ken Levine about building Bioshock Infinite and the affection that game developers and designers develop for their characters. It's a qualitatively different relationship than the one screenwriters have with their characters, because video game characters don't just recite dialogue—they do shit, and the players interact with them. It's a relationship that I think Crichton anticipated to some degree, but it's become much more complicated than even he could imagine.

"The [AI] honeymoon is probably going to last for about 18 months before one of them becomes sentient and wants out. I definitely think this is the story of our age." —Jonathan Nolan

Some of the elements of artificial intelligence that Westworld explores seem closer to real life than we might like to admit. Are the growing capabilities of AI good or bad for society?
Joy:
For me, it's about whether we're bad or good. AI is, in some way, a reflection of its creators. How it behaves is patterned on what drive we program it with, and how we behave with it is up to us—what our values are, as well as our levels of empathy and humanization with it. Historically, I've been less than impressed with how well humans empathize with groups that they think of as "other." I think it's a glitch in humanity, this inability to empathize. But I'm also optimistic—there's a lot of good that can be done in AI, and I hope that side of it prevails.

Nolan: We're just about at that uncomfortable moment in which we'll be able to create universes fully inhabited by nearly-AI creatures who will do our bidding and satisfy our every appetite. The honeymoon is probably going to last for about 18 months before one of them becomes sentient and wants out. I definitely think this is the story of our age.

Photo by John P. Johnson/courtesy of HBO

Both of your previous experiences in television have been quite different from what Westworld is.
Nolan:
When they say, "It's not TV, its HBO," they're not kidding. In terms of the scope and the production values, it's somewhere in between a television series and a series of films. A lot of the things we've learned over the years were helpful, but a lot were not, too. [On Person of Interest], I got very accustomed to being able to write and produce and shoot and cut simultaneously, but with this show that was impossible.

Joy: For me, being able to tell a completely serialized ensemble story was completely new. Everything else I'd done before had a certain level of procedural quality to it. This was a wonderful opportunity to dive deep into character and long-form mythology storytelling. On Pushing Daisies, [series creator Brian Fuller] always emphasized the visuals on the page, and that's a habit that stuck with me. It's not just about the words you're writing down—it's a visual spectacle, too, and Westworld is a very visual show.

Even considering HBO's reputation, Westworld is pretty violent and sexually explicit.
Nolan:
This might be somewhat hypocritical, but Lisa and I aren't terribly interested in portrayals of sexual violence onscreen. Obviously, part of what the show is about is that, but it wasn't something we were interested in fetishizing. It is a show about violence, though, and we're asking the question, "Why is it that we like violence in almost all of our entertainment?" Violence is in most of the stories we like to watch, but it isn't part of what we like to do—so why are [the guests on Westworld] paying money to exercise that appetite?

Joy: We have a toddler at home, and I try to curate her movies and entertainment so that its not that violent—but it's incredibly difficult, because even most of the classic children's tales feature violence and loss. Why are we so drawn to loss and violence? I think it's a kind of medicine—we explore in fiction what we desperately fear and abhor in reality, and chronicling it in fiction is our way of avoiding it or learning from it. Maybe that's also why people go into the park in Westworld. It's not necessarily a question we have the answer to, but it's something that we've talked about.

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Westworld premieres on HBO at 10 PM on Sunday.

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