That hu­man touch

The co-creators of West­world on be­ing part­ners on and off the set, and why real an­droids might be a bad idea.

Esquire (Singapore) - - MaHB -

West­world has seized our minds by cap­tur­ing our anx­i­eties in this cul­tural mo­ment, when we’re not sure who is who or where real­ity ends and tech be­gins. Plus: ro­bots are awe­some. And the co-creators of one of tele­vi­sion’s most en­ter­tain­ing and philo­soph­i­cal shows are a seem­ingly mild-man­nered mar­ried cou­ple with kids, Jonathan Nolan (who co-wrote The Dark Knight and In­ter­stel­lar) and Lisa Joy (pre­vi­ously a writer and pro­ducer on Burn No­tice). We talked to them about suc­cess, stay­ing sane at home, and, of course, ro­bots.

E S Q: What’s it like to work to­gether as a mar­ried cou­ple and as par­ents?

Jonathan nolan: We’ve turned it into a fam­ily af­fair. With sep­a­rate ca­reers, you’ve had a bad day, you go home and your part­ner’s had a great day. They kind of can­cel each other out. When we’ve had a bad day, we’ve both had a bad day. The highs are that much higher and the lows are that much lower, but it’s an in­cred­i­ble journey to be on to­gether. l i S a J oy: It’s not great for hav­ing laid-back beers where you talk about the weather, be­cause it’s this all-con­sum­ing thing. We’re chat­ting about ei­ther our fam­ily and our home or the world of the show. I love the idea of the lit­er­ary sa­lons in France where artists and writ­ers would all come and talk and drink ab­sinthe. This is a re­pro­duc­tion of that, with­out the ab­sinthe and with the ad­di­tion of scream­ing tod­dlers. Get­ting to that place where you’re just two very ex­hausted par­ents

at the end of the day, but in the mean­time you’ve been in a sa­loon heist—it’s like you get the chance to live a cou­ple life­times si­mul­ta­ne­ously with the per­son whose com­pany you en­joy the most.

E S Q: It al­most sounds like you like each other. L i S a J oy: We have a lot of creative tus­sles, too. Jonathan noLan: You caught us on a good day.

E S Q: There’s ev­i­dence that when en­trepreneurs start com­pa­nies with friends or spouses, they of­ten strug­gle more—in part be­cause they have a harder time with con­flict. They shy away from dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions about work, which ends up hurt­ing both their pro­fes­sional col­lab­o­ra­tion and their per­sonal re­la­tion­ship. How do you avoid that trap? L i S a J oy: Cur­rently, the prob­lem is not enough con­flict, by what you just said. Jonathan noLan: We’ve been read­ing each other’s shit for so long that I think we’ve got­ten to the place where we’re pretty frank with one another when some­thing’s not work­ing. I’m never hap­pier than when Lisa says: ‘It’s great.’ Be­cause I know it’s great. Hem­ing­way said that to be a writer you need to have a built-in, shock­proof bull­shit de­tec­tor. L i S a J oy: That’s me. I ac­tu­ally feel more com­fort­able telling Jonah [Jonathan is Jonah to fam­ily and friends] very di­rectly when I don’t think some­thing’s work­ing than I would with any­body else. Another writer might ques­tion whether you’re feel­ing com­pet­i­tive. But if I talk to Jonah, I know that he truly val­ues my suc­cess more than his own. And I truly value his suc­cess more than my own. There’s a gen­eros­ity there.

E S Q: Lisa, what’s it like di­rect­ing for the first time, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing #MeToo and Time’s Up? L i S a J oy: I’ve tried to al­ways be in­cred­i­bly over­pre­pared in ev­ery­thing that I’ve done. I think part of it comes from be­ing a woman. It’s hard to get that first chance, and if you mess up, you just don’t get a sec­ond chance, right? So you al­ways want to ex­ceed ex­pec­ta­tions out of the gate.

I was think­ing, I don’t want to do this un­less I can re­ally nail it. And so I started talk­ing my­self out of it. That’s when Jonah did the fig­u­ra­tive ver­sion of push­ing me out the door and lock­ing it be­hind me. Be­cause ev­ery time I ex­pressed mis­giv­ings, he’d be like: ‘You’re di­rect­ing this sea­son. You’re a nat­u­ral di­rec­tor.’ And I’d say: ‘But the kids.’ And he’d say: ‘I got the kids.’ And I’d be like: ‘But the rest of pro­duc­tion.’ And he’s like: ‘I got that.’

E S Q: Jonathan, from Me­mento to The Pres­tige to West­world, it al­most seems like your mis­sion in life is to show us that our per­cep­tions are flawed. Is there a larger pur­pose be­hind the kinds of sto­ries you choose to tell? Jonathan noLan: I’ve known that I was colour­blind since I was a kid, but I thought of my con­di­tion as sub­tle un­til just a cou­ple years ago—ap­par­ently, the whole world is piss yel­low to me. That’s a small de­tail, but it re­flected a larger in­ter­est of how we as­sem­ble our iden­ti­ties and how it maps onto real­ity.

In West­world, we were in­ter­ested in the dif­fer­ences between an ar­ti­fi­cial mind and a hu­man one. And it oc­curred to us that the mem­ory would be very dif­fer­ent. For the most part, the pic­tures in your phone don’t de­grade over time. But our mem­o­ries change. So we were in­ter­ested in pro­tag­o­nists who had per­fect re­call but weren’t sup­posed to. How would they dis­tin­guish between a mem­ory and a present real­ity?

So we con­flated those things for Dolores [Evan Rachel Wood’s char­ac­ter] and we didn’t tell the au­di­ence. In the sec­ond sea­son, they’re now aware of that, so we can ex­plore that from the out­side in in­stead of just the inside out.

E S Q: Given all the time you spend think­ing about what it means for an an­droid to be in­creas­ingly hu­man, what would you like to say to AI de­sign­ers? Jonathan noLan: Stop. L i S a J oy: Be­ing care­ful of hubris is as im­por­tant as know­ing the tech­nol­ogy that you are de­vel­op­ing. See in your­self and other peo­ple the ca­pac­ity both for evil and for good. Know that the ma­chines you build, your cre­ations, will bear your finger­prints to some de­gree. And not nec­es­sar­ily the finger­prints you in­ten­tion­ally left but the ones that kind of grazed it un­in­ten­tion­ally. It’s im­por­tant to have peo­ple who will ques­tion you oc­ca­sion­ally. E S Q: What’s the worst piece of ca­reer ad­vice you’ve each been given? Jonathan noLan: I’ve al­ways thought “write what you know” was dumb. I want to be care­ful here be­cause clearly there’s been a mas­sive deficit in sto­ry­telling of diver­sity in voices and peo­ple speak­ing from their ex­pe­ri­ence. I think for peo­ple to write their truth is an admirable thing. But I think you can coun­te­nance a world in which that is val­ued and still al­low writ­ers to write—not just from their per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences but from their dreams. I was a bor­ing sub­ur­ban kid. If I’d fol­lowed that ad­vice, we’d never be writ­ing about 19th-cen­tury ma­gi­cians or vig­i­lantes who dress up like bats. L i S a J oy: I think that’s true. As an Asian woman, all of those things fac­tor into the way that I write and see the world, I’m sure. But part of who I am is just a writer who wants to write about ro­bots, man. Ev­ery so of­ten, you just want to write about ro­bots. Or a gi­ant space war. Or maybe I want to write a male hero. Hold­ing women to the idea of “write what you know” sub­tly re­in­forces the sta­tus quo. Writ­ing is a chance to cel­e­brate who we are. But it’s also a chance to cel­e­brate who we could be.

What­ever you’re gonna write, fig­ure it out. Do your re­search. Talk to peo­ple. Un­der­stand and fully imag­ine a world. Oth­er­wise it will not feel true.

Power cou­ple: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy on the set of

HBO’s West­world.

Evan Rachel Wood in West­world.

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