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.
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
Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld.