Fast Company - - Contents - By Ni­cole La­porte

Cocre­ators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy talk about AI, fan ex­pec­ta­tions, and the dystopian theme park of Westworld.

When J.J. Abrams pitched screen­writer Jonathan Nolan (In­ter­stel­lar, The Dark Knight) and pro­ducer Lisa Joy (Burn No­tice) on the idea of adapt­ing the 1973 sci-fi–west­ern flick Westworld for the small screen, Nolan de­murred. But Joy (who is also mar­ried to Nolan) sold him on the po­ten­tial emo­tional com­plex­i­ties in a fu­tur­is­tic show that’s set in an Old West–style theme park where guests pay $40,000 a day to shoot up bad guys, bed damsels, and in­ter­act with a pop­u­la­tion of ro­botic “hosts” who are pro­grammed to let them live out their fan­tasies, how­ever per­verse or vi­o­lent. The se­ries, which HBO launched in 2016 with a re­ported per-episode bud­get of be­tween $8 mil­lion and $10 mil­lion, has been praised for its stun­ning vi­su­als and epic scope. Af­ter a year-plus hia­tus, the sec­ond sea­son of Westworld de­buts on April 22. Here, Nolan and Joy talk about the blur­ring of fact and fic­tion, the pos­si­bil­i­ties and per­ils of AI, and what it’s like to be mar­ried to your writ­ing part­ner.

Westworld ad­dresses is­sues that are play­ing out in real life, such as the rise of AI that can cause more harm than good. Do real-world sce­nar­ios af­fect your story lines?

Lisa Joy: Both of us are cu­ri­ous and in­ter­ested in tech­nol­ogy. It’s a vi­tal part of cul­ture. If the arts are meant to be a re­flec­tion

or con­tem­pla­tion on the world, you have to take into con­sid­er­a­tion the great strides or stum­bles that we’re mak­ing.

Jonathan Nolan: Sadly, since we started putting the show out there, the world has taken on a dystopian feel­ing. You have these com­pa­nies— Face­book, Google—bar­rel­ing to­ward AI with zero ac­count­abil­ity, be­cause it ser­vices their cor­po­rate man­date. The bet­ter they can read your mind, the bet­ter they can sell you shit. It’s taken Face­book a long time to come to grips with the fact that it’s re­spon­si­ble for in­ter­fer­ing in our last elec­tion; if they’re tak­ing the same ap­proach to­ward AI that they’re tak­ing to­ward their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in so­cial me­dia, we’re fucked.

LJ: I think there’s less mar­gin for er­ror now. We’re de­sign­ing AI and al­go­rithms that, once they’re out of the box, can amass in­tel­li­gence faster than we can fathom. Peo­ple say, “It’s just a new in­dus­trial age!” When the print­ing press was in­vented, it didn’t start print­ing its own books. This is a dif­fer­ent kind of revo­lu­tion.

Do you feel you have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to com­ment on what’s hap­pen­ing in the real world, or are you more con­cerned with telling a good story?

LJ: I try to come at it from within the story. You al­ways hear that fic­tion is a lie that tells the truth—[i think,] Is there an emo­tional truth you can ac­cess by ground­ing peo­ple in a dif­fer­ent point of view and [then] ex­pand­ing it and walk­ing through those steps to­gether? What if you start to think, along with [a Westworld char­ac­ter], that she is liv­ing in the Old West and she’s free. And what if, within the first five min­utes, you learn, with her, that she’s not free at all, that this per­son who came to town is the hu­man, and we’re not watch­ing what we thought we were.

The line be­tween non­fic­tion and fic­tion has blurred. We have our pres­i­dent say­ing it’s all fake, and other peo­ple say­ing what the pres­i­dent says is fake. We all have our idea of who is ly­ing, and it dif­fers from per­son to per­son. But we’re in the same boat, which is the ab­so­lute an­ni­hi­la­tion of the line be­tween non­fic­tion and fic­tion.

JN: We’re not giv­ing the an­swers so much as ask­ing the ques­tions.

When the show first aired, it was crit­i­cized for hav­ing a “woman prob­lem” be­cause the fe­male hosts were so fre­quently abused by men vis­it­ing the park. By the end of the first sea­son, the nar­ra­tive shifted so that those same hosts were fight­ing back. Have your views about how you de­pict women changed since you started writ­ing?

LJ: Well be­fore #Metoo came and an­nounced to the world, “Hey, we have a real prob­lem here with sex­ual abuse and vi­o­lence,” I would say most women knew that. You whis­per it, you talk about it, you un­der­stand it, you live it. So those thoughts were in my mind [when I started writ­ing the show]. The West­ern has so of­ten been a tale about men and mas­culin­ity on the un­tamed fron­tier. I was hop­ing to imag­ine truth­fully what I thought peo­ple would do in a theme park where you could do any­thing. And based on what I’d seen, the sto­ries I’d heard, and the tales I knew, this was a truth­ful way of rep­re­sent­ing it.

At the same time, we care deeply about the man­ner in which we rep­re­sent an ac­tual act of sex­ual vi­o­lence, which is why you don’t see it. You see a girl yelling as she’s dragged away, fully clothed, but we didn’t want to show nu­dity and sex.

Jonathan, you di­rected the Su­per Bowl teaser for the sec­ond sea­son of Westworld, which of­fered fans the first glimpse of where the show was headed in more than a year. That spot, much like Westworld episodes them­selves, was im­me­di­ately


dis­sected on so­cial me­dia by a ra­bid fan base. How do you deal with all the on­line noise?

JN: I’m not on so­cial me­dia, but I do spend time on Red­dit. It’s a nat­u­ral place to keep tabs on [things like], are peo­ple un­der­stand­ing what we’re putting out there? That’s use­ful. But we have to be ex­tremely care­ful. If you dive down that rab­bit hole too deeply, you wind up let­ting it in­flu­ence the way you’re telling the story.

LJ: We’ve al­ways han­dled it a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ently. I don’t re­ally do things [on­line] ex­cept read ar­ti­cles that in­ter­est me. I like to use the in­ter­net to learn about in­no­va­tions in tech­nol­ogy and find­ing new po­ets, things like that. I’m less in­ter­ested in read­ing about my­self or the stuff we do.

Westworld is of­ten com­pared to Game of Thrones be­cause of its grandios­ity, both in terms of pro­duc­tion value and story. How has that show in­flu­enced you?

JN: Game of Thrones was the model for how to do a show tech­ni­cally. They want a glacier [scene], they go shoot on a glacier. They want a desert, they go to a desert. The cocre­ators [David Be­nioff and D.B. Weiss] were sup­port­ive as we were go­ing through it, be­cause the first sea­son was very chal­leng­ing. You’re try­ing to make 10 movies or 10 hours’ worth of movie on an am­ple bud­get, but one that’s dwarfed by [a typ­i­cal] cin­e­matic bud­get. We got their in­put and feed­back on how to put these things to­gether.

How do you work to­gether? Does be­ing mar­ried make it eas­ier to col­lab­o­rate?

JN: The first as­sump­tion we get is that Lisa writes the fe­male char­ac­ters and I write the male char­ac­ters. That’s not the case. One of us will get a han­dle on a mo­ment with a char­ac­ter and there’s a con­stant back and forth. There’s no set re­spon­si­bil­ity.

LJ: Be­cause we are mar­ried and we’ve known each other for so long, some of the niceties go out the win­dow. What you get in­stead is a free-flow­ing cur­rent of ideas, an ex­change that is in­cred­i­bly vi­brant and chal­leng­ing. We keep it­er­at­ing un­til it pleases both of us—and pleas­ing just one of us is a high bar.

Lisa, af­ter spend­ing most of your ca­reer as a writer and a pro­ducer, you re­cently di­rected an episode for the first time. What was that like?

LJ: It’s a new an­gle. The world can feel very dark lately, but there are acts of ev­ery­day fem­i­nism, sup­port, and gen­eros­ity that I have been the ben­e­fi­ciary of in so many ways on this show. I had a baby and was still breast­feed­ing, and I had this mam­moth, crazy episode [to di­rect], full of all the things you’re scared of as a first-time di­rec­tor. I thought, I can’t do this. It’s ir­re­spon­si­ble right now. When I fal­tered, Jonathan pushed me out the door. He said, “You got this.” He took on this role at home so I could live a typ­i­cally mas­cu­line dream.

JN: [Laughs] I also wanted to see our kids.

I’ve heard showrun­ners de­scribe their shows as be­ing either au­teur­driven or col­lab­o­ra­tive works. Which is Westworld?

JN: Lisa and I were walk­ing around the Bri­tish Mu­seum many years ago, vis­it­ing my fam­ily. Lisa was the more at­ten­tive stu­dent in col­lege, and a more so­phis­ti­cated thinker. LJ: I don’t know where this story’s go­ing.

JN: She in­tro­duced me to the Ger­man con­cept of the Ge­samtkunst­werk, the idea of a to­tal art­work [that com­bines] im­ages and sound, [which was] sort of a dream up un­til the Lu­mière broth­ers.

LJ: It comes from opera, ini­tially.

JN: That’s what we get to do. We get to go to work with up to 700 of the most tal­ented artists in their field, the very best in the busi­ness. We ask them for the im­pos­si­ble—to achieve that syn­the­sis of light and emo­tion and mu­sic and form—and they ac­com­plish it over and over and over again.


Thandie New­ton plays Maeve Mil­lay, one of the ro­botic hosts of Westworld.

Evan Rachel Wood’s char­ac­ter, Dolores Aber­nathy, leads the robot revo­lu­tion.

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