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‘Westworld’: How Video Games Inspired Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s New Sci-Fi Western Hybrid

The executive producers of the new HBO drama explain the impact that Pokemon Go and Grand Theft Auto had on the series. 

Westworld Season 1 Episode 1 Evan Rachel Wood Ed Harris


John P. Johnson/HBO

You can’t accuse HBO’s biggest drama gamble in years of playing it safe. Developed by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, “Westworld” remakes Michael Crichton’s 1973 film about a futuristic theme park as a mediation on what it means to be human — from the point of view of the robots created to populate an artificial Western world.

READ MORE: ‘Westworld’ Premiere: Watch the First Episode Online For Free

The world “Westworld” occupies is lush with authentic details, made possible by HBO’s commitment to physical production, and that same sheen of quality is only enhanced by the stellar cast, including Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton and James Marsden.

At the Television Critics Association press tour, IndieWire spoke with Joy and Nolan about the impact of video game design, what went into creating the world of Westworld and the ethics of consent as they apply to robot sex. While they promised that Season 1 would contain answers to many of the show’s biggest questions, they also acknowledged that they’ve got a ton of story left to tell.

To start off, was this fun? To take on this project and get to build an entire world for it?

Nolan: Yeah, it was glorious. I mean it was difficult.

Joy: It was difficult.

Nolan: We define fun at a certain point in there, but yeah. It’s an incredible cast and there are an incredible set of ideas that we got to play with and hopefully to continue to get to play with. Lisa and I would joke when we were first talking to JJ [Abrams] about the pitch that it would be like kids in a candy store. There are so many exciting ideas that you get to play with here. I mean I love character, Lisa likes character, starts from character. I tend to start from ideas and hopefully come up with good characters along the way, but there are so many ideas and characters to play with in this setup. It was endless fun.

In your heads, how fleshed out is the world that Westworld lives in?

Joy: You mean the outside world?

Yeah, this entire universe you’ve built.

Joy: Well we’ve spent a lot of time discussing this and so we did try to create a big mythology and some answers. It’s kind of like those Russian nesting dolls, where you pull apart one level and there’s another level. We did think about the world outside quite a lot and where the series would go and even how it would end. When we first started thinking about it, I think I was still pregnant at the time. It was funny because I would just sit there like round as a house and we would paper all the walls… It was like “A Beautiful Mind,” leading from one thing to the next. It looked like an insane asylum, and maybe it was.

I have to tell you, we only got through probably an eighth of the wallpaper this season. So there’s more story to tell and the bigger world outside is something that we will get to. But what we’re trying to do is constrain it narratively. We’ve chosen a really specific lens even to start the pilot, where you’re coming at it from the host perspective. The intention of the show is we play with perspective and we also wanted to personify and really make sure you felt a connection with the host. The way in which the larger world leads in, we’ll try to keep faithful to that, as you’re on the journey and you’re finding things out along with some of the characters. James Marsden Westworld Season 1 Episode 1 HBO

By the end of Season 1, how many more questions do you think we will have?

Nolan: Oh boy. I’m a big believer when you’re designing these shows … Not when it comes to social relevance to the show necessarily, but in terms of strict plot developments, I’m a big believer in pose some questions and then answer a few of them before you move onto the next set of questions. You don’t ever want to run out of engaging questions, but I do believe in it. I watch some shows and some shows that I love where the questions were never answered or they just kept spitting out into the ether so our intention is to have answered a few important questions by the end of the first season, posed a few more interesting ones that then drive the second season.

One of the things that’s really fun to tap in with television right now is this sort of explosion, the peak TV moment that we’re in, people are exploring different modes of storytelling here. But one of the exciting things here is being able to commit upfront to a big, big, big story. Our story is a really big one. It’s the story of the origin of a new species on this planet, and being able to tell that in chapters and commit to aggressive moves season-by-season that propel that story upwards and outwards and inwards.

You mentioned that you only used one-eighth of your wallpaper. Does that mean there are eight seasons in this idea?

Nolan: Oh God, I don’t know about that.

Joy: Well we’ll definitely find a way to pack it all in, I think, to whatever box we are lucky enough to have. But there’s a lot more to go. The great thing is, we do know where we’re going and so at the same time we love to have the questions, we do have the answers planned out and it’s about when we get to reveal those cards and turn over some new ones.

How much were you able to build, in terms of sets and locations?

Joy: It’s so exhilarating, visiting our set. Nathan Crowley, in the pilot, designed a ton of stages and the street that Sweetwater’s on, that whole town that’s at Melody Ranch, which was the Gene Autry studio. You’re just steeped in history, the same history of the films that we’re kind of subverting. It’s just really fun to be in the same spot and to both kind of honor those films and to kind of twist them around. Just crazy things like we brought in a train, like a giant train. Who does that? It’s thanks so much to HBO’s support and Warner Brothers’ support. We couldn’t have done this anywhere else. It’s pretty fantastic.

When we took our first walk around and literally this train is pushed in by this giant crane and you see it moving into town and so you walk through and the saloon, I just kept wanting to get a drink at it after shots. Actually the last day after wrap, it was really sweet. We didn’t have any lights there, but a bunch of the cast and crew just kind of informally gathered and just talked. We just talked outside the Mariposa Saloon and hung out, and it was this magical experience because you’re in the town. It is completely accurate for similitude for the Old West and you feel totally transported, like you’re this living, breathing anachronism — not unlike, I think, how the guests would feel.

Nolan: Yeah, we kind of built Westworld. I’m a big believer in practical and location photography so we also shot on ranches all around the southland, absolutely beautiful ranches, a couple of them just unfortunately disappeared in the fires. We also went to Utah. We went out to Moab and shot extensively out there in the valleys and parks around Moab. As Lisa said, one of the really great things about working with HBO and Warners is that commitment to physical production, which is on great display in “Game of Thrones.” They’re in the real places. They’re in Iceland and Ireland and Malta to give you that great texture. We took advantage of that. It’s convenient for us that we live in the American West so it wasn’t too far from home, but we got a lot of great practical photography.

Westworld James Marsden Evan Rachel Wood Episode 1

I’m curious — just in terms of consent issues: If you build and program a robot to want to have sex with you, is that robot consenting to have sex with you?

Nolan: No. And then of course, yeah, absolutely. And then the question becomes, the very nature of consent — how much consciousness do you need to have before it matters? I think it comes up often and it’s an issue that extends beyond sexual violence and into the world around us. The animals that we deal with and eat, all these levels on which we’ve made this world our dominion. Researchers who are looking into the I/O problem with the human mind and trying to solve that because at this point we’re limited to this, this or this.

We’ve been talking to this couple who are involved in this research who are founders of a company devoted to this, trying to understand the human mind using various technologies, imaging technologies. So they used some animals to establish that baseline, and they said that both of them, as husband and wife, went vegan the next day. Because what they saw was so similar to what they were seeing from the human beings that they were studying.

You really start to question the nature of consciousness. We’re surrounded by these creatures who we put in categories, in terms of how ethical they are. As it is right now, in terms of our virtual creatures we’ve created — Pokemon Go being the most colorful and immediate example — we don’t think of them as having consciousness whatsoever. You don’t feel remotely bad when you turn off your Xbox. You don’t attribute any sentience to them whatsoever. But that is going to get more and more complicated very, very quickly, just in the next decade.

READ MORE: ‘Westworld’ Review: Season Premiere Offers Violent Delights and Asks Many Questions

Well, when you talk about video games, the storytelling within a video game can be on the level of film or television, to the point where you do have an emotional connection to those characters. You do feel sad when you turn off your Xbox. 

Joy: Yes. It comes through the storytelling and then the funny thing is, it also comes through the player. It comes through the receiver. That was one of the really interesting things about working on “Westworld.” For instance, I use this example a lot because I’m not much of a gamer, so I only have a small frame of reference, but in what’s it called …?

Nolan: “Grand Theft Auto.”

Joy: “Grand Theft Auto,” when I play, I abide by all the laws, I lose the game entirely. I don’t even know how to win the game. I’m just literally admiring the infrastructure of the building and being like, “Is this what Miami looks like? That’s great!” That’s me playing. Somebody else will play and just plow down the street full of pedestrians and get the bag of gold or whatever’s happening. So that’s a difference. The level of guilt you have, the level of responsibility you feel is also subjective to the human who’s receiving it and that’s true in gaming. It’s true in fiction, it’s true in TV, it’s true in film. That’s a really interesting part of writing this, is knowing that what we put out there and our intention will also be received different ways and interpreted different ways by different people and they’ll have different moral judgments about different acts.

That’s part of the difficulty of being human, is we don’t all see things the same way. We don’t all have the same level of empathy. We don’t all have the same moral code necessarily or drawn the lines at the same places. I was mortified when I figured out once you catch a Pokemon, you make it fight! Those cute little creatures are going to go fight each other later. That’s the point of the game, right?

Nolan: You could just catch them.

Joy: I was joking with my friend, “You should start a Pokemon sanctuary where they don’t have to fight. They can just graze off the land and be free and be happy and cuddled and you can braid their hair.” Then again, I’m not sure that would be a very successful video game. What does that say about us?

Westworld Thandie Newton HBO

In general it seems like video game design and culture has really impacted the show. How much of that was conscious versus unconscious?

Nolan: Equal measure probably for me, because I’m a gamer. Or I was until we had our daughter.

Joy: You loved making us research it though, AKA play hours and hours of video games together. [laughs] So much research.

Nolan: Great excuse. That’s really so interesting about the original film. Crichton really anticipated when he made that original film — no video games. They literally don’t exist. Now, 40 years later, you think about how sophisticated or unsophisticated gaming has become in that time. It’s a new form of storytelling and you’ve seen film and TV to some degree struggle to kind of take on, either grammatical ideas that they can take from gaming or character ideas. For us here, it was very clear looking at “Westworld” to go, “Okay that’s a role-playing game, clearly.” Those existed even before video games, D&D and the like.

There are some very clear analogs and models and game mechanics that play into our world, which is great. The original film’s super cool, but the park itself is quite small and the gaming aspect of it is kind of limited — the bar fight and seducing the bar maid and those sorts of things. For us, we wanted to imagine a vast game space with many layers woven into it.

It’s funny because Lisa’s less of a gamer than I am, and we would have these conversations where I would realize that part of what’s informing a pitch that I’m making or an idea that I’m making is an assumption about gameplay, and sometimes you had to step back and I went, “No, right, okay here’s why I’m thinking this might be an interesting moment because this is how you play a Bioware game or this is a game mechanic that for non-gamers, lets them on.”

In terms of technology, one thing I noticed was that it’s a clearly extraordinarily advanced society, but it’s not like there are a lot of closeups on gadgets and gizmos. How deliberate was that?

Nolan: It’s sort of a directorial choice in the pilot. We worked with Nathan Crowley, who is the genius who’s designed a lot of the movies that I’ve worked on with my brother. Nathan’s a brilliant production designer and one of the things that we talked about early was that we wanted … It feels like, I mean as a mental exercise you’ll look around this room and try to figure out which of the artifacts would’ve been here 50 years ago. What’s different? The drapes are the same, the clothes, a little bit different, largely the same. It’s really the little items in the corner.

So much of our technology is disappearing, right? Which is cool, I mean our iPhones or our tablets or computers, they’re all gradually getting smaller and sleeker. It felt like Steve Jobs’ whole mission was to try to get these things to disappear, which was a design ethic that we really liked. Sometimes you get lost in sort of the gadgetry of things. We definitely have a firm sense for when the story is taking place and where, but we do want the audience to not focus in on that. Part of the experience or Westworld itself is you’re stepping into this space and you’re divesting yourself of all those things. You’re leaving your phone behind. You’re not Instagramming your adventures while you’re there.

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