With Game of Thrones coming to an end sooner than later, HBO is in desperate need of a series that challenges viewers in terms of what it can do with a large ensemble cast, genre, special effects, tone, and a pretty big budget. Enter Westworld, a new sci-fi fantasy series based on the 1973 film of the same name created by Lisa Joy and her husband Jonathan Nolan (Christopher’s brother).
The series, which boasts some notable faces including Sir Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, and Jeffrey Wright, takes place in a not-so-far-away future, and specifically looks at the creators of an expansive virtual theme park—one that takes the shape of the Wild West—the androids created to populate and add texture to the park, and the rich guests who pay thousands of dollars to visit, go on quests, party, and get into trouble. The show, at least in its first few episodes, brings into question our conceptions of free will, the role artificial intelligence plays in our world, and toys with our romanticization of a genre and place in time that paradoxically feels both very distant and super close.
Complex had the opportunity to speak to Westworld’s creators about their epic project, its place on HBO, and how its twisted and sinister themes feel more timely than ever.
I read that J.J. Abrams wanted to adapt the 1973 movie for a while because there was just so much material in the movie. But I wanted to know why you guys wanted to adapt the film into a TV series?
Lisa Joy: For me it was this amazing opportunity to deal with things that were both intellectually timely and emotionally resonant. Intellectually speaking, the world of science fiction is getting closer and closer to science fact. To explore artificial intelligence and the potential emergence of sentients in a time when, literally, incubators and Silicon Valley are working on the same thing, seems like an impossible opportunity to deny. Then, emotionally speaking, we combine sci-fi with the Western genre, in which, for me personally, it was sometimes hard to connect with some of the heroes. I wanted to see people who reminded me more of myself, from a different perspective than the lone male hero. It was a chance to look at the West world, and to look at overlooked POVs and really explore them.
Jonathan Nolan: It’s a rare privilege to be writing about something that feels very urgent. You are sort of writing the prehistory of a thing that feels not only urgent but imminent—[we explore] the idea of our ability to create narrative space that’s so immersive that for all intensive purposes it’s the real world, and the question of artificial intelligence. I’ve been obsessed with artificial intelligence for a long time. It was featured in my first season Person of Interest, it was one of the aspects of Interstellar that I was most excited about in terms of the character dynamic in that movie. For me, it was a chance to reapproach that question from a completely different perspective—from their perspective.
Focusing on the Wild West setting, did you guys take this as an opportunity to challenge the stereotypical narrative that is most associated with the period?
Joy: I think we are subverting it by looking at it from a different point of view. In this tale, the classic story of the Western gunslinger, the man against nature who is the hero of the story, is quickly debunked. Here, that character, the classic male hero, is just a robot—they are there not to be the leads of the story, but to basically be cannon fodder or romantic objects to the guests who visit the park.You are taking the whole thing of masculine identity and turning it on its head on a very natural level.
Nolan: The more peripheral characters in the Western become the central characters in our story. Beyond subverting the genre, we are trying to ask the question of why this genre exists in the first place. Why are human beings interested in the Western? What does that say about us?
There is no way to watch Westworld while multitasking. You have to be paying attention or you won’t get it. Was that deliberate?
Nolan: [Laughs]. Good. Yes. Absolutely. I’ve always liked and wanted to make TV or film that requires you to lean in a little bit.
How much of Westworld do you think functions as a sci-fi series on its own and not as some moralistic or cautionary tale?
Nolan: You definitely don’t want the show to be didactic. I don’t think we are trying to present it as a cautionary tale. In certain moments in my life I’ve felt a little bit more positive about the human species. And certain moments probably less so. This comes from a place of not thinking human beings are wonderful. [Laughs.] That has no correlation to the election season or anything else.
Obviously the world of Westworld is very violent. There’s also a lot of sex. It’s HBO and HBO has, at points, gotten into some trouble with that. As writers and creators is there a conscious effort to use these elements not so much as a plot device but with a purpose?
Nolan: What made it comfortable for this subject matter on this network was that it was very exciting to be able to explore the questions of the show. They are obviously about exploitation and violence and fantasy and victimization. We are able to play with those questions on a network where we could really explore those questions to the degree that we wanted to, without any interference in terms of setting rules for what we could or couldn’t do. I think the narrative is very much about why do we find this stuff entertaining. That’s the question the show is asking. In our video games, films, and TV, why is the most transgressive and dark material the stuff that we tend to be drawn to? Why are we watching these shows in the first place?