Inside the Minds of Westworld CoCreators Jonathan Nolan Lisa Joy

first_img Evan Rachel Wood Just As Disturbed by Humanoid Sophia As Everyone ElseTop Movie and TV Trailers to Watch From SDCC 2019 Stay on target The first season of Westworld was among the best rookie seasons of television in recent memory. Co-creators and showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy threw a stacked cast of heavyweight actors into a dense maze of riddles and secrets, all within an immersive sci-fi world where it was actually fun to hang out. The show is also one of the most complex modern depictions of artificial intelligence, but with the tech realism to feel almost believable and a scale to rival Game of Thrones—the show HBO has bet a lot of money on Westworld replacing long-term. Nolan and Joy found themselves at the Wired Business Conference in New York City this week for a panel entitled “How Storytelling Creates the Future.” The pair (who are also married) sat down with afterward to break down the inner workings of Westworld, fan theories that turned out to be right, talk Joy’s upcoming Battlestar Galactica reboot, and shed some insight on Nolan’s original ending for The first season of Westworld was great for a lot of reasons, but the finale, in particular, felt satisfying as someone who watches too much narrative TV. It paid off most of what you’d expect and then set the stage and raised the stakes. I want to talk first about the arcs we saw come full circle.Can you take me inside Ford’s mind in the execution of his final narrative? From introducing the reveries in the first place to finally setting his creations free according to Arnold’s design. Was that always his plan? Jonathan Nolan: We get to explore a few of these questions a little more in the second season so I don’t want to say too much. But I think there’s definitely a sense that Ford has started feeling one way about these creations of theirs and began to feel some of the deep empathy for these creations of his partner in a profound and tragic way. That set in motion for him, in a long process of fits and starts, a smooth transition from thinking of them as creatures. The realization happens relatively early for him, but what he’s really wrestling with is what to do with it. Ford, beautifully portrayed by Tony Hopkins, is a character steeped in history and reading and learning. He has thought about this for a long time, and understands that humans have never had a rival, never tolerated any other species. They’ve subjugated anything, and when they encountered rivals like the Neanderthals, they don’t end up as a part of history. Ford spent a lot of time thinking about how he’ll go about…if the goal of these creatures is to survive, how does that happen?Anthony Hopkins (Credit: John P. Johnson/HBO)Westworld generated a lot of fan theories this season, and one of the ones that turned out to be true was William, the Man in Black, and the multiple timelines theory. That particular twist wasn’t as hard to spot as some other ones. Was it designed that way? Lisa Joy: We had always left bread crumbs throughout the season with the hope that an engaged audience can figure out the things our hosts themselves have not. They have subjective viewpoints, but as audience members you start to see a whole spectrum of things and piece them together. When we first started doing the show and critics, and studio execs saw it, nobody saw that twist coming. But what happens is you get this incredibly intense and awesome fanbase, especially on Reddit, and they’re used to looking at things. There’s a difference between fan theory and fan analysis. Fan theory is One is purely speculative, like “I hope so and so kills a dragon,” you have no way of knowing that was going to happen, versus people actually picking up the bread crumbs. That’s pure math. We had people who were doing that, which is what we wanted. The thing we didn’t foresee is how this small group would carry and get picked up by mainstream news for headlines. It’s not fan theory, it’s fan analysis, and it’s right.We could spend this entire interview talking about the actors involved, but I want to spend a moment on a few of the most transfixing performances. Can you talk a bit about what Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, and Anthony Hopkins bring to their respective roles, and what it was like watching them play off of each other? JN: We spent a long time developing the script and thinking about these characters. Casting is this dark art with a lot of luck. Neither Lisa nor I are the type of writer who thinks about casting at a script stage, with one exception in this script: Anthony Hopkins. Then having written the pilot we assembled our dream cast, and they all said yes. Which is rare. From Evan Rachel Wood to Thandie Newton to Anthony Hopkins to Jeffrey Wright, all of them. Especially the actors in the biggest roles, and Jeffrey kind of fits on both ends of that, who are tasked with fully embodying a character and then literally turning it off in the middle of a frame. We needed some desperately talented actors, and we were lucky enough that they said yes.LJ: They’re all amazing actors, and I think part of the reason why they’re so great in their roles. Why we totally hit the jackpot is not only are they brilliant performers, but every one of them is also a deep thinker. They think very intensely about their roles, and the implications of it, the technology of it. That’s not always the case in an actor. We worked with people who really committed to it and were so intellectually and emotionally engaged. Especially with some of their more cerebral acting, it seemed like the acting went all the way down to their eye movements.JN: It was. I remember that first day of shooting with Evan on the pilot. In casting, we had this particularly diabolical read where it involved an analysis. An actor would be playing one host, and they’d have to switch into another host’s personality. We wanted to make it clear that the roles would be difficult and see what the actors would do in the moments in between. With Evan on that first day, there’s a scene with Luke Hemsworth where she’s in standby mode and then turns on and goes straight into hyperventilating then freaking out, and then turns her emotional effect off and accent off. This is, as Evan has described it, the acting Olympics. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to work with an actor whose first take is fucking transcendent, so you just sit back and say “wow.”(John P. Johnson/HBO)The mystery and misdirection around who’s a host and who isn’t is kind of a silver bullet for you guys. It gets to the point where viewers question everyone. My friends and I were convinced Felix was a host for a while because we couldn’t believe he was consistently that stupid and naive (I guess that’s just his humanity). How do you approach using it in a gut-punching reveal like Bernard versus overusing the plot device?LJ: We were very conscious of that going into it. It won’t be a reversal if everything’s reversed; then it’d just be the new status quo. Everything in moderation and conservatively applied. For the world to have stakes, you have to be able to believe in some people and take that for granted for the switch to be meaningful. It makes sense for Jeffrey’s character to have that duality, and he’s maybe the most tragic character with that burden. It had a lot of repercussions also for people who are very, very human. Elsie’s [Shannon Woodward] character is incredibly human, I think. To be so close to someone who’s not what he presents to be…you can mine a lot of emotion against in that reveal. But yes, it’s definitely something we’re conscious of and have girded ourselves against.Shannon Woodward, Jeffrey Wright in Westworld (Credit: John P. Johnson/HBO)That theme is kind of funny, because the last time I remember feeling like I was questioning every character on a show was Cylon Paranoia Syndrome in Battlestar Galactica. Lisa, where are you in the writing and development process on the movie, and have you thought about that parallel of complex artificial beings with varied levels of awareness about who or what they are?LJ: We’re developing right now, I’m super excited about it. I’m working with Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, The Hunger Games series), who’s a brilliant and wonderful director, and producer Mike De Luca, who I’ve worked with before. It’s a great team, and we’re all behind doing something bold that honors the canon of the amazing shows that have come before it. But in honoring the spirit of Battlestar Galactica, it deserves some freshness to bring it to bear. I can’t say much about it right now, but I can say that it’s emotional and it deals with topics on AI that we haven’t gone near in Westworld. It’s a wholly new take on something. I was actually disinclined to do it at first because I thought it would be too similar to some of the stuff we’re doing, but then I had this realization that in the Venn diagram of AI, there was no overlap.This is a tech conference, so I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the show’s depiction of artificial intelligence. Arnold’s maze ultimately turned into this dynamic process for creating an artificial consciousness that’s not all that different from the sorts of machine and deep learning techniques we use to train algorithms today. From a tech and also a psychological perspective, what ideas did you draw from when essentially building hosts’ brains and personalities from the ground up?JN: We spent a lot of time. I’m of two minds on research, I think it can be constraining in ways, particularly if you get stuck in too much thought about what’s reasonable, you might miss out on bigger ideas. But on this project we did do a lot of reading about this question of consciousness; artificial consciousness. We were surprised to find how little that field has changed in the last 50 years, even though our capacity to image and understand the human brain has increased by leaps and bounds. Even with computer science now approaching nervous-making levels of complexity with regards to artificial intelligence. There are no games we play where we’re no better than AI. We were surprised at how quickly AlphaGo triumphed, which I think was a seismic moment. Yet it’s largely the domain of philosophers. Scientists, for good reason and probably the elephant in the room [Skynet, basically], don’t want to go there. So we were steered back toward [Daniel] Dennet, [John] Searle, and some of the same philosophers who’ve been talking about this for 40 years, and Julian Jaynes of course, whose “Bicameral Mind” is central to Westworld and even the name of the season one finale.That breakdown of human consciousness isn’t a mainstream theory of human cognition but it’s a really interesting one. It doesn’t assume that cognition has always been thus. It doesn’t assume that we’ve always thought the same way. Jaynes’ idea was that we didn’t have an inner voice until the last three or four thousand years, which is fascinating. Imagine a primitive man who heard an inner voice and didn’t know it was their own thoughts. That theory may or may not accurately describe human cognition, but they absolutely could be used as a model to build artificial intelligence. Jaynes’ theory was that for the first hundred thousand years of sapiens, they thought that was the voice of gods.Okay Jonathan, I’ve got to ask about the original ending you wrote for Interstellar. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it was much darker than what ended up in the final film. In your ending, Cooper was cut off inside the black hole. His data makes it back, but he doesn’t. To me, that’s a much more fitting ending based on the narrative and tone of the film. What was your reasoning behind wanting to end it on that note? And how do you feel about the film concluding with that final act that wasn’t initially there?There’s a draft of the script that’s out there that was emailed and got out. You learn your lessons. It was a very intermediate draft that doesn’t represent the finished product. At that early point, I had just started working with Steven Spielberg on the project.But there was always a sense that we wanted that film—and this is true of my initial draft as well—we wanted the film to punt you into the future. In film, you’ve got a couple of hours to tell your story. The dream was always for the story to be generational and to carry you deep into the next chapter of the human story. We posited, and I’ve always embraced this, that a lot of science fiction has a very misanthropic take on humanity. I wanted to do something that said there is something positive. In terms of intelligence, we’re still the only game in town that we’re aware of. There’s a lot of ambiguity about that statement, but we’re not in conversation with anyone else. Not our own creations as in Westworld or with other beings out there. So the idea that you find something in human nature that was beautiful was essential to the project from the beginning, or that our flaws might turn out to be the things that save us.I’m not going to ask specifics about Season Two, but Lisa, you did at the end mention the name “Shogun World.” Have you decided on the name Shogun World versus Samurai World for the new park you introduced in the finale?LJ and JN: We can’t confirm or deny.last_img read more