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'Westworld' Creators Explore The 'Dark Thrills' Of The Digital Age


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next guests are the creators of HBO's futuristic series "Westworld." It's set in a theme park inspired by movie Westerns in which wealthy tourists come to act out their Western fantasies. Those fantasies usually involve shootouts, showdowns, fistfights and sex. Since the visitors can't shoot real people, they enact their fantasies with lifelike androids. After an android is shot, it's repaired and has its memory wiped. But there seems to be a glitch in the androids' new software update and some of them are behaving strangely, perhaps even gaining consciousness.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy adapted "Westworld" from a 1973 film of the same name, which was written and directed by Michael Crichton. Nolan and Joy are married. This is their first time working together.

Jonathan Nolan, who goes by the name Jonah, has written movies with his brother Christopher Nolan, including "Interstellar," "The Dark Knight" and "The Dark Knight Rises." Lisa Joy has written for the TV shows "Burn Notice" and "Pushing Daisies." They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

They started with a clip from the first episode of "Westworld." An android, who's being programmed to be a rancher's daughter named Dolores, has been put into a diagnostic dream state by the park's head of programming, played by Jeffrey Wright. The android is played by Evan Rachel Wood.


JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) Bring her back online. Can you hear me?

EVAN RACHEL WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Yes. I'm sorry, I'm not feeling quite myself.

WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) You can lose the accent. Do you know where you are?

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) I'm in a dream.

WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) That's right, Dolores. You are in a dream. Would you like to wake up from this dream?

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Yes, I'm terrified.

WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) There's nothing to be afraid of, Dolores, as long as you answer my questions correctly. Understand?

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Yes.

WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) Good. First, have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) No.

WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) Tell us what you think of your world.

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty.

Mornin', daddy, you sleep well?

LOUIS HERTHUM: (As Peter Abernathy) Well enough. You headed out to set down some of this natural splendor?

WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) Thought I might.

To believe there is an order to our days, a purpose.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, welcome to FRESH AIR.


LISA JOY: Thanks, lovely to be here.

BRIGER: So had either of you seen the original movie or its sequel "Futureworld" before that?

NOLAN: Lisa hadn't. I had when I was a kid, and I still have nightly panics about Yul Brynner's character in that film.

BRIGER: The gunslinger.

NOLAN: The gunslinger, indeed. I had two older brothers, so - exposed to films that were a little too scary for my age when I was a kid growing up in England. I had been very struck by that film, by its sort of relentless world-building quality, you know? Crichton had this amazing gift to sort of peer into the future and see what our technologies would enable for us. And here with "Westworld," he was anticipating not just AI, not just robots, which is a target that's been tackled before, but robots very specifically in this position of servicing our fantasies.

He was anticipating what we now call open-world gaming or sandbox gaming, video games which barely existed when Crichton was writing the original film. We've almost fully realized the world that he imagined, if you look at "Grand Theft Auto" or many of the games that have been built with some similar characteristics.

BRIGER: A lot of the players in your show, the guests, you know, they they go to this part because they can kill androids, they can have sex with androids and basically just act as immorally as they want because they have no risks. There's no consequences to their action. They can't be killed and all the robots are programmed, as you say, to serve their needs.

And the guests, you know, they behave terribly. And, you know, these androids are meant to look as human as possible - they're bleeding, they're completely terrified - but the guests don't seem to mind because they're androids. I mean, one guest at one point - there's a scene inside a saloon, he just blows up the entire place. And he says, well, that's a bleeping vacation. I mean, it's a pretty pessimistic view of human nature.

JOY: Yeah. I mean, I certainly think in that example and in - these are people who are looking for the dark thrills of the park. And, frankly, it's - most video games when people play them, they play for similar thrills. There are very few video games where there are - like, completely pacifistic - and if there are, I tend to play them - "Dance Dance Revolution," there was a game called "Flower" that I really enjoy. But there's a lot of shoot-'em-ups and there's a lot of, you know, car races and there's a lot of war games and there's a lot of violent sports games. And there's something about that that seems to have a real appeal for certain people.

BRIGER: Yeah. It reminds me of the behavior you see people sometimes at airports or, you know, in their cars or even, like, online where there's - you know, there's a certain anonymity and the social contract kind of goes out the window. Were you thinking...

NOLAN: Oh, yeah.

BRIGER: ...About that when you were writing the show?

NOLAN: Absolutely. As our world becomes more cloistered and the experiences we choose for ourselves, especially in the West, we're able to design not just our environment but also our intellectual environment to suit our preferences and predilections. We are, you know, sort of designing this odd prophylactic universe in which we can - we can do whatever we want. You know, that implies a subclass, that implies people who service that for us.

And then within our online interactions, especially, as you said, you know, the line from the way that people - we live in LA. The way people behave in their cars and the way that they behave online is strikingly similar. Lisa, at one point, bought me an X-Box. And I remember when the X-Box Live service went on, the magic of being able to play games and then hear other players - you can hear them in your headset. And that magic lasted about 30 seconds...


NOLAN: ...Until you realize that the things that the other players had to say you were shockingly offensive.

JOY: (Laughter).

BRIGER: So you took the headphones off?

NOLAN: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

BRIGER: So as the show progresses, some of the androids seem to be coming more self-aware. This seems to be due to, like, a software update that allows them access to memories. Before that, their memories would get wiped out after traumatic experiences or after they'd sort of gotten to the end of their storyline. But as they access more and more memories, they seem to be gaining the beginnings of some sort of consciousness. When you were sitting down to write the show, did you have to say like, OK, what does self-aware artificial intelligence look like?

NOLAN: Absolutely. So we had to strike a balance in terms of performance because what we realized once we'd shot the pilot and we were cutting it, working with this incredible cast - Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton, James Marsden - and the other hosts articulating in their performance, we could impact it a little bit in terms of which takes we used, and then also using visual effects to manipulate the performance - to slow down the way their eyes move, to slow down some of their responses. What we found was that if we made them seem too less than conscious, if we dulled that light to a point where you started to step into that uncanny space, the audience lost sympathy for the hosts. Humans are incredible in terms of their ability to extend empathy and their ability to take it away. And so if we took Evan's performance and dialed out a little bit of the light in her eyes or a little bit of the movement in her facial muscles or her response time, you literally stop caring about the characters.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the creators and writers of the HBO series "Westworld." We'll continue the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with the co-creators and writers of the HBO series "Westworld," Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. "Westworld" is set in a theme park where visitors enact fantasies, often violent fantasies, based on the Old West with the help of lifelike androids.

BRIGER: There's a lot of violence in the show, and early in the first episode there's an implied rape that happens offscreen. Yeah, and I think that the show can kind of be seen as, like, a critique of how the entertainment industry uses violence and sex and sexual violence to entice viewership. And, you know, your show, by having people who write storylines and people who enact them and guests who enjoy them you - seems to be putting the blame on lots of sides there. Was that critique one of the reasons why you wanted to make the show?

NOLAN: Yeah. There is a lot of violence in the show, but I think it is trying to be critical on a level of why is it that we enjoy these things in our film and television, in the novels that we read universally? There are a handful of films that you can point to every year that don't feature some transgressive behavior, some crime, some violence. The question that we're asking with with the series, in part because it's the question the hosts will begin to ask as they begin to understand their situation, is what is wrong with us? (Laughter). Why do we enjoy watching these things?

BRIGER: Well, I'd like to play a clip from episode two that kind of gets to some of these issues. The main writer of the park's storylines, Lee Sizemore, who is played by Simon Quarterman, he's presenting his newest narrative for the park, and we'll also hear Anthony Hopkins, who plays Robert Ford who co-created the park and is going to weigh in on the presentation. So let's hear that.


SIMON QUARTERMAN: (As Lee Sizemore) This storyline will make Hieronymous Bosch look like he was doodling kittens. I have vivisection, self-cannibalism, a special little something I'd call the whoroboros (ph). Now, I don't want to appear immodest, but this is the apex of what the park will provide. Our most skilled guests will fight their ways to the outer limits of the park, besting fearsome braves, seducing nubile maidens, befriending tragically ill-fated sidekicks and of course, like all our best narratives over the years, our guests will have the privilege of getting to know the character they're most interested in - themselves. I present our guests' next obsession, Odyssey on Red River.


ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Robert Ford) No.

QUARTERMAN: (As Lee Sizemore) Sorry?

HOPKINS: (As Robert Ford) No. I don't think so.

QUARTERMAN: (As Lee Sizemore) You don't think...

HOPKINS: (As Robert Ford) What is the point of it? Got a couple of cheap thrills, some surprises, but it's not enough. It's not about giving the guests what you think they want. That's simple - titillation, horror, elation, the politics. The guests don't return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details.

BRIGER: Well, first of all, I have to say you're not generously depicting writers in that scene.


NOLAN: Yeah, we're - hasten to point out that Simon's character, Lee, is not based on any writer that we may know or have worked with.

BRIGER: No, of course not, never. Jonah, you've also written screenplays with your brother, Christopher Nolan. You wrote the two Batman movies "The Dark Knight" and "The Dark Knight Rises" as well as "Interstellar." How do you compare writing with your brother to writing with your wife?

JOY: I'm sitting right across from him.


BRIGER: She won't hear.


NOLAN: A couple of key distinctions - working with Chris over the years is a fantastic experience and I'm very proud of the movies that we've worked on together. I would typically be working on the next film while Chris was shooting the last one. And I think that was one of the great benefits of that relationship for Chris was that I was able to sort of get out in front of it. In particular on on "The Dark Night," Chris was off shooting the "Prestige" and I was sort of tasked with, OK, here's an idea. You know, we'd worked together on "Batman Begins." I'd worked on that film for a few months, so I knew the characters well, but it's a solitary existence, feature writing.

When I was looking at Lisa's experience in television and realizing how collaborative it was, that great terrible thing of the writers room where, you know, you can build a kind of a collective consciousness. And on days when you're not feeling terribly inspired, the room can pick you up and carry you forward. Here, the opportunity to collaborate with Lisa was a parallel collaboration. And for me, as an opportunity to direct, which is to be able to engage with the material, not just at the script stage but then directly with the actors, with the designers and all of the amazing crew that we put together.

BRIGER: Lisa, I read that you didn't watch TV or movies until you were 23. Is that right?

JOY: (Laughter) You know, I watched some, you know, when I - if I was home sick from school or something. But I'm the child of a tiger mom. Is that the (laughter) parlance for it now? You know, both my parents aren't really from this country, and the emphasis was really on education and studying, and TV seemed like it was not the best use of my time for my parents. So ironically, of course, I rebelled completely and now it's how I make a living. And they're...

BRIGER: Yeah, what do they think about that?

JOY: Well, you know, I used to be a lawyer, and my mom - when I first got my first writing job, she said, well, can you just do it at night and keep doing law during the day? And so they were a little worried, as you would be, I think as any parent is if their child says, hey, I'm going to leave my job with health insurance and of - happy future laid out and enter this crazy world where you're making up stories. But...

NOLAN: A few months after you were at your first job, we both went on strike.

JOY: Yeah, we both went on writers' strike. So we were both doubly unemployed. That must have given them a heart attack. But, you know, they've been incredibly, incredibly supportive, and I'm so grateful too because in never assuming that I would be able to be a professional writer, you know, I had so many other experiences. And also I renew my bar membership every year, so if this all goes horribly wrong, I can still defend you in a court of law.

BRIGER: So there's a great saloon heist scene in the first episode that's using as the score for it The Rolling Stones song "Paint It Black." And the music starts out as a role for a player piano and the player piano throughout the show seems to sort of be a visual stand-in for the androids. But as the scene progresses, it evolves in this beautiful, orchestral arrangement that's, like, sounds like Western. There's some, like, Bolero. It's such a well-scored scene. Can you talk about the music there?

NOLAN: We couldn't resist the symbol of the player piano as the sort of the first robot of the West. It felt like the, you know, the best possible sort of symbol for our host, you know, things that are pre-programmed to evoke an emotional response. So we were able to play with contemporary music. All of it is then rearranged. In the case of "Paint It Black," it then evolves into an orchestral score using strings. It's a wonderful thing to be able to play with and, in this context, is the audience's emotional - preexisting emotional relationship with some of these songs. And we take full advantage of it throughout the season.

BRIGER: Well, Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, thank you so much for being on the show, and thank you for "Westworld." It's really terrific.

JOY: Thank you. It was so lovely talking to you.

NOLAN: Thanks, Sam.

GROSS: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy created and write the HBO series "Westworld." They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Issa Rae, creator and star of the HBO series "Insecure." She plays a 29-year-old who's in a relationship she fears is going nowhere and a job in which she feels like the token black.


ISSA RAE: (As Issa Dee) My boss founded a nonprofit to help kids from the hood, but she didn't hire anybody from the hood.

GROSS: Rae also created the web series "The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl." I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.