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.
Fast Company: 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.
FC: 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.
FC: 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.
FC: 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.
FC: 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.
FC: 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.
FC: 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.
FC: I’ve heard showrunners describe their shows as being either auteur-driven 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.
30-Second Bio: Jonathan Nolan
Family fame: Nolan and his brother, director Christopher Nolan, cowrote Interstellar, The Dark Knight, and more.
First gig: The film Memento, starring Guy Pearce, was based on a short story Nolan wrote in college. (He also coded the website for the movie.)
TV debut: Nolan created CBS’s sci-fi crime drama Person of Interest.
30-Second Bio: Lisa Joy
Hometown: Chester, New Jersey
Big break: Joy was a writer on the ABC comedy series Pushing Daisies.
Alternate life: Before television, Joy worked in criminal law, specializing in family violence.
Favorite western: Sergio Leone’s genre-flipping Once Upon a Time in the West