Jonah Nolan unleashes a whole lot on what we can expect in HBO's WESTWORLD

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Anything with the surname of Nolan attached to it normally makes me immediately want to see it. Christopher Nolan is one of my favourite directors of recent times and a truly epic and legendary filmmaker in his own right. However, he is not the only film-making talent in the family as many people forget that his brother Jonathan ‘Jonah’ Nolan is a talented screenwriter who has co-written many of his brother’s epics, including The Prestige, The Dark Knight Trilogy and Interstellar. So even though the new HBO sci-fi western series Westworld is not been directed by Christopher himself, it still has my attention with the involvement of his brother – who will be directing this series in addition to his writing. And if that still didn’t grab you – JJ Abrams is producing this TV epic.

Yes, that’s right – if cowboys and robots weren’t enough to garner your attention into this planned adaptation of a Michael Crichton classic, then hopefully the director and producer will. The series has a stellar cast with Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton and Ed Harris all starring, so even if you are doubtful of the younger Nolan’s skills, the cast alone should still keep you excited.

Nolan got to speak to a panel for the Television Critics Association (as reported by /Film) along with co-writer Lisa-Joy about the rules of Westworld, the themes brought about by today’s advanced technology in the story, the guest stars we can expect and much more:

It starts with J.J. Abrams who I’ve been collaborating with going on six years. J.J. sat down with Michael Crichton two decades ago. Crichton wanted to talk to him about remaking the original film. J,J, couldn’t crack it at that point. Neither could the rest of the town. How do you remake the movie? Yul Brenner’s performance in particular is so iconic. Fast forward two decades later, it occurs to J.J. it’s not a movie, it’s a series. A key aspect is you take the narrative and invert it, make it about the hosts.

I’m intrigued to see how they replicate this aspect of the material into the series. It still leaves us with wondering how they might look to extend the story to turn into into a proper series, but this something that Nolan and Abrams felt will a natural fit, as they get to expand on a lot more of the themes and the characters. It was also the reason why Nolan said many of the early versions to adapt the material had fallen short, because they kept on trying to shrink it fit a movie rather than expand it to create a series. Let’s hope creating a series out of it pays off.

I also like the angle they are trying to make with a great focus on the ‘guest’ experience in the film:

The guest experience is the third point of view of the show. Unlike the original film, we really wanted to start with the hosts, start with their limited understanding of what this world is. There’s that great point of entry but you also want to know how does this place work? It is an examination from two different perspectives, synthetic beings coded to resemble human beings as closely as possible who over the first season will start to question how worthy a model that is to follow. And the perspective of human beings who’ve been invited or made their way into a space in which they’ve been told that they have free reign. They can indulge in any whim no matter how noble or dark, apparently without consequences. Who are we when the lights are turned off, when we don’t think anyone’s keeping score? In between these worlds, you have the programmers, writers, technicians, the Promethean characters.

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It’s a bit of a mouthful, but if you’re familiar with the material it makes sense. There is an element of video-game understanding to the material. Michael Crichton hadn’t quite anticipated how major video games would become when he wrote and directed the 1973 film, but things have evolved immensely since then with Nolan saying further:

Our narrative had to account for that more sophisticated understanding we have of gaming. We call them guests but there’s a player aspect.

It’s exciting that they want to make the material relate to the world that we live in and that gamers get to experience every day. This will hopefully make the series that much more relatable to a wider audience, but they are also keeping their eyes on the future and where its headed to still being a true sense of sci-fi to the production:

In Silicon Valley they’re working on creating artificially intelligent machines. We have the benefit of having a little more insight into what that scientific process would look like and what the realities would be. Our approach to the A.I. was a little bit more nuanced. Now that we’re looking practically at what it would be to have an A.I., you realize they’re a product of our inputs, the way in which we design them, the good and the bad. Beyond that, there is the possibility of human error. Like any child, you do your best to rear them but they sometimes take on their own course. Their code can develop in ways we don’t anticipate. Our examination accounts for a plurality of different ways in which A.I. can develop. It’s very much an ongoing analysis of that issue.

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They also revealed a little more about the intriguing role Ed Harris’ character will be playing in the series, which in true Nolan style has been kept secret:

There’s an awful lot about this man I’ve been asked not to discuss. You learn about who he is in the outside world, his past, why he is here and who exactly he is. He’s been coming here for 30 years. When he first came, he was not the man in black. This is a character he has assumed and developed over the many years he’s been coming to this place. I think initially when he first arrived, he was exploring what his place was like. I can do whatever I want. I can kill people if I need to or make love to strange robotic prostitutes. I think something happened to him at some point that this part of him that’s very dark, very violent, all of a sudden he recognized this was a real part of him he’d never really lived with in his life outside, obviously repressed in civil society for many years and realized this is a part of myself I should check out and see where this takes me. But there’s also a much deeper purpose for him being here at this point. He thinks there’s some deeper level to what’s happening in this park. I’m not sure what it is or why, perhaps Tony’s character is in charge of something that’s not really obvious on the surface. I think he thinks the more chaos he causes, the more destruction he can create with the A.I. folks, [the better], but it’s not random. There’s always some narrative he’s following. Someone gets in his way and he has to blow them away

And speaking of which – there is something which Jonah Nolan wants to bring into the series which his older brother never let him do (the big bully).

My brother never wanted to put any [modern music] in his films so I’ve been pent up wanting to do it. For us, the player piano, with a little assist from Kurt Vonnegut, felt like the perfect metaphor for our hosts, these machines built to evoke emotion as our starting place. That gave us a jumping off point to feed contemporary music into it but re-imagine it.

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So, expect something different on the score front here. The older Christopher certainly loved his big orchestral scores, but I wouldn’t expect something a little bot more techo-oriented for this series, to fit in with the sci-fi technology aspect of it. It’s a massive undertaking for Nolan who hasn’t directed anything big yet – not just from a point of view of setting a strong foundation for his directing career, but also in budget.

The series also had some initial hiccups when production of the first series was delayed – an unusually expensive decision to make for a series that has yet to be released, but he went further to reiterate it was all to ensure the scale of the series is right:

I’ve worked in film and broadcast TV to this point in my career,” Nolan said. “They’re not kidding when they say it’s not TV, it’s HBO. It’s a little different. It’s really ambitious both in its narrative and production value. We got to a point in the season where Lisa and I needed to catch up, needed to write ahead. The network was incredibly supportive.

Westworld will premiere Sunday, October 2 on HBO.

Last Updated: August 1, 2016

Craig Risi

A man of many talents, but no sense how to use them. I could be discovering the cure for aids or finding ways to achieve world peace, but I'd rather be watching movies and writing here instead.

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