Writer/producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy talk HBO's WESTWORLD series

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Despite its hush hush production, I’ve been keeping a close watch on HBO’s planned TV series remake/adaptation of Westworld, the classic 1973 sci-fi western written and directed by Michael Crichton. Remakes tend to get a bad name, but when you have this much talent in front of and behind the camera, I will definitely take notice. Produced by JJ Abrams, Jonathan “brother of Christopher” Nolan – those two names would explain all the secrecy – and Burn Notice producer Lisa Joy, the show will also have Sir Anthony Hopkins in his first regular TV role. He will be joined by James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood, Miranda Otto, Rodrigo Santoro, Jeffrey Wright and of course Ed Harris, who plays the infamous Gunslinger.

In the original film, which is set in a futuristic amusement park themed on the wild west and populated by life-like robots that give park-goers a true western experience, the Gunslinger – famously played b Yul Brenner – was one of many robots that go haywire and start killing tourists. That’s still the case in this new series, but according to Nolan and Joy (via EW), there’s a whole lot more depth to Chrichton’s story and the possibility of further exploring that is what enticed them.

Jonathan Nolan: I’ve collaborated with J.J. [Abrams] now for several years on our show on CBS [Person of Interest]. He’s a lovely guy, a brilliant guy. He called us last summer and explained that he wanted to figure out how Westworld could be remade. In that usual Michael Crichton fashion, he never wrote anything that was just a film — there was always a massive world behind it that could be mined. Lisa and I thought about it a little bit, and came to the realization this had literally everything that we’re interested in in one series. We couldn’t say no.

Lisa Joy: It’s such an amazing world. It’s such an amazing platform for examining so many things that are top of mind for me intellectually, emotionally, psychologically. Jonah and I joked that it’s kind of like we took a bunch of movies that we were thinking about writing and shoved it all into this TV series. It’s been incredibly thrilling.

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Of course the problem often with movie to TV series adaptation, is that taking a three-act two-hour movie and stretching it into a series could introduce some pacing issues. But apparently, Nolan and Joy foresee no such problems here.

Nolan: Crichton wrote this as an original screenplay and then directed it. There’s no book. What you feel in the film is there’s this larger world that he barely has time to explore. It leaves you breathless. Westworld goes from one f–king massive idea to the next. At one point in there, he references why the robots are misbehaving. He describes the concept of the computer virus. When they were shooting the film it was the same year, or the year before, the appearance of the first actual computer virus. This is why Crichton was so brilliant. He knew so much about the technologies that were about to emerge, spent so much time thinking about how they would actually work. Consider the fact that the original film was written prior to the existence of even the first video game. Think about massive multiplayer roll-playing games, and the complexity and richness of video game storytelling. When he wrote Westworld, none of that existed! So it’s a film that anticipated so many advances in technology. The film has a structure that barrels forward—there’s this unstoppable android hellbent on vengeance—and it preceded The Terminator by 10 years.

Joy: The glory of doing it as a series is that you get to kind of dance in the little spaces that were left unexplored. In a film, you only have a finite amount of time, and you’re so concerned with saying what happened and making it a gripping short story with a satisfying ending. But in a TV series, you can really take a novelistic approach and explore characters that you wouldn’t ordinarily see, in a level of complexity that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to explore just out of the sheer time constraints in a feature. I think we’re very much looking forward to taking all those possibilities and exploding out.

Of course exploring the difference between artificial intelligence and humans is not a new thing, and has been tackled by many popular writers and directors today. Would retreading this ground be cause for concern?

Nolan: My brother’s favorite movie is Blade Runner. I can’t count the amount of times he’s made me watch it. [Lisa and I] both watched and admired Dollhouse. There are really smart people asking interesting questions about this sort of universe. But I think there are lots of questions left unanswered. A.I. [Artificial Intelligence] is a topic that Lisa and I are both fascinated by. And the thing about science fiction is that it’s past the golden age. The great [talents] have already taken a crack at lot of this. But it’s still very pleasurable take a swing at some of the bigger ideas.

Joy: I think the other thing that’s fascinating about doing this now is, in a short amount of time since Blade Runner came out, the kind of science that we’re talking about has become closer to “science” than it is to the “fiction” part of “science-fiction.” I think we’re standing at an interesting precipice from which to both view the future and to hypothesize about the future. I think that all of that new information will help add new dimensions to this world.

Nolan: …picture your neurosis. Picture the things that keep you up at night—human behavior, artificial intelligence—any of those things that trouble you, worry you. That is exactly what the show is about. We are hoping to exploit all of those anxieties… We’re incredibly excited about it, both on the narrative level and on a cinematic level.

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Nolan and Joy also added that “there are some key differences between the film and our series”, and one of which may be where the whole thing is set. The original film had a real-life amusement park, but with today’s technology that sort of environment would more than likely be imagined as something virtual. So which approach would this new Westworld be taking? Well, Nolan wasn’t willing to give that away, but did offer this tease.

Nolan: Here’s the thing: People who come into this place are looking for—and this is the irony of it—the authentic experience. They’re looking for not the virtual version, but the real version, the tactile version. Interestingly we’ve arrived at what [the original film] created—fully immersible virtual worlds. Look at Grand Theft Auto or any of these wholly imagined open-world video games. They are beautiful. They’re perfectly immersive and brilliant and filled with narrative turns … “What happens in Westworld stays in Westworld.” It’s a place where you can be whoever the f–k you want to be and there are no consequences. No rules, no limitations.

Nolan went on to give a basic rundown of the show’s hook and what is so appealing about it to modern audiences.

Nolan: The back of napkin version, is that it’s about a theme park where you can take your id on vacation. But there’s way more to it. It’s based on a film that’s 40 years old, and one of the amazing things about Crichton is he was such a visionary. For much of science fiction, it felt like so many of the questions were a long way away. I actually think we’re in a moment now where these questions are close in the real world. Our world is about to get very off, and some of the questions Crichton had in his film we’re hoping to elaborate on in the series. As exotic as they seemed years ago, they are now becoming very frighteningly relevant.

Joy: So much so that Stephen Hawking has been proselytizing about the dangers of AI. A lot of the people in the tech world who are actively pursuing the creation of AI are also, ironically, actively sounding the alarm bells of what that landscape would look like. I think it’s definitely part of the cultural conversation in a way that people can relate to it a lot more and see the kind of edges of this coming to fruition.

I will say the other part of this project that is incredibly unique and really thrilling is that you have the sci-fi in a mash-up with a Western—which is such an iconic and timeless genre for an examination of human beings and story. We’re able to look backward and forward. I think the clash of those two worlds together is what is especially exciting, especially right now when I feel like we’re at a similar precipice where we’re on the razor’s edge between time, between eras, and you feel like something new is coming. You don’t know exactly what it will be, but you feel it kind of looming.

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Of course, one other major appeal of this movie, is the incredible cast spearheaded by Anthony Hopkins as we mentioned up top. This type of top-tier talent showing up on television is becoming a more and more of common occurrence lately, as TV’s production values get better, sometimes dwarfing those of a Hollywood feature film, and creators respond to the appeal of more long-form storytelling. This is something that Nolan and Joy are fully aware of.

Nolan: It’s hard to think of any film over the last year that had the same impact as True Detective and the final season of Breaking Bad—in terms of the cultural conversation. I work in film. I love film. But a lot of the richer, darker questions in narratives are the more daring work being done in television. We’ve been able to collaborate with a legendary actor [and it’s] been a pleasure.

Joy: I think [what] made us want to write this show is the same thing for actors wanting to perform in it—the ability to let loose and explore deeply the feelings within these characters.

Nolan and Joy wouldn’t share much more than that though (they kept mum when questioned on just how human these rogue robots would be), and that’s not just because they like to watch us squirm, but rather they want the experience of watching this show for the first time to be as good as possible.

Nolan:What I love about working with J.J. is it’s just like working with my brother, Chris. There’s a commitment [to secrecy] there in an age in which anyone who sits down to watch anything already knows f–king everything. Our commitment is preserving the old-fashioned audience experience. [We want you to] come in knowing as little as possible. What we can tell you is that we intend to make the most ambitious, subversive, f–ked up television series.

Well, that definitely sounds promising! HBO has not set a premiere date for Westworld yet, but they’re treating it as one of their top-tier shows and have been pushing the production schedule, meaning that we’ll still be taking a holiday with all the cowboys and murderous robots some time in 2015.

Last Updated: January 27, 2015

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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