Here’s what you already know: HBO’s upcoming Westworld is an adaptation of the 1973 film written and directed by visionary author Michael Crichton. Like the author’s best-known work, Jurassic Park, it’s about a theme park where rather unique attractions (in Westworld’s case, lifelike androids) break from their assigned roles and kill the guests.
HBO’s series version is from Interstellar and The Dark Knight co-writer Jonathan Nolan (brother of director Christopher) and Lisa Joy (Burn Notice), along with mega-producer J.J. Abrams and Jerry Weintraub and Bryan Burk. It boasts an impressive cast led by Anthony Hopkins (in his first TV series regular role), James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood, and Jeffrey Wright.
Now here’s what you may not know: Nolan and Joy are looking to explore some very sweeping, dark and increasingly timely future-shock ideas. But since the project’s producing team includes Abrams and a Nolan, Westworld is naturally one of the most secretive TV series ever made. So in this interview with the writer-producers, we tried our best to get you a few hints about one of 2015’s most intriguing new dramas.
EW: What drew you to this project?
Jonathan Nolan: I’ve collaborated with J.J. 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.
The original movie had a great three-act structure. How do you take that storyline—androids run amuck in futuristic theme park—and convert that into a weekly series?
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.
I’m getting the impression that you probably don’t want to reveal too much about the story. Is there anything you’re comfortable saying beyond the initial premise?
Nolan: Not really. 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.
From Almost Human to Dollhouse to Blade Runner, some of the themes in this story have been explored before. How conscious are you of those other projects, and are you looking to be close to them or steer away?
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.
In terms of the look of the androids: Is there anything that distinguishes them physically from humans?
Nolan: That’s a very good question. [Pause]
Um … does that mean you don’t want to answer?
Nolan: There are questions that we want the audience to be asking. There are some key differences between the film and our series.
Is there any sense you can give in terms of how the park functions? I mean, is it a physical theme park that you go to, like the park is in the film, or is it virtual? And does it fulfill a different role in terms of its place in society? [Long silence] Is this a bad question?
Joy: It is a good question. A part of this is… basically… [to Nolan] Yeah, you take it.
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.
Does the show take place entirely within the world of the park or do we go outside of the park as well?
Joy: We do.
Great sci-fi tends to reflect real-world anxieties, so I’m assuming that this will reflect the increasing anxieties about robot technology and artificial intelligence. Is that accurate?
Nolan: I would say, 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.
You’ve assembled a really strong cast. I should ask you about landing Anthony Hopkins in his first TV series.
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.
Obviously this is tricky to interview you about. Is there anything I didn’t ask about that’s an in-bounds question that you think our readers would be interested in?
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.
Right, especially the way technology is now developing exponentially. People tend to underestimate how quickly things are going to change.
Joy: 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.