HBO’s upcoming Westworld stirred up worrisome reports when the production temporarily shut down last January in order to give showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy more time to work on the final episodes of the season.
Previous statements from producers have been clear about their reason for the hiatus. “The show is complicated and ambitious,” Joy told EW months ago. “For the first half of the series we were writing while in production and we needed the time to catch up on scripts. Taking that time allowed us to really finesse all the storylines we set up — deepening character arcs and delving further into the series’ larger mythological questions.” Joy more recently added to us that, “It’s a really complex interlocking story. We knew where we wanted to go and we knew exactly how the season ended where the kind of character arcs ended, but weaving those scripts and writing the dialogue for all these brilliant actors, it takes time.”
But there was a little more to the behind-the-scenes creative challenge that was being solved. The Westworld team was determined to address another pressing issue during their break, as well. It turns out, producers wanted to firm up their master plan for the entire series — all the way to the show’s eventual finale — and lay that groundwork in the first season. That should be quite reassuring to fans of complex, mythology-driven TV shows, which have a spotty record of longterm narrative coherence.
“It wasn’t about getting the first 10 [episodes] done, it was about mapping out what the next 5 or 6 years are going to be,” Westworld actor James Marsden says. “We wanted everything in line so that when the very last episode airs and we have our show finale, five or seven years down the line, we knew how it was going to end the first season — that’s the way Jonah and [executive producer J.J. Abrams] operate. They’re making sure all the ducks are in the row. And it’s a testament to Jonah and Lisa and HBO that we got them right, especially the last three scripts. They could have rushed them and get spread too thin. They got them right, and when they were right, we went and shot them.”
Which isn’t to say the producers didn’t have some clear ideas about where the show was going from the very beginning. Nolan says they told HBO a rough plan for the first three or four seasons when they pitched the show. “I always feel like you want to have a sense,” Nolan says.
The Westworld team frequently makes production comparisons to HBO’s Game of Thrones (fun fact: composer Ramin Djawadi scores both shows), and Nolan noted the veteran fantasy hit had one major world-building advantage that they didn’t have — George R.R. Martin’s incredibly detailed books. While Westworld is based on a 1973 movie by Michael Crichton, the Jurassic Park author never wrote a Westworld novel. “We would joke that don’t have George, we don’t have the novels,” Nolan says. “We have a fantastic original film, but that’s a little under two hours of storytelling. So our joke was we have to write the ‘novels’ first, and then adapt them and then go shoot them.”
The Dark Knight writer also gave a tease about what future Westworld seasons would look like — or rather, wouldn’t look like. “We didn’t want to have a story that repeated itself [each year],” he says. “We didn’t want the Fantasy Island version of this [where new guests arrive at the park every season]. We wanted a big story. We wanted the story of the origin of a new species and how that would play out in its complexity.”
So the big takeaway, several castmembers and producers tell us, is that making Westworld was highly difficult, but for all the right reasons. “The greatest work never comes easy and, in my opinion, that’s what we were dealing with,” Marsden says. “This show is very ambitious and grand in scale and in themes and very expensive with a giant cast. And bigger than all of that is what this show wants to say.”
Westworld premieres Oct. 2 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. For more Westworld scoop, pick up EW’s new Fall TV Preview issue on stands now.