For the past seven years, showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have dedicated their professional lives to “Westworld,” HBO’s sprawling and cerebral sci-fi series loosely based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie. In the story, a race of artificially intelligent robots in the not-too-distant future violently rises up against the humans who’ve used and abused them for sport. So one might expect the couple — who’ve been married since 2009 — to share an aversion to allowing any manner of automation into their home.
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“We have some Roombas,” Joy says with a smile, considering the self-guided vacuums. “Roombas are adorable. I mean, I always want to put little ears on them.”
Sitting next to her in the modern Hollywood offices of their production company, Kilter Films, Nolan nods slightly. “I’m sort of waiting for them to asphyxiate us while we’re sleeping,” he says, eyes narrowing. “It’s possible.”
For Joy and Nolan, the abiding appeal of making “Westworld” has been the opportunity to explore their complicated feelings about humanity’s relationship with technology — and to do it on a vast cinematic scale through the point of view of intelligent androids designed as an outlet for people’s darkest impulses. Over the first two seasons, their efforts have earned nine Emmys (from 43 nominations) and won a loyal and extremely online fan base that loves the series’ heady and head-squeezing brew of big ideas and big-canvas science fiction storytelling.
But Joy and Nolan’s unabashed embrace of the show’s more abstruse concepts — like the nonlinear nature of robot consciousness — have prompted questions as to whether “Westworld” is too willfully convoluted to capture a mass audience capable of filling the void left by HBO’s crown jewel genre tentpole “Game of Thrones.”
That could change, however, with the third season of “Westworld” — debuting March 15 — in which a handful of the robot “hosts” who populated the titular theme park escape into the real world for the first time. It’s something Joy and Nolan have been eager to tackle since they first began working on the project in 2013.
“When Lisa and I were talking about the pilot, one of the things that was most exciting to us was, you learn the rules of these creatures and their world, and then you spring them out of there,” Nolan says. “And you’ve withheld from the audience, for the most part to that point, what the outside world looks like.”
Indeed, most of the new season — or, at least, the four episodes Variety has screened — is set in Los Angeles, San Francisco and several other real-world global locales circa 2058, rather than the period environments (19th-century Western America, feudal samurai Japan) of the theme park. More crucially, “Westworld” has also shed its time-twisting structure and adopted instead a sleek, fleet, “Heat”-style-crime-thriller-with-robots vibe. It’s as if Joy and Nolan have, if not rebooted their show outright, then given its operating software a comprehensive, populist upgrade.
“It’s a lot more linear this season,” says Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Dolores, the host leading the AI rebellion against humanity. “It feels like we’re introducing a new show to the world again, starting over and building it from the ground up with these characters that we know and love, and with the elements that are still very much ‘Westworld.’”
“When Lisa and I were talking about the pilot, one of the things that was most exciting to us was, you learn the rules of these creatures and their world, and then you spring them out of there.”
Joy and Nolan insist, however, that the season’s more straightforward approach isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to criticism of Season 2’s tangled narrative. “Did we dumb the show down?” Nolan says before shaking his head no. “We’re very lucky in that we’re at a place with HBO where they let us make the show we want to make.”
Nolan, who goes by Jonah, is the more discursive of the two, and can easily talk at length about everything from “algorithmic determinism” — the new season’s central Big Idea — to how blockchain technology led to the idea for Rico, an app on the show that’s like Uber but for crime, used by a new human character, Caleb (Aaron Paul).
“Jonah’s been a little obsessed with blockchain,” Joy says.
Nolan smiles. “Rico is an obvious parody of our algorithmic gig economy drawn to the extreme,” he says. “It’s facilitated in part by the idea of the blockchain. I don’t think people understand how seismic that shift is going to be.”
Joy, by contrast, speaks more deliberately; early in the interview, she stops a remark about rereading “The Odyssey” mid-sentence to give herself a chance to think through what she wants to say, her fingers pressed to her temples as if to activate her brain’s core processor. But once she gets going, she’s eager to talk about the broader themes of “Westworld” — biochemistry, selfhood, free will — and the internal motivations driving the characters in Season 3.
“So you have the Greeks, right?” she says. “When they talk about free will in a hero’s journey, they are attributing exterior factors to gods. But the gods are doing very concrete things to influence the fate of humans. The fates themselves are weavers. They know what to snip; they know what to weave. In ‘Westworld,’ in the earlier seasons, the gods are these tech people, who are putting the hosts in these different loops. And now when you look outside of the park — I think everyone has delusions of grandeur, of agency, free will, yada yada yada, and maybe they’re not delusions. That’s part of the inquiry that I think we’re excited about this season.
“But it is undeniable that [one’s] choices are strongly influenced by exterior factors, but now, the strings of the fates are further and further away from your eyes. You can’t see their hands moving anymore, so you don’t understand what’s being tugged.”
|Joe Toreno for Variety
Suffice it to say, speaking with the two of them together for even a short period of time makes clear just how much of “Westworld” is built from, well, let’s say their base code.
“Jonah and Lisa, the subjects that they’re interested in talking about, they have an ability to not only think about these things but actually distill them,” says HBO programming chief Casey Bloys. “The show has something that always demands your attention. It’s not going to be mindless television. And even if it’s not playing with timelines, it’s never going to be something where you just sit back and kind of half-watch the TV and fold laundry.”
If anything, Joy and Nolan say the show’s leap into the real world allowed them to push their ambitions for the scope of the show even further, since they had to imagine — and then manifest — how the planet would look and feel in roughly 40 years. Nolan directed the Season 3 premiere, so the lion’s share of that world-building fell to him, and he had to keep to an aesthetic directive that he and Joy established for “Westworld” at its inception: Shoot as much practically as possible.
That started with the exteriors. Nolan gestures at the drab stone edifices just outside his office. “This is L.A.’s uniquely broken zoning laws, but I can’t look at a building out the window that was built in the last 40 years,” he says as Joy chuckles at her husband’s familiar complaint. “Most of our urban environment is hand-me-down, and the future is, frankly, a little disappointing. We’re living in it now. I imagined it when I was a teenager, and it’s not what I thought it was going to be.”
So instead, the two creatives and their production team chose Singapore, with its undulating, cosmopolitan architecture festooned with lush greenery, to double for future Los Angeles. “I love America. Great place,” says Nolan. “But we haven’t spent the kind of money that you’ve seen spent [in Asia], in terms of infrastructure and public transportation and airports. The experience of going to any major Asian city is always a little bewildering and humbling on that level. It really does feel like you’ve gotten in a time machine and stepped forward 20, 30 years into the future. It’s the old William Gibson thing, right? The future is here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”
(Joy and Nolan actually hit upon this solution in the earliest days of developing “Westworld” after comparing notes on their trips abroad. Then the couple saw Spike Jonze’s 2013 sci-fi romance “Her” — which doubled Shanghai for a future L.A. “We were disappointed that we didn’t get to be the first people to do that,” Nolan says with a chuckle.)
“The earlier seasons, the gods are tech people. Now, outside of the park, everyone has delusions of grandeur, of agency, free will … and maybe they’re not delusions.”
For the interiors, Nolan was also eager to innovate. Back when he was running the CBS drama “Person of Interest,” he felt stymied by the backdrops used for most scenes on a soundstage. Any significant camera movements would shatter the illusion that the backdrop was supposed to be much farther away — an optical phenomenon known as the parallax effect. “So we tried to develop a technology where you could live-project backgrounds but then shift them [in real time] for parallax,” he says.
They ultimately couldn’t make it work, but after Jon Favreau successfully employed similar technology for his Disney Plus “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian,” Nolan says Favreau “very, very generously” shared what he learned with the “Westworld” production team. The new tech proved especially useful for the fictional San Francisco headquarters of Delos, the conglomerate that owns the Westworld theme park. For exteriors, the production spent a few days shooting at the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences complex in Valencia, Spain. The visual effects team also photographed the facility “down to the subatomic particle,” says Nolan, which in turn allowed production designer Howard Cummings to build interior sets for the Delos HQ featuring giant floor-to-ceiling windows, with real-time LED-screen backgrounds that projected what the VFX team had captured and would subtly shift as the camera moved.
“All those delicious reflections, right there in the set,” Nolan says with a grin.
Joy, meanwhile, stayed back in Los Angeles to oversee the production and prep future episodes — while also busily preparing for her feature directorial debut, the upcoming sci-fi thriller “Reminiscence,” which shot as she was finishing production on Season 3 of “Westworld.”
“Lisa’s basically been a superhero for the last year,” Nolan says. Joy waves him off with a laugh.
“At least right now, I’m not actively in labor,” she says, explaining that her two children, now 6 and 3, were both born while she was working on the previous two seasons of “Westworld” — whereas for Season 3, she wasn’t pregnant. “If a baby’s not crowning while I’m writing, I actually feel pretty leisurely about it.” (Seemingly the only friction during this period was when Joy cast “Westworld” co-star Thandie Newton for “Reminiscence,” which caused “a couple moments of tug-of-war” over the actor’s availability, says Nolan.)
In a way, Joy’s movie is a beta test for what promises to be a cascade of new projects from the pair. In April 2019, they left their deal at Warner Bros. Television for a $150 million, five-year pact with Amazon. The reason, Nolan says, is simple.
“Amazon’s ambitions are big,” he says. “They want to be making big, bold television series, and that’s what we like to do as well. In a moment in which people are making unbridled television, you want to be taking advantage of that.”
|Joe Toreno for Variety
Their first project under the deal, a series adaptation of William Gibson’s sci-fi novel “The Peripheral,” features morally ambiguous characters and the tricky metaphysics of intersecting time periods — in other words, vintage Joy and Nolan. That show is set to begin shooting later this year, followed by “a couple more” as-yet-unannounced projects that Nolan calls “really, really ambitious.”
The two hope to make at least one more season of “Westworld,” though they’re coy about any more beyond that. Bloys says any decision about renewal will be made at some point after the Season 3 premiere, but don’t expect any new “Westworld” seasons to come faster than the 18 to 20 months it’s taken between seasons so far. Joy and Nolan say that’s just how long they need to put together a show this thematically and logistically elaborate — which they note is increasingly common with event TV.
“As Jonah and Lisa will tell you, I will always say, ‘Can we get it sooner?’” says Bloys. “As shows get bigger and more complicated, I think more time between seasons is probably becoming more of the norm.”
“Bigger and more complicated” is the Joy and Nolan way, but with Season 3, there was, at least, one troublesome aspect of marshaling a show as formidable as “Westworld” that they were happy to not have to deal with again.
“The horses got replaced with motorcycles,” Joy says with a laugh. Her husband nods.
“Yeah, I miss the horses,” he says. “But motorcycles don’t blow takes by urinating in the middle of them. So that’s one upgrade.”