TCA 2016 Interview: Jonah Nolan on HBO’s Westworld
HBO presented a panel on their long-awaited Westworld series for the Television Critics Association, after announcing the premiere date of October 2. Producers Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy were on the panel with their cast, and J.J. Abrams is also involved as a producer. Based on the Michael Crichton movie, Westworld is still about a robot wild west theme park, but with more focus on the robots’, or hosts’ perspective.
After the panel I joined Nolan on stage for follow-up questions along with other journalists in the TCA. We spoke about the show’s music, which plays modern music o a player piano. During the panel Nolan discussed the fictional technology that keeps bullets from harming paying guests, so I followed up about that. Westworld premieres Sunday, October 2 at 9PM on HBO.
So guns are rigged, but what about knives? Can guests stab each other?
One of the ideas was sort of layered in the narrative. I think the release that you would sign when you came to this place would be pretty extensive, would cover a fair amount of injury and risk involved in going to Westworld. But, part of what the hosts have been designed to do, we have a feature in the program called The Good Samaritan Reflex or Function. Wherever they can, the park is populated by hosts and part of their responsibility, part of their subconscious programming is to try to protect the guests in whatever capacity it can. So if you’ve got a drunken guest who’s careening towards a cliff edge, you’re more likely than not to have a host nearby who, without breaking that narrative, is going to find a way to gently steer them back. They’re cannon fodder on one hand but they’re also the all purpose minders of this place.
Can you mention any of the other songs you’re going to feature in upcoming episodes?
Well, we’re still clearing some of them. The first two episodes have been cleared. We’ve got some very exciting music and with me it’s always a combination of something old, something new. We have some really cool songs lining up. Part of the fun of it once we clear the song is to create an arrangement of the song that can then play on a player piano. Then we have a little company that we found in Southern California that still operates for all this time and they can create the paper reels that we then thread into several actual player pianos. They’ve all been carefully restored. So this company can create the reel with that piece of contemporary music on it. There was a piece of Radiohead in the second episode as well, so we get a Radiohead song, we create our reel and we put it through. It’s really, really cool. It’s been a lot of fun.
You spent five years dealing with A.I. on Person of Interest.
Yeah, I found my subject.
Did you come to any conclusions about A.I. that have been useful in Westworld?
It’s funny because it’s really looking at the subject from a different perspective. Person of Interest was relentlessly non-anthropomorphic A.I. It was really the godhead. It was the A.I. as a pure intelligence, not tethered to the mortal coil. And the A.I. was developed in secret. With Westworld you have really the opposite. If you consider the consciousness aspect of it, it’s almost an accident. These creatures were programmed merely to be as lifelike as necessary for their job. Their job is to satisfy, as Lisa said, our most noble or most base desire. So they’re not supposed to be smarter than us. That’s the last thing we’d want from them.
Have you thought about how much it costs to attend Westworld?
We did. We came up with an early estimate number which I’d hate to relate. One of the ideas that’s gently touched on, in our world this park has been extant for more than 30 years. You drive around L.A. and you see the Disney 60 signs. Disneyland itself, ours is very, very different but the idea of a fantasy world that you’d think was compelling enough to last generations. You’d take your grandkids to Disneyland and regale them with the stories of when they were there originally, 60 years ago. If you create something in this fantasy space that was powerful enough, lasting enough, it becomes an institution. We imagine in our show that Westworld has become an institution, a place that people can come to and they bring their kids back to.
There’s so much good television on now. No offense, but why should people watch Westworld?
There’s a lot of fantastic television. It’s a great moment to be making television. What we’re hoping to do here for this is something a little different. I don’t think that you’ve quite seen anything like this on television. And the television I’ve worked on, the idea is to try to hide as many layers and complexities into it as possible. From the beginning of my career, I was always working on stuff that was “lean forward.” Lean forward movies or lean forward TV. You want the audience to engage with it in almost a game-like way.
Westworld is a futuristic show, but you film largely in a classic western town.
Yes, Castle Valley in Utah.
Why did you choose Castle Valley?
I immigrated to this country. I was born an American but I lived the first years of my life in England, which does not have any places that look like Utah or Colorado. So every chance I got, I would take a road trip and for me, America is incredibly beautiful. There are so many places to look at but the place I was always drawn back to was Utah, southern Utah. It has these landscapes that don’t look like anywhere else on the face of the planet. So when we talked about doing a western, we went to that classic iconic sense of the John Ford western, the western where that geography is exquisitely exclusive in America. It turns out, John Ford had obviously made Monument Valley famous with is first films. His last four films shot in a place called Castle Valley east of Moab which is where we went back to for that. It’s incredibly beautiful.