Esquire talks to Jonathan Noland and Lisa Joy about the show we’ve all been waiting for;
A fly landing on an eyeball, the light touch of a finger on a synthetic lip, a naked human form sitting exposed as an object of beauty formed by either god or man—Westworld is a show that explores what it means to be human by confusing our notions of sentient life and artificial intelligence.
HBO’s newest science fiction series takes place in a near future in which wealthy guests vacation in Westworld. The titular setting is an amusement park of cowboys and Indians that immerses patrons into the wild American frontier, where the damsels, sheriffs, heroes, and villains are all near perfect mechanical humans known as “hosts.”
On its surface, Westworld could easily be interpreted as Jurassic Park with cowboy humanoid robots (which wouldn’t be far off, as it’s a reimagining of Jurassic Park writer Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name). But the show, thanks to the curious sci-fi minds of showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, manages to address some of the most pressing concerns of our stunningly technological world. All at once, the show takes on masculinity, our notion of reality, the ethics of entertainment and human-machine interaction, the dangers of artificial intelligence, and our very definitions of sentient life. These are demanding topics that television shows rarely ask an audience to wrestle with. Yet Westworld manages to keep sight of what it is: an exploration of humanity along with a study of the western genre that provides a palatable balance of shootouts, campy ragtime covers of Radiohead songs, and gunslinging with a lecture in ethics.
Coming at a time when fans are starved for another Game of Thrones, Westworld is HBO’s attempt to fill that void. But the truth is, Westworld is not Game of Thrones. And that’s a good thing. Because although the shows are largely matched in terms of production value, Westworld provides the clay and tools for Nolan and Joy to discuss themes far beyond killing our favorite characters.
ESQ: One of the small details that I really liked about the show was when you weren’t sure if a character was an actual person or a wax figure. It created that sense of uncertainty in the viewer. What does that add to the experience of watching Westworld?
Nolan: I think we wanted the show to explore the uncanny valley completely. We wanted this idea of near AI (artificial intelligence), or near-human AI. It’s an interesting one, because as you approach the question of intelligence and consciousness and sentience, the fabric of that is very subtle. It’s the suspense of what makes us alive. Humans are so attuned to tiny behavior in each other, you know? We’re so aware of the tiny movements of eyes and hands, the tiny curl of a mouth into a smile. We read so much into behavior. And the sense that a machine could evoke that is something that in the real world we’re getting closer and closer to. Not the physicality of it, but our online interactions are becoming more and more sophisticated and harder and harder to tell whether you’re dealing with a human or a bot or a piece of software. We were just fascinated by that—the moment in which the robot’s behavior becomes so close to human that it’s only in the tiny subtle ways that you’re exploring the question of, well, are they sentient or not? Because they certainly seem sentient.
Westworld does such a good job making the viewer empathize with these “hosts,” or these machines. What do you think this says about modern technology?
Joy: You know, building that empathetic connection between the audience and the host is something we worked very hard to create, both on the page and in performance. I think the question that we pose in this series—”Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”—is applied to the hosts, but if they seemed lifelike and we empathize with them, then it might act as a mirror of us. Then the audience is also asking, “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality and your place within it?” So, in making them as lifelike as possible, they form a kind of mirror to the guest within the park and also, hopefully, the audience itself.
Is that why so much of the story is told from the host’s point of view?
Nolan: Yeah, I mean, I’ve long been fascinated by artificial intelligence. My last show was about it—the parts of Interstellar that I was most excited to see brought to screen dealt with the interactions between the artificial crew members and real crew members. I’m fascinated by the subject. And there was an opportunity here to dive all the way in so you’re not looking at them—you’re looking through them. You’re with them trying to understand the world that they’ve been placed in, and the appetites and their interactions with the guest. It’s more about AI looking at us and trying to understand us. Which we thought was such a fascinating way into this story.
How close are we to this being a reality? I mean, it seems pretty plausible the way that you outline it in the show
Nolan: We did a little bit of research, we talked to some interesting people, and I kept track of the topic for several years for different projects. I think this is a subject that we have seen so much of in film and television that we’ve become a little immune to it. We’ve come to regard it solely as the problem of science fiction, but it’s actually happening. Setting aside the theme park aspect of it and anthropomorphic robots, AI—the idea that we could have meaningful interactions and substantial relationships with AI—has been such a figment of science fiction for so long that we’ve stopped imagining that it will become real or how it will become real. I do think that we are getting closer and closer to a moment in which our online interactions are going to become very confusing—I think we are much closer than people imagine to passing the Turing test online. I think most people think we’re 40 years out from that, and I think we’re probably more like 10 to 15. It’s felt like the topic could head some urgency at this point.
Going along with that relationship with technology and empathizing with technology, that’s what makes the sexual violence of the show so difficult to take in. How do you respond to people who might be critical of that?
Joy: Well, I think if the implied sexual violence in the show, if it’s jarring for people, makes them think and makes them empathize with the machines, then that’s part of a conversation that we wanted to start. There are so many video games out there where violence and sexual violence is just something that you play. And here, because you think of them as the “other” because they are just for recreation, it’s just a game. Now, in pushing that boundary and making the host more and more lifelike, we start to question: When does it become immoral, whether or not these are actual human creatures, to exercise these violent urges upon them?
In the first four episodes, you get a predominantly male experience in the park. Is that a design of the park in the show? Or are there more female experiences to come? Is that point of view more of a critique on masculinity itself?
Nolan: I think there’s a little bit of all of those things in there. When we set off on writing this series, we had intended to make the park feel as well rounded as possible. You see glimpses of it in the early episodes—it is a place people would take their families. Just as resorts cater to singles and they cater to families, the park experience is designed in such a way you can take your kid there and have the ultimate camping trip—sort of an experience of the American West unlike anything you could have in the real world, where you knew your children would be safe, they’d be looked after, and they’d have a great experience.
But, at the same time, the Western as a genre—this show is very much about genre and storytelling and asking some of these questions: Why do we like these genres? Why was almost every movie a western for almost 30 years? Clearly, as a culture, we get invested in genres. And the western genre is an interesting one. It is significantly more of a masculine fantasy. We’re looking at that genre to understand what the fantasy represents for people. In Episode Three, we have a female gun slinger who’s come as a guest to indulge her fantasy. You imagine the player that caters to everyone’s taste. We did settle in on a story line that emphasizes more of a masculine experience, in part because the genre seems to tilt that way.
I thought the music was really fascinating, with the twangy western covers of Radiohead and “Paint it Black.” But, to me, it seemed like these modern pop songs were the only hint that this show might be taking place in our timeline. Is that a hint, or was it just using these songs as a cool way to get popular music in there?
Nolan: Yeah, I think that we did want to gently remind the audience that this was possible, that this is not a real western, that this is a synthetic western. The point of view of the show is largely limited to what the hosts understand about their world. And they don’t understand much; they don’t know what that outside world is, they don’t know when that outside world is. They’re coming to discover that. But their world has been sort of fabricated and filled with cultural references. Their dialogue features allusions and homage. That music in the saloon. And on a creative level, we just loved the idea of being able to take advantage of popular music but recast it as something that you’d feature in the Old West. And we love the player piano as the symbol for the hosts themselves, but as a symbol for the kind of collision of the Old West and the modern world.
I know that HBO is trying to create Game of Thrones-style shows that are going to catch. Given the success of that show, did that create any sense of pressure for you guys while creating Westworld?
Joy: We’re both huge fans of Game of Thrones and the programming that HBO has done over the years. When we were thinking of Westworld and doing it with HBO, what they really showed us is that they have the ambition in their network, and they value production value as much as we did, and that that would be a perfect place to do a show of this scope and this ambition.
Yet you guys don’t get bogged down by the technicality, the little details of how this works. I think so much bad sci-fi over-explains. Is it difficult to naturally let the viewer fill in the gaps?
Nolan: That’s really the challenge within a lot of ideas in this. And one of the things we’re interested in with this series is the ways in which AI won’t resemble us, the ways in which their mentality and their thinking will be distinctly different from ours. We’re the only species that we’re currently familiar with that we deem sentient, right? Apply a different set of standards to all the other animals on this planet and other species of life that were sentient—like Neanderthals, like Ford says in a later episode—you know, we fucked and ate them out of existence. Right? There’s nothing left on this planet that we deem intelligent. We’re only familiar with the way that humans think.
But I think articulating that—we did a lot of thinking about what that consciousness would look like, the nuances of it, how it would be qualitatively different from human thinking. And the impulse there is to say, “Look! Look at all the thinking we did!” Then you get to a point, usually in the edit sweep, that you think, “Look, the thing that I enjoy most as an audience member is being allowed to put things together and figure them out for myself.” We tried to strike a balance between big ideas, big complicated storytelling, but also letting the audience find their own way through the narrative. It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun one.
I think this show connects so well to our moral choices in a realm where they wouldn’t have any real-world consequences. Do you think our modern or current version of Westworld would be how we treat other people online or in video game?
Nolan: That’s a great observation.
Joy: It really is. No one’s actually pointed that out before, but I think it’s really true. We thought about it mostly with gaming, but … the way in which technology works now is it allows a barrier between people [discussing a subject] and the subject of what’s being discussed. And I think that within that you can start to feel an otherness with the person that you’re dealing with, and that leads to all sorts of bad behavior.
Nolan: There’s this long observed phenomenon that killing in war time is easier the more distant you are from your target. And the more automated we can make killing people, the easier it is for people to do it, right? I mean, that’s long been a function of warfare; it’s a well-understood phenomenon within that world. We’ve taken that logic and applied it to our social interactions online. It’s no wonder why Twitter becomes a fucking heaping mass of wretchedness. There’s a real question Twitter’s actively struggling with right now in terms of: How do we prevent this from sliding into being a cesspool in which people behave in ways that they would never behave in person?
It is kind of a fascinating, dehumanizing world that we’re stepping ever more rapidly into. But I think all of us are kind of saying, “Wait a fucking second,” you know? How do we retain some level of civilization and humanity? How do we hold onto some of that in a world that is becoming ever more confusing when it comes to our interactions with people? We’ve been able to take on board all of these innovations and adapt very rapidly to them. But you still fundamentally have some human attributes that don’t work very well in the world that we’ve created, you know? Which is part of the reason why new technologies and social media should be wonderful things and are often not, because we’re all broken.