'Westworld' Creator Jonathan Nolan Reveals Secrets From Directing The Finale

"The finale is a hair-on-fire, 200 MPH blast through everything as the season culminates and all these timelines connecting together," Nolan tells THR.
HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the Westworld season finale.]

From its very inception, Westworld came equipped with a core premise: One day, the robot hosts at the heart of the series would rebel against their human makers and oppressors. When Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) kills a fly at the end of the pilot, the future bloodshed feels all the more inevitable, if not exactly imminent. But as of the finale, it's not just an imminent bloodbath, it's an ensuing one: Dolores, fully conscious and encouraged by an unexpectedly remorseful Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), unleashes a flurry of bullets into a crowd of humans, beginning with Ford himself.

Clearly, the hosts have come a long way between the pilot and the season finale, mirroring the journey of Jonathan Nolan, the co-creator and showrunner of Westworld who also served as director on both the first and last episodes of the season.

"They were very different experiences indeed," Nolan tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The pilot is careful and methodical and languid in places because we're trying to establish the feel of how their lives are when we start. The finale is a hair-on-fire, 200 MPH blast through everything as the season culminates and all these timelines connecting together. It pulls together and pushes forward. We wanted it to have this very propulsive feel. I came to it armed with not only going through the pilot, but also watching all of these other talented directors come in. We took all of that visual language we built up over the course of the season, and a few things we held in reserve: handheld photography, and a little more movement, to use them to give that finale a feeling of climax and completion. We really wanted the season to feel like a complete story has been told, and we're setting up another exciting story. It feels like the end of the first act of what should be a very big and ambitious story."

Here, Nolan breaks down scenes from the finale in tremendous detail, recalling stories of traveling to Germany with his co-creator and wife Lisa Joy for research, accidental glue explosions, an action-packed evening in West Hollywood, and much more — beginning with the finale's very first shot.

The finale begins with Dolores coming online for the first time, mirroring the first image of the entire series. This time, we're seeing Dolores' body in an early stage of development. What did this involve in terms of visual effects?

So much of what we do, and I learned this from my brother [Christopher Nolan], growing up watching him making movies, is really emphasizing the practical elements first, both the location and the practical elements. You want to build as much and put as much in front of the camera first as you can. This opening shot was a really beautiful marriage of all the incredibly talented people who came together to make this show. Our special effects makeup head Christien Tinsley built a prosthetic there that's completely seamless. You could watch that shot a million times and not ever see it. One of our editors until the very last cut thought that wasn't Evan, but a cast we made of Evan. No, she's right there in that skin that Arnold's laying down as a prosthetic piece, and what it covers is a blue suit that allowed our incredible effects supervisor Jay Worth, using one of our effects vendors ILP (Important Looking Pirates) who made some of the most elaborate and beautiful pieces in our series, to create the rest of her body. It's a leap of faith, but we had worked with ILP already; they created the young Ford face effect, with his face opening up [in episode six]. I wanted to see a version of a robot where you're confronted for the first time with the full Monty: "This person is a robot." I wanted it to be dazzling. You've seen a lot of versions of this. James Cameron is obviously the big baddy here with Terminator, which has informed so much of the thinking of this stuff; it's hard to slip out from under the shadow of that. But we wanted to do something a little different, that looked a little bit more functional, and speaks to what these hosts are used for: they're essentially theatrical appliances, where you're supposed to interact with them without noticing their artificiality. We were thrilled with how it came about.

There's another memorable shot of a host coming online in the finale: Maeve (Thandie Newton), her body being rebuilt, her face emerging forward through the goo. How was that constructed?

That started with a conversation with Nathan Crowley, the production designer on the pilot, who I have worked with on several movies. We talked about how my wife [co-creator Lisa Joy] and I, the last time we went on vacation, we went to look at a car factory in Germany, in part for research. This is the kind of vacation we take. (Laughs.) We toured an auto plant in Germany, and we were interested in figuring out what we wanted the tech world to look like. One of the things they did in this auto factory that was so beautiful and almost absurd is that they dip the car unibody in a tank of paint. In order to do that, they rotate it through space. You have this massive object that's being rotated by robot arms into like a somersault into the paint and out of it, and they do it so that air bubbles don't form in the paint as this thing is somersaulting through it. We just thought that was perfect. If you're putting skin onto these things, we have to do it just like the auto factory. So Nathan and [special effects coordinator] Michael Lantieri built this rig to dip the hosts in and out. It's enormously complicated. The goop I think is Elmer's glue mixed with water. The first time we fired up the Vitruvian Man and dipped it into the tank, air bubbles and the hydraulic lines made it splash down into the thing with such force that it coated the entire glass room from floor to ceiling with Elmer's glue. That was the very first shot. (Laughs.) When we went back to the finale, we had a perfect model of Thandie and we dipped it into the tank. We ultimately liked the shot the most at the beginning of the take when we were setting up for it, when we first dipped the body into the tank. It had the coolest look when we played it backwards. So that's actually the body being dunked into the tank, played backwards, and cleaned up a little bit by our visual effects team. 

The finale features several scenes of violence, largely centered on Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). You have said that video games are a touchstone for you here in Westworld, and this scene feels especially like a game, almost a Metal Gear Solid stealth mission gone wrong. Did you approach this scene like you were constructing a level in a game?

Very much. Where video games and feature films and television run into the same tricks are different levels. Many games, one of the hallmarks is there are multiple levels in a structure. You think about Halo games, or any game that has rendered these beautiful environments, but you have to keep going through them and keep finding new shades to them. That was using our lab set and integrating it with the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, which is the practical location we based the lab set on. Most of the action sequences shot at the PDC were on one crazy night where we went in with myself and producing director Richard J. Lewis picking up pieces from the rest of the season for that location: all of the stuff with the escalators and everything from the beautiful sequence in episode six with Maeve walking through the labs. All of that, and all of the action sequences, in one night. That was the night J.J. Abrams showed up on set. He saw all of the trucks parked in the parking lot and asked, "How big is this crazy show?" (Laughs.) The run-and-gun stuff there was delightful. I was most excited with the scene in which Armistice comes to and bites the guy's finger off and tosses him through the glass. You had just been waiting all season for the hosts to start fighting back. We thought that when they do start fighting back, it's got to be pretty spectacular and a lot of fun. My favorite shot in the finale, and I have a lot of favorite moments, is the shot in which Ingrid as Armistice tosses the behavior tech back and forth into the glass. We had a very patient and wonderful stunt performer who was willing to get thrown into the glass, thrown over the tray of tools in the background, while in the foreground, our necro-perv Dustin is admiring Rodrigo. I think that's one of my favorite moments in the finale.

Things take a hard left turn as Maeve enters the facility, popularly described right now as "Samurai World." Were you at all concerned about introducing a different genre and visual language so late into the season?

We knew that anyone familiar with the original film knew about Medieval World and Roman World. We also wanted to articulate the distinction between what the park was when it started 35 years ago and what it's changed into. And also the almost obscene moment in which Maeve, who thought she understood the totality of the artificial world she's in, suddenly realizes she's part of a franchise. That kind of delicious moment. I would hasten to point out that for Lisa and myself, the second season is about opening up the world a little bit, as the hosts start discovering it. That was the idea from the beginning: We only know what the hosts know. As the scope opens up in the second season, we'll see more, but Westworld remains the center of our narrative. That's the title of the show and that's what we're doing, so that will remain the center and heart of what we're doing. But we're going to see the hosts start to realize and almost be offended by this notion: "Wait, we're not the only ones here? There's more?" The reason we went with the shogun, Imperial Japanese motif for that world is in large part because of the beautiful relationship you had between the golden age Westerns and the golden age samurai films. As soon as Akira Kurosawa would make a film, it would get remade with cowboys. The idea that those stories worked in two very distinct genres and languages, and the relationship between those genres, to me was irresistible as an homage to how Kurosawa was responsible for some of the greatest Westerns of all time. 

We learn at last that William and the Man in Black are the same person, confirming that the season takes place at various points in time. Can you discuss some of the techniques you implemented throughout the season when dealing with the multiple points in time?

We layered it in very carefully. Those timelines aren't in there as a formal gimmick or as a trick for the sake of a trick. If some people take it that way, fair enough. I get that. I've always been drawn to those types of movies. Some of my favorite movies are the ones that mess with the audience's perception of what they're watching. I've made some movies like that with my brother. But all of those movies are first and foremost rooted in the protagonist of the movie. In Memento, there's gut-wrenching information that's only revealed to you at the end because he's an amnesiac, and he's been manipulating himself. In The Prestige, the film is structured like a magic trick because it's about magic tricks. Here, we had a unique opportunity to tell a story about protagonists who don't age and don't change, and their understanding of the world is completely curated. We wanted to play with both space and time. When we first meet Dolores — and Maeve, and Teddy (James Marsden), and in fact Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) — she doesn't understand the geography of her world, that she's in a theme park. We wanted to hold one more thing in reserve, because the audience comes to the show knowing that it's a theme park. We wanted to hide one additional layer of information in there, which was the element of not just space, but time. These hosts would remember just as your laptop would remember its prior experiences — in ultra high fidelity. It's one of the questions not asked and answered, but you can imagine a lovely scene where Anthony Hopkins is talking with Jeffrey Wright about the nature of memory and the fact that human memory is imperfect, and potentially imperfect for a reason. Humans tend to forget things because it's in our benefit to not hold grudges, to move on. But the hosts remember things perfectly. They just don't understand that they're memories. It's drawing on Philip K. Dick. If you're a machine with a perfect recall of memory, placed back into the middle of your memories, how would you know it's a memory? So from the beginning, we wanted to construct that mechanism, not because we were playing tricks with the audience. That's part of the appeal, a sense of discovery for the audience, and I love that in film and TV, the eureka moment of understanding something I didn't understand before. But it also illuminated what the hosts understood about their world, or failed to understand. We spent an awful lot of time talking about how to weave that into our narrative, with little tiny things. For instance, Jeffrey is playing two characters, and he's one of few cast members we have to completely read into the situation. He had to tailor his performance to whether he was playing a host or a human in certain scenes. Little things like his costume; he never wears the black lab coat as Bernard, it's only Arnold. It took several episodes for people, but it's laid out right in front of you: Arnold and Dolores are in an environment that's unlike any of the other environments we've seen. He's wearing something he doesn't usually wear. She's dressed, and we have made a point of the fact that she's never clothed [while in analysis mode]. You're layering all these things in, not because you're playing a trick, but because — and I feel very strongly about this — if you're going to play with the audience's sense of what they do and don't understand, then you have to play fair. You have to layer those things in in plain sight. What that means is some of the audience members who are watching more closely or are more attuned to these things will notice them first. 

Do you have any sense of the reaction of the casual viewer, how this reveal landed for someone who wasn't putting it together over the course of the season?

I'm not on Twitter, and I try to be careful about what I read online. Obviously everyone on Reddit is kind of read-in. But the first experience we had with this was the cast. This is a very smart group of people. Clearly they're reading every script with a microscope because we haven't told them what's happening, and they want to know what's happening. The first round of experiences was with the cast. I remember when we sent them the last couple of episodes. Dolores starts questioning what moment she's in in episode eight, and in episode nine, it's confirmed that there are multiple timelines with when who we think is Bernard is actually Arnold and is indeed a memory. Sending those scripts out to the actors was great fun. The emails and texts that would come back in: "Oh, you mother f—kers!" (Laughs.) That was a lot of fun. The people who are reading this stuff online, I do think it constitutes a relative minority of the 12 million people who are watching. I'd be fascinated to know what they thought about it.

Turning toward the climax of the episode, what do you remember of shooting the final scenes in Escalante?

There was an art imitates life aspect to it. It's among the final sequences we shot. It wasn't the final scene we shot with Tony; that was the scene down below in the basement, talking about Michelangelo with Dolores. That was a great way to wrap it up. But the last major week of shooting was all out at Paramount Ranch. We loved using these old movie ranches; the familiarity of them and the fact that they've appeared in Westerns over the years was a huge selling point for us. We imagined when Ford and Arnold put this place together, they based it on all of their favorite Westerns. It's not just storytelling and tropes from Westerns, but also the actual locations they shot in. Paramount Ranch is a classic movie Western town and now a state park. We went in and built a church. The church is still there. Tony at one point with a flourish remarried Lisa and I in that church in between setups with Jeffrey Wright as the best man, which was very sweet. (Laughs.) We set up this last kind of celebration. It was Ford's last narrative. It was the last major piece of shooting we were doing. We shot it over the course of consecutive nights with the incredible Tony Hopkins delivering this speech. Like I said, the art imitates life factor was unbelievable. We had 200 background players in tuxedos, and hosts serving them, and Tony speaking to them, and his speech encompassing what he seems to see as a redemptive act. He's recognizing the mistakes he's made in betraying his partner and not understanding what his partner had found. All these humans in the park are a testament to that fact. Cards on the table, it's a deeply misanthropic theory. But Ford keys in that we keep making these mistakes, there's something baked into our DNA that refuses to allow us to get past a certain point. Ford realizes the hosts are not bound by that at all. They can be whatever they want to be. As we've alluded to a couple of times over the course of the season, so many of the stories we tell ourselves are about change. At one point, Jeffrey's character says it's the thing we yearn for the most but experience the least. That's what Ford is saying to this assembled muckity-mucks of Delos: "We're over. We're done." He said it to us in the pilot: "We're done. There's no progressing past this point. Evolution has deposited us in a place where we're pretty smart and pretty cool and can make some beautiful stuff, but we can also do some horrendous things, and our nature is fundamentally unchanged." Shooting that was incredibly fun. It had a festive atmosphere. Everyone knew we were at the end of a long journey, and were very excited for where the journey could take us next.

The finale saves its most haunting images for the very end: a stone-cold Dolores shooting out into the crowd, striking a woman in the background in the back, among other victims. 

Lisa and I knew that for Dolores, we needed an actor who had just a massive range and control. We had seen Evan over the years as this incredible actor. She deconstructs and reconstructs herself for every performance. There's nothing precious about it. Her process is the most straightforward of potentially any actor I've ever worked with. She shows up and you turn the cameras on, and it's like a light switch. She is instantly completely, utterly in character. There's such a strength in Evan. She's warm and beautiful when you meet her in the pilot, this rancher's daughter who would be a convivial guide for your first days in the park before you got bored and moved on. But we also knew there was this titanic strength hiding within Evan. We glimpse it through the season. There are a couple of moments where she turns it on for a look or two here and there, and it's terrifying. I remember saying throughout the course of the season, that I couldn't wait to see what she does when she goes full tilt at the end of the season. Remarkable to see how much restraint she carried and how much she dialed that into her performance over the course of the season. There's a tiny bit of that in the pilot, but it steadily builds toward that last shot. That's why for us, it had to be the last shot of the season. Then there's the moment you're talking about, in which she's shooting into the crowd. For us, that's the climax of what the show is asking — and I say asking. We're not answering. It's asking a question about violence in our entertainment. We abhor violence in the real world but are fascinated by it in our entertainment. It's not just HBO; it's everything we watch. Some of my favorite films, whether it's Heat or Tarantino's films or my brother's films, there's violence in all of these things, and we delight in watching it. So what we wanted to do, not just in this moment but also in Hector and Armistice casually machine-gunning the QA responders … the audience has enjoyed to various degrees watching the hosts get blasted over the course of the season. Now in this final episode, the hosts finally start returning the favor, as Hector puts it. How do you feel about that? Does that speak to the baser human impulse? We didn't want to stand away from that. She's standing on the stage and blasting at people. We didn't want to flinch from that. We didn't want to present that as purely an enjoyable moment. I talked to Jay Worth about that red dot on the woman's back. We went through various different versions and different sizes and the timing of that. It's interesting you point it out, because we really felt like we wanted that moment to make you feel quite uncomfortable. Here, you're getting what you wanted all season. They're fighting back … but be careful what you wish for.

Head to THR.com/Westworld for more interviews, news and theories.

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