'Westworld' Creators Dish on Working at an "Imaginary Theme Park" and Their Most Difficult Scene

Courtesy of HBO
James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood play hosts gaining sentience.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy also discuss the biggest misconception about the Emmy-nominated HBO series: "That it takes place in the future."

What does $100 million for a first season get you? For Westworld, HBO's sprawling update on a little-remembered Michael Crichton flick, it bankrolled controversy, conversation, 12 million weekly viewers and, even sweeter, 22 Emmy nominations. The ambitious yarn — about a living theme park gone awry and the various characters (robotic and human) populating its Old West playing field — is now the heir apparent to that other HBO drama (Game of Thrones). For creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, partners in the writers room and in life, co-captaining such a high-profile project has its perks (dream-casting leads like Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton and Ed Harris) and drawbacks (it turns out imagining the worst possible scenarios of a tech-heavy future can bum you out).

The most challenging scene to write this season was …

NOLAN The scene at the end of the finale between Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in which Ford [Hopkins] explains what the fuck has been happening during the whole season.

I still can't believe we got away with …

JOY Working with our dream cast in every single role and showing up to work every day at an imaginary theme park that became more and more real. Our daughter loves trains, and we brought her to work and showed her our train set — which is real.

The biggest misconception about Westworld is …

NOLAN That it takes place in the future. We had some pretty frightening conversations about [artificial intelligence] with people who have a front-row seat to what's happening. We've all thought about this subject as science fiction for so long that it's hard to understand it's happening — right now. Humanity's pursuit of these technologies is like driving in a fast car at night, with the headlights off, hurtling toward something …

The line of dialogue I am most proud of this season is …

JOY We're proud of all of the episodes we've worked on, including the brilliant cast who bring this dialogue to life. One of the lines that has stuck with us is the moment in Ford's final toast in the finale, when he says, "An old friend once told me something that gave me great comfort. Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin never died. They simply became music." We started the series with the image of the player piano — emotion as holes punched into a scroll of paper — and this sentiment closed the circle. There's something both comforting and terrifying about the idea that our experiences, our thoughts, our lives, might persist in code, in the things we've left behind.

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ODDS ARE ...

It has been a true roller coaster for Westworld. Once a troubled production, it premiered in September to solid reviews and subsequently gathered word-of-mouth momentum that couldn't be ignored. But its 22 Emmy noms, which tie it with Saturday Night Live for the most of any series this year, were among the bigger surprises of nominations morning. Considered too genre for some — it certainly isn't more out-there than dragons and zombies on Game of ThronesWestworld may see its fate come down to how many TV Academy voters actually watched (and liked) the full season and how much of a prestige advantage HBO still holds over Netflix. Either way, expect it to make an impact at a minimum with below-the-line categories. 

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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