'Westworld' Director Digs into the Show's Biggest Scene Yet

WESTWORLD - EPISODE 7 - Jeffrey Wright -H 2016
Courtesy of HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from episode seven of HBO's Westworld.]

"That doesn't look like anything to me."

As Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) utters these words, staring at schematics for a robot that looks an awful lot like the man himself — schematics that he himself can't even see — the truth quickly becomes apparent: the brilliant programmer of hosts is actually a host himself.

It's easily the biggest turn yet for Jonathan "Jonah" Nolan and Lisa Joy's genre-bending thriller, not only in its revelation of Bernard's true nature, but also in how it reveals Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) as a man willing to kill in order to protect his secrets. The tragic victim of Ford's ambition: Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who is brutally killed by her lover turned robotic nightmare Bernard.

For more on how the scene came together, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the episode's director Frederick E.O. Toye about building a mounting sense of horror, the staging of the act, and more.

In this episode, we finally learn that Bernard is a host. What were your first ideas in how best to bring this moment to life?

It was important to me to, together with Jeffrey and of course Jonah and Lisa and the creative team, to very carefully set up and establish moments in the story that would, upon a second viewing, be telling of that moment, so that it didn't feel as though we were pulling any punches, that there's no trickery involved in this reveal. I think that was accomplished satisfactorily on the writing, and beautifully done by Jeffrey. It was important to me to have a certain degree of subtlety in how Bernard's represented and revealed — that it's done elegantly and simply and without complication or trickery. That was the goal.

It's a big moment for Westworld fans, watching this scene. What was it like to read the scene? Before shooting a single second of the reveal, what were your thoughts as it came off the page?

My initial reaction was shock. I didn't see it coming at all. Knowing what type of an actor Jeffrey is, and having had the opportunity to work with him up until then, I was amazed at the reveal. My first reaction was to go back and replay everything from that character in my head up until that moment, and understand it from an enlightened perspective. I'm hoping that's what the audience does as well.

The sequence begins with Bernard and Theresa coming to the cottage. Even there, there's a slow boil of horror, from the moment Bernard grabs the lantern. There's a foreboding feeling that only builds from there — this increasing sense of dread.

It's very rare that you get the opportunity to develop scenes in that way, where you're allowed the moments to build tension in that way and without explanation, which is the way that it comes. Being able to build that sequence, from the moment that Bernard says at the elevator bank, "Which is why I need to show you something." There should be a trigger point in your mind, subconsciously, in that moment: "Okay, there's something going on." Hopefully you've planted it with the audience that there's something ahead. You're not quite sure where you're going. But once they first step out of the elevator and you realize he's taking her to the cottage, the fact that we don't jump ahead in the story and that we allow that to draw out and play out and we watch Theresa's face as she moves through the field and into the cottage… I was very excited to play that. And the shot where we reveal the doorway that leads down to the field laboratory was something we planned and prepared for quite a bit. There's a visual effect there and a little bit of camera trickery that was helped by the staging of Jeffrey. We collaborated on how to make that staging work. We were out of time and out of light at that location, and we had to rush through it. That was one take, that whole trick shot, at the end of a 15-hour day.

The scene moves downstairs, and this is going to be the final room Theresa ever walks into. In speaking with Sidse about the staging of the scene, she talked about early versions that were a bit more mobile, where Ford would be walking around the space. In the end, you settled on Ford being fairly stationary, with Theresa literally trapped in a corner. Why was this the right choice?

Tony had some ideas he wanted to experiment with. He has a very intricate and precise process for preparing for scenes with a lot of thought. His initial thought involved more movement, a little bit more of a corraling of the players with his movement. We had the opportunity to try it a few times, and we experimented for quite a bit of time with some variations, and Tony just felt — it really was from him — that the stillness, the specificity of his performance, would be diminished with movement. It needed to be very still. Honestly, he was trying to avoid a Hannibal Lecter approach, and he wanted to make sure that it didn't come across that way — that it wasn't a monster type of a presentation. I think what he gave was a very subtle performance, and very still.

It's very interesting that you say that, because it's one of the first things Theresa says in this scene to Ford: "You're a f—ing monster." I certainly feel that in this moment, that there's something very monstrous about Ford, where we're finding out that one of our entry characters in the show is actually a host. It's a horrible moment for Theresa, and I feel like you're on her side. Even if Anthony Hopkins isn't trying to play Ford as a monster, are you leaving room for the audience to be on Theresa's side? From her perspective, of course he's a monster.

You'll notice that in Jeffrey's performance, which I thought was spectacular… once he begins to get worked up, Ford tells him not to get himself so excited. He calms down, and all of the sudden, effectively turns off. It's a trigger line for him. You can feel in the room the temperature drop. The moment in which Bernard turns off, it's almost like you should see their breath in the air. Now it's two humans, face to face, talking about this power play, and she's cornered in the room. Yes, you would completely relate to her in that moment. But Ford… I feel like Tony gives a very powerful but very understated performance in that moment that maintains a character without being too completely far gone. But there is a monstrous and chilling quality to the performance in that scene.

Sidse talked about when Theresa tries to use her phone, and Ford glides up to her and whispers in her ear, that this moment wasn't planned. Is that how you remember it?

Yes, that wasn't planned. It was done on the day and it was fantastic to witness. It took some time to rehearse that. We spent quite a bit of time in advance rehearsing that, and rehearsing it on the set. We all wanted it to play a certain way. As a director, it's my job to have a point of view and a vision. But also to be able to have a certain level of letting whatever happens in the moment come across. It's your job to capture that. It was really important for me to allow all three of the actors in that scene to feel it, and to allow for them to experience that moment, and then just begin to corral it into a much more specific scene. I think the fact that each one of the three of them had the opportunity to play it out and talk through the moment and talk through the feelings they're having, we were able to arrive at something very powerful, with virtually no blocking.

What went into constructing the moment Bernard kills Theresa?

Jonah, Lisa and I had numerous conversations about how it should be. We designed the set around the act of it. The mirror image of Theresa being killed by a head blow to a wall was not an accident. It compliments the previous act of killing that Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) does in the other scene. There's an efficiency that's critical. When Clementine kills the technician, the efficiency of that act, that she can smash him against the glass, there's an intended echoing of that in this scene. It's not a slow, methodical killing. It's an incredibly efficient takedown.

It's such an intense and critical moment for the series. What was the feeling on set once you wrapped filming?

As an aside, I was leaving that evening on a red eye to go shoot Jonah's other show Person of Interest, the 100th episode of that show. I was three days into prep, late, leaving that night. We were rushing to finish with that final shot of the hand on the ground, and the shot I had across the manufactured body in the tank in the machine. Those were the two last shots. By the time we arrived at those two shots, we had completed the performances. Once we saw what Doctor Ford had done and what each of the actors had done, what Jeffrey and Sidse had planned, there was an incredible amount of satisfaction and victory in that moment, that we had done something very powerful.

And then pure anxiety as you rushed to catch your flight.

Yeah, exactly. (Laughs.) 

Follow THR's Westworld coverage for more interviews, news and analysis.