'Westworld' Creators Explain Harrowing Violence: "It's Basically a Living Hell"

Westworld - Still 3 -H 2016
Courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the series premiere of HBO's Westworld.]

"Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world … the disarray. I choose to see the beauty, to believe there's an order to our days — a purpose."

It's a rosy outlook on life. Then again, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) has been around long enough to form an opinion or two on the nature of human existence. Then again, Dolores isn't exactly human, and isn't exactly aware of who and what she really is: the oldest host in Westworld.

The reveal comes at the end of the premiere episode of HBO's new science-fiction Western, with security agent Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) identifying Dolores as the expensive and expansive theme park's oldest mechanical entity. It's certainly not on Dolores' radar at all, as she's completely unaware of the routines commanding her life — that she lives her days on a loop, painting the same paintings in front of the same mountainous landscapes, ending most days watching her family be gunned down by bandits.

But sometimes, the loop breaks. Sometimes, Dolores reunites with Teddy (James Marsden), a fellow host with whom she feels a close, romantic bond. Other times, the mysterious man in black (Ed Harris) shows up at Dolores' doorstep, looking to fulfill his dark, violent and often sexual demands. Change a loop enough, and something is bound to change for good. Look no further than the final moment of the episode for reinforcement of that idea, as Dolores swats and kills a fly — an act that strictly violates the hosts' "do no harm" core code.

Dolores' fly is far from the only death of the episode. Indeed, Teddy dies twice in this one episode alone, shot and killed by the Gunslinger within the episode's first 15 minutes, and then killed by a band of outlaws in the final 15. In fact, that climactic action sequence highlights the way violence works not only within the world of Westworld, but the way viewers are likely to react to the show's myriad bloodbaths.

For more on the premiere, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy about Dolores' place in the show's past, present and future, what we know so far about Harris' Gunslinger and Anthony Hopkins' Robert Ford, the episode's major action scene, and what's coming up next.

At the end of the episode, we learn that Dolores is the oldest host in Westworld. How central is she to the show's existing mythology, and the ongoing mythos as well?

Nolan: Very central. Her story … we were interested in the park not as a new place, but as an old place. If you drive around Southern California right now, there are a lot of billboards for Disneyland's 60th anniversary. We were fascinated by the idea that if you make a good game space, a good and durable environment like this, it would last for generations. People would come back and bring their kids to meet Dolores, the same way they met her when they were a kid — or Teddy, or any of these characters. For us, it only enhances the pathos of these characters, in that this has been happening to them for a very long time. Dolores has been the girl next door with aspirations to travel and see the world and escape her modest little loop for going on 35 years. That, to us, enhances the horror of her situation.

The impact of this reveal is compounded by the final shot of the episode: Dolores killing a fly. How big of a deal is this violation of her core code, moving forward?

Joy: I do think it's a big deal. It's a small step; it's just a fly. But it's a sign of something happening in Dolores. Something is stirring within her. It is not to be taken lightly.

Let's talk about Anthony Hopkins' Robert Ford. Midway through the episode, the park's narrative director Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) tells operations head Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) that Ford is someone who will "chase his demons right over the deep end." In his first appearance, Ford shares a drink with a decommissioned host. Fair to say that the moment reinforces Sizemore's assessment of Ford?

Nolan: I think that's fair. We were terribly fortunate that Anthony liked the script and responded to the character. It's simply impossible … there are some characters you work on where after the fact, it's impossible to imagine another actor embodying the character. Here, we wanted a character where even half a dozen episodes in, you're not sure if he's the villain of the piece, or someone more relatable and sympathetic. There's no one better than Hopkins to step into that kind of character where you have great respect and affection. You love watching him behave on camera, but you don't quite know what to make of him. Hopefully, as you said, it's clear that he's haunted by his role in this place. 

Ford's decommissioned drinking buddy is named Old Bill, and he's the second-oldest host in Westworld. Will we see more of Bill?

Nolan: Yes. Yes, a little bit.

The most iconic character in the original Michael Crichton movie is the gunslinger, played by Yul Brynner. He's very much a goal-oriented figure, even if his goal is straightforward: He wants to kill one man. Ed Harris is the gunslinger here, and he differs in many ways. He's human, he boasts a much greater vocabulary than Brynner's Gunslinger, and he also boasts a more complicated goal: He wants to access a "deeper level of the game." At this stage, can you elaborate at all on the Gunslinger's goals and the lengths he's willing to go to achieve them?

Joy: I think this character has been coming to the park for a long time. He's an expert gamer, in the gaming sense of this world. He's a great shot. He's like somebody who plays Grand Theft Auto all the time and can solve a thing in 30 minutes. He's fantastic at this. He's a pro. He keeps coming back, year after year, but the thing he's looking for now … he's looking for something deeper. What it is he's looking for, and why it holds personal meaning to him, is something we're going to explore over the course of the series.

The episode builds to a big action climax, when Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) and his posse rob the brothel. The sequence ends on a stark note: A guest shoots Hector and his accomplice Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and laughs over their wriggling corpses. What does this scene say about the show's relationship with violence?

Nolan: It points to this paradox. None of us like violence in the real world, but we're fascinated with it onscreen. One of the interesting parts of shooting that sequence … it was a big and elaborate shoot. While all of that is playing out, you have the action playing out in the saloon, and up the street, you have Teddy and Dolores having their own tragic moment — a real tragedy in the middle of all of this spectacle put on for the benefit of the guests. As with any production, you're only shooting one moment at a time. So Evan and James were hanging out in our video village when we shot the moment where the guests gun down Hector in the middle of his big speech, and Armistice, and laugh over their wriggling bodies. I remember walking back to video village and watching Evan and James watch that moment, and the kind of horror. All of our actors are wonderful and professional and friendly toward each other; we didn't get the sense that anyone paired off into hosts versus humans. But certainly, Evan and James were watching that moment, knowing who their characters were, and empathizing on some level. It was interesting, because Hector and Armistice are portrayed in this moment as the stock villains who ride into town and give the guests an opportunity to do a good thing.

Sure, and Hector's band just gunned down Teddy, which makes Marsden's reaction even more interesting.

Nolan: Right, exactly. Evan and James kind of watching in horror at that moment, as the guests stand over the dead bodies and start giggling in the way you would giggle during Grand Theft Auto if you ran over a crowd of tourists … it's exactly the opposite reaction you would have in the real world. They were horrified. We were watching them, stricken in this moment, and it kind of mirrored their characters' realizations. It's the context of it. That's what's so interesting about how the violence plays here. We're not moralizing; I enjoyed shooting that sequence a great deal. I enjoyed thinking on all of the elaborate ways in which Ingrid's character would gun down the townspeople and the marshals and the sheriffs. And yet, it's all because it's simulation. You laugh it off, because it's not real. And that's f—ed up.

Joy: So many times, our reaction to violence is so rooted in POV, and who we connect to as "like us." We spend the bulk of the pilot trying to build up this empathetic connection with the hosts. We're trying to make you feel their pain and their plight. When we started this thing, some people wondered if we would be able to do it. Why do we care? They're just robots!

Especially robots who are blank slates in some sense; they can be reset, over and over.

Joy: Exactly. We needed people to feel their side, so they could see the stakes. It doesn't matter if they're wiped. It doesn't matter if they're programmed. What they're feeling in that moment is true and real and valid, and that's something we tried to underscore, to develop this empathy with our heroes. But we couldn't resist subverting it very quickly, and in this slight nod … Hector is the bad guy, the bandit, who's shooting up a bunch of people. And then the guests come and do what you would ordinarily want them to do in a movie. You want them to shoot the bad bandit and be the hero. But in this case, we developed an empathetic connection with the hosts so much that hopefully it's a jarring moment. Otherwise, what would be an ordinary act — I played a video game, shot a bunch of people, won, and got to the next level — that feeling we treat with a cavalier attitude … we told the story in a way that caused us to empathize enough with the hosts, that hopefully it should be a gutting moment that flips our perspective once again.

What's coming up in the second episode?

Nolan: For us, it was most important that we start from the hosts' perspective, that we build that empathy for them. In the second episode, we're continuing that story. We're going to start picking up on Maeve (Thandie Newton), who is a vitally important character. You start to see the experience of a host who is beginning to very actively question the fabric of her reality. You're also introduced to William (Jimmi Simpson) and Logan (Ben Barnes), who are great fun. You see more of the quintessential Westworld experience. What is this place like for the guests? We know what it's like for the hosts: It's basically a living hell. But for the guests, it's f—ing great. This is one of the things we loved about HBO's great tradition of great ensemble, omnibus storytelling. You have the ability to move the camera and the narrative and the empathy onto a different perspective. In this case, it's the perspective of someone who has never come to the park before, and is somewhat skeptical of the experience, and is about to learn how it all works.

What did you think of the premiere? Sound off in the comments below and stay tuned to THR's The Live Feed for more Westworld coverage.