'Westworld' Creators Explain the Show's Existential Use of Violence and Sexual Assault

Westworld - Still 7 -H 2016
Courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO

"Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?"

It's not only a question the humanoid machines at the heart of Westworld must answer from time to time but also a question that the new HBO series is posing for the audience, as it immerses viewers in a world populated by robot avatars that just might have more personality and longer memories than its seems. Citing popular video games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto as touchstones, Westworld showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy see Westworld as engaging the idea that every action has a consequence, even (and perhaps especially) in the face of heightened realities.

"There's this idea of the Vegas rule in a space where you can do whatever you want and there are no repercussions or consequences," Nolan tells The Hollywood Reporter about the show's non-virtual reality. "I think it's something that's only going to get more relevant."

Westworld's notions of sentience and control are further reinforced by an all-star lineup of actors, including Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, the veteran scientist most responsible for designing the robotic denizens of Westworld; Ed Harris as the Gunslinger, the iconic Yul Brynner villain from the original Michael Crichton movie; Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, a rancher's daughter with a litany of secrets; Thandie Newton as Mauve, the main madame at the park's most popular brothel; and many more.

In order to explore the show's ideas and obstacles further, THR spoke with Nolan and Joy, the married duo leading the way on Westworld, about how the original Crichton movie inspired their adaptation, the show's use of violence and sexuality, and the deadly promise baked into the series' premise.

What's the quick pitch on Westworld, if there is one? For people who don't know yet about the show and its premise?

Lisa Joy: It's an examination of human nature from the outside looking in — from the perspective of creatures that are not human, but are designed to look like they are. They're examining the creatures they were modeled after, and judging them. (Pauses.) Jonah, you got a better one?

Jonathan Nolan: No, I was going to say something cheeky. (Laughs.) That about sums it up.

Westworld owes its origins to the 1973 film by Michael Crichton. What were some of the movie's most appealing aspects as you started thinking about this world and story for television?

Nolan: Crichton, as usual, was miles ahead of his time in anticipating not just A.I., but the open box gaming that has become a bigger industry in many ways than either film or television. It didn't quite work out in the theme park sense; we sort of virtualized the theme park and turned it into Red Dead Redemption, or Grand Theft Auto, or Skyrim. For me, that question of morality, where up until the point that Crichton was writing, the idea of the role-playing game, the idea of the reader or the viewer or the guest in our case, taking control of the morality of the piece, it was just that: a notion, an idea. When you read a novel, or you watch the film, or a television series, you're completely beholden to the author's intent, right? The ending was what the author dictated, the morality and path taken along the way. This idea of a narrative space where you can do whatever you want is something that's quite new. In 1973, it didn't really exist in any sort of relatable way. Now, it's a massive thing. There's this idea of the [What Happens in] Vegas rule in a space where you can do whatever you want and there are no repercussions or consequences. No one's taking cellphone footage of what you're doing. I think it's something that's only going to get more relevant. It's certainly more relevant now than when Crichton imagined it in the 1970s, and I think it's only going to become more relevant with the advent of [virtual reality] and fully immersive gaming.

The film primarily focused on two guests. In the TV series, there's much more emphasis on the perspective of the hosts. What went into the decision to flip the perspective?

Joy: When we spoke with [producer J.J. Abrams] about it, he talked about re-examining the movie from the lens of the hosts. It was an instantly delicious idea that resonated with us. What we wanted to look at is rather than from a lens of humans examining the other, what if we looked at it organically from the creatures themselves and their point of view? To try and say, "Even if they aren't exactly like us, when does it stop mattering? When does their being, their life, their consciousness count for something?" That was one delicious way to get into that question. And the other question, of course, is we're so used to humans being protagonists in stories dealing with robots and humans. The killer robot runs amok, and all of that. I enjoy those stories greatly, but this was a chance to look at it from the other side. Robots are created by humans to do humans' bidding, and then we're always assuming they're these malevolent forces. But maybe that says more about us and our interpretation of the other than it does about who the hosts are themselves. And so by looking at it from that perspective, we were also able to look at this example of human nature from a different lens, from the lens of an outsider.

Nolan: We wanted to go further in that direction of, "Who are the characters in the traditional Western that we don't spend time with?" So we took J.J.'s suggestion of what if we reshift the POV and ran as fast in that direction as we could. For example, Yul Brynner's character, being sort of the most iconic character of the original film, with all due respect to Richard Benjamin and James Brolin. For us, we wanted to go even further and take that iconic villain and make him a guest. That's what the series is saying: For these hapless hosts, the real villains are the guests, the humans who are coming to this place and doing whatever the f— they want. They represent an "overclass," an invisible ruling class within this place. Let's make our narrative not about the trope characters who are usually at the center of the standard Western, like the unnamed gunslinger and the bandit. They're all in there, but we were more interested in the girl next door and the madame, which is Evan and Thandie's characters — the characters who are really there to support and reflect the primacy of the guest.

For the most part, the guests visit Westworld for hedonistic reasons. You do see or hear about the occasional family vacation, but more often, guests are fulfilling violent fantasies. In this world, hosts are killed and reborn over and over again. They are brutally victimized on an endless loop. What does this allow you to explore in Westworld that perhaps other shows can't, given the rules of your universe?

Nolan: I think there's a little bit of commentary. We don't want to present the show as moralizing or didactic. We're not trying to tell you what to enjoy or what not to enjoy. Clearly, we have enjoyed making the show, and we enjoyed shooting the action sequences — just like we enjoy watching all of the other violent shows on television, which counts for most of them. 

Joy: Technically, I get scared and sometimes have to run out of the room. (Laughs.)

Nolan: That's very true! With that disclaimer, one of the things we're trying to get under the hood of is that there is a lot of disposable violence on television. We kind of watch the same shit over and over again. If you watch the Western, which we did — I was a fan of Westerns and Lisa less so, because as we were saying, there weren't a lot of accessible characters for women …

Joy: … I was a fan of the craft, but it was hard to feel that visceral connection with the characters. I empathized more with the background extras.

Nolan: Those stories are presented primarily as male fantasies. You watch a lot of violence on television, and there's a very big disconnect between how we feel about what we want to watch on television and what we want to see in our video games, and what we want to see in the world around us. And it's fascinating, right? We're clearly, I don't believe, any more inured to violence than we ever were, despite being surrounded by the fictional versions of it. We find violence just as abhorrent as we ever did. And yet we're kind of fascinated by it. The sort of disposable and repeatable nature of the violence in our show, in which hosts can be brutalized, victimized, killed, then reset and put back into their world, it presents two ideas. One: Wow, that's f—ked up, and I hope they get a chance to escape, or that the guests at least get some comeuppance. But also, there's a strange kind of strength in that. There's something that [one of the robots] says in a future episode: "I've died a million times. I'm f—ing great at it. How many times have you died?" That question, to me, the idea that the hosts are simultaneously the perpetual victims of this place but also that it gives them a certain strength and marks them as qualitatively different than us, is very exciting on a character level.

In a similar vein, there's the show's use of sexuality, which is sure to be the subject of much discussion. Sex is a huge reason why several guests travel to Westworld. It raises heavy questions of morality in many cases, and in others, there are moments of romance. What are some of the challenges in determining how sex is presented on Westworld

Joy: On Westworld we're trying to tell a lot of different stories about sexuality, including stories that aren't based in reality because it's about robots who can't understand their condition ultimately, which changes the discussion. In dealing with the kind of naturalistic aspect of it, creatively you struggle with all of the decisions, whether it's for a loving sexual encounter and that you're trying to make it authentic and earned. In the same way, people have loving sexual encounters and relationships and it doesn't work out, but you want to feel the swell of love there when you portray it. In terms of sexual violence, it's not something we do a lot on [the show], and we don't do it explicitly onscreen in the pilot. But it's something we wanted to explore because it's something the guests are going to do in the park. There's also an argument to be made that even if it isn't an aggressive sexual assault, if the hosts are not self-aware of what they are, what does volition mean anyway? Isn't it all sexual assault? It raises questions of consent on a greater existential level.

Nolan: One of the things we're interested in about sexual behavior is that I don't think there's any other aspect of human behavior that's so primal, next to eating and sleeping, where we feel more programmatic. Where we feel our behavior as code. That's what's so interesting about sexuality. It's the closest we get to being like a host. You have these drives and they're not rational. Very little of sex these days is about procreation. The vast majority is recreation. I would also point out that for us, the nudity in particular is not about titillation. It's about looking at the human body as a machine. We imagine the park in a later moment as [a character] observes: "You guys started out as machines, and then you became humans, because it's f—ing cheaper." But what we wanted to do is get you to look at the human form as a machine, and think about the odd uncanniness that we're all walking around in these bipedal mechanisms, beautifully refined over thousands of years of evolution, but we're f—ing robots. So for us, the nudity in the park is about that and reinforcing the control mechanism, the idea that Ford, who explicitly says in episode three, you don't cover the host down there because it's another form of granting them identity and autonomy. It's a mechanism of control. In their most intimate moments over the course of the season with our characters, there's a romantic interlude for one of our hosts, and we cut away, because that moment is — we're trying to reinforce the idea that that's a private, emotional moment. When you get to the moment where the host would share something genuinely emotional, we treat that in a way that we would treat that moment with a human being.

Joy: For me, much more important than showing acts of sexuality, frankly, is eliciting the feelings that those acts are meant to engender. If it's a loving sexual encounter, we want to elicit a feeling in the audience of happiness, that same rush of love that you get happy about for other people. And if it's a violent sexual encounter, it's not about dwelling on the details of it. It's about eliciting the reaction of the person we're empathizing with, which is horror at this abomination of an act. 

At one point in the premiere, a character compares the hosts to children, and points out that kids always rebel against their parents. Is that a promise baked into the premise of the show? That eventually, the glitches glimpsed in some of the hosts, ranging from minor to major, will come home to roost?

Nolan: Absolutely. It's part of the framework of adapting the original film. The original film was most notable for the premise that you can build a place like this, but it won't end well. You have one or two of these characters making that observation over the course of the first four episodes. That was not part of the original narrative that we wanted to abandon. This definitely won't go well for the guests sooner or later.

Joy: I mean, it's the ultimate act of hubris: creating beings in your own image that you then use as playthings. It's really tempting fate. I will say, and as a parent, hopefully this bears out! (Laughs.) You do expect rebellion and growth from your children, but that's not necessarily always the end of the story. It's just a part of the journey.

Finally, any sign of Medieval World and Roman World, or are those worlds staying in the 1970s with the Westworld film?

Nolan: (Laughs.) Ah… you'll have to stay tuned!

Westworld premieres on Oct. 2. Check in on THR's coverage of the show for more news, interviews and analysis.