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Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence takes viewers on a journey to the future, one where Miami is submerged in water and society has become nocturnal. The Westworld co-creator’s feature film debut follows Hugh Jackman’s Nick Bannister, who helps clients relive their fondest memories by way of a reminiscence machine. Bannister’s life is eventually turned upside down when Rebecca Ferguson‘s Mae needs help finding her keys, setting the sci-fi noir’s central love story in motion. For Joy, the inspiration for Reminiscence partially came from the 2001 premiere of Memento, where she first met her now-husband and creative partner, Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan. (Nolan co-wrote Memento, which is based on his short story Memento Mori.)
“I met [Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan] at the Memento premiere and was like, ‘Dammit, I wanted to do something about memory.’ It only took me 20 years to catch up,” Joy tells The Hollywood Reporter. ” So I started with the idea of this longing and nostalgia and the very personal feelings it evoked in me, and then I built the world from that and built upwards from that.”
Like the rest of Warners’ 2021 slate that’s receiving a dual release in theaters and on HBO Max, Joy developed Reminiscence for the big screen experience. But she certainly understands the bigger picture and why day-and-date releases are necessary for the time being.
“Look, I certainly wanted this to be experienced on the big screen. I recently saw it on an IMAX and got such a thrill from it,” Joy shares. “And yes, would I have loved for the world to be able to see it that way? Yes. But I also understand that we’re in a fucking pandemic and people are scared. And some people are more scared than others. Some people are more at risk than others. Some areas are more at risk than others. You can’t enjoy a film if you’re scared for your life, you know? That’s just the truth. Of course, I worry about the film, as anybody would with their film, but I’m so worried about so many other things at this point.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Joy also reflects on her most cherished memories from the Reminiscence set including Hugh Jackman’s performance of “Singin’ in the Rain” between takes and her own piano cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Then she addresses Westworld season four and if she’s returning to the director’s chair.
Reminiscence is an original major studio film with scope, scale and something on its mind. Since the major studios don’t release too many movies like this anymore, what was the key to breaking through in this case? What did Warners seem to respond to the most when they acquired worldwide rights?
Well, I sold first both the script and then later the film on the open market. I took the film to the Berlin Film Festival, and so a lot of times with an untried thing like this, people will try to be safe. And I understand why. They’re investing a lot and they want safety. But in some ways, the appetite from multiple people and parties at Berlin, I think, helped give them faith in that. But I also had Hugh Jackman, who jumped on board and didn’t have to. I was a penniless writer-director with a dream, and he threw his lot in with me, which was huge. And by the time we went with Warner Bros., they kind of knew what they were getting. I was so meticulous in doing storyboards and concept art even before prep, even before I sold it, that I was like, “Do you guys feel like watching this movie? Because I don’t know. It’s just the thing that came from my head, but if you guys want to make it, I’ll make it with you.” (Laughs.) And so there weren’t a lot of surprises or changes from what they bought to what they got, and so on a really pure level, we just liked the movie and wanted to do it together.
You’ve probably dreamed about every aspect of your first feature for a long time including how it’s released. But then the world came undone, and Warners embraced day-and-date releases for the time being. Did it take a little while for you to reconcile everything since your movie is clearly made for the theatrical experience?
It is so hard to go from making a film and the purity of that when you’re working with these creatives, to then being like, “Now, it’s out of my hands and there’s a bunch of stuff I cannot control.” (Laughs.) Look, I certainly wanted this to be experienced on the big screen. I recently saw it on an IMAX and got such a thrill from it. It was just so fun. I felt like I was seeing it for the first time because normally, by the time you lock a movie, you’re pretty sick of it. (Laughs.) If it’s your own movie, you’ve seen it so many times. But watching it on IMAX, I got to really experience it almost as a moviegoer and that was lovely. And yes, would I have loved for the world to be able to see it that way? Do I believe in cinema as something that allows for a cultural shared experience in a really nice way sometimes when you’re in a room together? Yes. But I also understand that we’re in a fucking pandemic and people are scared. And some people are more scared than others. Some people are more at risk than others. Some areas are more at risk than others. You can’t enjoy a film if you’re scared for your life, you know? That’s just the truth. And so I hope that the people who can see it in theaters and feel safe doing that and be safe doing that, I hope they do. It’s fucking great to go out, go on a date, get popcorn and hang out with friends. I’ve missed that and I do that now. But like everybody else, this world is a really difficult place right now. And the film, itself, is about a world that is in a difficult place and how people find meaning and connection in it. So I just want humanity to keep going and do better everyday. (Laughs.) I have really macro concerns right now, along with the rest of the world. Of course, I worry about the film, as anybody would with their film, but I’m so worried about so many other things at this point.
So the opening shot of futuristic Miami is quite breathtaking. Did your team do a 3D scan of Miami so that your VFX department could build off of it later?
Well, we didn’t have any money for previz, so we didn’t do that, but that shot was something that I really wanted. And I would love to show you if I can find it, but I have all of these experiments that I did in swimming pools, in puddles with dolls and LEGO, trying to explain the shot and figure out how we could do it. And then we figured we couldn’t do it because we only had a day to shoot all of that stuff. We did have a large crane for an establishing shot, but it was supposed to be stationary. And then on the day, I was like, “Dude, this crane has wheels. If we just pushed this crane and boomed down, we could get the end of the shot, which we need to shoot practically. All we have to do is pull focus from up here all the way down to a tiny little playing card and a reflection of Hugh Jackman.” And then my crew, who are amazing, they literally just sat and pushed this crane, which was not supposed to move like that, down this bumpy road and it was jiggling. And then Bruce Jones, my incredible VFX supervisor, took a mixture of drone shots from Miami and, of course, then did visual effects building, like you said, by wrapping buildings and knitting it all together. But the very first shot that you see in the opening is something that we shot before even getting financing for the film. We just did it as a test on a drone.
There’s a lot of dual meaning to your dialogue. Did you discover those opportunities as you were fine-tuning and rewriting?
It’s a mixture. I knew the structure of this that I wanted. It came to me like a series of Russian nesting dolls. It seemed to lend itself to that construction. And part of the fun was knitting in the details like that. The lines that you read one way at first. Even when Nick says, “You don’t look like you’re lying,” and Mae is like, “Then I guess it’s working.” (Laughs.) And then he asks why she was crying beforehand, and she’s like, “Because I get nerves before I put on a performance.” With all of that stuff, I know that’s the intent of those moments a lot of the time, and then I go back and fine-tune the dialogue to make sure that it will show through on a second viewing. And some of it you find along the way as you rewrite, too, so you just keep honing. So much of writing is rewriting.
For 40-plus years, Steven Spielberg has been warning filmmakers to avoid shooting on water. While you didn’t film on the ocean, you still built a sunken city and shot on water in that way. So do you understand his pleas to some degree?
(Laughs.) He should’ve warned me about the pain and trauma of shooting eels because that was a real pain in the ass. But no, for water, it was one of the things that Westworld actually helped me with. I had gotten to experiment with a little bit of CGI water, and I knew that our ability to create it digitally was getting really, really good. But I also really believed that you have to shoot practically as much as you can for the world to have a sense of grounded reality. And so luckily, I was working with a genius, [production designer] Howard Cummings. So we built that sunken city of Miami on an abandoned theme park lot in New Orleans. And I’ve got to tell you, with my incredible crew and cast, it wasn’t so bad. It was actually kind of fun. I got to surf through my set. I surfed on a standup paddle board. But it was slow going sometimes with the machinery. (Laughs.) And to walk and give directions to the actors, I literally had to jump in the water with these giant waders and trudge across a whole moat. And when you’re on the clock, I’m like, “I’ve got to go faster, I’ve got to go faster.” That part wasn’t as hard because of the way technology has evolved and because of the genius way Howard designed the sets. The part that was very, very hard, technically speaking, was the “Hologauze.” Making a three-dimensional hologram in-camera, that was tough. (Laughs.)
It’s safe to say that you and your partner [Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan] are both deeply fascinated by memory. Do the two of you view it in mostly the same way, or do you have differing conclusions on it?
Well, it’s weird because Jonah has a great memory and I have a terrible memory. (Laughs.) So we experience memory in different ways, and part of the reason why I’m so fascinated by memory is because I feel that I’m not good at remembering things. I fear my own subjective bias in recalling my own history. We married each other for a reason, you know? I think conversation is very important, and from the get-go, we met by writing letters. We had good conversations and good letter-writing. (Laughs.) So we were both fascinated by memory. I met him at the Memento premiere and was like, “Dammit, I wanted to do something about memory.” It only took me 20 years to catch up. But I think that he initially tends to come to things from a more intellectual place while I come to things from a more emotional place, and then we tend to work towards each other that way. So I started with the idea of this longing and nostalgia and the very personal feelings it evoked in me, and then I built the world from that and built upwards from that. And Jonah’s approach can be from a different vector, but the Venn diagram of our intersection is pretty good, but different.
Life tends to parallel your art in recent years, and there are a few examples in this movie as well. For instance, Thandiwe Newton reclaimed her name recently, which the Watts character also happens to do in the film. Of course, the dams and civil unrest are further examples. How do you tend to react to these occurrences?
I didn’t want to be right about climate change in any way, but it didn’t really take a genius to see where it was going. Part of being a writer is acknowledging the things about the world we really don’t want to acknowledge because they’re hard to swallow and they make you feel small. But part of what we should do is acknowledge them to help other people acknowledge them and figure out how to deal with them. It was the same thing that I was thinking about when I did Westworld in terms of the experiences that women face and the subjugation and dangers. I can’t help but be influenced by the world we live in, and how can you write about a future while ignoring the facts of what is definitely going to be a part of the future? It’d be impossible. That being said, people have always looked to the future in writing and literature. They’ve always been prognosticating about things and the reason they do so isn’t idle. In creating a simulation, via the arts, of a world that could be, we get to experiment and prepare with it through fiction. So the science is actually true. (Laughs.) Yes, waters are rising, and the fiction is the journeys of these characters through them and how they navigate the world. But sometimes, the goal of these things is: can you put yourself in that world? Can you imagine yourself in that world? What are the things that you could do to survive in it? What are the things that you wouldn’t want to do? And that is part of what’s in my work because, ultimately, I’m a very hopeful person. I consider Reminiscence to have two happy endings. But I can only be hopeful for myself if I first acknowledge the reality of the situation and move up from there, even if that reality is difficult.
Have you and Thandiwe talked about the coincidence involving her and Watts?
We haven’t talked about that explicitly, but we have talked about the pain of people’s pasts, the trauma that they hold with them, and how hard it can be and how much strength it takes to move forward. Rebecca and I also talked about how hard it is under the gaze of a world that makes so many suppositions about you, especially if you’re a beautiful woman like Rebecca. Everybody’s going to say, “Oh, you’re this kind of person or that kind of person.” And how every person, especially women, especially minorities, when you walk into a room, it’s not just you walking into a room; it’s you walking into a room full of the weight of the expectations and gazes and historical, cultural connotations of thousands of years. (Laughs.) So you can just dress for yourself, and in the end, that’s all there is to do. But you still know that no matter what you do, more than anyone else, there’s going to be a thousand narratives around you that you have to combat.
I’m so glad that Rebecca was finally able to show off her voice in a Hugh Jackman-led movie. She didn’t get to do so in The Greatest Showman given the nature of the character she was playing.
(Laughs.) I cast Hugh Jackman, and then I made Rebecca sing and Thandiwe fight. Rebecca’s voice is so beautiful and expressive. That’s why I wanted her to be the singer because it’s performance, not just singing.
When releasing a movie, friends and family screenings come with the territory. And while these types of screenings are probably nerve-wracking for just about any filmmaker, I’m a bundle of nerves just imagining what they might be like in your case. So were you as anxious as one might think once you screened the movie for friends and family?
Yes, it’s not a part that I… enjoy. (Laughs.) I was excited and nervous to show it, most of all, to my collaborators. These are the people who have believed in me and thrown their lot in with me and taken time away from their families, so the most important thing is that I do my part of the process as best as I can to honor them and to bring the thing that they’re working for to life. So it was in sharing the film with my actors and my crew that I was the most nervous. And they were really positive and happy about it, which made me so happy. But the rest of my anxiety really comes from not wanting to let them down, and that is terrifying for me because I’m kind of a hermit. If it weren’t for them, I would be in a cave right now just writing away and not worrying so much. (Laughs.) But that’s where the pressure comes from. It’s not wanting to let down these incredible collaborators, and that’s where my anxiety comes from.
What day on the Reminiscence set would you like to relive in the reminiscence machine?
I loved so many days. It would be really hard to choose just one, but I can tell you the elements that always moved me because there are always these small little things. The first day of set before we shot anything, I was still pinching myself with incredulity that this was happening, and there’s a piano in Saint Joe’s. The fight scene at Saint Joe’s had gotten moved up; it was supposed to be much later in the schedule, so we all had to prep for what is one of the hardest things to film straight away. So as I was watching everybody move through the room, I sat on this old dinky piano and played the Leonard Cohen version of “Hallelujah.” (Laughs.) And it was this strange, surreal music video in my head as I watched them while listening to the song. It’s that magic that happens when people believe in something together, when you’re really in something with people. I would feel it when the actors would get excited about something that they discovered together or something that they had unlocked in each other in a performance. And they’re each such perfectionists. They would go again and again, and you could just feel that click when they were happy. So I was always happy when they were happy because they’re so hard on themselves. And I have what I call the Hugh Jackman take. I’d give any notes and any thoughts that I had, but since he’s so versatile and prepared, it was always that last take where I said, “Now do whatever the hell you want.” So he would assimilate everything that he learned, and every single time, he would give the best take of the whole thing. He’s so brilliant. Hugh Jackman doesn’t leave set between takes, even though he must be exhausted after I’ve just been waterboarding him for ages. (Laughs.) He wants to be there to motivate and galvanize the crew out of solidarity, and those are huge blessings. And as you talk about character with Rebecca or Thandiwe, you understand, even without speaking explicitly, that there’s an understanding of where these people are coming from as women. There’s this shared well that they were drawing from, and they understood the intention behind what I was saying and the subtext. So we were tapping into the same thing. And then there’s Hugh Jackman singing “Singin’ in the Rain” while I played the piano on a different sunken set with a piano. (Laughs.) And between takes, I just got to be with people I love. When you’re filming, before you roll, the cameras are focused on people, and you see the loaders and the gaffers all wandering around set on this screen. And I always wished that I could roll on that because that’s the life and the whole ecosystem of collaborators that comes together behind the scenes. And those people with their faces pressed up, rubbing the lens, they make the magic happen, and they do it in a way where they don’t get all of their praises sung in this public way. But holy shit, they are just the most incredible collaborators in every way, and I always have a montage set to “Hallelujah” when I see their faces in the lens.
Can we expect to see you in the director’s chair on Westworld season four?
Not in the director’s chair, alas. But I am busy producing and writing on it now, and I’m very excited about the directors that we do have on board.
Reminiscence is now available in theaters and on HBO Max.
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