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Producers of HBO’s highly anticipated and twice-delayed Westworld used their time Saturday in front of reporters at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour to defend the show’s violence against women and portrayal of rape.
The topic, which rattled new HBO programming chief Casey Bloys during his morning session, took center stage after the first two episodes of HBO’s forthcoming drama were screened. The opening scene features a lifelike female android (played by Evan Rachel Wood) being dragged by her hair to be raped offscreen by a villain of sorts called the Man in Black (portrayed by Ed Harris). (The trailer that recently aired on HBO featured an orgy scene that was cut before it was unspooled on YouTube.)
“It was definitely something that was heavily discussed and considered as we worked on those scenes,” said showrunner Lisa Joy. “Westworld is an examination of human nature. The best parts of human nature — paternal love, romantic love, finding oneself — but also the basis for parts of human nature — violence and sexual violence. Violence and sexual violence have been a fact of human history since the beginning. There’s something about us — thankfully not the majority of us — but there are people who have engaged in violence and who are victims of violence.
“When we were tackling a project about a park with a premise where you can come there and do whatever desire you want with impunity and without consequence, it seemed like an issue we had to address,” she continued. “In addressing it, there’s a lot of thinking that goes into it. Sexual violence is an issue we take seriously; it’s extraordinarily disturbing and horrifying. And in its portrayal, we endeavored for it to not be about the fetishization of those acts. It’s about exploring the crime, establishing the crime and the torment of the characters within this story and exploring their stories hopefully with dignity and depth and that’s what what we endeavored to do.”
HBO has a lot riding on Westworld. With the end in sight of HBO’s current ratings champion Game of Thrones, the premium cabler has high hopes that the pricey Westworld will help fill the critical and viewership void when the George R.R. Martin adaptation signs off after season eight.
“The point in Westworld is they’re robots,” Bloys said earlier in the day while also addressing the sexual violence against women depicted in Game of Thrones. “How do you treat a robot with human-like qualities? Is that reflective of how you would treat a human? It’s a little bit different than Game of Thrones, where it is human-on-human violence. But to your larger point: Is it something we think about? Yeah, I think the criticism is valid. I think it’s something that people take into account. It’s not something we’re wanting to highlight or trying to highlight, but I think the criticism is ‘point taken’ on it.”
The ambitious drama stars Anthony Hopkins as the head of an ultra-realistic amusement park where visitors come to live out their most outrageous desires. It is based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. Westworld, which HBO announced will premiere Oct. 2, was originally eyed to debut in 2015 and has been the subject of swirling rumors about a messy process that included multiple production delays.
For his part, co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan noted that Westworld is an “examination of human nature from two different directions” — synthetic hosts and the human guests, plus the scientists behind said universe. Joy reiterated that the series, unlike the movie, is no longer based on science fiction but is now more like “science fact,” given that scientists are currently working on creating artificial intelligence machines. “They’re the product of our inputs, the product of how we designed them — good and bad,” she said. “They’re a reflection of us. And there’s the possibility of human error … they can sometimes take on their own course.”
Executive produced by Nolan (Person of Interest), Joy, J.J. Abrams, the late Jerry Weintraub and Bryan Burk, Westworld features an all-star cast — many of whom can play completely different characters, thanks to the show’s robot-filled amusement-park concept. Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that the show’s androids, played by castmembers including James Marsden, Wood and Thandie Newton, can be killed off and return with completely different personas, allowing actors to play many characters within one season and the life of the show. That creative device, one top talent agent said, helped HBO attract a premier cast, which also includes Jeffrey Wright. And unlike the actors on such anthology series as FX’s American Horror Story and HBO’s own True Detective, which reboot themselves every season, the cast of Westworld is signing multiyear deals.
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