For several years, Hollywood has had an obsession with robots, no more so than those in Michael Crichton’s 1973 feature directorial Westworld. Long before executive producer J.J. Abrams and showrunners Jonathan Nolan and wife Lisa Joy began developing a TV series inspired by the film, many in town tried to reboot the sci-fi cult film, hooked by its multi-allegorical high concept about a theme park where attendees let their ids go wild.
HBO committed to a Westworld pilot as far back as August 2013, and for the network, and they’ve made a long-term investment in bringing the series to air, going so far as to allow a two-month production hiatus seven episodes into filming so Nolan, Joy and their production departments could catch their collective breath and execute what they see is a perfect ending. It arrives at its series premiere Sunday at a crossroads, when HBO needs another hit series in addition to Game Of Thrones — especially in the wake of The Leftovers and Vinyl ending. For Nolan, the scale of Westworld far surpassed the scope of his previous work, from his CBS series Person Of Interest to penning Intersteller and The Dark Knight.
Westworld arrived in theaters 20 years before another one of Crichton’s theme-park-gone-awry projects, Jurassic Park, which sparked a multibillion-dollar franchise. The cult sci-fi pic centered on an adult theme park, with a Western motif, where rich adults play out their violent fantasies. However, one of the androids — a gunslinger played by Yul Brynner — goes haywire on the guests. When it came to the 1970s-era of fascination with Disneyland animatronics, Westworld was right on the nose. But the film was also leaps and bounds ahead of its time, foreshadowing a slew of themes that a 21st century culture would eventually indulge in: virtual reality, artificial intelligence, first-person shooter video games, and an overruling technology that’s as imperfect as those who program it.
Westworld spawned a 1976 sequel starring Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner, as well as a short-lived 1980 CBS TV series Beyond Westworld.
At one point in 2000, Joel Silver was looking to make a Westworld remake with Crichton’s OK. By 2002, Arnold Schwarzenegger committed to producing and reprising the Brynner role. A year later, Jerry Weintraub boarded as producer with Schwarzenegger changing his mind about what role he’d play: He wanted to be a tourist. The late Weintraub remains credited as one of the HBO series’ EPs.
At a certain point, Abrams joined into the Westworld remix fray during his days as a screenwriter, and also consulted with Crichton before having his Eureka moment with the project.
“J.J. came to Lisa and I with the suggestion that Westworld wasn’t to be realized as a movie since it had been ripped off so many times and inspired a number of sci-fi films, rather a TV series from the robots’ point of view,” said Nolan. Rather than the robot gunslinger being the bad guy, it’s the guests “who are the dark, malevolent unstoppable forces of evil,” he says, i.e., Ed Harris’ unstoppable Westworld champ the Man in Black in the series.
On HBO’s Westworld, the theme park’s architects — founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and programming chief Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) — grapple with the degree of upping the game for their guests, and the A.I. development of their hosts. There’s concern that Thandie Newton’s prostitute Maeve Millay isn’t churning enough business, which would put her android into retirement. Then there’s the good girl who most male guests gravitate toward, Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy. However, the women suffer from a large degree of emotional recall, remembering tragic memories. Meanwhile, not only are a small group of guests preying on and sexing other robots, but other robots too are programmed to kill each other depending on the game.
Taking the action from the robots’ POV provided a melting pot of ethical dilemmas, one of which is a double moral standard. Explains Joy: “These guests take the robots for granted; that their actions don’t matter. But then we see that there’s something happening with the robots, and from that point of view we examine human nature, and question the actions that the guests are taking. What does this say about us?”
At TCA, the press questioned whether Westworld fetishized sexual violence. Such concerns were prompted following the news a year ago that Westworld was shooting an orgy scene with 59 union background extras, a description revealed in a Central Casting consent form.
For Nolan and Joy, exploiting fetish was never their intention, nor were they trying to preach for or against it, but rather raise questions. Explains Nolan, “The show is trying to have its cake and eat it too. We’re comfortable with that level of paradox. One of the questions that the show explores is around people’s choices in entertainment and the level of violence built into it and video games. The show doesn’t offer any answers, but we’re actively interested in that question and so are the hosts.”
When the news hit about that nude scene, Nolan told Deadline how he and Joy felt about those headlines: “Lisa and I were saddened. We had not approached material like this before, but we were about making our set as comfortable as possible for our actors. That scenario was an example of everyone trying to do the right thing. The background casting company was trying to generate a document to indicate to those performers that no one would come to set and be upset or surprised that nudity was involved. But the language in that document, which we didn’t approve or send, was hyperbolic to an absurd degree that it didn’t reflect what was being shot on set.”
Ultimately in Westworld, as Nolan hints, the animals will turn on their masters, and the robots will somehow lash back at their creators: “Are these robots alive? Are the programmers justified in their growing sympathy and alarm over the robots’ plight, or are they fooling themselves becoming entranced by their own handiwork?”
Should HBO pick up a second season, Nolan indicated from conversation that shooting is likely to continue at Melody Ranch in Newhall, CA. That largely means the story will remain in the Old West. But the Westworld movie featured two additional theme parks in Roman World and Medieval World. With anthology series like American Horror Story hitting their stride, is it possible we’ll see these sister parks in future seasons?
“The film’s story was virtually limitless and so is television at this moment with audiences enjoying shows that break out of their traditional story structures,” said Nolan. “We definitely look to fully exploit that aspect of storytelling in Westworld.”