Inspired by Michael Crichton’s sci fi thriller of the same name, HBO’s new series Westworld premieres on Sunday, October 2nd. Both the movie and series are set in a futuristic western amusement park.
In this TV version, Sir Anthony Hopkins portrays Dr Robert Ford, the park’s creative director, chief programmer and founder. Executive Producers and writers Jonathan ‘Jonah’ Nolan (The Dark Knight, Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Pushing Daisies, Burn Notice) helm the production, which takes an entirely new view of the park. For the film, the robots malfunctioned and began killing the horrified visitors. But the tv series is seen through the eyes of the lifelike AI creations, known as hosts.
They include Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) a madam at the local brothel; and a gunslinger named Teddy Flood (James Marsden). Ed Harris portrays a man who has visited the attraction for thirty years developing a ruthless character known only as the ‘Man in Black.’
The cast and creators of the series came to the TV Critics tour to discuss their eagerly awaited show.
How did a 43-year-old movie become an HBO project?
Jonathan Nolan: It starts with JJ Abrams, who I’ve been collaborating with going on six years now. He is a fantastic partner. JJ actually sat down with Michael Crichton two decades ago. Crichton wanted to talk to him about remaking the original film, and JJ couldn’t crack it at that point.
Fast-forward two decades later, it occurs to JJ that it’s not a movie. It’s a series, and a key aspect of that is this idea that you take the narrative and you invert it. You make it about the hosts. JJ reached out to Lisa and myself. This is a show that has so many fascinating things that we love to dive into, so we couldn’t possibly turn it down.
During the production last year you had to stop and regroup, can you talk about that?
Nolan: We got to a point in the season where Lisa and I needed to catch up, we needed to write ahead. We’re very fortunate to be working with a network that is incredibly supportive. With HBO and with our partners, Warner Bros Television, we felt like they wanted us to have all the time we needed to make the show as great as it could be.
I’ve worked in film and broadcast TV to this point in my career. They’re not kidding when they say, ‘It’s not TV. It’s HBO.’ It’s a little different. As hopefully you can tell from the first two really ambitious episodes. Both in terms of its narrative and its production value.
So the hosts can shoot each other and the guests can shoot the hosts, but theoretically the guests can’t shoot each other and the hosts can’t shoot the guests. Are the guns built so they detect biology as opposed to machinery? How does that work?
Nolan: It’s not the guns. It’s the bullets. We thought a lot about this. In the original film the guns won’t operate guest on guest. But we felt like the guests would want to have a more visceral experience here. So when they’re shot it has the impact, they’re called simunitions, a bit of a sting. The US military trains with rounds like the ones we’re talking about. So it’s not entirely consequence free for the guests.
Thandie, you’re playing a host, do you approach it differently than you would any other character?
Thandie Newton: The preparation was meticulous, as you can imagine. We had to investigate everything and start from scratch, and build these people up.
I actually found (that) every time I played the character, it was like a meditation. I felt more exquisitely human than I’ve ever felt, just by the simplicity and how definite these characters had to be. That was very interesting.
The show throws up so many existential questions about the nature of being human. Do these hosts actually end up reflecting us more perfectly than we are? So making sure that we establish the engineering and the physicality of our characters was hugely important. We had to start with simplicity because it’s going to go on a journey.
Ed, you’re playing a character that has visited Westworld for many years. How to you see him?
Ed Harris: There is an awful lot about this man that I’ve been instructed not to discuss. As the episodes go along you learn more about him, who he is on the outside world, and something about his past, and why he is here.
He has been coming here for 30 years. When he first came, he was not the ‘Man in Black.’ This is a character that he has assumed and developed over many years that he has been coming to this place.
Initially when he first arrived he was just exploring what this place was like. I can do anything I want? I can kill people if I need to, or make love to strange robotic prostitutes? And I think something happened to him at some point, where he recognized this part of him that is very dark, very violent.
He had obviously repressed it in civil society for many years and he realizes that this is a part of (him) that (he) really should check out, and see where this takes (him). Embracing that part of him when he comes to the park, and does a lot of damage to the AI folks.
But there’s also much deeper purpose for him being there by this point. He thinks there’s some deeper level to what’s happening in this park.
Perhaps Tony (Hopkin’s) character (Dr Robert Ford, who is the founder of Westworld) is in charge of something that is not really obvious on the surface, and he’s probing.