The Joy of sci-fi
The trip to Westworld may be over, but co-creator, showrunner and Series Mania jury president Lisa Joy is now watching the rise of AI play out in the real world. As she explains, there’s not much fiction in science-fiction anymore.
After four seasons, but before a planned fifth and final run, HBO closed the gates to Westworld earlier this year. In a television industry where budget and ratings go hand in hand, in the end, the numbers didn’t add up for a show that became an instant sensation when it launched in 2016.
Created by husband-and-wife showrunners and writers Jonathan (Jonah) Nolan and Lisa Joy, Westworld was based on the 1973 film of the same name and begins in a Wild West theme park populated by android hosts who are there to serve and facilitate the guests’ every wish and desire, from the mundane to the sexual and violent.
With a high-profile cast led by a host of Hollywood stars including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandiwe Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Tessa Thompson and James Marsden, the show left the confines of the park at the end of S2. The action then took viewers into a futuristic world dominated by technology for its third and fourth runs, adding Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul and French star Vincent Cassel to the cast along the way.
“Any time anything ends when you’re as creatively invested in it as Jonah and I were in that, of course it’s sad for us and for the family and community we built there with our amazing actors and crew. I will always be looking for excuses to work with each of them again,” Joy tells DQ. “There’s never any guarantees that a show lasts forever or that a show even gets on the air. I just feel very lucky to be able to create the worlds that I create to whatever extent they get realised.”
When it comes to creativity, Westworld wasn’t in short supply as viewers were whisked between an immaculately realised western-themed park and the ‘real’ world in the 2050s, and also introduced to a huge ensemble of characters – both human and humanoid. The show also tackled big themes such as memory and consciousness, control and free will, and the very definition of human nature. The series was also known for its complexity, with fan theories abounding as audiences attempted to solve the mysteries at the heart of the story.
Westworld was a show born around the same time as Nolan and Joy had their first child together. By that time, the pilot had been written and most of the action for the first season had been laid out, as well as some significant tentpole moments signalling where they wanted the series to go next.
“With something that’s telling a mythology like Westworld, it’s important to have a sense of the roadmap before you get going – but there’s still a lot of creativity that happens along the way,” Joy says. “As you write characters and as you get to see them performed by the actors, it opens up all sorts of new inspirations and new dynamics to explore.
“Jonah directed the pilot so we got to put together a wonderful crew and set the aesthetic and general tone for the show. After that, we brought in incredible writers to help us fill in the seasons and write on episodes. That’s always a delight to have new voices and new eclectic ideas to choose from and work with. It was truly a wonderful experience. I feel so lucky to have had it.”
Writing the pilot in a time before the #MeToo movement, Joy says she was thinking about “life as a woman” and some of the difficulties she had faced working in a male-dominated industry. “A part of it was really expiation for feeling a bit trapped, feeling alone and a little gaslit in some of these situations I’d been in,” she explains. “Writing Dolores [played by Wood] and Maeve [Newton] helped me find a strength and a closure to get through some of that, as well as seeing how Evan and Thandiwe embrace their characters and just embody them. That also gave me a real feeling of community and solidarity.”
When it came to dramatising advancements in AI, “extreme nerds” Joy and Nolan leaned into their fascination with technology, the sciences and futurism to flood Westworld with the curiosity they had for emerging tech and how it might shape the face of culture in the years ahead. “We knew as we were writing it, almost eight years ago, that AI would actually be one of the defining issues, if not the defining issue, of our generation. This massive sea change is coming, and it’s going to take root and revolutionise things faster than we really anticipate,” Joy says. “It’s not actually just a science-fiction abstraction; we’re about to feel very real-world repercussions of evolving AI.”
That much is true in the rapid take-up of AI software such as ChatGPT and Bing’s chatbot, which Joy greeted on Twitter with the message: “Welcome to Westworld!”
Looking back to when she was writing the series, she says her concern wasn’t so much the hackability of machines but of humans. “You just needed to understand humans’ core drives – a thing we played with in Westworld – and play to them, and you can see from the manipulation of social media and targeted advertising how we’re easily played,” she notes. “AI is a powerful tool. It’s getting more and more powerful. But my point has always been it doesn’t even need to be that powerful to affect humans, civilisations, nation states and cultures.
“Now we really have to face up to the super intelligence that is imminently going to permeate our world and ask how do we control that? How do we legislate that? How do we interact with that? How do we put safeguards on that?”
It might seem like the perfect theme for a new sci-fi series, “but I keep trying to tell people, it’s really not sci-fi. There’s not a lot of ‘fi’ in futurism anymore. It’s just ‘sci.’ We’re going to have to start addressing some of those things quite soon.”
As executive producers, Joy and Nolan are now overseeing the second season of Prime Video’s The Peripheral, a story set in a future society altered by technology where a gamer (Chloë Grace Moretz) discovers a path into what she thinks is an alternate reality. Scott Smith is the showrunner for the series, which is based on the book by William Gibson.
They also developed Prime Video series Fallout, a post-apocalyptic series based on the video game of the same name, on which Nolan has recently wrapped directing the first few episodes. As well as writing and producing, Joy has also shifted behind the camera to direct episodes of Westworld and her first feature film, 2021’s Reminiscence, which she also wrote.
“I definitely want to direct more, but it’s hard for me to direct things I don’t write,” she says. “Writing is the most foundational aspect of prep. Once you get into prep, you only have a certain number of weeks before you’re shooting. But when you’re writing, in your head, you’re designing the entire world and you’re blocking the characters already.
“It’s a time saver because you can direct with a little more efficiency, which is helpful because most of the stuff I’ve done, because it’s been a little more experimental, has not had the same budget level as something a little more down the middle. To still get a sense of scope, you have to be crafty about how you plan your days, so that long lead time of prep as a writer has certainly helped me in that endeavour.”
Joy is now looking forward to watching more TV as she prepares to serve as jury president for the international competition at the 2023 edition of French television festival Series Mania. When it comes to looking across the wider industry, she is particularly excited about the emergence of “wild and free” new voices being given the chance to tell their own stories.
“I love that there’s a bunch of different weirdos with unique viewpoints from all over the globe with all sorts of experiences telling their stories, and it’s the kind of thing no one but them could write,” she says. “When I see something like that, it just fills me with awe. They’re truly opening up another universe for me that otherwise I would never get to witness or imagine. It’s humbling and deeply exciting to see all those new voices and the worlds they create.”