Arguably HBO’s most anticipated new drama in years, Westworld is as complex as it is ambitious. The sci-fi-Western’s creators and stars gathered at the network’s Television Critics Association session to answer some of our biggest questions about the ten-episode series, based on the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton. Westworld looks at the very dark repercussions of a futuristic theme park where “guests” can play gunslingers, in an artificial Wild West populated by robot-like humans called “hosts.”
How did a 43-year-old science-fiction movie starring Yul Brynner get retooled as an HBO series?
“[Executive producer] J.J. Abrams met with [author] Michael Crichton two decades ago to ask, ‘How do we remake this?’” co-creator Jonathan Nolan said. “Years later it occurs to J.J., ‘It’s not a movie, it’s a series. And you make it about the hosts.’ So J.J. reached to [co-creator] Lisa [Joy] and myself, and we got to play with all the questions we are most excited about today.”
Modern pop music will be used and reimagined in the series.
In the first episodes released to critics, instrumental versions of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” are heard in the background. “My brother never wants to put this kind of music in his movies, so I have this pent-up appetite to do it,” said Nolan, referring to his frequent collaborator and filmmaker sibling, Christopher Nolan.
The show will explore questions about how we define what “life” is.
“That’s very much what the show is examining: Where does life begin?” said Nolan. “Whether or not it’s an artificial being. AI believe in their own realities and they feel as we feel our own feelings.”
Anthony Hopkins, who co-stars, forgot some of the scenes he was in when he watched the show.
“Yes, I came back to life … I had to look it up on the internet,” joked Hopkins of a recent internet rumor of his demise. On his saying yes to this project, he told the crowd, “I saw the original film years ago, read the script, and was intrigued by it. But I have a ‘delete’ button in my brain. I don’t remember the past! I didn’t remember some of those scenes I was in. Maybe I am a host?”
We’re not supposed to know exactly where or when the series takes place.
“In that great HBO ensemble tradition, we’re able to examine different points of view — from the hosts’ perspective and guests’ perspective,” said Nolan. “We tease it all along the way and we want viewers to ask those questions.”
What was it like for the actors to play artificially intelligent beings who don’t know they are artificially intelligent beings?
“I did a lot of research and tried to learn about the actual technology, and now that’s my hard drive,” said star Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Westworld “host” Dolores Abernathy. “In the pilot, we worked a lot together on how far we were going to take it, and ultimately it was all about subtlety. It was acting Olympics. ‘Do we sweat? Will the sun blind us? Do we breathe?’” Wood’s fellow on-screen “host,” Thandie Newton, added, “I actually felt more human than I’ve ever felt, by nature of this simplicity.”
How will the show handle violence, especially toward its female characters?
“The show is an examination of human nature,” said co-creator, executive producer, and writer Lisa Joy. “Violence, specifically sexual violence, have sadly been a fact of human history since the beginning of time. We take it very seriously and it’s not about the fetishization of those acts; rather, [it’s about] exploring the crime — hopefully with dignity and depth.”