When Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy called into the Vulture TV Podcast Monday, they were stuck in an office amid a Los Angeles power outage, a scenario reminiscent of the one Delos Corp. employees found themselves in when all hell broke loose in the HBO show’s 90-minute finale Sunday night. Nolan and Joy spoke to Vulture about filming that sequence in five different locations, what the camera work tells us about how much agency Maeve has right now, and why at least one of the characters will get out of the park next season. Listen to the conversation, and read an edited transcript below.
Gazelle Emami: I want to start by just talking about the making of the finale because it’s such a huge production. And I’m wondering if you could just talk about the logistics of it. How much of your budget was devoted to the finale? What was most challenging?
Jonathan Nolan: Typically with HBO shows, the ninth episode often winds up being a big one and when lots of exciting stuff happens. And then the tenth one is the more placid, character-based one. We didn’t have that luxury here. We were kicking off the robot revolution. But we were also shooting episode nine with Michelle MacLaren and episode eight with Steve Williams kind of simultaneously. So we really didn’t have a great deal of extra time or money to throw at the finale. It was really about careful planning, working with the unit. When we came back, we had the backing of a legendary network that gave us the time to go out and write. We got to a point in episode seven and eight where we were down to the wire, writing and producing at the same time, not giving the actors and the crew enough time with the material. So we were able to step away, write the rest of the episodes, and then Lisa and I were able to engage as producers on episode eight and nine, with me directing on ten. But we were also able with all of the scripts in hand — and this is the way we’re going to do the second season —to block shoot with the other units.
At one point, the Wyatt massacre had four directors standing behind the camera making sure that the pieces worked for all four or five episodes they were going to be featured in. So it was a really massive production.
GE: The show famously has this massive budget — $10 million per episode. I’m curious how that breaks down — is there one area of the show where that is being used most?
JN: I can give a general sense that what’s great about making this show, and one of the reasons why we knew HBO is the right partner, is from Game of Thrones and that commitment to practical production. Meaning you’re going out and you’re shooting in the real place. We went out and shot in Utah. So that’s a key part of the experience for us. And people are notoriously tight-lipped about budgets. I would hasten to point out we are far from the most expensive show that’s been made in the last couple of years as TV grows into something else, which is very exciting to see happen.
Abraham Riesman: One of the things that really worked about the episode was how tightly paced it was. Right up until the end it’s quite white-knuckle. How hard was it to edit this down? Clearly you had a ton of material to work with. Was this a special challenge to get down to the streamlined narrative you needed?
JN: Well … not so much. The director’s cut probably came in just a few minutes over. But there aren’t any whole scenes that we cut out. It was really just about tightening it. That’s a process I’m familiar with. Over the course of broadcast television, that’s par for the course. You’ve got to get down to 43 minutes. Everything that we work on tends to be a little bit bigger than the box it’s supposed to fit into, so we’re always having to shave away a little bit.
GE: You mentioned you were still writing around episodes seven and eight. What was your writing process like this season? Were you writing up until close to the end of the season? And in terms of filming, how recently were these episodes shot?
Lisa Joy: The way that we tended to work was, of course before going and filming the pilot, Jonah and I spent quite a bit of time mapping out the season and the mythology, and then writing the script. And then by the time we were able to film it, we were able to be there, totally present in production, with Jonah directing and myself producing. And then we went into the season with actually not that many scripts banked yet. We were kind of running from there. Which is a … a little bit unusual for a production of the size we were doing and the ambition we were doing. And so we —
JN: Well the network had seen the pilot, and they wanted us to be on the air as soon as possible.
LJ: Right. We were victims of their excitement, in a way.
But we were definitely writing furiously while then simultaneously also being in production. And what happened is we got to a point in episode eight where we just needed to stop so we could write and catch up with the script. We were thrilled with everything we had so far, but we just couldn’t keep running and be in production in the same capacity. And we also wanted to make sure we were embedding enough time for our actors, with their performances really crescendoing towards the end, to have time with the material. What was one of the best luxuries of this was to be able to take some time to write the final few episodes together without being in production, and to have that blessing and support from our studio network. I hope, actually, it’s something we intend to pursue second season, with writing them all first.
JN: Yeah, we tried to make it like a regular TV show, where you start writing, then you start shooting, and you keep writing, and you’re doing nine things at once. And once we started production we realized no, we have to be on set, and we have to be writing and we have to be doing all these sorts of things. Not to draw the comparison again, but in technical terms it is a little more like Game of Thrones. Those guys have the drafts ready, and they go off and they block shoot all of the episodes with the directors moving around from unit to unit. And so we’ll need to take an approach more like that in the second season.
AR: Speaking of directing, Jonah you directed this episode, and my personal favorite scene was the shoot-out, mass-murder stuff that we see from Hector and Armistice. What do you remember from directing those scenes? They’re such well-done ultraviolent action sequences, and what do you remember from shooting that and planning it?
JN: A lot of planning, because those sequences are actually shot on no fewer than five separate locations. You had pieces in the L.A. Convention Center, pieces in the Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood, pieces on stages. We’re all over the place with those sequences.
In hindsight now, we were so lucky and so grateful for the audience getting invested and hanging in there with the show. The first season [has been described] as almost a prologue to the show. I would say it’s more like a first act. But certainly there’s a slow-burn aspect to the first season where we’re really trying to get into the heads of these hosts. And then the finale, we always knew we were going to kind of let it rip. So it was incredibly gratifying, and I think it shows — for the hosts to finally get ahold of a real gun, or a machine gun, and be conscious of the moment.
GE: Jonah, you directed the pilot and the finale. And there’s a lot of imagery that kind of reappears throughout, like the shot of Dolores overhead. Were you thinking about the running visuals themes you wanted to touch on throughout the season?
JN: Without a doubt. The reality is there’s an awful lot of ground to cover. It’s ten-and-a-half hours of content. So you’d be lying if you said you were able to take the same extremely careful, frame-by-frame approach that you would with a feature. But I was actually incredibly gratified that we were able to make, you know, make good on the things that we talked about with the pilot. We wanted everything to be Steadicam, we wanted everything to be studio mode. We wanted the camera to gently suggest in both movement and framing that it was siding with the hosts. That the camera almost felt like a host itself, or the collective essence of all of the hundreds of thousands of hosts who’d come and gone in this space. Gently anticipating the hosts’ movements, the camera anticipates what Dolores is about to do. She doesn’t know it herself. And then obviously, the milk and the flies and the player piano. All these visual elements Lisa and I talked about, and we talked about with the incredible team on the pilot.
And in the finale, when Maeve gets onto that train … the Steadicam is leading her over. Now, it’s just keeping pace with her as she makes the decision. What we understand in the moment is it’s the first real decision she’s made all season. Which is, she’s not going to fulfill the script she’s been given, which is to take this train wherever it’s going, and do whatever else she’s programmed to do. She can get off the train. At which point we shift to handheld camera, which we’d held back on throughout the entire season until one moment with her, and one moment with Dolores, when Teddy comes to rescue her. We get Maeve off the train with a handheld camera. And I remember watching the dailies and almost being shocked at how effective a cinematic technique can be if you hold off on it for long enough. If you dial it in at just the right moment that suggests she’s literally like a train coming off the tracks. We’re no longer in programmatic or prescribed behaviors. She’s improvising, and we’re right there with her.
I was excited to use the color red, which I can’t really see, but my brother never put in his movies.
AR: You’re color-blind?
JN: Ever so slightly. So are many film directors.
AR: Lisa, do you try to describe what colors look like to him?
LJ: I do. It actually hit me while we were making this show. For the first time after ten years of being together I was like, Oh my gosh, Jonah we live in different universes. It’s actually quite beautiful. It’s one of the diagnosed and clear ways in which humans can be different, and have their own perceptions totally biased from the outset. And to see it just so integrated into our own lives while we’re also working on a show about perceptions and the lack of truly understanding your reality. Jonah suggested that I can’t see color properly, that he sees it more vividly.
JN: Yeah, maybe you’re just imagining all these dumb colors that I can’t see.
GE: That’s amazing. So there are so many mysteries on this show …
AR: And we assume you’re going to reveal all of them today on the podcast.
LJ: We’re ready.
GE: But a lot of the conversation has been around finding out these reveals. When you’re writing it, how much are you thinking of it as a mystery show?
LJ: For me it was never a mystery show. It was always a show about the exploration of character. And the lens with which I came to the characters was very much Dolores and Maeve’s characters. There are lots of twists and turns in the narrative, but they flow from an organic place. This is about differences between hosts and humans, between artificial intelligence and people like us. And one of the fundamental differences is memory. What we talk about when we talk about the maze, and the progression for consciousness. And the reason why their memory is so different — and I can’t even imagine the double-edged sword of this ability — but when you and I remember things, you sometimes yearn to remember things more clearly. But they slip away because our minds can’t hold onto things in perfect color.
That’s really helpful when it comes to loss or trauma or a bad experience, but it’s sad when it comes to something golden. And the hosts have the opposite problem: Their memory is superhuman. They’re able to construct an exact replica of every moment. And no wonder that seems a bit like madness. Because if your past moments could be recalled with the same vivid color as the current one, how could you distinguish the two moments?
We were really playing with that as a character trait that these hosts would have, and the way in which reconciling their relationship with memory was a fundamental part of achieving selfhood.
AR: Okay. I accept that. That said, come on, on some level, you have to be worried that people are going to figure out that, say, William is the Man in Black. I was astounded that people came up with that theory as early as they did. I was watching the show very closely and did not notice. But were you worried that people were going to figure that stuff out before you want them to figure it out?
JN: Well, you think about it a little bit. I’m very accustomed to this. I remember we made Memento, Chris [Nolan] shot it, had it in the can, people would come watch it. Studio executives would come watch it and be like, “I loved it! It’s great. We’re not buying it.” We’d be like, “Well, why not?” “Because the audience won’t have a fucking clue what’s happening.” And we just thought, well, who the fuck are you? What makes you think you’re smarter than the audience? We always felt the audience was very smart. Extremely smart. And extremely bored with the shit people would be putting in front of them imagining that they were stupid. Or going through a studio system where networks that imagine people are stupid are taking ideas and throwing them away. So for us it’s fucking glorious to put something into the world that is layered with complexity, and then have people gobble that up.
In terms of trying to figure out when people would get a twist, look: My rule of thumb, when you’re working on a twist in a movie is, you want about a third of the people to figure it out ahead of schedule, you want about a third of the audience to get it in the moment you put in the music cue and you drop the big “oh boy,” and you want a third of them to have their spouse explain it to them on the way home.
Because everyone watches things totally differently. Right? The emergent thing here is a site like Reddit — I’ve been on Reddit for the better part of a decade …
AR: No, really? You were an early Redditor?
JN: Well here’s the thing, I don’t do social media. I’m not on Facebook, I’m not on Twitter, Instagram, any of this stuff. You know, because of Orwellian concerns about being herded into camps based on posts that I’ve made in the past. So Reddit was where you could catch up with that content, and frankly, it’s where most of the content comes from that appears 48 hours later on other social places. It’s also a really interesting aggregator of wisdom. You can take thoughts and you can vote them up or down. So you have this collective intelligence that goes to work on whatever you’re working on, whether it’s a news item or a picture of a cat.
When that’s applied to a narrative like that, you can have what usually would be like, your weird friend who has this crazy theory about the show, who no one else is listening to, all of a sudden can get voted up to the top as more people wrap their head around it. But that’s fine, that’s fantastic. It’s a community — we love that. And it’s incredibly gratifying that there is a portion of the community that’s looking at that.
Where it got a little complicated on this one: two things. One, you’ve had a lot of “theory” shows. We didn’t really want to make a theory show. That’s kind of inevitable with this level of complexity. To Lisa’s point, we just thought we had a fantastic opportunity here to tell a story from the perspective of someone with a unique relationship with time and narrative. But that said, there are reveals in the narrative. And our hope is you would start asking that question in episode seven, and then it would grow as a feeling. But we also knew — and this is another thing for me that is vitally important — you can’t just pull the rug out from the audience. You have to layer these things in there. So even if you’re not necessarily immediately clocking the dissonance of, wait, they just cut from Logan, and William said, “I can’t wait to see who you become” — and it cuts immediately to the Man in Black — well it’s all in there deliberately and it’s all in there to gently feed a perception amongst the entire audience. So you’re not just writing it for the people who are carefully dissecting it. You’re writing it and setting it up in such a way that when you do get to the reveal, the audience doesn’t reject it. And go, “Whoa, what is that? I was not remotely prepared for that piece of information.” You have to play fair with the audience.
There are a lot of theory shows where the theories don’t really add up to much. Or as with the first season of True Detective, there were a lot of theories that were set in a metaphysical realm that didn’t necessarily connect immediately to the narrative you were watching. But it was perfectly fine to speculate about that and carry that speculation out on Reddit.
Here, all the theories were connected to things we were doing. So they sort of wound up in headline items. And that was a bummer because you want people — you know, the Reddit community is fantastic but it represents literally one percent of our audience — 150,000 people; we’re being watched by 12 million. And all of those people in that community are self-selecting. They’re there because that’s how they want to engage with the show. And they’re very careful about laying out spoilers for people. It was where people were picking it up and running the word “timelines” in headlines where you thought oh, that’s a shame, because that probably is going to impact someone’s experience of watching the show.
So listen, it’s a great problem to have, to have this many people thinking about and reflecting on your show.
AR: If we’re talking about speculation we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask, are we going to see more of the world, both of the park or parks plural, and/or the outside world in season two?
LJ: We’ve already teased a little bit of the broader world of the park there. And honestly, I would just put my faith in the hosts that they’re pretty crafty, and they’re pretty powerful, and their intellect is growing and growing. I would imagine that at least one, ultimately, gets a bigger look at the world. Who and when, I’m not quite sure yet.
JN: Well you are sure, you’re just being …
LJ: Okay, fine, I can’t say!
GE: And to follow up on that, you know, the production of this show has been talked about a bit, and how there was a bit of a rocky path to getting season one of Westworld made. And I’m curious if there are any lessons that you took away from season one, things that you want to do differently in season two.
JN: Yeah, 100 percent. We’ve talked about a little bit earlier we’re going to write all of them first and then go block shoot them. It is more ambitious than regular TV. You can’t spin all these plates at once. So we’re writing now. We’ll go back into production next year. We’ll air in 2018.
GE: So are you going to be spending basically a full year making this show? Is that about the amount of time it would take to make a season?
LJ: Writing and production …
JN: No, we’ve been in for a couple months already. It’s a bit of a monster.
LJ: The next time we have a vacation, maybe Westworld will actually exist.
This interview has been edited and condensed.