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'Westworld' creators answer critics who find their show too hard to watch

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood in
James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood in "Westworld."
John P. Johnson/HBO

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Now that the massive HBO drama, "Westworld," has finally premiered, the long wait is over.

The series – which shot its pilot episode back in 2014 and almost debuted in 2015 – was inspired by the 1973 movie that was written and directed by Michael Crichton. The executive producer of the HBO series is J.J. Abrams and was created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. The married couple are also the showrunners. So how did they spend the big day?

JOY: When this thing aired, to be honest, we just took our daughter out and had a quiet day.

NOLAN: To celebrate the debut of our killer theme park show, we took our daughter to Disneyland.

When Nolan says "killer theme park" he's not kidding. The series is set in an Old West-style town called Westworld that's inhabited by life-like robots, known as "hosts." Meanwhile, the park's visitors, or "guests," are free to interact with the hosts however they want. Often that involves sex and violence. It’s like an immersive role-playing video game. In fact, Nolan and Joy have talked about playing "Grand Theft Auto," as research for the show.

Nolan, who goes by Jonah, had created the CBS show, “Person of Interest,” and worked with his brother – Christopher Nolan – on a number of films, including the script for “Interstellar.” Joy had previously been a TV writer on shows including “Burn Notice.”  

The Frame's John Horn visited them in their Burbank offices days after the premiere to find out what themes they wanted to explore in "Westworld" and what they'd say to people who find the violence and sexual treatment of the women hard to watch.

To hear the full conversation click the play button at the top of the page. Or get The Frame podcast on iTunes

Interview Highlights:

"Westworld" has a fundamental challenge. That is, in order to tell a story that comments on disconnected violence and sexual tourism, they have to show it. So how do the creators deal with the contradictory issues of trying not to glorify the very thing that they're condemning?

NOLAN: It's a high wire act. And you have to take it on faith that the audience will understand what you're doing and give you the credit that you're thinking beyond merely putting these things out there — that there's a point to it. I don't think Lisa or I were interested in featuring or fetishizing sexual violence in particular on screen. There's the suggestion of it, but it's not depicted as such in the pilot. That's not an excuse to say that if you suggest something but you don't depict it, it's okay. It's not. The show is clearly trying to wrestle with the contradictory impulses in all of us. I think the vast majority of people abhor violence in the world and greatly enjoy it in what they watch. And that's bizarre. The series is about storytelling. It is about the entertainment that we choose to consume. Not in a moralizing way. We don't have the answer. We have lots of questions and we think it's useful to ask that question: Why do we enjoy watching these things when we don't enjoy them in the real world?

JOY: I think if it's upsetting to think about the implied violence, it's because it should be upsetting. We're empathizing with these "hosts" and you don't want bad things to happen to them. And violence is a bad, immoral act. So the worst failure would be to depict these things and have the audience feel nothing or [feel] glee at it. That would be a failure in terms of the narrative. But of course I empathize ... it's upsetting. It's not easy to watch those scenes and for some people, their tolerances are different than others. And they have every right to feel that way. I myself have difficulty watching scenes of violence, scenes of sexual violence in any show, even in shows I enjoy. I tend to hightail it out of the room until it's passed because I find it visually upsetting. So I definitely understand that reaction. It comes from being affected by it and acknowledging that it's an actual problem in the real world and having that filter into how you digest that material.

At the same time, I think that in the pilot we are trying to establish what might happen in a world like "Westworld," where you can live with your pure id. And we are looking at different paradigms of control and domination and brutality. However, the true story of "Westworld" for me isn't the story about the perpetrators of these things, or the examination of those acts again and again, it's about establishing who the characters are within this park and their journeys into selfhood.

Thandie Newton and Rodrigo Santoro in
Thandie Newton and Rodrigo Santoro in "Westworld."
John P. Johnson/HBO

Inside the writers' room and the discussions about violence:

JOY: Our staff is and always has been very diverse with women. It starts from the top where Jonah and I are fifty-fifty women and men (laughs), so we tried to keep that ratio throughout. One of the things I will say is that, especially in scenes of violence, we look at it both on the script and in the cut afterwards, because some things that are less upsetting on the page will still have this really visceral feeling. And so we all talk about it a lot and everybody has different levels of sensitivity. And this is to the credit of the men on our staff, too. It's not just women who broach issues of, Is this too much? What could the audience possibly take away from this? So it's always a discussion — and a really enriching discussion amongst our writers.

The creators of
The creators of "Westworld" wanted to explore themes of violence, consciousness and artificial intelligence.

On developing the script, themes and ideas:

JOY: In terms of the themes, a big part of it was the discovery of self — not just for the hosts who were trying to figure out, Who am I? What am I made of? What is my programming? But also for the guests and trying to [ask] — as things get more intimate and confusing and jumbled as the series goes along — Who am I? What am I doing? Is this just recreational fun or is this an indictment of me? Should I change? Who should I be? And also, it's mimicked within the tech world. When you see these technicians start to wonder, What am I responsible for here? Is it enough to simply say I create these lifelike bots and then I wash my hands of them and put them in the park? Or do I have a greater responsibility if their lifelikeness can touch even me? What does it mean that I send them into the park to live out these fates? So I think as the series ratchets up, it's a really intense moment for a lot of different characters in terms of self-reflection.

NOLAN: We talked a lot about consciousness. It's something we were fascinated by and something that, as we researched it originally, began to realize we as a species still know so little about the way we think. Silicon Valley is aggressively pursuing artificial intelligence and yet we still don't understand how this works, how our intelligence works. So consciousness was something we talked about an awful lot and human behavior and the season as a window into the shortcomings in the humans' programming.

One of the reasons why we couldn't say no when J.J. called about the project was because [artificial intelligence] is something that I've dealt with in three projects, and it's been my favorite aspect of all three: "Person of Interest," my first show; "Interstellar," the interactions between the autonomous crew members and the human crew members was one of the things that I was so excited to see brought to life; and now in "Westworld." This for me is the story of our age. It's the thing that isn't here yet, but almost certainly will be by the time our stories are done. So the privilege of being able to write about something as it comes into view, this momentous thing that will change everything, is just a fascinating exercise that we couldn't pass up. 

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