The HBO series Westworld returned on Sunday night, but last week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, series co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, along with cast members Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Jeffrey Wright premiered the second season's first episode before sitting down for a panel discussion moderated by writer Christopher Orr. They discussed the challenges of opening up the show's world, the timeliness and relevance of Westworld's themes, robot nudity, revolution, and more. Check out what they had to say about the highly anticipated new season.
[Editor's note: If you have not seen Season 1 of Westworld, this post contains spoilers.]
Westworld takes place in an Old West theme-park run by the mysterious Delos Company, where wealthy human Guests pay to interact with the park's Hosts (who are actually incredibly complex A.I.) and act out elaborate and often brutal fantasies. At the beginning of the series, the Hosts were unaware of their existence as entertainment, and a big part of the show's arc involves some of them coming to an awareness of this fact, and the revenge they take once they know.
This process of gradual, fractured enlightenment was shared by viewers, who were kept off-balance by a disjointed structure that involved flashbacks, as well as unexplained temporal discontinuities meant to mimic the confusion felt by the A.I. At Tribeca, the cast revealed that they, too, were often kept off-balance during production.
"We don’t know what’s going to happen episode to episode," said Thandie Newton, who plays Maeve, one of Sweetwater's Hosts who had become self-aware and was on her way to escaping the park before going back to find her daughter. About returning to Sweetwater, Newton said, "I swear to god, even though I saw the whole season, I didn’t believe it," though she also expressed her faith in the show's creators, director Jonathan Nolan and producer Lisa Joy (along with J.J. Abrams). "We didn’t get it, but they got it.... It was extraordinary to me, but they knew exactly what was going on. They had all these balls juggling in the air.”
Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Dolores, another of the hosts who this season is newly aware of her existence, added, "I felt more confused [shooting Season Two], when I was supposed to have more information.... It feels like when we work on the show, we actually go into the park.”
"We don’t know what’s going to happen episode to episode."
Jeffrey Wright, whose character Bernard started the first season as one of Delos' employees and ended it with the knowledge that he, too, was a Host, talked about the arc his character goes through this season, and explained that the disjointed shooting schedule meant that, “The logistics required that in the first four or five weeks, we shot scenes that went seven or eight episodes in," but that since "the most granular aspects of his existence are what he’s struggling with," his experience of shooting had many parallels with that of his character, who he described as being "Bernard on acid," during the disorienting opening of the new season.
Out of Sweetwater
Since the first season ended with the Hosts striking back at the park's creators and escaping their prison, Orr asked the panelists about the storytelling challenges of the show's opening up and leaving the Old West setting of the show in the town of Sweetwater. Nolan said, “You knew that it would start as a Western, and at a certain point, you’d be a little unlimited in where you could take the story," revealing that he had always believed that the park's creator, the late Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), would have viewed the park in a similar way to the series' creators.
"One of the things that the show is about is storytelling, and we embraced that right out of the gate…. It’s about a theme park with stories written by writers and creative directors, and we imagined Hopkins' character's relationship to narrative was similar to our own." Nolan said that he doubted Dr. Ford would have been hidebound by historical realism, and believed "that he’d have wanted to make a John Ford movie, or a Sergio Leone movie and cobble them together." The show's co-creator mentioned how much fun it had been shooting on some of the same film stocks (the show shoots on 35mm) as Kurosawa for episodes of the season that take place in another of Delos' parks, Shogun World, which will be explored this season.
"One of the things that the show is about is storytelling, and we embraced that right out of the gate."
The Delos Company, Facebook and A.I.
The show is about a mysterious company that manipulates the realities of its characters, and the relevance of the show's Delos Company to current events involving other big corporations is striking. "It's something we've kind of accepted [in society]...it's an innovative and dangerous concept, that a company can have an ostensible purpose for the consumer, and then another for the shareholder," said Nolan, adding that it was probably "not coincidental...that Google and Facebook are two of the biggest investors in A.I." Newton added, "It’s something that we can all relate to, that we’re being lied to…and by chance Westworld came along at a time when we are trying to answer those questions.”
Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores and James Marsden as Teddy in 'Westworld'.Credit: John P. Johnson | HBO
Nudity, the gaze and revolution
The show has featured (even for a cable series) high levels of nudity, and series producer and co-creator Lisa Joy discussed how it was related to the show's themes of power and helplessness, reflected in the Hosts' existence as objects. "They’re sitting there being literally objectified, as things to be operated on and talked about while they’re in the room...it was important to capture that nature of the gaze." Thandie Newton said that she had expressed surprise when, reading the script for the first episode of the new season, that there was no nudity for her character, to which Joy responded, "It’s an essential part of the story and it’s guided by what those characters are going through. So when the hosts get the power, they’re not going to spend a lot of time naked on a stool."
The new season of Westworld takes place in a world of retribution, one where "violent delights have violent ends," to quote a line from the show. With the Hosts no longer confined to their roles as entertainment living in an eternal, one-day loop, as well as being newly able to take violent revenge on the Guests (previously, their programming had prohibited them from killing any of them), the season will take Hosts (and viewers) into new worlds, where they will have to cope with a new existence in a world where they must deal with the new freedoms of agency. Lisa Joy said the the first season had ended in "something I think we were all rooting for, revolution," and added that this season, "I think it will be a little harder for audiences to know where we’re going, but I think that’s half the fun."
You can watch the premiere episode of Season 2 of Westworld, plus all of Season 1, now on HBO.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
Source: Tribeca Film Festival