INTERVIEW: ‘Westworld’ Creator Lisa Joy On The Dangers Of Memory, The Legendary Anthony Hopkins, And ‘Fallout’

Lisa Joy lead

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They say Hollywood lacks original ideas. That the industry has become nothing but an endless cycle of reboots, sequels, and spin-offs. A wasteland of intellectual property and franchising. And for the most part… they’re right. Long gone are the days where a movie star and an awesome concept were all it took to craft a hit film, both critically and commercially. Back then, sequels were largely an afterthought, at least until the original proved its worth. Today, the title of the film is the star, the concept is largely a comic book that came out 30 years ago or a video game from a decade ago, and the sequel is teased in a post-credits scene. And truth be told, the audience — you and I — are just as culpable as the studios are. Hollywood goes where the money is — our viewing habits merely paved the path for them.

Or maybe that’s just how I remember it. Memory is subjective, after all, as it twists and turns in your mind with every passing moment, taking a new shape and finding a new form whenever we will it so. Memory is not formed by nature, but by nurture. So perhaps my memories of what Hollywood was and should be are skewed. Maybe it’s always been this way. Regardless of how I remember the past, though, the present remains true for us all: original idea-driven films starring classic movie stars are a dying breed.

That fact, however, is what makes Lisa Joy’s directorial debut Reminiscence all the more impressive of a feat, and therefore, all the more worth seeing. It’s a mixture of what filmmaking was, what it is, and what it should be. It’s half modern-day sci-fi, as it leans into its not-too-distant-future technology and expansive world-building, and half throwback noir, taking you on a journey into both mystery and memory with one of the best movie stars we have today, Hugh Jackman, at the helm. Well… at least that’s how I remember it.

Ahead of the film’s release, we sat down with Joy to discuss all things Reminiscence, the power and problem with memory in storytelling, working with the legendary Anthony Hopkins, Westworld in a changing world, Amazon’s upcoming series Fallout, and more.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Eric Italiano: Folks, today we have an awesome guest, as I am joined by Lisa Joy, the multi-talented writer, director, producer — also lawyer, which I didn’t know, which explains why all your work is so smart — of HBO’s Westworld and her new film Reminiscence, which marks are a feature directorial debut. How are you today? And thank you for joining me.

Lisa Joy: I’m great, thank you! It’s good to be here.

Reminiscence and the appeal of memory in storytelling

EI: Congrats on the film! This is something that couldn’t be more up my alley, as it falls under what I call “Romantic Sci-fi.” As someone who hopes to one day is on your side of the Zoom chat, memory is something that fascinates me, too. As a writer, what is it about memory that interests you, particularly when it comes to large-scale storytelling?

LJ: Memory is just as fascinating for me, as it is for you. First of all, as a sci-fi conceit, memory is basically a time machine — it’s an organic time machine where we sit there, and multiple times a day we’re transported to different periods in our life, and we look at them. And then as storytellers, memory is an incredible example of the possibilities and the traps of storytelling, because we experience something and that occurs in a discreet moment in time, but then we carry that moment with us through a story that we tell ourselves about that moment. And in telling the story again and again through other discreet moments in time, the story can change and grow embellished in ways that we ourselves don’t even understand, making us our own unreliable narrators. And so as somebody who writes, the idea that we’re all writers, re-writing our story again and again, is incredibly fascinating to me.

EI: I think you approach that in a fascinating way, because this is sort of very Eternal Sunshine-esque–  if we are able to access those things, how good or bad would that really be? It’s easy to get lost in the past. But for all of the sci-fi trappings in this film, I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that it was very much a detective noir throwback, so I’m curious: Were there any sort of particular films that inspired you in that regard? And I also want you to talk to me about melding noir and sci-fi and romance and world-building all into one 2ish-hours long film.

LJ: For noir, I was definitely exposed to and a huge fan of classic noir. Out of the Past, in particular, was an influence on this. Vertigo is a huge influence on the unreliability of the subjective gaze. In terms of the way in which I’m playing with different genres: it was not conscious. I didn’t set out to be like, “I’m gonna do a noir, sci-fi, romance.” It just kind of emerged that way — I started with this romantic notion of memory and of loss and or desiring to go back to something that we cherish, but also the dangers of going back to it, and the biases that we might unintentionally bring with us in reexamining the past. And then it felt like, okay, well, for there to be action with it, it really goes along with a noir: where they’re trying to trace down an answer in an upturned world. And this answer is both internal and psychological and external, as you have to fight your way through a crazy landscape. And in terms of the sci-fi, that’s just the tech that allows us to literally go back in time. In a weird way, the world itself is becoming less sci-fi by the minute with global warming and waters rising.

EI: Right, it’s Real-Fi.

LJ: Exactly. It feels less sci-fi now. I just wanted to create a portrait of a realistic mirror to what our world would look like, and unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the sci-fi aspect of the film.

EI: You touched on what I was gonna ask next about what the writing process looks like. And what I really wanted to know is what was the core idea, and then how do you go about expanding? Because you said like the core idea is about loss and all that, so how do you go about taking that core idea and then building this massive world and these great characters without losing the personal journey of the main character, which is ultimately the story you’re trying to tell?

LJ: I start generally with character because that for me is the most visceral thing. And if I can feel that, then all I have to do is logic my way through the rest. There’s something so universal about not only the interest in memory but the idea of lust and love and desire. It’s funny because I’m a woman, but when I write these characters, it’s not like I don’t see parts of myself in the men as much as the women — they’re all coming from my head. So the idea of thinking you’re really in love with someone and then understanding maybe that was my own projection, maybe that was my own need and a reflection of my own missing pieces from the past. Was I in love with them? Did I even see them? Do I have a right to feel hurt and betrayed? Or was it me who, in some ways, let them down at the beginning by not really seeing them for who they were?

How to craft a satisfying conclusion

EI: I’m not sure going back in the past will ever help you actually find out — if anything, it can make it more confusing. I often find that the third act of a high-concept film usually fails to live up to what came before. I’d like to say congratulations, I didn’t think that that was the case in your film — thought the third act was the best part, I loved the ending. What are the biggest challenges in creating a satisfying conclusion, whether it’s film or TV, that both satisfies you — so you could tell the story that you want to tell — but also that you know that millions of people will also enjoy?

LJ: It’s very hard for me — I can’t possibly presume to know what people will enjoy.

EI: Even despite three, four, five years, making one of the biggest shows on TV and getting constant feedback from it?

LJ: Well, I don’t read the reviews or go online. I’m like a little hermit and I hide.

EI: You and me both!

LJ: It’s too scary for me! I do the very best I can, I really do, I do the best that I can, and I try to learn from the people around me, and I try to surround myself with incredibly talented and diverse writers and crew and learn from them. But I do not have a strong enough constitution to just stand there and be like, “Lay it on me!” Because I don’t… I’m doing the best I can!

EI: Let’s forget about the fan point of view. What is the hardest part for you, as a writer, to craft a satisfying conclusion for yourself? Because I imagine just from my own experiences and knowing film, that’s gotta be the hardest part.

LJ: For me, I have to feel moved. I have to feel like in the writing of something that I, too, have learned something — that I’ve gone on a journey as a writer and figured something out about myself, or about the character on the way there. And of course, by the time you’re done polishing it, it doesn’t have that newness anymore, but for me, for me, I have to at least… You never know if you’re gonna please anyone else, but you have to at least start with learning something about yourself while you’re writing.

EI: So you’re saying it’s a personal journey… it just so happens to be a multi-million dollar film that will be seen by millions of people. No sweat, no pressure!

LJ: It’s just like a diary entry!

Writing for and directing the legendary Anthony Hopkins

EI: I actually would like to swing over to Westworld real quick. I could talk to you about Anthony Hopkins’ work in that show all day, but the one scene that has stuck with me — and I genuinely mean this, it’s one of my favorite TV moments of all time — is the goodbye between Ford and Bernard at the end of season one. Not only was it a mind-blowing twist, I did not see it coming, but it was an emotional knockout as well. As a creative, is the conversion of those two — simultaneous cerebral and emotional excellence — your ultimate goal, and what do you remember most about writing and/or shooting that particular scene?

LJ: When you have actors like Jeffrey [Wright] and Tony Hopkins, it’s kind of like somebody hands you a Ferrari and an open road and is like ‘Do whatever you want.’ And you know you can go as fast as you want, you can go wherever you want because they will unearth these new levels and layers to the performance and make it magical. It’s incredible writing for actors like them because they inspire you to be a better writer, to dig deeper, because you know that they’ll always keep digging themselves.

EI: So on set that day, you were just like, “…Wow.” If you know, you know.

LJ: Both of them are so deeply contemplative. We would talk a lot about life and philosophy off-camera. Their methods for preparing for the roles are vast and not necessarily… It’s kind of like how I write. I’m always thinking about different ideas and themes, and Tony Hopkins is really obsessed with World War II and the sins of World War II and all these themes, and Jeffrey Wright loves Emily Dickinson and loves to read Emily Dickinson.

EI: To be a fly on the wall of those chats…

LJ: It’s pretty incredible. There’s never a dull moment. And they bring all of those thoughts, and all the conversations we have about philosophy and life in general, to these characters. So it’s amazing.

EI: Amazing. I’m so glad that you got to experience that

The perception of Westworld as society and technology changes

EI: Has your perception of Westworld changed? A lot has changed, not only since its first aired, with both society and artificial intelligence, but a lot has changed *since Season 3* came out (premiered on March 15, 2020). And this is a show that is talking about where humanity is headed, which is something we’re more hyper-aware of right now than ever. How does your changing perspective bleed into the show and do you try to keep it out? Or do you let it happen?

LJ: In terms of the macro moves of society in the world, that’s not something I can keep out of my consciousness and therefore, my writing. In the same way, when season one came out, people were like, “Was this influenced by the Me Too movement?” And I was like, “This was before the Me Too movement.” I live in a world and I’m a woman and understand this stuff happens, and in order to create even a fiction that seemed realistic to me, I had to acknowledge some of this darkness. And when you look at emerging technologies now, artificial intelligence…

EI: Those robots that dance and sing. I mean… it’s horrifying.

LJ: There’s a lot! I look at my Roomba with a little bit of fear every morning, ’cause I know one day it might be my overlord.

What can we expect from Amazon Prime Video’s Fallout Series

EI: Alright, I’ve gotta wrap here. It was great chatting with you. I just wanna ask you real quick about [Amazon’s upcoming series] Fallout. This is such an open world that you can tell any story that you want, despite the fact that it is a franchise IP. What kind of stories can we expect from your Fallout?

LJ: We’re producing it for these two brilliant writers and the world that they are making is so gonzo and so fucking crazy. It’s just ridiculously baller and I can’t wait. It’s totally irreverent and mad and humorous and just insane. It’s just insane.

EI: Music to my ears, I’ve been playing these games my whole life. Thank you so much for your time, Lisa. Congrats on the film, it was fantastic. I cannot wait to see all your work going forward: Fallout, The Son, Reminiscence, etc.

LJ: Thank you so much.

Make sure to check out Lisa Joy’s directorial debut Reminiscence when it hits theaters and HBO Max on Friday, August 20.

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