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"Westworld" isn’t a TV show, it’s a franchise film series

Kai Ryssdal and Bridget Bodnar Jun 26, 2018
Evan Rachel Wood, left, and James Marsden in season 2 of “Westworld.” John P. Johnson/HBO

"Westworld" isn’t a TV show, it’s a franchise film series

Kai Ryssdal and Bridget Bodnar Jun 26, 2018
Evan Rachel Wood, left, and James Marsden in season 2 of “Westworld.” John P. Johnson/HBO

Sunday night was the finale for season two of “Westworld.” Some viewers of the HBO show were left bewildered, but that’s the point. Sort of. Multiple storylines, timelines, moments that make the viewer question if what they’re watching is “real” — they are signature moves for Jonathan Nolan, one of the show’s creators. It’s a title he shares with Lisa Joy, his wife and co-writer for the season finale, “The Passenger.” Nolan talked to Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about how they keep everything straight (lots of white boards), why he thinks about each series as its own franchise film and why he wants to keep the audience fascinated, even if they’re a little confused. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Kai Ryssdal: So I know it’s been over for you for a while, but is it a relief to have season two now out there and finally be done with it?

Jonathan Nolan: It never quite feels over. But yeah, it’s great fun to finally share what we’ve been cooking up. We’ve got some very confused people, but I think overall, we’ve got what seems like an audience that’s happy and excited for where we’re going in season three.

Ryssdal: Well, it’s interesting you say confused, because literally I was in our morning news meeting before I came in to talk to you. And they said, “Will you ask him what the hell happened in the finale?”

Nolan: I keep explaining this week to everybody that my first movie, the first movie that I worked on with my brother was backwards. So it feels like since then everything has gotten marginally less simple — in fact, that movie isn’t even backwards. It’s not quite backwards, you know.

Ryssdal: Well, that’s kind of the point, right? It’s not quite backwards. This finale was not quite confusing. It was a little bewildering, maybe. How much time do you spend, and I mean this in a logistical sense, keeping things straight? Because this is a complicated, complicated storyline.

Nolan: It’s a big storyline. It’s a big ensemble world, which so many of the fantastic HBO shows are these omnibus ensembles with literally dozens of characters. We have a fantastic writing staff that we, that Lisa and I, collaborate with.

Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, co-creators and executive producers of “Westworld,” attend Wired Business Conference in New York City in 2017. 

Ryssdal: Lisa [Joy], your wife, we should say.

Nolan: That’s right, Lisa, my wife and partner on the show. We have a fantastic team, and there’s a lot of white boards. There’s a lot of boards involved.

Ryssdal: Do you look at this in the doing as a movie that you’re breaking up into, I don’t even know how many episodes were in the season — 10, 12, 15, whatever it was?

Nolan: I’m not sure I know either, Kai.

Ryssdal: (laughs) Which is a little scary but, is it a big, long movie for you, or are you thinking in installments, I guess is the question?

Nolan: So the analogy for us with this, I mean, TV is radically changing. And so you can kind of make a TV series into whatever you want. Certainly the first season we were moving pieces around to try to figure out how best to tell a story. In movie terms, you’d be taking events from reel 23 and moving them to a reel 30 to make sure that it all tracks for the audience —

Ryssdal: What does that even mean, real 23 to real 30?

Nolan: So movies, so when I started the movie business —

Ryssdal: Oh, like a reel, R-E-E-L — like the reel of the movie?

Nolan: That’s it, yeah, each of them about 20 minutes, with little cigarette burns that let the projectionist know the next one’s coming in. And so in a film, you might move something from reel three to reel four. In a TV series like this one, we’d be moving scenes, moments throughout the 10-hour period, which creates challenges for our editors.

Ryssdal: Let me get back to this moving things from reel 30 to reel 22 to back to reel 7 again. And I ask this question of Hiro Murai, the guy who does “Atlanta” with Donald Glover. I asked him the other day whether he is worried about losing people, losing the audience because there are so many moving parts and it’s so confusing. And the same question applies to “Westworld,” I think. Do you worry about losing people as you make those creative decisions?

Nolan: Yeah, without a doubt. My whole career is based on the premise that the audience, in many regards, was underestimated. The prevailing mindset when I moved to Hollywood in 1998 was you had to dumb everything down. I mean, you can’t imagine how many times you get that note. But you do have to be careful. One of the challenges we realized for us in the first season was, we’re not only asking people to keep track of a number of characters and a number of storylines and a number of timelines, but we’re also asking them to step into a world whose rules are a little different. And when you add that to the mix, it means that you have to recalibrate how much you’re putting into the audience’s mind at any given moment. And we’re constantly asking that question.

Ryssdal: So as you sit here now with season two done and out, and I don’t know where you are on the production process of season three, I imagine you’re taking something of a breather, but how intently are you focused on, given the confusion about the finale with which we started, right, how intently are you focused on getting people back to solid ground where they can understand what’s going on?

Nolan: Our intention with every season was more analogous to the franchise film model. The way that we approached it on the “Batman” movies was you don’t leave much on the table. You tell it all in one movie. And if you get the good fortune to go again, then you pick up and figure out what that movie is going to look like. Each movie, in other words, telling a complete story that hopefully opens the door to an interesting — that sounded like an inadvertent plug for the theme of this season, but it wasn’t. Opening a door to another season but not requiring the audience to watch that. One of the most complimentary things I heard about the first season that made me very happy was people saying, “I don’t know if I need to see another season of that show.” I mean, obviously you want people watching your show. You also want them satisfied with what they’ve watched.

Ryssdal: That’s so interesting because if I were creator, I’d be like, “What do you mean you want to watch season 2? You’re killing me, man!”

Nolan: Well, that’s where TV lived for 65 years. The entire history of the medium has been about keeping people tuned in. I think we’re in a different moment now. I think we’re in a moment in which obviously it’s important, more challenging than it ever has been with 500 plus shows on the air, to reach people, to get them to come watch your show. But one of the beauties of working at a place like HBO is, it’s a slightly different model. So it’s really about making sure that the audience is fascinated with what you’re doing.

Ryssdal: When do we get to see season three? Or don’t you get to decide that?

Nolan: Well, my wife and I are going to take our kids on vacation, and I’ll have an answer for you when we get back.


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