With the return of HBO’s Westworld coming sometime in April, fans of the smash hit show crowded the Austin Convention Center ballroom during SXSW 2018 in hopes that its stars and showrunners might offer hints of what’s to come. And they weren’t disappointed.
The panel was moderated by WIRED’s Jason Tanz, who introduced showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and stars Evan Rachel Wood (Dolores Abernathy), Thandie Newton (Maeve Millay), James Marsden (Teddy Flood), and Jeffrey Wright (Bernard/Arnold) to the stage.
Thandie Newton dominated the panel right off the bat by proclaiming that she “could not fucking wait” to return to film season two. Wright wanted to start back on season three immediately. The other stars were less than enthused about that.
Jonathan Nolan then introduced a clip reel of scenes from the upcoming season that began with Dolores confronting a group of Delos executives at gunpoint with, “Do you know where you are? You’re in a dream. You’re in my dream. Have you ever stopped to question the nature of your reality? The price you’d have to pay if there was a reckoning? That reckoning is here.” Following that was an assortment of clips over a western dirge arrangement of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” ending in a final shot of Maeve dressed in feudal Japanese garb, leading a samurai army. This shot caused the SXSW crowd to erupt in cheers. When the lights came up, Tanz said, “I think I speak for everyone when I say, ‘Oh, shit!’”
When asked to compare season two to what we know from season one, Wood and Marsden described Westworld as being like an onion, with more layers to explore as we go deeper. Newton said, “Just when you think you’re comfortable, just when you think you know who you are or what life is about, you have got to be destroyed again. You’ve got to keep starting again…You’ve got to keep going no matter how fucked up things are.” Wright described it as “going into season two was like not having a clue what the hell was going on,” to which Wood concurred that she felt like Dolores and Bernard swapped narratives for season two. Newton said in her professional and personal life she’s fought for control, but she’s willing to give it up to the showrunners because Westworld is “the dopest shit around.”
Tanz asked the showrunners if they knew where season two was going when they began to work on it, to which Nolan said, “We wanted to treat it a little more like a film franchise with each season, like an installment, and the only way I know to do that is to change the game every season, to challenge the audience, the writers and the actors and everyone to reinvent the show a little bit every season.”
Newton said that there were times during filming season two when she was “fucking cross” because they made Maeve do things she felt was against her nature, because she felt she had ownership of the character, but by the end of the season, “I was really humbled because it’s not about owning anything…to be forced into a situation that is uncomfortable and then to come out the other side emboldened.”
Tanz asked “How does it feel to play such a strong female roles in this day and age?” To which Newton shouted out, “Normal!” and Wood agreed. Newton praised her male co-stars for support of their strong female protagonists and “to have the generosity of spirit, to have the sophistication, the progressiveness, to recognize how, how current and ancient and futuristic it is to stand by and maybe even to put a platform up for a woman.”
Shifting the conversation, Tanz asked the showrunners, “Given the AI technologies behind Westworld are becoming more and more real, what advice do you have for creators of these technologies about how they’re developed?” Nolan warned that unlike the worst case scenario of Westworld, we’re headed for a networked Artificial Stupidity moment where AI is used to algorithmically manipulate social media — that we’re currently in that moment now. “We flattered ourselves by thinking that AI would need to be smarter than us to blow us up, and clearly that’s not the case. We are about to enter into a very slippery, very complicated moment in which the technologies that up to this point have served us — the power dynamic in that relationship is about to change,” said Nolan.
When asked about personal inspiration, Thandie Newton gave an impassioned diatribe about her work as an activist in the Democratic Republic of Congo for VDay.org, an organization committed to preventing violence against women there. She lamented that in the course of the illegal mining of the mineral coltan (used in the production of consumer electronics), many women and children are gang-raped, killed and trafficked into slavery.
Changing the tone a bit, Tanz asked Nolan what the philosophy was for the musical choices in the show. Nolan said it wasn’t a philosophy as much as “shit we like.” He said when first thinking about the show, “we knew we wanted an icon — an image that you can come back to again and again that kind of sold the show, and we stumbled upon the player piano, which was perfect for us, because here’s the original robot.” He said a detail no one has really called them on was the lack of electrification in the Old West to power the piano. In reality, there would’ve been another person to the side of the piano, pumping bellows with his feet to keep it going.
When asked about the multitude of podcasts (such as Geeks of Doom’s own Violent Delights) and other fan reactions following the show, Nolan said that “the creativity that you see coming back at you when you’re making with these things is extraordinarily beautiful and incredibly humbling and gratifying to see.” Tanz asked if there’s any secrets they’ve snuck into the show that no one’s caught yet, to which Nolan answered, “Oh yeah, tons and tons!” Nolan praised Lisa Joy’s first stint at directing an episode in season two, saying “it’s extraordinary and it’s a blood bath.”
At this point, Jonathan Nolan concluded the panel by bringing forward SpaceX CEO Elon Musk as a surprise guest, to introduce a trailer for the recent Falcon Heavy rocket launch, which you can read about in this previous post.