INTERVIEW: ‘Westworld’ creator Lisa Joy on why Singapore makes for a beautiful sci-fi backdrop for the hit series

Reta Lee
Editor-in-Chief, Lifestyle
Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, creators of HBO's 'Westworld'. (PHOTO: HBO)

SINGAPORE — It’s scorching outside but Lisa Joy looks at home with a breezy cotton top and loose pants, when we met at The Esplanade Theatres. “I've been filming outside and it's so hot, and everybody's wearing jeans. And I'm like, we can't do this. We're never going to survive!” she quipped. The screenwriter, producer and director of Westworld is in town for the filming of Season 3 of HBO’s hit sci-fi series, and she’s already loving our little red dot.

The Harvard law graduate shares writing credits on Westworld with her husband, Jonathan Nolan (who’s written movies like The Dark Knight and Interstellar, which was directed by his brother Christopher Nolan). The power couple’s magic touch has earned the series four Emmys, edging closely to Game of Thrones in 2018.

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After graduation, the daughter of British-Taiwanese immigrants worked for management consulting firm McKinsey & Company in L.A., but still harboured her dreams of screenwriting. She went on to take a corporate strategy role at Universal Studios and continued writing on the sidelines. It was her husband she calls Jonah, who gifted her with a screenwriting software to pursue her passion. She has since pounded out the script to Pushing Daisies and worked on Burn Notice, as the only female writer on staff.

When producer and director J.J. Abrams approached Lisa and Jonathan in 2013 to pursue a story about robots and their perspectives, they both jumped on it and since then, Westworld was birthed.

Lisa shares with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore on the pressures of pursuing a creative passion, bouncing off energy with her husband and why Singapore became the backdrop for Westworld.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. (PHOTO: HBO)

It's so nice to meet you! I feel like your career path is quite an interesting story because you are a Harvard Law graduate and you ventured into screenwriting. And, as Asians, we have this stigma that we're pigeonholed into doing, say, math. So, I was just wondering, did you grow up with that pressure?

Well, definitely there was a little bit of that. I think, regardless of culture, parents naturally want their children to be safe. My parents wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer, because it feels like science is a trade and you have stability. I went down that path to the far end and I became a lawyer in part for that reason.

But I think, for me, if you love writing or the arts, it's a part of yourself that you can't actually repress. Even when I was working, I would go home, and I would write, and I wasn't writing for anybody else but myself. It was something I felt I had to do; it gave me pleasure, like the way some people, you know, doing yoga gives them pleasure.

For me, if I didn’t do it, I start to feel like something's missing; I never really had the idea of becoming a professional writer. But I just couldn't stop writing! As a first-generation American, that made the pressure all the more intense. You’d want to get healthcare, be able to provide for yourself and help out your family. And it all comes from a very good place, but I think it gave me discipline.

You just commit to it and understand you may want to be a professional and do the best job. In that way, it becomes not this nebulous arena of just luck and chance. But it becomes a discipline that you pursue step by step, hopefully, without ego - because it can be an ego-challenging business - and see where you arrive!

Do your parents watch your show?

Yeah, for the first time they’ve watched the show, and I got them HBO so they can watch it. Do they get it at all? I think they do. I think sometimes my mother keeps wanting me to write a romantic comedy (laughs).

So what would be your advice to those who would like to follow in your footsteps?

I'm still a member of the bar. So if it all goes away, I can practise law, that is the combination that I have. You don't have to follow in anybody's footsteps, because everybody has their own path to their dreams. But I will also say - and I've just used the word dreams - don't really think of it as a dream. Because a dream is something you can't control; if you think of it as an ambition that you're pursuing, it takes the fear out of it a little bit.

When I think about aspiring writers who want to break into screenwriting, and in my case, when you take a step back, it looks like the odds are infinitesimally small. Oh, my gosh, how would you ever make it? Only one out of thousands of people becomes a writer. But what I like to do is, the math side of my brain that my parents are so bent on my pursuing; I like to break down the reality of what those statistics look like. So maybe one in every thousand people say, they want to be a writer, right? But if you narrow that list down the denominator, then what you have is, Okay, well, how many of you have actually written something? Immediately? The list goes like one in 500, maybe topics, right? Then it's like, how many of you have taken that and looked at it and thought, it's a first draft of a script? Maybe I should improve it? Right? Keep trying. And work as an assistant for someone and work your way up. And then quickly, the odds become like one (in) five, so the only way I had the courage to pursue that was if I just thought about it as something that I could structure, in a way where I had a little bit of agency over my destiny. I had the pleasure of writing itself, which for me, has always been a lovely gift. And I wouldn't be starving, because I could maybe practise law.

Lisa Joy on 'Westworld' Season 3 set in Singapore. (PHOTO: HBO)

Beautiful! Your partner Jonathan and yourself are both writers, so how do you lean on each other for ideas and inspiration?

I love working with Jonah. When we're writing, we always agree what's working and what's good. And we always agree what's bad. Sometimes in the middle, we will agree it's not quite working. They think, Oh, it's pretty good. And then the other person will say, No, I don't feel the emotion here. Or no, I don't feel the suspense here. Then, you have to look at it and examine it again. I always feel like his ideas, broaden my potential of what the scene could be for me. And I think I do the same for him.

So we iterate pretty consistently on everything, both on the break itself, the way in which the story points lay out. On the story themes, we'll spend late nights, like, college kids or something talking about the nature of free will; it's ridiculous! But talking with someone helps you hone your ideas and make them a little more sophisticated. In writing, I'll write a scene, he'll write a scene, and then we'll swap. We'll keep reading to the point where I don't know which words I've written. But all of this is also in conjunction with our writers room, and our staff of writers who are incredibly talented, and amazing. Their ideas are so fundamental to the show.

You've directed an episode in Season 2; will we be seeing more of your directorial chops in Season 3?

I'm doing a little bit of second unit stuff here, which has been great! The way that Jonah and I tend to structure it is, he's directing one season, and I will not direct, because one of us has to be pushing forward on the writing. So he directed the first episode of the season, and he's sort of setting the tone for what we're about to see. And so, I'm on backup this time.

SINGAPORE - AUGUST 1, 2018: A night view of Jubilee Bridge and the Esplanade Theatre. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)

When you wrote Season 3 with Jonah, how did you imagine the sci-fi landscape? Were you inspired by any movie titles? And how did Singapore come into the picture?

When we wrote Season 3, I don't think that we were necessarily trying to think about (sic). We watched Her when we were doing Season 1, which was a really interesting vision of the future, which I hadn't seen before. There are so many beautiful science fiction films out there, like, Blade Runner. There are too many new names, and that actually makes it difficult because you want to carve out a niche that is a little bit your own.

When we were trying to think about what the future could look like, we scouted and examined a bunch of areas, and that's how we came to Singapore. There's nowhere that looks like Singapore; it's absolutely beautiful on a purely aesthetic level. And it's incredibly different from modernism in other cities, even the lines of it; when you look out of the window (of The Esplanade Theatre), you have these, linear lines, but it's cross cut by these curving rows, which on film always looks so beautiful. There's a different texture to everything and the bounce from the water off of the glass there. The other thing that’s really interesting is the incorporation of nature.

Singapore has done this incredible job of integrating nature into the city. We're staying in the Parkroyal on Pickering and there's greenery everywhere, just crawling up there. There’s a kind of beauty to a skyscraper.

Lisa Joy on 'Westworld' Season 3 set in Singapore. (PHOTO: HBO)

Westworld has been so fascinating, the way you’ve written the female characters; they were brutalised but found the courage to stand up for themselves. So what is the message you want to share with the viewers when you wrote these characters?

It's hard for me, because I don’t want to deliver a doctrine in my approach. I'm just a person and my own experiences are subjective. My own way of processing the universe is subjective. I don't understand. I can try to but I don't understand the reality of other people's lives in different circumstances. You can have empathy for, but you can't know the full extent of it. I think it would be humorous for me to try to say, you know, this is my message, but that being said, the writing itself is informed by the world in how I've seen it, experienced it and had friends who have experienced it.

It's funny, because people were saying, after the season aired, Oh, this #metoo movement started and were you influenced by that? We've done the season before that, and I wasn't influenced by it. But I am a woman who has lived in this world, who's seen different forms of oppression and discrimination. And you don't even need to be a woman to see; just open your eyes and see the world. I think it's a kind of hope to be able to see the darkness in the world, right? Because if you can't see the darkness, then you can't find any way to hope for better or to demand better. I consider myself an optimistic person, but that optimism stems from understanding the things that I will change in the world and changing myself; the mistakes that I've made, to times that I would wish for myself or my children or my friends, that they could be stronger.

In some way, along with all the different experiences and views of our writing staff and our directors and our actors, even without language, an actor's performance can convey so much. There's a scene in Westworld, where we see a character’s made when she's seeing the world for what it really is when she goes underneath and sees the technicians working on the other hosts. There's no dialogue there. She simply walks through the halls and it just plays on her face. You know, she takes it in. And I think that’s the kind of grief and shock, but also, determination. That's something that Thandie (Newton) alone brought to the scene.

Any last words for your fans of the show in Singapore?

Thank you for watching and I love Singapore and I never want to leave again. All the food (pauses) I’ll gain 13 kilograms and buy clothes two sizes bigger!

Stream all episodes from WESTWORLD Seasons 1 and 2 on HBO GO.