Westworld Director Craig Zobel Talks Shogun World and Emulating the Pilot Episode
By Olivia Armstrong
Craig Zobel, director of Westworld’s “Akane No Mai,” discusses his visual influences, challenges and how the character of Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) inspired his directorial point of view.
HBO: When did you first become familiar with Westworld?
Craig Zobel: Before the first season aired, I remember talking to Jonah and Lisa about the show and remarking how it seemed like a massive multiplayer online video game set in the real world. When they approached me about directing “Akane No Mai,” we agreed it’s like a video game that’s been reskinned for the hardcore guests who are into violent elements of Westworld. It was fun to be able to introduce the audience to this new place but still have it feel familiar.
HBO: When you got the script, how did you visualize the journey into Shogun World?
Craig Zobel: It’s like making a movie. Being set in a new place requires some level of reestablishing. In “Akane No Mai,” you’re with characters you know in places they don’t know, so they’re proxies for the audience.
When I watched Westworld Season 1, I was into the big questions the show was asking about A.I. but, I have to confess, I was most excited when thinking about it from the point of view of the people who worked at the park, like Lee Sizemore. If Westworld existed, I’d totally want that job: creating host backstories and narratives. So I came into it as someone like Lee, who’s looking at Shogun World from a company perspective.
HBO: Can you talk about the Tea House heist and how you reinterpreted the Mariposa heist sequence from the pilot episode, “The Original?”
Craig Zobel: It wasn’t a mandate to film it that way, but I went to Jonah and asked, “I should do a variation on the pilot and just rip you off, right?” It seemed like the best way to explain the elements of what’s really happening in this scene. I imagine it as: Delos Incorporated looked at Westworld and a demographic who wants a certain level of intensity they’re not getting in Sweetwater. So the company decides to create a park that offers that kind of intensity and rushed it out the door — as corporations do. Since that’s the central element at play, we decided to film the same scene. I think it helped the actors focus on the story that was unfolding and gives the audience a sense of empathy toward the Shogun World hosts. Since Rinko Kikuchi is playing the role of Bizarro Maeve — aka Akane — as an audience member, you’re immediately like, “Oh, I love you!”
HBO: What kind of inspiration did you look to? It seemed like a lot of [Japanese filmmaker] Akira Kurosawa.
Craig Zobel: I tried to watch as much Kurosawa as I could and was heavily influenced by Throne of Blood. I also felt like the episode, as a midpoint in the season, should have a sense of adventure and feel fun. I ended up rewatching a lot of ‘80s Spielberg films and ‘70s Japanese movies like Lone Wolf and Cub. Kurosawa is so austere — with awesome shots and frames — but there’s also something fun about the ‘70s manga-influenced films.
HBO: What were some of the challenges filming this episode?
Craig Zobel: It was the first time I had to direct in a language I didn’t speak. I didn’t anticipate it to be as hard as it was, but it made me commit in a different way. For example, you don’t know if an actor dropped or changed a line. I’d be looking at Hiroyuki Sanada (“Musashi”) and thinking, He’s emoting great, here. He looks awesome, I can see that this character got to the place he needs to be. It was essentially like making a foreign film. We had a translator, and Hiro and Rinko translated as well. Hiro is also an amazing sword fighter — trained for years — so even though we had technical advisors during the fight scenes, Hiro was a great person to ask about things like, how exactly one would hold a samurai sword. They both ensured that we were being authentic. I wanted to know, if this was shown in Japan, would you think this was cool?
Westworld Season 2 Episode 5 “Akane No Mai” ia now available to stream.