Inside Westworld With Executive Producer and Director Lisa Joy

For me, when I started writing, it was mostly poetry. And poetry is very visual. I feel the same way about the way that I approach direction. There might be a theme within the visuals that you’re choosing that people don’t consciously pick up on, but that they feel.

The co-showrunner discusses her directorial debut and the visual choices she made in one of the series’ most revealing episodes yet. Lisa Joy, the directorial mind behind Westworld Season 2 Episode 4, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” unpacks her creative choices in one of the series’ most revealing hours yet. In the episode, we get to spend more time with business mogul James Delos — who’s not entirely what he seems.

There’s a deeper meaning to that record player...

We broke the series so that the hosts have small loops, but they interact with bigger loops. The whole thing is like a Swiss watch where all the cycles work together. And in the same way, I needed this theme of loops to be flowing throughout this episode. I wanted the circular motion of the record to serve the overriding theme of: Can we escape the loops in which we are trapped?

We went back and forth on how to film the opening shot on the spinning record, but I felt strongly that the room should be revealed in a pull back as opposed to a push forward, because it gives us less agency. We’re just passive riders, observing from a vantage point that some other force is constricting. In the allegory of the hosts, they were only allowed to know or see as much as other people allowed them to see. I wanted to trap the viewer in a similar way and restrict their orientation, make them wait to understand where we are and what we are looking at.

The same circular movement of that opening shot is echoed at the end, but with Bernard. He stands in the center of the room, but we track his gaze in the same circular motion. He, like Delos, is passively trying to understand the things transpiring around him. Then, once the circle is complete, we find a change: To Bernard’s (and our) horror, he wasn’t just a passive bystander. He made a choice at the end. In his first active step within that sequence, he strides forward and stomps the head of a helpless Tech, completing the cycle of violence. And that, to me, is the true moment of horror within this episode. The horror scene with the flashing red lights has all the trappings and suspense of horror, but the real existential moment of horror comes at the end where Bernard realizes he’s not so different from Delos. That there’s a monster in him, too. Whether by volition or not, he has blood on his hands, and the question after that is: Can he reconcile all the good things he wants to be, with the bad things he has done?

...And to the mirrors featured in the episode.

Throughout the episode and in each loop, Delos is looking at himself in the mirror. He feels a tension within himself. It’s as though he’s questioning the nature of his reality. It was really important to me to break out of that mold for the third loop, where we pop outside of the room and look in. We realize that him looking at himself wasn’t just about his gaze, it was about the gaze of a cruel and detached observer, analyzing and scrutinizing and controlling his every move. Of course, later on that comes to bear in the horror scene where he looks in the mirror and confronts a very different image, but one that is probably more true to what he is going through emotionally. Elsie sees in the cracked reflection of that mirror a man whose identity has been similarly fractured, as he literally carves into himself to try to find out who he really is.

Similarly, in the end of the Delos arc, Bernard cradles Delos's head as Delos gives his speech about angels and devils. Bernard is in the position of the angel standing above but has the devil inside him. Same with Delos. Neither man is all dark. That positioning of one person mirroring the other is one of the thematic visual threads that I tried to link between storylines. Throughout the Man in Black’s arc, Craddock is coming back and haunting him by mirroring his past behavior. He dances with Lawrence's wife like the Man in Black did before killing her. By the end, The Man assumes a similar position to Bernard over Delos: He cups Craddock’s chin and forces this explosive down his mouth. In that position, he's the avenging angel standing over Craddock’s Devil. He's putting an end to Craddock and in that, he's obliterating and facing his past sins.

Also, as a side note, that moment between Delos and Bernard was never scripted as something to be intimate, or to be a character moment. One of the many delights that I found in directing was that you plan so many things so meticulously so that they go smoothly. But you also have to leave time and space for spontaneous emotional moments to arise. In watching the actors and looking at it, I thought: What if you weren’t across the room from each other? What if Bernard was holding Delos’ face and looking down at him while he cradled him? And the two men gazing at each other served as a kind of reference to the mirror: A man brought to his knees and exposed as a monster, staring up at a guy who’s trying to be an angel. This duality is within each of us. We’re not angels or devils purely. Delos and Bernard, and The Man in Black and Craddock are essentially serving as each other’s mirrors, a symbol of both the worst of what could transpire, and the best.

“I wanted each action sequence to have a dance-like quality, so I tried to design a way we could get most of the footage in a couple of elegant one [shots]...”

How about that Man in Black shootout in the rain?

I wanted each action sequence to have a dance-like quality, so I tried to design a way we could get most of the footage in a couple of elegant one [shots] that would flow and feel naturalistic, while still capturing the grace of the Man in Black and his excellence as a fighter. I wanted to play with different textures and tempos of what an action sequence could be. If action scenes just happen decontextualized, they lose their weight and the viewer can feel they don’t make sense and that they wouldn’t have happened that way.

The intent of the rain sequence in Las Mudas was to communicate a change. The Man in Black has been to Las Mudas before, and in his previous visit, the park was working as it should. There weren’t any stakes for him, and you can feel it in the way he shoots people in this almost lackadaisical, going-through-the-motions way. This time, I felt like the action should reflect the changed circumstances. Now that the hosts are off their loops, he can’t necessarily predict their movements, and he’s no longer immune to injury or death.

All the choices I made in this scene were to underscore those changed stakes. Instead of looking at him from afar and seeing his movements as mechanized and apart from the viewer, I felt we should be over his shoulder, like a first-person shooter in a video game, that way we would feel the immediacy of the bullets going towards him and the fluidity of his motions. I worked with Chris Haarhoff the incredible Steadicam operator along with Ed and our wonderful stunt team to make sure everybody was moving together in tandem. It’s a dance not only with the performers but with the cameramen, too, as they track their movements. No one can be out of step or else it feels jarring and you lose the immediacy of what we’re trying to do.

The entire sequence was done in only two Steadicam shots, but it’s those kind of seemingly simple shots that actually take the most preparation. One false move, one lack of synchronization, and the entire shot is ruined. But in the end, thanks to the great work of the entire team, we got some really beautiful performances, really sweeping, lovely movements. All, by the way, done in the middle of the freezing rain…

Speaking of the rain, that was also really important. What I liked about it thematically was the notion that here is The Man always thinking he’s in control of his fate, but nature is stronger than us. There are forces, elemental and infinite that are far more powerful than we are. The rain seemed like a nice symbol of that, a storm blowing in, just as this moment reaches its crisis.

Also, can I just say one of my favorite shots of the episode is the push-in on Ed’s face. It’s so simple, but his performance is stellar and subdued, and it really allows us to see his character. The churning of his mind, the way the rain falls off the roof of the tavern recalling a tragic memory from his past. Getting those macro shots that link the rain and the storm blowing in with his own memories was really important to me in telling the visual story. And they culminate, finally, when he decides to make a change. To do something he’s never done before: To be the hero in this town instead of the villain. When he springs into action, we filmed it in a way we haven’t really seen his action before. It is immediate, spontaneous, visceral and dangerous. I wanted to feel at any moment he could actually be injured.

And what about that insane slow-motion scene at the end?

What we began referring to as the “Merry-Go-Round Scene” was the product of a lot of planning and coordination. What made it particularly tricky was that we didn’t have a margin of error, because the stunts (for example, the splashing in the tank) would take a lot of time to reset, and we had less than a day to shoot it, so we didn’t get many bites at the apple. I thought that the action having a balletic quality would be beautiful, because the drone hosts are elegant, efficient creatures, and their movements should be unlike anything we’ve ever seen. At the same time, we had to understand the macabre nature of what was going on. So, I worked with our incredible stunt coordinators Doug Coleman and Brian Machleit and our choreographer Marguerite Derricks to plan out every beat of it, to time it out so that it would work just so. Part of what happens is that while Bernard is looking at the action one way, other action is happening behind him. And the whole room had to work in complete synchronization so there wouldn’t be a continuity error. So really understanding what was happening in all quadrants of the room allowed us to tell the full sweep of action without violating chronology.

Another limitation we were dealing with was the movements of the drone hosts. They didn’t have eyes, and it was hard for the performers to see, so we really had to pre-script and chart their movements. Not only that but we had to re-think the nature of their movements. If you don’t have eyes, you’re not looking at the things you’re doing, your head and neck stay erect, which is very unnatural for a performer. Thankfully, our performers were flawless and pulled it all off. But imagine doing already incredibly challenging stunt work but without the benefit of being able to turn your head and see what you’re doing!

Catch new episodes of Westworld Sundays at 9 pm.


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