Many creators hope their show will engage fans. Few have had such a hand in creating as many immersive marketing experiences as Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan. Adweek caught up with Nolan, who co-created the show with Lisa Joy, ahead of the Westworld season 2 premiere on April 22 to find out how involved he is, what he thinks of a Westworld theme park and what it was like to work with Elon Musk.
Adweek: The marketing of Season 2 has been insane—Comic-Con, Super Bowl, SXSW. How involved are you in marketing conversations?
Nolan: I’ve been very interested in this side of things from the very beginning. My dad was in advertising and marketing. My brother [Christopher] and I grew up thinking of advertising as its own form of storytelling. For us, we were always as interested in the trailers, posters and sketchbooks and all of the other materials that went into the worlds around these movies as we were in the movies and shows themselves, because they were all part of the larger story you’re telling—and it was what we saw our dad doing.
With Westworld, Lisa and I knew from the very beginning that it would be one of these projects that really lent itself to this approach. Within the terms of the show you’re talking about building a consumer-facing theme park that would have to market its services to the customers anyway. When we pitched the show to the network, we submitted along with the pitch a proposed ad for the theme park that had been red-lined by the creative team at Delos and it was kind of subversive and candid and there was a memorandum that came with it. We put together this whole packet that went in with the pitch for the pilot that started to detail out what this all would look like, but it was also a dry run for the marketing materials and a dry run for the websites and promotions that we’ve done since then. For us, it was part and parcel for the pitch. You’re not just making your show; you’re also building a world that can be accessed by the people who are interested in that world in countless different ways. I’m interested in all of the different ways they can access it.
Considering the show beyond a traditional narrative and building it out via websites and experiences seems extremely time-consuming and intense. Has HBO been onboard with building out the show like that?
They were, from the beginning, so excited. It’s been an incredible level of engagement. We’ve joked that the eventual growth of the show would be Season 5 isn’t a series, it’s a theme park. By that point we would just make the damn park. The challenge with any of these sorts of things when you’re talking about transmedia, when you’re talking about a VR experience, a website, an installation, is that you have to generate all that content. The script for the installation at SXSW is almost as long as the script for the second season. The content has to be completely in line and canonical with the universe that we’re building. Increasingly, these days, when you have 500 shows on the air, you need to be noisy to reach people. But you don’t want to be noisy in a cynical way. You want to be noisy in a way that complements the stories you’re trying to tell.
You directed the 30-second Super Bowl spot, which was HBO’s first Super Bowl ad in 20 years. What was that like? They didn’t tell me that until we’d shot the piece, which was good. It kept the anxiety down. That was the first ad that I had directed as a broadcast commercial. Frankly, the Super Bowl spots tend to sit in two categories. You have the spots for conventional products that tend to go high concept, get a lot of traction, a lot of buzz and then you have the spots that used to be for movies; now it’s movies and television series that tend to be more straightforward. They kind of lay down and explain [the plot].
We wanted to do something for Westworld that really played in the same water as the rest of the spots. We wanted to do something that evoked, most obviously the Budweiser campaigns with the Clydesdale horses as well as the Merrill Lynch campaign from the 1970s with the bulls. We wanted to riff on the long tradition of Super Bowl spots with something that opened with the first 15 or 20 seconds that feels like one of these spots that capitalizes on Americana and nostalgia to position the audience emotionally to get them to buy something. We wanted to take that and radically subvert it halfway through the spot.
That’s ambitious. What about the Westworld park. You guys built the Westworld town, Sweetwater, just outside of Austin for South by Southwest. What was that experience like?
Whenever we look at one of these opportunities, whether it’s Comic-Con or Super Bowl or SXSW, you always want to cut through the noise. [HBO] is just as ambitious as we are with our show and they don’t have 60 shows a year so you really get their undivided attention; they’re in it with you. So the conversations started last year. The dream for me, totally ironically is, let’s turn this show into a park. The high-water mark when I was a kid was when your thing hits on a certain level then it becomes a theme park. Here we’re doing a show about a theme park so the irony is delicious, beautiful and rich.
The team here work with HBO [and with creative agency] Giant Spoon, who was on the ground in Austin putting it together. Kilter Films was reviewing and generating the script, making sure everything is of a piece and connected to not only the tone and feeling of our show, but what more do we want to tell? What do we want to Easter egg for the second season? How do we want to heighten it?
So will you create a real Westworld park? Are there plans, like HBO’s much-darker Disney World?
It’s not even a question of whether I want it or not. I think the show lays out a number of good reasons why that might not be such a great idea. … There’s a moment in the second season where one of the characters says, with regard to Westworld, that in its early days the argument over whether to make a place like this, one of the characters points out that in 20 years maybe this is the only reality that matters. I think we’re in an ongoing negotiation with reality facilitated by technology, facilitated by abundance. This is obviously not true around the world. You have an awful lot of folks who are not in this position. But for folks in the West, this idea of reality as a lifestyle or reality as an option or a negotiation is something that seems likely to become more and more prominent.
I think people will get tired of only being able to go to Comic-Con four or five days out of the year. They only get to dress up in that fantasy for a few days of the year. I think that balance, that ratio will start to shift and you’ll see communities for around the idea of this [other thing] is the reality we want to live in and engage in. Not the real reality but an immersive reality, the blending and blurring of the lines between the identities we create for ourselves online and the role-playing narrative that we like to invest in with our favorite shows and movies. I don’t know, it seems like a straight line there to me. So if we’re not making Westworld [the park] someone is going to make it. Hopefully the engineers will do as much quality assurance as possible.
Hoo boy. Tell us about working with Elon Musk; you created SpaceX trailers that you unveiled at SXSW. He seems excited about the future of artificial intelligence. Westworld seems to tell a more cautious tale. How does that work with your relationship?
When Elon or Stephen Hawking would say we’ve got to be careful about AI, a couple of years ago people would say, “Oh, they’re being overly dramatic about it.” You see the fallout over the last couple of weeks with Facebook. This is what we’re talking about. A lot of this innovation is being driven by private companies, there is zero regulation, there is zero conversation [about the consequences of AI]. Facebook also happens to be one of the biggest funders of research into artificial intelligence.
Whenever anyone has asked me, I’ve been clear about what I think about what’s happening with this. I’m not worried about a future like Westworld. I’m not worried about an artificial super intelligence that looks like Evan Rachel Wood or Thandie Newton or Jeffrey Wright. I’m worried about the near future, the moment in which our AI isn’t very good. It isn’t as smart or as thoughtful as Thandie’s character or Evan’s character. I’m worried about the moment that we’re in right now where we’re starting to use algorithmic technology in parallel with unfettered social media, in parallel with a host of companies who have not put in the time thinking deeply about these problems.
It’s very, very clear, whatever you think about Facebook or social media, that they didn’t spend 30 seconds thinking about the possible social ramifications of what they were doing. They didn’t even watermark their materials. That was the most astonishing thing from those interviews. They didn’t even know who has what. This is everybody’s personal shit! They don’t even know whom they gave it to. So I think if we’re exercising as little restraint and as little insight when we’re developing AI as we did with social media—two things that are umbilically connected with each other, because it’s social media that will be used to train the next generation of AI—if we’ve done as little homework on the AI question as we did on social media, we’re totally fucked.
The SpaceX videos are much more uplifting.
When we were kids we were promised jetpacks on the moon and we didn’t get it. We got fucking Instagram. That’s not enough. We’ve clearly gone through this radical period of incredible technologies and these technologies are incredible but they [are] inward focused technologies. … We live in the age of the selfie and that’s an incredibly fucking depressing thing to realize. I think you want the human race to also strive to be great collectively and that, to me, is what space flight is about. Elon is one person pushing hard for it but it’s not just Elon. It’s all of us pushing together that gets us to the moon. I found that incredibly inspiring. What do you put in a rocket and how do you get people to look at it? How do you get people to think about this once again and how do you galvanize people around that proposition? It’s not a simple consumer choice but there’s an appetite there that you have to drive collectively. It’s kind of like the whole species has to be looking up to the heavens to get these things done.
We went down to Florida and watched the launch. I took my camera with me. The effort with the trailer we put together—SpaceX doesn’t advertise; Tesla doesn’t advertise, it’s a next-generation company on that level but everyone is aware [of] what they’re doing—for me there’s still, coming from my dad, there’s this inherent value in, can you distill this experience down to a minute or two minutes that people can watch that will stick with them and get them to wonder about if these things are things we should be prioritizing, whether this is a dream that they share and that has an incalculable effect on moving the conversation forward?
Are you guys creating a Westworld mobile game? If so, when will that come out?
Warner Bros. is working on one. We’re in conversations with them. It’s not a project I’m ready to talk about it yet because we’re still looking at it.
Would it come out around Season 2?
I think that’s the plan. We’re still in conversations with them.
OK, back to the marketing materials. There are so many Easter eggs and clues. Why do it?
We’re very careful to make sure Westworld can be watched by an audience that doesn’t want to go on the subreddit and dig through everything to understand it. But for the audience that does, the audience that does want to lean into the narratives a little bit and invest more into it we’ve got enormous benefit from creating and using the marketing to build out the world for their benefit and our own. It’s a fun opportunity to take some of the material that we’ve developed that there’s no room for in the show and play with it.
HBO has been up for even going deeper with all of this marketing so when it works for a project and this is a project that it works for, when you have layers upon layers of the narrative, part of the reason for that is that you have this corporation who owns this park who is trying to hide all of this stuff, it all kind of feels like it all dovetails perfectly with the moment we’re in, especially in light of the Facebook stuff where you realize all of these technology companies have their own agenda that’s not yours and that kind of connects perfectly with the idea that when you’re digging through a corporate intranet you’re going to find shit, you’re going to find stuff that points toward the larger thing they’re trying to do and it may not have your best interest at heart. We thought that was a great fit. We knew there was an appetite amongst some of our audience to play in that space.