Q&A: Westworld’s Jonathan Nolan on Marketing Season 2, Elon Musk and the Danger of Social Media

Why he'd rather have jetpacks than Instagram

Jonathan Nolan (r.), co-creator of Westworld, is very involved in marketing conversations about the show. John P. Johnson/HBO
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

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.

This story first appeared in the April 16, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@KristinaMonllos kristina.monllos@adweek.com Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.