The futuristic resort at the center of the new HBO drama Westworld offers complete immersion in fantasy, not history, selling guests literally and figuratively on an idealized version of the American frontier. The sprawling grounds around the photogenic town of Sweetwater are stocked with the touchstones of the era — cowboys, horses, and saloons — but the immaculately planned arena is largely without the grime or disease that met those who tried their luck out West in the mid-to-late 19th century.
“If you pay a lot of money to go and have fun in this old west park, then you’d like it to be the really iconic ideal of the west,” Zack Grobler, the show’s production designer explained to Inverse. “You’d want to feel like the Marlboro Man riding out on the range. You want to be a gunfighter like Clint Eastwood. Those are all the ideals that you’re looking for. That’s what’s we tried to make it look like.”
Grobler took the production design reins from Nathan Crowley, who served as the designer on the techno-drama’s pilot, and Grobler serves as the park’s chief architect. His mission, handed down by showrunner Jonathan Nolan, was to create a unique aesthetic: Westworld has to be both nostalgic and futuristic while also seeming ever so slightly artificial. Because the theme park costs the character more money to visit than their life insurance is likely to pay out, it also can’t be completely wild.
“It wasn’t that much fun 100 years or more ago,” Grobler said, laughing. “Horses were shitting on the streets and you got really dirty and your clothes didn’t fit you well. If you needed medical attention you were on your own. You don’t really want to send someone who’s paying a lot of money to do that world. This was the reason why tried to give the realism but still make it a world that you would like to be in.”
The original 1973 film on which this series is based took direct inspiration from Disneyland and its faux-western Frontierland, which is filled with animatronics and musical hoedowns. Crowley and Grobler, however, saw the film, and its Happiest Place on Earth influence, more as spiritual forerunners. There is no official party line on when the new Westworld takes place, but Grobler says that in conversations with Nolan and the rest of the staff, they were told “it’s maybe fifty to a hundred years into the future.” That spurred the quest for a more futuristic aesthetic.
“The original movie had a lot more of the ‘movie set’ feeling, and it was a bit like Disneyland,” Grobler said. “We tried to give a much higher quality and much more realistic setting. Disneyland is not bad now, but a few hundred years from now, the technology will be so much better that you will not even realize you’re in the park.”
So, again, Crowley and Grobler had to walk a fine line between selling a fantasy and creating a reality. The decision was made to start with the fiction and push it in more authentic directions where appropriate, and luckily, Hollywood had the necessary infrastructure.
The Old West town at the center of the show was built on the existing set at Melody Ranch, a classic studio that was once owned by beloved cowboy actor Gene Autry and hosted the production of old western films in the first half of the 20th century. It was rebuilt in 1990 after years of lying fallow, and thanks to films such as Django Unchained and this fall’s Magnificent Seven, had plenty of buildings and sets upon which Crowley and Grobler could add. The Magnificent Seven’s Mexican town scenes also inspired the Mexican town scene in later episodes of Westworld.
Grobler added a gunsmith and several other shops, and redesigned all the interiors of the various buildings that already existed. Whereas they originally mostly looked like ol drinkin’ holes you might have seen in Bonanza, Grobler’s research — and thematic requirements — pushed Westworld in another direction.
“The main things people want to do in Westworld is they want to kill, or they want to eat or they want to have sex,” he said. “Some of the saloons have to be slightly seductive. There’s gotta be something sensual about it. It’s also got to feel dangerous and exciting.”
One way to do that was to make the home base of the robot prostitutes as alluring as possible. They built interiors for simple preexisting building shells and paid attention to making the wallpaper and other decorative elements as rich as possible.
“From my research, the real Old West was actually Victorian,” he said. “People thought it was different from older movies, that it was a dusty town, everybody wore cowboy hats. But only the ranch hand’s really wore outfits like that. The other people were wearing bow ties and top hats and they were totally Victorian.
Grobler went about classing up the buildings while darkening the streets with dirt, trying to create the suggestion of a culture clash; the visitors would stay in relative luxury, and could feel even more superior to their robot hosts. They installed subtly tricked out hotel rooms and plenty of top-shelf liquor, none of which failing 49ers would be able to afford.
Meanwhile, Crowley upped the convenience factor for the Westworld visitors by bringing the locomotive right to the main street, which not only required a robust physical build, but also plenty of green screen. The vast, untouched forests that surround Westworld is footage taken in Utah, while Melody Ranch is in southern California. On that dusty old time set, they put up green screens in front of parking lots so that they could composite the lush footage from Utah behind the bustling Western town, selling another layer of realism atop an underlying fantasy.