The past still hangs heavy over Lisa Joy’s dystopian futures.
In both Westworld, the HBO series Joy co-created with husband Jonathan Nolan, and Reminiscence, her feature directorial debut (now in theaters and on HBO Max), technology enables people to slip from one reality to the next, manipulating time while posing deeper ethical questions of consciousness and control.
In Westworld, the titular theme park reimagines the wild West of yore as an adults-only resort filled with lifelike robot “hosts” who eventually rebel against their programming. Reminiscence, meanwhile, is set in a futuristic Miami where the streets are flooded and residents have gone nocturnal to avoid scorching daytime temperatures. Seeking respite, people pay to access an elaborate machine that lets them relive happier days.
Though set in different worlds, Westworld and Reminiscence share a fascination with the neural circuitry of memory: its ephemerality, its subjectivity, the way it can trap us in cycles of pain and isolation.
“The idea of living in a loop plagues a lot of us in terms of human behavior,” Joy tells Inverse, speaking by Zoom. “If you go to a bookstore, 90 percent of the shelves are dedicated to self-help, philosophy, and meditation books,” she adds. “What people are looking for is, ‘How do I break this loop? Why does my mind give me the same gnawing anxieties over and over again? Why do I keep recapitulating to the same flawed behavior?’”
Though Joy’s science-fiction explores these anxieties through advanced tech, the knot of human psychology remains centered in her work.
“Each of us has things about ourselves that haunt us: sometimes very little, sometimes very big,” she explains. “Acknowledging the loops of our lives, the way that the past informs and haunts us is just a fundamental part of examining what it is to be human.”
Caught between past and present in a way that suits its tonal fusion of film noir and science-fiction, Reminiscence ruminates on nostalgia and trauma as two forms of memory that exert a powerful, corruptive influence over its characters.
At the film’s center is private investigator Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), who controls the Reminiscence tech. For a price, Nick and assistant Watts (Thandiwe Newton, who also plays Maeve on Westworld) hook clients up to a device that projects their memories onto a hologram stage. Occasionally, these two assist in retrieving moments their clients have forgotten. When Nick becomes infatuated with lounge singer Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), only for her to vanish under suspicious circumstances, he scours his own mind for clues he’s certain he missed.
“Certainly, the themes of memory, and our inability to recall certain moments correctly, run through both Reminiscence and Westworld,” says Joy. “But this is clearly a much more humanistic approach since I don’t have hosts. It came from a very personal place, about personal meaning in lives that had their share of darkness and light, and in circumstances that had their share of trauma and beauty.”
For Thandiwe Newton — who’s received three consecutive Emmy nominations for Westworld, winning one — following Joy over to Reminiscence was a scary but rewarding challenge. “What I love about Lisa’s work is it’s just fascinated by human behavior,” says the actress, speaking to Inverse by phone. “She uses complex, interesting narratives, but always to get at the truth.”
Across both Reminiscence and Westworld, Newton has appreciated Joy’s view of emotional “calcification,” as expressed through characters struggling to let go of the past. “We get stuck in ideas, in polarities, in notions of good and evil, when everything is moving and changing constantly,” adds the actress. “Lisa is fascinated by how we deal with pain, loss, grief, and rage. She’s as fascinated by the artifice as she is by the truth underneath it.”
“A modern mythology”
In one of many such artifices in Reminiscence, the doomed romance between Nick and Mae is often compared to the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. Joy lights up when asked about this; she’s eager to discuss stories of gods and heroes she encountered in her formative years, long before Westworld.
Joy is biracial (her mother’s from Taiwan, her father's from England) and was raised in suburban New Jersey in a culturally Chinese household. Attending public school, even before she’d learned English, Joy discovered Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and was transfixed.
“I would read all sorts of Greek and Chinese myths and see these commonalities that all cultures would have, these big questions that all people try to address,” she explains. “Even though I didn't really feel quite like I belonged, when I read these stories, I could understand certain common themes in humans through time.”
A Stanford graduate, Joy initially worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, then in corporate strategy at Universal Studios. Attending the 2000 premiere of Memento, she met her husband, Jonathan Nolan. (The film was based on a short story by Nolan and directed by his brother, Christopher.) The two struck up a friendship, then a romance, at which point Joy still envisioned herself as an attorney. She later attended Harvard Law School. While studying for the bar exam, Joy wrote a Veronica Mars spec script, which got her staffed on Pushing Daisies, Bryan Fuller’s cult ABC fantasy series. Following its 2008 cancellation, she wrote for USA’s Miami-set spy procedural Burn Notice.
But Joy’s big break didn't come until 2016 when she and Nolan co-created Westworld for HBO. Even as the pair were writing that series’ pilot, one of its most conceptually dazzling episodes, Joy was hard at work on another spec script about a private eye and his memory machine. But it took Westworld’s success for Joy to earn the creative caché necessary to get Reminiscence made.
Science-fiction has always appealed to Joy, perhaps because she considers it a kind of modern mythology. Uniquely engaged with the world at large, the genre often tells stories of people navigating futuristic situations, ones that appear less far-fetched today than they did yesterday. Joy often envisions sci-fi narratives as parables of human fallibility, even cautionary tales.
“The fiction is the story: the characters within it, the whodunnit and what they did,” she explains. “But the science is the world, and the world that could be: we’re making big steps in neuroscience, and our world’s changing by the day with climate change.”
“It’s not an ‘event.’ It’s mise-en-scène. It’s our world.”
It’s for this reason that she felt Reminiscence, with its water-logged Miami setting, couldn’t turn a blind eye to global warming and its consequences.
“Climate change is happening; it’s not going away,” she says. “All narrative fiction and storytelling will have to take that into account if it wants to reflect reality and, indeed, futurism. It’s not an ‘event.’ It’s mise-en-scène. It’s our world.”
To capture the time-slipping aesthetic of Reminiscence, Joy set Westerns aside in favor of film noir. Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 melodrama Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, was a major influence.
Out of the Past is archetypally noir with its flashback structure, voiceover narration, baroque day-for-night lighting, and lingering fatalism. Joy sought to put a sci-fi spin on its urban setting, one still populated by hardboiled detectives and femmes fatales but rivaled in its sense of moral decay by environmental peril.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo informed “the psychology of a mystery-journey that is also about trying to undo psychological blindness,” adds Joy. At the same time, individual sequences owe a debt to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (a commuter train skimming across the water’s surface) and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (a hallway fight in which Jackman brandishes a hammer).
Joy also sought to update a typically male-dominated genre by writing Mae and Watts as three-dimensional characters rather than stock supporting players. “We subvert and live inside the female characters a little more, to excavate more of a personality by the end,” she explains.
“She contains multitudes”
Though Ferguson’s Mae is largely a cipher, defined by her absence and lingering presence in Nick’s memories, Newton’s Watts emerges as the film’s most complex, grounded character. A combat veteran dogged by trauma, Watts struggles with alcoholism and has a dysfunctional relationship with Nick, who keeps her at arm’s length. As Nick is consumed by pursuing Mae through countless reminiscences, it’s Watts who witnesses his misuse of memory technology and tries to stop him from going down the path that destroyed her life.
In casting the character, Joy needed an actress who could believably play every side of Watts: a loving friend, a tortured soul, a dry wit, and a crack shot. Having seen Newton play the increasingly self-actualized host Maeve on Westworld, Joy knew she had the right person for the role.
“She knows what it's like to be Maeve, to be the subject of sexual desire, to be in some ways very victimized and brutalized by it, and to try to own it ultimately, for herself,” explains Joy, growing impassioned as she discusses her friend and frequent collaborator. “But she also knows what it's like to be someone like Watts, to be someone stoic, to be a good friend, to try to be a moral compass in situations where everyone seems to have lost their way.”
When Warner Bros. greenlit Reminiscence during the filming of Westworld’s third season, Newton recalls Joy’s euphoria, followed by weeks of exhaustion as Joy rushed to finish all the season’s scripts before leaving to prep her feature directorial debut.
“She was literally that woman, up all hours on a laptop,” says Newton. One evening, while preparing to go their separate ways for a night shoot, Newton walked over to Joy, who looked up from her laptop and asked the actress, point-blank: “Why can’t you play Watts?”
By that point, many of Joy’s Westworld collaborators were attached to Reminiscence, from cinematographer Paul Cameron and production designer Howard Cummings to costume designer Jennifer Starzyk and editor Mark Yoshikawa. “I assumed, straight away, that [she’d asked] because she loved me and just wanted me there, almost as an emotional support,” recalls Newton.
But the actress knew she’d be exhausted once the season had wrapped, and she shrugged off what seemed like a throwaway comment. Two days later, when a script for Reminiscence landed on Newton’s desk with an offer, she realized Joy had been serious.
“Let’s break into the circus and turn on all the rides.”
“[Newton] has had to be gritty and strong. She is wickedly funny and irreverent, but also, like all people, she can be vulnerable,” explains Joy, saying no one else could have played Watts. “Her ultimate fearlessness is being able to contain all of those multitudes: to acknowledge her own suffering, and her own bravery, and to constantly be emerging as a full person from that.”
Accepting the role just two weeks before production, Newton moved fast to familiarize herself with women in the military, keying into Watts’ resilience and battles with addiction. Any nerves the actress felt evaporated on set as she watched Joy breathe life into Reminiscence.
Combining romantic noir with bursts of kinetic action — including a bravura shootout sequence starring Newton, Into the Badlands star Daniel Wu, and a tank of eels — Reminiscence was a playground for its actors as well as its director.
Newton says Westworld was more like a day job whereas, “Reminiscence was like, ‘Let’s break into the circus and turn on all the rides and fuckin’ do what we want. Let’s make them go really fast and see what this puppy can do.’”
Newton considers it a privilege that she got to see Joy’s evolution into a feature filmmaker firsthand. “She’s absolutely wonderful with television,” notes Newton. “But with film, she can pack a punch that is so effective; her ideas can be really powerfully demonstrated.”
Reminiscence shares Westworld’s preoccupation with human psychology, and Newton says Joy’s focus on technology-enabled addiction makes it one of her favorite projects she’s worked on to date. “Lisa connects the cerebral with deep empathy and truth,” explains Newton. “She serves all facets of who we are and uses that to ultimately take us to a place of deeper understanding about what our pain is.
“I’ve literally witnessed her become the Renaissance woman that she now is,” adds the actress. “She isn’t even aware, I don’t think, of the power that’s bursting from her. She can’t stop!”
A look at Joy’s upcoming slate would indicate as much. In addition to working on the fourth season of Westworld, which is currently filming, Joy and Nolan are prepping the first two series from a massive overall deal they signed two years ago with Amazon, said to be worth $150 million across five years.
The Peripheral, currently filming, will adapt William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel of the same name, about a young gamer (Chloë Grace Moretz) who discovers a form of virtual time travel.
Joy and Nolan will create and executive-produce Amazon’s high-profile adaptation of the post-apocalyptic Fallout video-game series. Joy confirmed that writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet, who penned Captain Marvel and co-wrote Matt Shakman’s upcoming Star Trek film, is involved in Fallout.
Despite the Amazon deal, Joy’s not through with HBO. In addition to Westworld, which could extend beyond its fourth season, she and Nolan are developing a limited-series HBO adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s crime novel The Son, with Jake Gyllenhaal attached to star and executive-produce. Dune director Denis Villeneuve is set to direct all installments, while writer Lenore Zion (Brand New Cherry Flavor) will showrun.
“Most of my ideas tend to come from a more internal place,” says Joy. “I started in poetry, and I think logically branched into genre and sci-fi because of my love for mythology. But to get to explore that with people I love and respect, who I’m in awe of, is the greatest gift.
“All I ever wanted was to be in a nerd literary salon, like Gertrude Stein,” she adds, singing the praises of her collaborators. “Everything else, for me, honestly, is terrifying.”
Reminiscence is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.