Lisa Joy Nolan JD '07 (Co-Creator & Executive Producer, Westworld)
By Brittany Turner AB '10
For Lisa Joy JD ‘07, co-creator of the smash hit HBO series Westworld (with her husband, screenwriter and director Jonathan Nolan), writing is, and has always been, a gamble. She jokes, “I went to law school and I still re-up my bar membership every year. I’m basically like, I don’t know when this could end!”
Despite her success, Joy still admits herself to be “risk-averse,” citing her circuitous path to a full-time writing career. Born in New Jersey, she studied English and Chinese at Stanford before working in business as a consultant and corporate strategist. After a few years, she attended Harvard Law School, writing screenplays in between classes; upon graduating, she returned to consulting for a short while before a smartly written spec episode of Veronica Mars landed her a first-time staff writing gig on ABC’s Pushing Daisies.
She notes that the conventional rites of passage facing a young, aspiring writer in Hollywood can be daunting, especially without the right tools—or access—starting out.
Joy had family obligations and student loans, which figured into her calculus for abstaining from a full-throated effort at writing for the first few years out of college.
“The typical path is to be a writer’s assistant for a long time—sometimes many many years—with uncertain chance of success. It wasn’t really tenable for me, and it concerns me in terms of the voices it funnels out. It preferences you, if you already come from money, if you already come from connections. And frankly, it preferences non-diverse voices in that sense.”
She continues, “Part of the reason I’m so risk-averse is because I didn’t have the luxury of being risky. And neither do a lot of people.”
Joy cherishes her nontraditional route into entertainment, noting the utility of her experience as fuel for the imagination—which comes in handy when staring down an imposing blank page. “You spend some time in the real world,” she says. “You’re taking all of the ideas that you’ve soaked up in your real life and fashioning them into stories.”
Since her start on Pushing Daisies, Joy has written and co-produced Burn Notice on USA and sold a script based off of her graphic novel Headache to Fox in 2012. Her sci-fi feature film screenplay Reminiscence, about a futuristic archeologist who helps his clients revive and experience old memories, made The Black List in 2013; after a fierce bidding war between studios, Legendary reportedly paid over $1.75 million for the script, making it one of the biggest screenplay deals of that year.
But perhaps one of Joy’s most impressive accomplishments to date is her work as co-showrunner on the expansive sci-fi television thriller Westworld, based off of the classic 1973 film written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton AB '64, MD '69. The show currently enjoys a coveted spot on HBO’s fall Sunday night lineup, and is frequently referred to as the premium network’s “next Game of Thrones.”
The show, which has already been renewed for a second season as of November, centers on Westworld, a highly technologically advanced Western-themed amusement park for the wealthy, where guests can carouse and make mayhem to their heart’s content. The park is populated by androids called “hosts.” The show examines the lives of the hosts—and the philosophical quandaries that arise when they begin to question the nature of their reality.
Westworld’s striking dialogue and crisp plotting aside, Joy firmly acknowledges that TV is a business—and that showrunning is not for the faint of heart.
“Typically, you write something and it’s this…gentle and intellectual process. But then you make a show. And that’s when you roll up your sleeves and dive in. I’m lucky enough to have an amazing director and co-showrunner who I’m also married to, so we were in the trenches together on this.”
Still, writing the show’s characters—heroes and villains—can be the trickiest part of the whole enterprise. Especially when the writers don't always agree with their actions.
The show paints the guests at Westworld as careless, rapacious, and singularly driven by the pursuit of pleasure, since there are apparently no consequences to reap inside the park itself; guests visit in order to live out explicit fantasies, however deranged they may be. Accordingly, Westworld frequently explores themes of violence and sexuality—often intertwined, and sometimes portrayed graphically onscreen. But Joy insists against gratuitousness for its own sake.
“There are actions this season that I find hard to watch,” she says, “but honestly, I find life difficult to watch sometimes. It’s hard not to look at the issues that trouble me in fiction because they trouble me in life. Because fiction is a way of working through them and processing them for me.”
Joy recounts hearing many similarly troubling stories during her brief tenure working in the Family Violence division of the District Attorney’s office while starting her legal career. She remarks on the imprint that experience left on her: “I saw a lot of darkness in those stories, and I don’t think that darkness leaves you. And I think if you’re awake and going through life—especially as a woman or person of color—you see parts of the world that other people might not see, because the world shows you different sides of itself… sides that it feels like it can show you with impunity, because you’re not part of a classical power structure.”
By focusing on two of the show’s most vulnerable characters at the beginning of the story—Maeve, a brothel manager, and Dolores, a traditional damsel-in-distress type—Westworld subverts the traditionally Western trope of centering on a rugged, solo frontiersman out for revenge. Was concentrating on the awakenings of these two android women—one a person of color, both often the objects of violence in the park— meant as commentary on the real-life experiences of women and people of color?
“People that aren’t in positions in power see the darkness of their world seeping in more. They have to see it, in order to survive. They have to prepare for it. So what does it mean when your consciousness is in high alert in that respect? Because of your position in society? Does that change you? Does that make you more perceptive?”
It’s one of the central questions of the narrative.
She continues, “Creatively, just as we’re subverting the film by looking at it from the robots’ POV, I wanted to… jar things from the start and build a connection to people that we often overlook. Maeve and Dolores are outsiders in the traditional Western story. But not in this one.”
Mind-bending, complex themes, an all-star cast, and spectacular cinematography make it clear that Westworld is trending toward monumental success, and Joy credits her husband and co-showrunner, as well as the rest of her talented staff, as elemental to that status. Her advice to fledgling writers who want to follow in her footsteps is straightforward:
“Employ yourself and write a script. If it doesn’t get the outcome you want, then employ yourself again. Be a good boss to yourself, and keep giving yourself chances to write. Don’t try to write in someone else’s voice—try to be you.”
Also? Embrace fear, change, and the unknown. It might enrich you more than you think. Joy learned that lesson while pregnant with her first child, a period which lent itself to fervent creativity.
“Sometimes the biggest points of fear are the most liberating moments. It’s pretty hard to get staffed when you look super pregnant, and shows are super demanding. And I had well-meaning people tell me—well, this is probably it, you know. So I gave into fear and unemployment… it ended up being the most transformative nine months of my life. Because the first trimester I finally just sat down and wrote my first feature (Reminiscence). That sold my second trimester. Around the same time that it sold, we went to HBO with Westworld, and that started going.”
Next on her radar? Directing a few next-season episodes of Westworld, and writing a film adaptation of the much-beloved Battlestar Galactica television show for Universal. And for now, she doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“Writing in itself is the journey, and it’s a cruel, cruel love sometimes because it doesn’t always love you back. To have an abiding passion like that, an abiding love, even if it’s unreciprocated at times…it's an incredible blessing.”