Lisa Joy on 'Reminiscence', 'Westworld' and the Allure of Techno-Noir

In his first room of writers, Lisa Joy was politely dismissed and said she didn’t have to work so hard. After all, born in New Jersey ...


In his first room of writers, Lisa Joy was politely dismissed and said she didn’t have to work so hard. After all, born in New Jersey to British-Taiwanese parents, she was just a diversity recruit.

The experience did little to stifle Joy’s ambitions or work ethic. In 2013, while she was expecting her first child, she wrote the screenplay for “Reminiscence”, A tech-noir thriller, and began to develop brain sci-fi“ Westworld ”for HBO with her husband, the screenwriter of“ Memento ” Jonathan nolan.

After three seasons of the show – the fourth is on its way – Joy has decided to direct “Reminiscence” herself. In the film, which debuts August 20 on HBO Max and in theaters, Hugh Jackman plays a private investigator who digs into clients’ memories but becomes torturously obsessed with himself. It’s a story about the pull of the past into the future, to a Miami that has succumbed to rising waters and is populated by people who have gone nocturnal to escape the scorching heat of the day.

In a recent video call, Joy spoke from her Los Angeles office about being a perpetual stranger, current events mimicking science fiction, and her partnership with Nolan. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

You wrote “Reminiscence” during your pregnancy. It sounds like someone’s job at a turning point – looking back while looking ahead.

My main goal was to write something that amused me while I was throwing up with morning sickness! It was certainly a very dramatic moment. My husband worked a lot, I was at home with the dogs. I have had a lot of time to contemplate my life. At the same time, my grandfather passed away. So there were losses as well as new beginnings. Sorting through her things was what really sparked my meditation on loss, memory, and how our memories start to fade.

Looking at the level of detail in your script, I wonder if to some extent you’ve ever realized it mentally?

When I write, I imagine the characters speaking, I design the play, I block the scene in my head. I’m sort of transcribing the movie I’m already watching. So when other directors pitched in their ideas, I realized that none of the visions matched mine. I wanted him to have the spirit of an independent film, to take more risks, to tell a story that was not in a clear genre.

And Hugh Jackman in the lead role?

The second I even considered directing it, I knew Hugh was the right lead actor. I wanted to show a hero unraveling, questioning his own memories and coming to understand a more nuanced version of the world. Hugh has that soul. And he can kick a lot of ass too.

Lots of ass kicks with lots of hallucinations.

And romanticism. I wanted to have all of these elements in the movie. Because life is like that. The polarity of the film is frustrating to me. “It’s an arthouse film. This is a popcorn movie. I think that underestimates the public.

You started writing in comedy, on the “Pushing Daisies” series. When did you feel the gravitational pull towards science fiction?

I’ve always loved stories that tackle big, big, timeless themes. This is just where my curiosity has taken me. When I tried to run “Reminiscence” for the first time, I was strongly pregnant – people would look at me and think, what’s wrong with you? Why are you writing this mysterious, dark, violent, sexy thing? Make a romantic comedy! People didn’t expect me to do huge, ambitious, world-building things as a junior writer.

Why place the film at an indefinite future time?

Stories are more universal when you don’t put a pin in them. And when I started to contemplate this world, it was nothing like the world we live in now. I didn’t think reality would catch up with science fiction so quickly. And then, just as the trailer fell, there were pictures of the walls they are building in Miami. I think it was the front page of the New York Times. They looked exactly like our sets. There are also scenes of unrest and riots in the streets of the film, and political and socio-economic unrest. There was a time when people were like, this is too far-fetched. And then, the following week, riots broke out.

“Westworld” premiered during the #MeToo era, and the treatment of androids in the series seemed to speak to that movement. Were you aware of taking advantage of your own experiences in the industry?

None of my work is explicitly denominational, but at the same time, we are who we are. I had just stepped out of an all-male stick [USA’s “Burn Notice”]. I wanted to resume my story the only way I know how. What was to write.

It’s not like I have a gift for prophecy. We live in this world. And we have to find a way to survive it. For me, recognizing the cage you are in is a way out. And it’s not just women, it’s anyone who has felt trapped or been subjected to cruelty.

You have said that you have felt like a stranger for much of your life.

I was born in America, but my mother is Asian, my father is British. Hollywood was as far away as the moon when I was a kid. There has always been a feeling of displacement. But almost everyone has it. It’s part of the human condition: to feel deprived of the currents rushing around us. And that’s one of the things you can explore in fiction without being didactic or presumptuous about another person’s specific experience. And, hopefully, make a connection.

You were working as a finance and technology consultant before Hollywood called – in the middle of a presentation you were giving, right?

It was a bit of a sudden change! I’ve always loved to write, but at first trying to be a writer was impossible. I had university debts, I had financial obligations. I worked in companies, but the whole time I continued to write. Not because I expected to be a working writer, but because it made me happy.

But working in another field for 10 years before becoming a paid writer is not a waste of time. When you’re a producer, it helps to know how the money works. Everything is language. Mathematics is a language. Computing is a language. I spend a lot of time trying to be conversational as much as possible.

There was even some Pythagorean problem-solving on your film set, wasn’t there?

It was for that complicated scene where Hugh is looking at a hologram of a memory of Hugh looking at a hologram of a memory. I called him a Hugh Turducken.

Is it true that a friend introduced you to Jonathan because you had a similar verbose email writing style.

[Laughs] It’s true. We met at the premiere of “Memento”. I didn’t expect to meet my future husband on the red carpet the second I stepped on it. I was skeptical of it. Hollywood has a reputation – not entirely unjustified. But we became friends. We were correspondents for a long time.

You ended up getting married and being collaborators. I’ve seen you describe creating a fictional world together as “romantic.”

I remember when we finished the first season finale. We had built Sweetwater [the town in “Westworld”] in Santa Clarita. It was a magical thing – you could walk these streets. The world in our heads had manifested. With a child. We took a golf cart and the sun was rising in the distance. And we walked through the center of Sweetwater, with our baby in my lap.

I am obsessed with time. There is never enough, especially with the ones you love. And maybe one way to get more is to live in multiple worlds every day, to create whole new timelines and dimensions.



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