In her first writers’ room, Lisa Joy was politely pulled aside and told she didn’t need to work so hard. After all, born in New Jersey to British-Taiwanese parents, she was just a diversity hire.
The experience did little to stifle Joy’s ambitions or work ethic. In 2013, while expecting her first child, she wrote the screenplay for “Reminiscence,” a tech-noir thriller, and began developing the cerebral sci-fi “Westworld” for HBO with her husband, the “Memento” screenwriter Jonathan Nolan.
After three seasons of the show — the fourth is on the way — Joy stepped up to direct “Reminiscence” herself. In the film, debuting Aug. 20 on HBO Max and in theaters, Hugh Jackman plays a private investigator who taps into clients’ memories but becomes torturously fixated on his own. It’s a story about the pull of the past set in the future, in a Miami that has succumbed to rising waters and is populated by people who have turned nocturnal to escape the searing heat of the day.
In a recent video call, Joy spoke from her office in Los Angeles about being a perpetual outsider, current events imitating science fiction, and her partnership with Nolan. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
You wrote “Reminiscence” while pregnant. It does feel like the work of someone at a turning point — looking back while looking ahead.
My main goal was to write something that entertained me while I was puking with morning sickness! Certainly it was a very dramatic moment. My husband was working a lot, I was at home with the dogs. I had a lot of time to contemplate my life. At the same time, my grandfather passed away. So there was loss as well as new beginnings. Sorting through his belongings was what really started my meditation on loss, and memory, and the way our memories start to fade.
Looking at the level of detail in your screenplay, I wonder if to some extent you had mentally directed it already?
When I write, I imagine the characters talking, I design the room, I block the scene in my head. I kind of transcribe the movie I’m already looking at. So when other directors were pitching their ideas, I realized that none of the visions aligned with my own. I wanted it to have the spirit of an independent film, to take some more risks, tell a story that wasn’t in a clear genre.
And Hugh Jackman in the lead role?
The second I even contemplated directing it, I knew Hugh was the right leading man. 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 soulfulness. And he can also kick a lot of ass.
A lot of ass-kicking along with a lot of mind-bending.
And romance. I wanted to have all those elements in the film. Because life is like that. The polarity of film is frustrating for me. “This is an art-house film. This is a popcorn film.” I think that underestimates audiences.
You started out writing in comedy, on the series “Pushing Daisies.” When did you feel the gravitational pull toward science fiction?
I’ve always liked stories that tackle great, big timeless themes. It’s just where my curiosity took me. When I first went around trying to pitch “Reminiscence” — I was heavily pregnant — people would look at me and think, what the hell is wrong with you? Why are you writing this mysterious, dark, violent, sexy thing? Do a rom-com! People didn’t expect me to do huge, ambitious, world-building things as a junior writer.
Why set the film at some unspecified time in the future?
Stories are more universal when you don’t stick a pin in it. And when I first started contemplating this world, it was nothing like the world we live in now. I didn’t think reality would catch up to science fiction so quickly. And then, right about when the trailer dropped, there were photos of the walls they’re building in Miami. I think it was the front page of The New York Times. They looked exactly like our set designs. There are also scenes of upheaval and rioting in the streets in the movie, and political and socioeconomic unrest. There was a moment when people were like, this is too far-fetched. And then the next week riots broke out.
“Westworld” premiered around the time of #MeToo, and the treatment of the androids in the show seemed to speak to that movement. Were you conscious of drawing on your own experiences in the industry?
None of my work is explicitly confessional, but at the same time, we are who we are. I had just come off a staff that was all-male [USA’s “Burn Notice”]. I wanted to take back my story in the only way I knew how. Which was to write.
It’s not like I have some gift of prophecy. We live in this world. And we need to find a way to survive it. For me, acknowledging the cage you’re within is a way to break out of it. And it’s not just women — it’s anyone who’s felt trapped or been subjected to cruelty.
You’ve said you’ve felt like an outsider for much of your life.
I was born in America, but my mom is Asian, my dad is British. Hollywood was as far away as the moon when I was a kid. There’s always been a feeling of displacement. But almost everybody has that. That’s part of the human condition: to feel bereft from the currents rushing around us. And it’s one of the things that you can explore in fiction without being didactic or presumptuous about another person’s specific experience. And hopefully form a connection.
You were working as a consultant in finance and tech before Hollywood called — in the middle of a presentation you were giving, is that right?
It was kind of an abrupt change! I’ve always loved writing, but in the beginning, trying to be a writer was impossible. I had college debt, I had financial obligations. I worked in corporate jobs, but the whole time, I kept writing. Not because I had any expectation of being a working writer, but because it made me happy.
But working in another field for 10 years before becoming a paid writer — that’s not wasted time. When you’re a producer, it helps to be able to know how money works. Everything is a language. Math is a language. Computer science is a language. I spend a lot of time trying to be conversational in as many as possible.
There was even some Pythagorean problem-solving on your film set, wasn’t there?
It was for this complicated scene where Hugh is looking at a hologram of a memory of Hugh looking at a hologram of a memory. I called it a Hugh turducken.
Is it true 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 him. Hollywood has a reputation — not entirely unwarranted. But we became friends. We were pen pals for a long time.
You ended up married and being collaborators. I’ve seen you describe creating a fictional world together as “romantic.”
I remember when we wrapped the finale of the first season. We had built Sweetwater [the town in “Westworld”] in Santa Clarita. It was a magical thing — you could walk those streets. The world in our head had manifested. Along with a child. We took a golf cart, and the sun was rising in the distance. And we drove through the center of Sweetwater, with our baby on my lap.
I am obsessed with time. There’s never enough of it, especially with the ones you love. And maybe one way to have more of it is to live in multiple worlds every day, to create whole new timelines and dimensions.
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