'Westworld' Director Vincenzo Natali on Episode 4's Secretive Filming Process

westworld Vincenzo Natali

This post contains spoilers through the fourth episode of Westworld, "Dissonance Theory." Head to our Westworld show hub for more reviews, theories, and deep dives.

If Vincenzo Natali hadn't been tapped to direct an episode of Westworld, he'd be tuning into the compelling robot drama just like the rest of us. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy's HBO series builds off the same classic sci-fi foundation as the cult Natali movies CubeCypher, and Splice, so he was an obvious candidate to helm an installment of Westworld. During a recent phone call with Thrillist, Natali dove deep into the show's trippy fourth episode, "Dissonance Theory," and answered burning questions big and small.

How does directing a single episode in a season-long arc work?
Vincenzo Natali: I [think] the best work by directors is always the work that reflects their personality and where they imprinted their vision on it as much as they could. That is my approach to episodic work, which I've done a fair amount of recently. It's a fairly eclectic group of shows I've worked on. I genuinely approach them like they're my movies. I try to put as much of myself into them without every hopefully contradicting the overall style of the show. Westworld was actually a very easy fit for me because it falls right into my interest of the kind of science fiction I really like. Jonathan and Lisa are wonderful bosses to work for and encouraged me to just do whatever I wanted, so it was great.

How did you imprint on "Dissonance Theory"?
Natali: Overall I feel like the show is highly existential. It feels like a Pirandello play as much as it is a Western science-fiction story, all about the nature of existence and why we are here and how we form our identities and how we negotiate our way through this maze called life. There are a lot of other things going on in this show, but that's the umbrella theme.

Then, for my specific episode, it was primarily about the Maeve character beginning to have some sense of awareness of her situation. And it was, I thought when I read the script, quite subjectively written, so I made a point of trying to get inside her head, and there's certain sequences that are shot in a highly subjective way and border on [being] dreamlike. So that's where I began, and then overall I just felt like this show had a really interesting mixture of heavy ideas, but also it's very visceral. I would call it Stanley Kubrick meets Sam Peckinpah.

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You can see that in the show.
Natali: Those two filmmakers actually worked on very similar ideas in their own individual ways. Kubrick had a very omniscient point of view, and Peckinpah had much more of a grunt's point of view on the ground, but they both were fascinated by violence. I think the show is very much about the violence that is in every human being, and so there's a nice push and pull between those two perspectives. One is subjective, one is very objective. One is a godly point of view, one is a view of a mere mortal in the midst of the muck and the mire. So in a fun way, I feel like the show jumps from both perspectives, and I tried to make that part of my approach as well.

Are there rules for incoming Westworld directors based on the show's internal logic? I thought about that during the Dolores and Bernard scenes. The subtlest move could be a violation.
Natali: Yes, and for the actors, too. In that scene, for instance, we shot it a couple of ways to give different nuances to her lines, and to give some options in the edit room as to how self-aware and emotional she is at different points in that dialogue. Those sort of questions of cognition and so on are coming up all the time. Sometimes we'd have answers. Sometimes we wouldn't. One definitely feels like one's in a big puzzle box, and I have to tell you, as somebody who has worked on the show, I didn't have all the pieces of the puzzle. I knew certain things, but it was highly secretive, so I was a bit like a rat in the maze, too.

This episode seems to play with time in an interesting way, especially with Dolores' arc. How do you make sure that tracks while still keeping the action hallucinatory?
Natali: Like I said, I wasn't given the big picture, so to some degree I'm just playing a guessing game in terms of how I approach some of this stuff. I didn't quite know where it's all leading. But I was definitely tasked with finding a way to get inside the hosts' heads and to present things through their eyes. I actually referenced a film to Jonathan that, I learned later, he really wanted to remake at one point [because] he loves it: Seconds, a film by John Frankenheimer with Rock Hudson. There's a lot of highly subjective, dreamy, distorted stuff that's going on that felt very appropriate, and even some of the art direction in that film is vaguely reminiscent of the Delos Labs. So that was a touchstone for me. Then I just have my own little bag of tricks [laughs].

I think for time reasons, mostly, they took out a number of things that I had done where I tried to blur the line between what's happening now and what's happened in the past. It's funny when you're working on a science-fiction show to think about Ingmar Bergman all the time, or Fellini, where reality and subjective-dream reality become fused into one thing. That was really fun. As a director, of course, that's a really ambitious opportunity to get into that stuff.

william and dolores episode 4 westworld

Did the episode change when Jonathan and Lisa began piecing together later episodes?
Natali: Yeah, what's interesting about doing television, and kind of liberating in a way, is that things get moved around. I'm always thinking about transitions. To me, transitions are a big part of my job. How do I step from one place to another? And what am I saying narratively to the audience? And how am I surprising them, and drawing them in in unexpected ways?

Very often I will submit my cut and then I will watch the finished show and everything has been moved around. It's just the nature of the beast. The shows evolve, and I certainly know with Westworld it evolved in various ways as they were writing it and shooting it. It's like film school because when someone else plays with my materials, sometimes I'm dissatisfied, but sometimes I'm impressed and I learn something from it. TV is pleasurable because you vicariously are dropped into this playground and you get to do all kinds of things, and then you go away and then you see what someone else would do with it. That is not my experience as a filmmaker because with my own films, I've always had final [say], so no one else tinkers with my stuff. I think it's a very healthy thing to be tinkered with now and then, in a constructive, friendly way.

"Dissonance Theory" gave you two big shootout moments to direct.
Natali: It did! Unfortunately, they cut a big chunk out of one of my shootouts [the one at the watering hole]. I really love Sam Peckinpah's stuff, and that was very, very, very consciously aping him.

How tied down were you to the Sweetwater shootout that Jonathan staged in the first episode? Technically the two are very similar.
Natali: The Sweetwater one was interesting because, yeah, I got to revisit it. I saw Jonathan's pilot, which was amazing, and then we are re-entering that same scenario from a slightly different perspective and with a few additional ingredients. There's actually a meta thing about this whole show, but there was a meta aspect to directing it, too, because I was having to recreate something that had already been shot. It was fun mixing and matching my footage with what had already been shot. Because of time reasons, I tried to limit the amount of footage I was shooting. I reused a lot of Jonathan's stuff, which was great, too. It was actually fun trying to gently caress my own shots into something he had established.

man in black and lawrence westworld episode 4

How would you compare working under Jonathan and Lisa's meticulous process with someone like Bryan Fuller, with whom you've worked on Hannibal, American Gods, and now the new Star Trek Discovery series?
Natali: I've been really lucky to work with some extraordinary writers and writer-directors, and I think there's actually a lot of shared interest between them. I know that Lisa had worked with Bryan Fuller on Pushing Daisies. They all know each other. In fact, I'm sure that's why I got the job on Westworld, because of Bryan. It's all interconnected. But in both cases I would say I'm very strongly encouraged to go out on a limb and push the medium and do anything but what's traditionally accepted as television.

I think that Jonathan and Lisa are making a very long movie. The bar is extremely high for everybody working on this show, and I think, based on what I've seen thus far, it's reflective in the results. It's a lovely combination of being encouraged to go as far as you can go, but being allowed to do so with total creative freedom. I didn't get a single directorial note from them. Jonathan did come on set a couple times. When they were present, they were there to be encouraging and to challenge.

Is there a particular scene that is particularly un-television-like?
Natali: Nothing we shot is like television. We shot on 35mm film! It was really wonderful. I felt like I was making a big movie because, in the old-fashioned way, everything is treated as though it's going to be on 3,000 screens.

Does your involvement with Star Trek Discovery mean that show is stepping up its production-value game? What's your role on it?
Natali: I have this bizarre job called director/producer or producer/director, which changes based on the person [you ask]. I'm a creative. I'm one cog in the machine. But yeah, it's fun. Bryan is like the Tolstoy of Star Trek. He's creating a great novel. That's what this show is going to be. And the challenge with all these things is... they're not just television. They are just long movies.

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Matt Patches is a senior editor at Thrillist. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, and Vulture. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.