Little more than a decade ago, Lisa Joy was a high-flying Harvard graduate at the start of a career in corporate law. Now, she’s the co-creator, writer and part-director of HBO’s acclaimed sci-fi western Westworld (with husband and creative partner Jonathan Nolan, younger brother of Christopher), and she’s just finished writing, producing and directing her first feature film, Reminiscence. Not bad for someone who hadn’t watched television or film until she went to college. “I was quite bookish growing up and I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of TV or films,” says the 44-year-old. “I really honed my sense of story more from novels. But oh boy, when I was finally allowed to watch them. I was like: ‘What have I been missing?!’ And popcorn with films – I’d never even had that!”
She’s calling from her LA office, her 100-watt smile lighting up the screen. “I did it!” she bellows when we first have sound and vision, hands aloft, thrilled that she’s managed to turn the video camera and audio on. Behind her are shelves full of books, vintage cameras, films, a clapperboard and a couple of Westworld’s gleaming Emmys. Joy is gregarious, warm, full of laughter, and frank in her explanations. “I’m very direct and very open,” she says. “I don’t do bulls***.”
It’s this no-nonsense approach that got her first feature film, Reminiscence, to the screen. A sci-fi spin on the classic film noir, it explores the nature of memory and time. And, while it may reunite Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson, the film couldn’t be further from their Greatest Showman days. Jackman is Bogart-like private investigator Nick Bannister, while Ferguson plays femme fatale Mae, who brings him a mysterious case to solve. At the thriller’s core is Bannister’s ability to transport people back in time to revisit moments from their past: an enthralling prospect when you see the film’s dystopian, near-future setting, which shows a world ravaged by climate change.
The story behind Reminiscence began not in the dizzy heights of LA, where Joy lives with her husband and their two children, but in a small stone house in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. The house was the home of Joy’s paternal grandparents (her mother is Taiwanese, her dad British). After her grandad passed away in 2013, Joy discovered a secret about him while helping to sort through his belongings in the attic.
“There was this gold plaque on the house that said ‘Suki Lynn’,” Joy recalls of her childhood visits to the UK during summers spent away from the family home in New Jersey. “I would always ask him what it meant: he just said he liked the name, he liked the words,” she explains. “After he died, I was looking through the attic and I found this faded photograph. It must have been 50 years old, and it was of this very beautiful woman. On the back, it just said ‘Suki Lynn’. It suddenly hit me in that moment that my grandad was gone and whoever this woman was to him, I would never know.”
Joy began writing Reminiscence soon after his death. “There was a story there, an entire universe of feeling which vanished with him. That whole story with Suki Lynn is gone, and whatever the relationship was, it meant something to him – to name his house after her all those years later and to keep that photo for so long,” Joy smiles, albeit tearfully. “I started to think about time, and the moments that are so precious to us: that formed the central thesis of Reminiscence. It’s a romantic notion of time and meaning and how there are all these special, beautiful moments that people long to go back to, and wouldn’t it be miraculous if they could.”
Memory has always fascinated Joy. She met her husband for the first time at the premiere of future brother-in-law Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which Jonathan wrote. On first meeting Jonathan, she told him she was envious of him having written a film about memory: she’d wanted to write one herself for years (“‘You’ve beaten me to it!’ I told him when we first met,” she laughs). Ten years later, they were married, expecting a child, and Joy was simultaneously writing Westworld and Reminiscence, the idea of memory central to each.
She had given up her law career to pursue her childhood dream of being a writer, first on Barry Sonnenfeld’s comedy series Pushing Daisies, and later on Tim Matheson’s long-running spy thriller Burn Notice, where she was the only female in the writers’ room. But being newly pregnant and getting writing jobs was a problem.
“It was very hard for me to find a job with a giant belly because for the television schedules, they worry that you will leave,” Joy says. Having already seen the patriarchal issues women face first-hand in the film industry, she decided to take matters into her own hands and write for herself. “I really wanted to work, and it actually was an amazing opportunity because I got to write whatever I wanted to for the first time. I wasn’t having to write in the voice of someone else. I wrote Reminiscence and Westworld at the same time, so it was a very fruitful, morning-sickness-filled nine months,” Joy laughs.
An extraordinary few months followed. Not only was Westworld picked up by HBO but the script for Reminiscence sparked a major Hollywood bidding war. Joy recounts the time enthusiastically and with pride before rushing away to get an embroidery she made during lockdown – one of the many hobbies she took up, she says (ukulele, guitar, painting, whittling) – and revealing her handiwork: “Take no s***,” the cross-stitched embroidery reads, which is an apt mantra for Joy.
Take, for example, her early general studio meetings when trying to get Reminiscence made. “You have to picture a very sweaty, very pregnant lady just waddling into a room,” she smiles. “The reaction I would get from people was like: ‘This is not who or what we were expecting.’” Joy says they were shocked a woman could write dark noir, action and violence. “Oftentimes they would give me these ‘compliments’ that were basically like, ‘It’s so unique for a woman to be able to write a man,’ and I’d be like, ‘Why?’” she says, mimicking the aghast look on her face at the time. “Is it so hard for a woman to imagine those lofty heights of intelligence and depth?” she adds, sardonically.
“I told them I don’t understand: men write women all the time, why can’t I write a man? I would always get offers for comedies and things with fairies – which by the way, love a good comedy, love me some fairies – but look at what I do, what I’m good at! There’s definitely a lot more to prove, a lot of the time. It’s very hard to combat some of those suppositions.”
The success of Westworld gave her leverage, but there was an issue. “When I sent out the script, I did think about doing it under a pseudonym. I thought it would get more traction if I did it under a male name. In the end, I opted not to do that, but I’ve definitely encountered a lot of bias and prejudice before in my career,” she says, adding that many still incorrectly attribute Westworld’s action-filled, violent scenes to her husband and not to her. “It shouldn’t be so subversive to make a woman a badass,” she says, citing the examples of Ferguson and Thandiwe Newton in Reminiscence. “Those characters should not be revolutionary; they’re all around us.”
Joy built her team for Reminiscence from the grass roots up to create a production in which gender diversity thrived. “I contracted around implicit bias as much as I could,” she says, explaining that the unspoken patriarchal barriers she came across as a woman in Hollywood were vast. She made sure to add herself as a producer, which meant she could eventually direct, or at least have a say in who did.
“I was able to negotiate a lot of control over the film, and I think also, when you’re a woman, it’s helpful to have some actual controls in there. I think, for me, that is one of the reasons why this film was a very indie endeavour. If I had maybe developed this another way, there might have been some thinking that maybe a man would be better at directing it, but contractually that wasn’t an option,” she says, embodying those words on her embroidery.
Now Joy is off to do more work on Westworld, with filming in full swing. What can we expect? She laughs. “It’s a new world and you’re going to see the characters in a way you’ve never seen them before,” she smiles coyly, explaining, in a non-bulls*** way, that she’s not going to give anything else away. What she does say is that she’s busy on two more projects: a new drama with her husband, Peripheral (based on William Gibson’s novel), which Jonathan is currently shooting in London; and another action-filled companion piece to Reminiscence.
After that, time for a rest, she says. “As soon as Reminiscence comes out, I’m planning on going on a nerdy road trip by myself with just my laptop, and writing some more. That’s where I feel most free and safe and most about myself.” Then, she’s returning to England – to her father’s roots in Yorkshire. “A trip up North. I always find it quite peaceful there, you know. There’s a little teashop and a boat on the little river. I want a tea and scone there... there’s always lots of happy memories there.”
‘Reminiscence’ is out in UK cinemas on Wednesday, 18 August
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