More than three years into their mega overall deal at Amazon Studios, married producing duo Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy await the Oct. 21 debut of their first Prime Video series, “The Peripheral.”
The sci-fi drama based on William Gibson’s 2014 novel of the same name was actually put into development at the streamer in April 2018, when Nolan and Joy were still under an overall deal at WarnerMedia and debuting the second season of HBO’s “Westworld.” It was ordered to series the following November, just a few months after the couple left their former home studio for a multiyear pact with Amazon.
As “The Peripheral” — which stars Chloë Grace Moretz, Gary Carr and Jack Reynor as three futuristic characters whose lives intersect in what Joy calls “the coolest video game ever” — finally premieres on Friday, the project’s release marks a transitional time for Nolan and Joy. The pair are still tied to Warner Bros. Discovery through “Westworld,” though the show is awaiting word on a fifth (and what Nolan says would definitely be final) season, and “The Peripheral” is a co-production between Warner Bros. TV and Amazon — but they’ve also just spent the summer filming the first two episodes of their adaptation of the “Fallout” video games as a series for Amazon, while plotting multiple other titles at the streamer.
Nolan and Joy sat down with Variety at the JW Marriott Essex House hotel in New York City to discuss embarking on a new future with “The Peripheral,” alongside creator and showrunner Scott B. Smith and director Vincenzo Natali, plans for concluding “Westworld” and how they’re adapting “Fallout.”
“The Peripheral” was set up prior to your Amazon deal. Where did the idea to do it come from, and why with Amazon?
Jonathan Nolan: It came from Vincenzo Natali, who we’ve worked with several times before, wonderful director. He walked into our office and said, “I’ve got my dream project.” And he had been talking to William Gibson, they have been friends for quite some time. For me, it started even earlier than that. I think I was 14 when I read “Count Zero” first, and then I worked my way back to “Neuromancer.” I was always reading nonlinearly when I was a kid, a particular foible of mine. And I just was dazzled by Gibson’s prose and his unparalleled ability to imagine worlds into existence. He’s one of the greatest American minds in science fiction.
Lisa Joy: He’s like a modern-day prophet.
Nolan: Yeah! But also able to vividly, warmly imagine these worlds and these characters. It’s astonishing to me to see how much influence his work has had. I moved to Los Angeles in ’99 and started working in film and TV, and watched as many, many films and series were influenced by Gibson’s work — but no one actually really had the guts to go back to the source, in part because his work is so imaginative, so richly detailed, so complex. But I think everyone was kind of chickenshit, honestly. And certainly his work influenced mine over and over and over again.
We’re sitting in the hotel where we shot part of the pilot for “Person of Interest,” which is my first TV series, which is very heavily influenced by Gibson’s work — that idea that our technologies get to a point where they just start to take on a life of their own. In some cases, it’s sitting invisibly underneath our world. And so when that Vincenzo came to us and said, this is something I want to do, can you help? We absolutely jumped at the prospect.
Joy: I too love Gibson, and love Vincenzo. When I first read “The Peripheral,” I found it particularly exciting because I think it’s one of his most emotional works. And not only does it have his signature prophetic kind of futurism — which in “The Peripheral” isn’t so far in the future anymore, we’re really seeing the events of “The Peripheral” play out even today — but the thing that really drew me in was the idea of Flynne Fisher and her world. And the characters in Clanton, which is just a very relatable snapshot of America. An America that you don’t always see, especially in science fiction. They live in the South in Clanton, and it’s this tight-knit community of Flynne and her family and their friends.
Nolan: Based a little bit on Gibson’s childhood. He grew up in West Virginia, and you can feel it in the book, that he is writing about his home.
Joy: It’s very warm in that way. And the future is only worth fighting for if you have something to love in the present that you want to hold onto and cherish and protect. And we see in Flynne’s world the relationships she has that make it worthwhile to rise to the level of superhero.
It being a show that takes place in the future — the real world, and the game — what did you do to create an aesthetic that would differentiate it from “Westworld?“
Joy: Just speaking first to the world of Clanton, it is the future, but it’s so immediate feeling that the touches of futurism feel like the present. Especially because William Gibson said, the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed — the idea of the future in Singapore for a very wealthy person versus somewhere else with people with less resources, there are technologies that exist that are astounding right now, they’re just unevenly distributed. So it might be the future in Clanton, but it feels very much like the present today in, say, New York. So grounding it in that moment, that’s just really accessible. Flynne Fisher’s home feels and looks a lot to me like the home I was in in New Jersey when I grew up. It’s just kind of cozy, modest. They do have a sort of Roomba device that’s next-level — but it’s just little touches like that that show appliances are a little bit different, the ways in which, say, the corner market or the 7-Eleven work is different because of printing technology. But it really feels to me like what Kmart felt like when I was a kid and we would go there for food, for clothes, for pretzels afterwards, if we were well behaved. So that’s one quote-unquote future, but to me it it feels totally current.
Nolan: Gibson spent so long living in the future and living far in the future, imagining wholly transformed cultures, for him to fix his gaze, say five minutes in the future — we started developing books a couple of years ago, and it feels like it’s right around the corner. And the most technologically advanced thing in that world are the physical vestiges of the government’s Haptic systems that Jack Reynor’s character, Burton, carries around in his body. The idea that you have parts of rural America that are being left behind, that their closest intersection with advanced technology is the people who spent their time in the military and then come home and carry these things around with them felt very acute, very smart, very in line with where things are headed. And the picture of Flynne and Burton’s community felt, when you read the book, felt almost uncanny. You’d say it’s not prophecy — it’s an inevitability at this point. This is where parts of our country and our world are headed, that feeling of a technological diaspora. You could feel their world rubbing up against this much more technologically advanced world and the pieces of it shaping where they do their shopping and how they get their groceries and their medicine. That all felt almost telepathic coming from Gibson’s book, his ability to look at that and know it.
But it also has, as Lisa said, this warmth underlying it, which we immediately responded to. A lot of Gibson’s work is set in the far future — is set in Tokyo, is set in world capitals. This one, for Lisa’s point and mine, since I grew up in suburban Illinois, reminded both of us a little bit of our childhood, as it comes from Bill [Gibson]’s childhood. So the warmth and familiarity of that, in contrast to the hyper futuristic London that Chloë’s character finds herself interacting with, the contrast was just delicious. Very, very exciting on a textural level, but also on a thematic level.
Remaining in spoiler-free territory, is there anything you want to warn book readers about that might be a deviation from “The Peripheral” book that was made for the onscreen adaptation?
Joy: I think it’s not a warning. We’re really excited that when Scott Smith, who’s a brilliant writer, and Vincenzo brought on this project, I think sometimes the best way of honoring a piece of writing that is as great as all of Gibson’s writing is is to understand, in a book form, it looks like this, and then in a series, to do it justice, certain things have to change and evolve in order to reach the same effect. Because it’s just totally different medium. And so Gibson has been really supportive and excited, honestly, about staying true to the feeling and intent of the book and those themes, while also making sure that it is presenting the best way the serialized TV format. So the departures you’ll see are almost immediate, and I don’t think that anybody should be taking the letter of the law as any kind of road map. But it feels very Gibsonian still.
Nolan: Yeah, it honors the spirit of the book. It’s a fairly close adaptation. It’s just a thrill for me, personally, to be working with and collaborating with someone whose work was so influential on mine.
How did you land on Chloë Grace Moretz and Gary Carr as your leads?
Joy: It’s really no decision — it’s just an amazing, wonderful windfall to be able to work with talents like Chloë and Gary. We’ve been fans of their works for a long time. And Chloë’s from the South and there is something so relatable and warm and yet completely badass about her. So when she slips into the role of Flynne, it feels like a second skin in some way. It just feels like, oh, there she is, there’s our Flynne. And Gary, if I had a voice from the future calling me to join it, I’d be so excited to find that it was Gary. I’d be like, hell yeah, let’s do this. This is just wish fulfillment for me how it all worked out.
Do you have a series-long plan at this point for “The Peripheral?”
Nolan: It’s a conversation from the beginning, always when we embark on these, to have a plan. You also have to have the confidence to let the plan evolve. This was a unique proposition because Bill was writing a sequel to the book as Scott was writing the first season with Greg Plageman and the rest of the writers. You have the fascinating prospect of, you start from the same point and see where the potentially divergent directions in which two terrific writers can take the same stories. We’re very excited to see the way in which the series evolves.
One of the things that Bill does with the books is he has the ability to jump around, especially given the brilliant conceit. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about time travel for different projects over the years, most notably “Interstellar” — thinking about multiple worlds and thinking about time travel, and spending a lot of time talking to physicists about it, and thought I had some pretty clever ideas about it — and then read “The Peripheral” and was like, oh shit, you nailed it. He just nailed the answer to the question of, how can you weave a narrative inside the concept of time travel, which is not exactly fitting here, somehow, because Gibson’s take on it is so throughly worked out. He just nailed how you could reconcile these things together in a way that, for me, feels completely congruent and true. The concept of time travel is inherently slippery. And it can also, potentially, work against narrative as well. You say, if you can go back and change anything, what does it matter then? Gibson nails this idea of, you can go back and change something, but that creates its own, what he calls, “stub,” a sort of pocket universe. And they’re all equally viable universes. So as a conceit for where you could take a television series, I would have to say it’s about as rich as you can possibly get with possibilities.
Joy: The other thing is, Jonah is a gaming nerd. So all this fancy talk he just did, we had kids and he had less time to game. Here’s a book where it’s like awesomest game ever. And it’s real. And just like I want to go into a future where Gary is waiting to show me London, he wants a future where he can play the coolest video game ever and then honestly just kick ass and save the world. So there’s a little something there for everyone. And in this day and age, the idea of escapism, whether it’s social media or video games, we live so much of our lives now in that space and it’s just so relatable. Life can be humdrum, and we find ways to fill our days and play roles that we wish we could have in life. And in this series and in Gibson’s book, this game is a portal to the worlds that could be and to the selves that could be. And it’s just a really fascinating transformational hero’s journey that has this classic architecture that’s difficult to resist because it’s just so compelling and so universal in its appeal.
On the seasons-long plan topic, do you see another season for “Westworld” and would that be the final season?
Nolan: We had always conceived of a fifth and final season. We’re still in conversations with the network.
Back to “Fallout,” after we just talked about one of the best games ever, when does your series take place and how much of the past will we see?
Nolan: Can’t talk about “Fallout” just yet except to say that we’re very, very excited. And we think the fans of the game will be very excited too.
That was a great answer, Jonah. Lisa, when does “Fallout” take place?
Joy: You’d have to ask the director. I like that you know I’m the weak link. He’s right here, dude. Right next to me. How helpful can I be?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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