This Friday, Warner Bros. will be releasing Reminiscence, an original high-concept, sci-fi film noir, in theaters and on HBO Max. In a world where IP reigns supreme, to have a non-franchise, non-sequel get such a wide release is almost unheard of nowadays. The only person in recent memory who has been able to open an original blockbuster is Christopher Nolan. But, as Reminiscence points out, we can’t always rely on memory. What matters is the here and now, and right now is Lisa Joy’s time. If anyone can successfully tell a high concept sci-fi story, I’ll put my money on the co-creator of Westworld — who just so happens to be Nolan’s sister-in-law.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Congratulations on Reminiscence! I’m a big fan of yours, big fan of Westworld, and it’s just great to see you expand from an HBO show to your own fully fledged big screen debut. Can you talk about the origins of this particular story and why you wanted to tell it?
JOY: I wrote it when I was unemployed, and had nothing else to do because I got pregnant, and it was hard to get staffed. I have always been really interested in memory and the idea of it, but it was an especially poignant moment in my life, because my grandfather died in England, and I was going to his house and going through his belongings and found an old picture of this woman that had a crush on him. I started to think about memory and the way time works, and how there are these moments that we cherish in life that all of us have, you know, that we revisit again and again in our mind. But it’s never quite the same as we’re always twisting the narrative or embellishing it — even if you don’t mean to — and it gets hazy over time. I thought, how sad is it to lose that memory, to have it degrade over time until it’s only a fiction. And then nothing happens. But if you could go back to it. And that’s where the idea of the Reminiscence machine came from, and then let’s just try to shift from there.
Thematically Westworld and Reminiscence both deal with this future world where technology is the conduit through which we access our reveries and our memories. Can you talk about why those particular themes of technology and memory resonate so much with you? They’re kind of at the core of your two most prominent works at the moment.
That memory is something that deeply influences who we are as human beings, you know, it is very much a marker of our humanity and the way we view the world and each other.
So in Westworld, I’m exploring what it is to be human through the eyes of an artificial intelligence. And then in Reminiscence, I’m really trying to understand what it is to be human through the flawed objective lens of actual humans. And for me, the theme is that everybody has these touch points in our lives, you know, in terms of loss, desire, they all involve memory. Because our idea of something or experience of something last literally a millisecond, and then we carry it and package it with us in this capsule that is easier for us to bring through time and that capsule is the font of the story we tell about our lives. And that story, as we progress can become more and more unreliable. When you get years and years and different experiences, attached to it. And so, the story of our lives might be a fiction, but it’s a fiction that’s very telling of the kind of people we are.
What I find fascinating too is that, like, it’s also a commentary on the world we live in now. You and I are old enough to remember a time before the internet and Instagram. My family and I joke all the time that if we don’t take a photo and put it in our album, are we even going to remember this vacation we’re on, you know what I mean?
I think that’s absolutely true.
Technology has come to a point where without it, it’s hard to have those memories even. I mean, that machine that Hugh uses is something that I would love to have to be able to project my memories onto a screen because, at my age, I can’t remember anything!
You know I spent a lot of time thinking about how we experience memory for this film. There’s a whole section about how we tend to experience it from a third party perspective, right. I [actually] did that experiment that Hugh does to Rebecca on a bunch of people, and everybody ended up experiencing it that way, if the memory went on long enough. Which means that it’s also proof that memory is false because we aren’t doing a first person recall, we’re doing a third person recall which isn’t possible if you were doing your own memory! Then the other thing that’s really fascinating is the works of Gerhard Richter the painter really informed some of the designs of the machine in a way that the pixelation kind of flows like water color into existence.
Because if I asked you to picture, say, your wife. Really picture, like, tune in her face and imagine the freckles and the tiniest details. It becomes easier to hold the image in your head if you remember a photograph, instead of a person right in your life. It’s almost like photographs help compress [the memory] in a two-dimensional form. It’s easier for us because it has less megabytes of memory that we need to store and recall, you know, full detail when you rely on the motion picture of your own brain. And it’s so scary to me that somebody whose face you see every day, you can’t hold on to. My mother-in-law once said being a widow is horrible because you lose someone twice — you lose them first when they die, and then you lose them again as the memories fade.
That to me is a real tragedy that we wouldn’t have if the Reminiscence machine was real.
Yeah, that’s like how Star Trek kind of predicted some of the technologies we use today. It would be nice if this technology comes to fruition. Like you mentioned earlier, sometimes when we remember something, do we remember it happening or are we remembering the photo in our album of that event?
Or the story we tell ourselves?
Exactly! Moving on, I was fortunate enough a few days ago to talk with Daniel Wu about playing Saint Joe and how I run a podcast called Southern Fried Asian as an Asian American who grew up in the south. It’s a story that isn’t told often and characters like Saint Joe — characters that are Asian American and also Southern — are rare in Hollywood and just narrative fiction, writ large. Can you talk about the creation of Saint Joe and why it was important to have such an Asian American character in your film?
Yeah, I tried very hard to take a trope, and then look underneath it and see the beating heart of the character who’s more complex than simply “hero” or “Femme Fatale,” or whatever. And one of the people that was very important to me was Saint Joe, you know the ostensible villain. And one of the things that I was thinking about was how can you define good and evil in absolutes when people have such subjective and different experiences? So you can take the experience of being an American — and if you happen to be an Asian American, you will experience a very different world than another kind of American, you know.
I wanted to explore that form of being in the world. Again it’s science fiction but the internment wasn’t science fiction, that happened. And in times of duress and war and sparsity of resources and fear, minorities tend to be the first ones to suddenly find themselves without the protection of the law. And so in examining the future where climate change is a real problem, it wasn’t hard to extrapolate that the law might abandon certain Americans first. And if the law abandons you, then what loyalty should you have to it? What does it matter if you live outside the law if the law has decided to forsake you?
Is that evil, or is that just common sense? That’s the question that I’m trying to bring to the fore here. And with Daniel, it was just great to speak in that kind of English, you know, the kind of English [mixed with Chinese] that I spoke as a kid. I mean, we would talk about flattening the tone, doing the pinyin kind of wrong, kind of just assimilated more into the flat tones of the English language. [Daniel] brought the idea of “well if I was interned in New Orleans, then I’m going to do this southern accent.” As a director you never want to say, “can you do this accent” because an actor will always be like, “sure!” Sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t. But Daniel is just so meticulous and studied in his approach, and he knew how important it was to make a character that was strong and compelling and sexy for this role, and he just brought it all and it was incredible.
I mean there’s something subversive about that because, to your point, typically if a director is asking an actor — especially an Asian actor — to bring an accent, we all know what that’s code for. But the accent he brings is this southern Louisiana accent that he picked up when he was shooting Into the Badlands.
And he’s got such a great voice too. That kind of like low sexy. It’s just fantastic to see him.
I can’t wait for people to see that fight scene with the eels. That was one of my favorite scenes in the film.
It was one of my favorites as well. Doing that the first week was the one I was most looking forward to. And it’s so fun getting Daniel’s costume ready by the way.
What costume?! He’s usually shirtless!
Yeah, it’s like, no shirt. You know, every Asian woman tends to get over-sexualized in American film and Asian men tend to get neutered. It’s gross either way.
Yeah, for sure. And he mentioned how important that was to kind of, again, he may be the villain but he’s, as you said just now, he’s still portrayed in this complex way that that subverts and upends the traditional Asian villain stereotype.
Absolutely, and that has a deep humanity like by the end of the scene with him and [Thandiwe Newton’s character] Watts, like they understand they have to be pitted against each other right now but the war has never been to treat people like us.
I know that you directed episodes on Westworld but was there any pressure having your first feature be this huge multi-million dollar Warner Bros. movie? Or did you kind of just put that out of your mind since this has been a passion project for you?
When I’m directing, when I’m working, this is my favorite state of being, honestly, because it has nothing to do with me. I don’t hear the rest of the world. The only people I have here are my collaborators and the ideas, and it’s great because it’s so intimate and it’s so pure. I get to be exactly who I am when I’m working, you know? It’s this part [doing press], honestly, that’s really scary. Again, the people whose opinions matter the most to me are people like Daniel and Hugh and Thandiwe and my incredible crew who works like crazy for me, who works harder for me than I think they would do on other movies because they knew what I was up against, you know, and that’s why I feel pressure and worry about honoring my cast and crew and their contributions.
Reminiscence opens in theaters and on HBO Max this Friday, August 20. For a special sneak peek at Daniel Wu as Saint Joe, check out the clip below from Lisa herself!