“Identity is What You’re Brave Enough To Be Despite What Everybody Says You Are”: The Peripheral’s Lisa Joy

&ASIAN chats with acclaimed producer-writer Lisa Joy Nolan on embracing her inner child, moving from Westworld to The Peripheral, and creating impactful Sci-Fi.
Lisa Joy, JJ Feild, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gary Carr, Charlotte Riley, Vincenzo Natali and Jack Reynor attend The Peripheral Special Screening in London. Photo: Andrew Timms/Prime Video.
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“Identity is What You’re Brave Enough To Be Despite What Everybody Says You Are”: The Peripheral’s Lisa Joy

Hi Lisa! For our readers at &ASIAN, can you describe what identity means for you?

The identity that matters is the identity that you believe yourself to be internally. [This] can be a mix of race and gender and cultural ideas; the way you feel and love, the amount of passion you have, or intellectualism. Our identity is this very complicated mosaic of so many factors. I think ideally that’s what identity should be – the embracing of those things – but it’s also something that is imposed upon other people. People can have identities ascribed to them, assumptions based upon race, gender, socioeconomic status, [and] country of origin. When the majority of society has a pervasive lens through which they look at you – especially if you're a minority – their view can become very stifling. Trying to figure out who you are requires strength, clarity, and it’s constantly being renegotiated in time. And if society is going against you, pressing you in different directions and sort of bending its own will, it can be harder to carve your own path. 

Identity is what you are; it's also what you're brave and strong enough to be despite what everybody else says you are.

In the words of Westworld, what would you consider the cornerstones of your identity?

I feel like my identity is a bit of an outsider and a child at times. There are so many aspects that go into me: I am a woman, I am Asian, I'm first-generation, multiracial, from New Jersey. Because society tends to marginalize a lot of women and Asians, [they] aren't represented in my line of work, [which] can be very striking. It's something that I embraced about myself and the way in which I view the world; it's also the reason why I talk about being like a child.

I have the sense of wonderment that people who feel displaced in culture have. I didn't grow up eating the same food, wearing the same things, [speaking] the same language at home, or looking the same as the people around me; so you feel estranged from the tide of society sometimes and yet you're a part of it. America is made up of so many people who feel the same way. I think that sense of displacement has been an incredible gift, because I see the world like, “Wait— I'm trying to figure it out on my own terms from a specific and kind of distanced lens.” That [has] very much impacted my work, like if you look at how [the] artificial intelligence was trying to figure out who she is and where she fits in society, there's something innocent about that or in The Peripheral, where a young woman enters a game to try to see who she could be. All of these [examples] are people displaced from time or society who are searching to find meaning, purpose, and a sense of belonging.

Can you talk a bit about the defining challenges of your career, and how you claim ownership over all you’ve achieved?

The challenges have changed over time. I do think that if you're in any way a minority or not what they expect in the room, you’re very much swimming against the tide of a thousand perceptions that existed before you’ve said anything. I think it's supposed to be a compliment when people say, “Oh, you're good at action and you can write men!” But for me, it's sort of a dubious compliment, because I don't understand why it would be assumed that I couldn't. I used to work in business and because I'm Asian, they assumed that I'd be very shy and socially awkward. There are just all these things, that even with evidence to the contrary, the prevailing winds just blow people back to these basic assumptions and you have to keep proving yourself over and over again. And for some people, that proof will never stick. I think the challenge has been understanding when that's the case, because there are some people that you don't have to prove yourself to. You don't have to exhaust yourself trying to counter their preconceived notions of your identity— you can just do the work itself. Frankly, the work itself is hard and complicated enough, the more energy I spend on that, then the less energy I [have] to spend on dispelling myths about who I'm supposed to be. 

Early in my career, especially in genres where there were not a lot of women, I was often the only woman in the room. When you encounter a lot of cynicism – and sometimes hostility and sexism – it can really undermine your confidence and kind of make you want to give up. Entertainment itself is so subjective that there is no right answer; it is judged on a lens that is dictated by the leaders of that industry. Sometimes they're not going to like what you do, it doesn't mean it's wrong, [but] it just means it’s not for them. Finding peace with that and feeling comfortable in your own voice is something that is continuously challenging. It's also kind of impossible to write anything good that you don't believe in, so there's really only one way to do it: it's to take that leap of faith in yourself.

Gary Carr (Wilf Netherton), Chloë Grace Moretz (Flynne Fisher). Photo: Sophie Mutevelian/Prime Video

Sci-Fi often challenges the viewers’ beliefs and value systems. This quality can suffer from film/tv metric systems that determine series’ renewals and continuation. How does the industry’s methods of gauging value need to change in order to keep producing influential and undiluted Sci-Fi?

It's really tricky no matter what you do. If you're doing something from a new or [from a] different perspective, it won't always be commercially successful. In Sci-Fi, some of the most beloved and iconic films were panned in their day; they weren't understood and appreciated. It's really hard to judge something in the moment, especially when it's science fiction. How can the industry embrace that? Coming from a business background, I have a certain amount of skepticism about the market system and how it works sometimes. The rule is that you're supposed to always be creating value for shareholders, but that’s a little bit like a game that can be manipulated for short-term versus long-term gain.

I used to do financial valuations of companies and you realize all the different variables that go into it don't necessarily reflect the quality of the product itself; whether that product is a car, a piece of art, or whatever. The market valuations are not always fair, but they are what keep people employed. I don't know how to change that system; all I know is that the more outsiders you have telling stories and trying, statistically something will hit. In my position as a producer, I'm always looking for new talent from diverse backgrounds, because they have stories that I couldn’t tell. I think part of a full life is absorbing content, art, and experiences. I don't understand what else the purpose of life is, if not to experience this strange blip [of] consciousness that we've been endowed with, and to soak up as much of the strange world that we can. I literally think one of the coolest things you can do as a human is to just listen to the world as it kind of whispers to you.

Moving on from Westworld to The Peripheral, is there a big difference between working from original material versus a book adaptation? How do you also maintain the balance between staying true to the script versus the unforeseeable variables of production and directing?

When you're in production, things happen all the time. You just have to adapt and occasionally rewrite to meet the exigencies of the circumstances. In terms of adapting William Gibson's [novel], the first thing that's important is that I'm a huge fan of his, so I wanted to do justice to it. I think the first way I honoured that was by hiring Scott Smith, who's such an incredible writer to adapt the book. He's also from the South as is Gibson, so I think they share that kind of understanding of what it's like in Clanton for Flynne (played by Chloë Grace Moretz). 

Novels and TV shows [are] just different forms which require different content to engage the audience. The series doesn't start the exact same way as the book, but that doesn't mean we won't get to some of the things that we have skipped. You [will] get to them when it's organically the right moment. The characters’ journeys bring you there, hopefully in a way that honours the author's original intent— which I think we've been very careful to do. Gibson has been really happy with this series, which is wonderful for me.

Westworld and The Peripheral have [some of] the most sublime world building. What was the process of location, production, and costume design like to make this the future of your imagination?

Well, I would hasten to point out that it's not just my imagination: it starts with William Gibson, who's always been such a visionary in terms of imagining what the future would look like. [Director] Vincenzo Natali is such an artist— I worked with him on Westworld and he's incredible. Scott Smith, who wrote the scripts, managed to translate Gibson to the screen; not necessarily in a literal way, but in a way that Gibson adores. The most complimentary thing I think you can say to a writer is, “I loved your world so much I lived in it, extended it, and lived by its rules.” I think that's what Scott is doing and those rules extend to the aesthetic.

There's a sort of scientific basis to the architecture that [Production Designer] Jan Roelfs designs for The Peripheral where you imagine the new technologies that might exist. Suddenly, the brutalist minimalism that marks this generation might be out of vogue because you can do these Rococo crazy-detailed sculptural pieces that change the very landscape of the sky. The future in this telling isn't one that's congested and packed like some of the other iconic films of the past, but it's one that's been bowed by loss. There are fewer people and the world looks different, but it has its own beauty. At Kilter Films [Jonathan and Lisa Joy Nolan’s production studio], we've always prioritized filming things practically: we went to Utah, Singapore, and Europe for Westworld. For The Peripheral we've shot in London and in the South. There is a quality to filming things practically and the experience of the cast and crew engaging with an existing landscape is really special. By taking that as a template our longtime collaborator, Jay [Worth], adds visual effects to it and builds selectively, so that we can afford to make these giant landscapes on a TV budget.

T’Nia Miller (Cherise Nuland). Photo: Sophie Mutevelian/Prime Video

Historically, a lot of iconic Sci-Fi production design has used a heavily techno-orientalist approach. As an Asian Sci-Fi creator, I’m curious to know what are your thoughts on this conceptual method?

I think that there's different ways of looking at it: Blade Runner (1982) came out and it was really new. It was positing a world that's more of a melting pot, then it became de rigueur “the future looks Asian.” I mean, Blade Runner (1982) was beautiful and wonderfully executed, so I understand why so many people gravitate towards that aesthetic. I don't necessarily think that's even the right or accurate depiction of what Asian countries look like; they evolve as well and they aren't all congested and full of neon lights and things like that. The world is becoming increasingly global [and] there's no one “oriental” aesthetic.

I grew up between America, England, and Asia. I think that the aesthetics I experienced there have stayed with me. When I was a kid, I used to go to night markets. I remember fishing for goldfish [and] then getting all this delicious food— there was nothing [as] enchanting as that. Or going to a floating market; the lantern festival is one of the most remarkable things a child could ever witness and some of those things make their way into my work. For Reminiscence, I borrowed from the idea of night markets because I loved them so much and floating markets because Miami is sinking. It's just trying to be realistic about the cross-pollination of culture and instead of feeling like you're repeating what's been done before, it's about imagining where we might likely go and how some of the most beautiful influences and aesthetics of all cultures will hopefully endure.

One of our &ASIAN team members had the chance to work as crew for The Peripheral and they were really pleased to note the strong diversity of the cast and crew. Could you share some of the efforts that were put in to make this happen?

First and foremost, it's what feels realistic and interesting to me. I like my science fiction to be as grounded as possible, so that we can relate to it. The truth is: the world is full of people of many diverse backgrounds and descriptions, so part of the ethos [when] we shoot is to reflect that in our work with casting and behind the camera. You go into casting, keep an open mind, and don’t have this really set mindset of, “Oh, this leading actor should look like this and the villain should look like this.” Those kinds of assumptions favor the status quo, which is honestly predominantly white with maybe a token something here or there. That's really limiting what you can get out there in terms of talent. People come in and knock your socks off. Then all of a sudden you start to see the character in a completely different way and it broadens the work itself. But you wouldn't get that experience or that lesson if you limited casting to a really narrow spectrum. 

To me, it's just a logical way of getting the most talent there is. It's not like this selfless thing where I'm trying to cast diversity; their talents benefit me and so it's I who is indebted to them.

The Peripheral is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, with new episodes released every Friday.

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