"Westworld" is a futuristic drama about artificial intelligence gone astray and human nature run amok. It's about a resort where humans can go to live out their Wild West fantasies, interacting with robots that are indistinguishable from people.
It's on the cutting edge of technology. It's dark and violent. And large portions of the 10-part HBO series that premieres Sunday were filmed in the most iconic of movie Westerns locations — southern Utah. Specifically, Castle Valley.
"I was born in this country, but I lived the first years of my life in England, which does not have any places that look like Utah," said writer/director Jonathan Nolan with a smile. "So every chance I got, I would take a road trip. And America is incredibly beautiful. So many places to look at.
"But the place that I always was drawn back to was southern Utah. It has these landscapes that don't look like anywhere else on the face of the planet."
And that was always in the back of his mind, although his career did not take him in the direction of Westerns. With his older brother, Christopher, he wrote the screenplays for "The Dark Knight," "The Dark Knight Rises," "Interstellar" and "The Prestige." He was the creator/executive producer of the series "Person of Interest," which just wrapped up a five-season run on CBS.
When J.J. Abrams approached him with the idea of re-imagining the 1973 film "Westworld" as a series, Nolan knew where he wanted to film it.
"We went to that classic, iconic sense of the John Ford Western," he said. "That geography is exquisitely, exclusively American."
Ford's classic Westerns, including "Stagecoach" (1939), "My Darling Clementine" (1957) and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962) — were shot largely in Monument Valley, which became synonymous with the film image of the American West.
"John Ford made Monument Valley famous with his films," Nolan said. "But his last four films were shot in Castle Valley, east of Moab, which is where we went back to for 'Westworld.' It's an incredibly beautiful place."
And the cinematography in "Westworld" is spectacular, taking full advantage of the scenery.
"It was definitely like being transported back into time," said James Marsden, who stars as Teddy Flood — a new arrival in town. "We get to shoot in some places in Utah where some great John Wayne Westerns were shot. They just lent themselves to these epic, wonderful helicopter shots that felt like a John Ford film. It was exciting."
"Westworld" was also filmed at several locations in the Southern California; on soundstages; on the backlots at Warner Bros. and Universal; in Santa Clarita; and on the Paramount Ranch in Agoura.
But there's no way to mock up the vistas in Castle Valley. Shooting there wasn't just like stepping back into old-time Hollywood, it was like stepping back into the Old West.
"There's nothing like it anywhere else," said Ed Harris, who stars as The Man In Black, a mysterious figure whose background is only hinted at in the first four "Westworld" episodes. "It's a place you can never forget.
"We shot 'Riders of the Purple Sage' there back in the mid-'90s," Harris said. "Right in that same area in Canyonlands — a classic Zane Grey Western. So it was nice being back there."
The location lent an air of authenticity to a narrative that is "a Western that is actually a synthetic Western set in the future," as Nolan describes it. Although where and when, exactly, this is happening is unclear — by design.
"We tease a little bit along the way," Nolan said, "but we really wanted to strand the viewers in that limited understanding of where this place is. We very much want the viewers to be asking those questions."
The original "Westworld" — the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton — was about robots going haywire and killing humans. In HBO's re-imagined "Westworld," it's about robots becoming self-aware, and about the behavior of humans who can discard all their inhibitions. The guests at Westworld can live out their violent fantasies — including their sadistic sexual fantasies — with artificial humans that are indistinguishable from the real things.
"Like any technological advancement, it's a double-edged sword," said Evan Rachel Wood, who stars as host Doloras Abernathy.
The guests "can indulge in any whim, no matter how noble or dark, that they want, and, apparently, without consequence," Nolan said. "That's a fascinating premise, as well. Who are we when the lights are off? Who are we when we don't think anyone's keeping score?"
The new "Westworld" is designed as "an examination of human nature from within and also from without," said Joy.
And it's playing out on a stage that includes the magnificent landscapes of southern Utah.
"Shooting there, it honestly felt a little bit like I was actually getting to be a guest at Westworld," Marsden said. "I got to full-on don the suit and the hat and practice with the gun and ride the horses, and it was all very real.
"As an actor, it was one of the best things about what I do," he continued, "I get to fulfill these 8-year-old child fantasies."