Westworld can be a complicated show, and not just for us viewers. When the show's director of photography John Grillo got the scripts for the first few episodes this season, he had to read them "about ten times" each, just so he could figure out what was going on in each timeline.
"The scripts are like a maze!" he tells SYFY WIRE, laughing.
But of all the scripts he received this season, the one for the fourth episode, "The Riddle of the Sphinx," despite the suggestion of mystery from its title, turned out to be one of the easiest to understand. Finally, the showrunners were revealing the larger goal of Delos, the project to use robot technology in pursuit of immortality. Plus it was an 80-minute-long episode, which meant there was time to hang longer on certain shots to get their full impact.
"Sometimes what we encounter in television because we're so starved for time, is that we cut away too soon, to shave off seconds," Grillo says. "But I think [showrunner and episode director] Lisa [Joy] and the editors did a really great job of fitting in an extra 20 minutes. It really fit in all the information."
Grillo shared with SYFY WIRE what it was like to collaborate with Joy in her dual role as showrunner and director, their shared vision of unfurling the circularity of James Delos' chamber, and the film inspirations that have shaped his Emmy-nominated work.
What was your initial tone meeting like for this episode?
We had a series of tone meetings because the director, Lisa Joy, was also the showrunner, and the advantage to having her as a director was she had a lot more inside information, a lot more insight into certain aspects of the show that sometimes you're not aware of. In our meetings, she would talk a lot about the emotional arcs with the characters. As with the whole season, there's a lot of time-shifting, but within that episode particularly, there are some very intricate changes in timelines. We had a lot of discussion about how to achieve some of those timeline shifts within the same setting.
Such as the observation chamber where they experiment with the various iterations of the host-hybrid version of James Delos.
Exactly. That one. Obviously, there were a lot of tell-tale signs with William showing up just slightly aged each time, but also Delos' degradation as well. Little details, like the way he was pouring coffee, stuff like that. And the broader aspects. Having the circular set, you get the feeling like you're in one of those cages where the rat goes in a circle, the round cage. So there are a lot of layers in that episode, in terms of that, in terms of time shifting with Jeffrey Wright's character, Bernard. That was also very subtly done in terms of his look and his appearance, little details in his wardrobe.
I would keep track by seeing if he was wearing glasses or not.
Exactly. And so I think the tone meeting really for me was a series of meetings that I had with Lisa in preparation for the episode, and during the shoot, we often would have lunch together and just talk about it more, you know?
What were the film references you discussed with Lisa, the ones that inspired you?
As with everything we do, we reference past masters. We all come from somewhere in that respect, so we're always looking back at what's been done and trying to take some elements from it, and braid it into our work, and hopefully, expand on it a little bit. We actually both share a love of the films by a Russian filmmaker named Andrei Tarkovsky, so it was very easy to talk about images of his films, and just shorthand our discussions about the look and the feel and the texture. We also talked about Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and bringing those two aspects, those two aesthetics — Kubrick and Tarkovsky — together somehow, to riff off of them in this episode. I love Tarkovsky's Stalker, so there's definitely a lot of Stalker in there. And Solaris as well. So I think you can see those in the observation room, in that kind of white space, clean, very graphic, wide-angle lens. And then the degradation of Delos, and all the texture that you find there, all the detritus that's been left after his robotic breakdown. We were looking at what Kubrick did in 2001 in the final scenes of that film, what he did with the white floor. He actually illuminated the floor. And that was something we talked about for the early stages of the Delos observation chamber, but we didn't do. We didn't want to go that far.
What were the complications with shooting that room?
With lighting, being a white room, not much. You have a soft light coming from the practical lights in the ceiling, and all the light bounces around the white until it becomes an iridescent white room. The challenge was more in terms of how to move the camera around there. What I came up with was to put a camera on a short Technocrane arm in the middle of the arm, and basically with the tremendous work from our dolly grip and our camera operator, we would put the camera in the center of the room. And it was almost like hands of a clock – we would go sweeping around the room.
The Technocrane is able to retract the camera and extend it out on the arm, without moving the base, so basically we're just going around the room, and that's how we achieve the opening shot in the episode, going over things. When we were setting up the shot, I was aiming the camera towards the stuff that is coming at you, so I was going towards things, right? And Lisa was like, "Why don't we do it the other way? Why don't we point the camera back, and go away from things and reveal them that way?" I thought that was kind of brilliant. So we used that device a lot in there for a lot of shots. It just made it easier to shoot around.
What about when the lab is destroyed?
The conceit of the room is that you're not able to see out, but the other people can see in, and so once the room is destroyed, and that technology is no longer there, then you have all this red light coming in. I was talking about that with Lisa, and I thought, "Why don't we just turn this into a horror film? Let's just go full on horror." Like full on Dario Argento, you know? And so it was just all red lights with some flashes of electrical malfunction, flashing here and there.
So when we would reveal Delos' face at the mirror, the cracked mirror when he's looking at himself, everything else bathed in red. It just gave an eerie look to the whole place. To me, I was harkening back to those films of the 1970s where they were really bold with color, especially red. There's an interesting thing that happens with red light on film, which is that it almost looks like it's not in focus. It's something to do with the layers in the film grain or something, so it's got a very soft focus look that reminds of those old horror films.
What was it like for you to shoot on film after having shot on digital for so long?
I haven't shot film in many, many years. And I was actually joking with Jonah [Nolan], I was telling him that I'm glad he didn't ask if I shot on film when he interviewed me for the job, because I don't know how things would have gone! [Laughs] I'm glad that question didn't come up. But I haven't used film in a long time.
It was nerve-wracking at first, because you do get used to fine-tuning on the monitor with digital. The mystery of film was in exposure, and you would have to wait for dailies to come in and see if you got it or not, if you made mistakes. You catch all the mistakes now in the monitor. Once we started shooting and I started getting the dailies back, I was just blown away by the beauty of film. It was like, "Wow. This is amazing." You shoot digital for so long, you forget what somebody's skin is supposed to look like. The color, the texture, little details like that. I loved it.
Did you have any favorite shots from this episode that were hard to achieve?
People don't realize this sometimes, but the hardest things are the exteriors, because you don't have control of the light. The light changes by the hour. Clouds come in and just hover, and the direction of the light changes. You have to be planning out your day so you're kind of shooting in backlight. It's a puzzle. So some of our day exteriors were complicated in that respect, such as the scene where the Man in Black and Lawrence arrive at the rail tracks. We really had to plan that out.
And towards the end of the day, the marine layers were coming in, so the quality of light changed. Suddenly you don't have the hard, direct light that you had before, so there are a lot of mental gymnastics there, as the sun is going quickly. And the scene at Las Mudas, with the rain? Anytime you have to do rain, that makes things difficult. But when Lisa said, "Why don't we shoot this in the rain at night?" I said, "Okay!" [Laughs] Sure enough, it was hard, but it so rewarding.