People arrived excited about a giant marketing installation; they left looking to the stars.
AUSTIN, Texas—"We can't just come to SXSW with Westworld," said Jonah Nolan, co-creator of the hit HBO show, in the last 10 minutes of the cast and crew's South by Southwest conference keynote. "So we have a little something at the end to leave you with a bit of optimism; Westworld isn’t a terribly optimistic show unless you’re a robot."
Nolan, co-creator Lisa Joy, and the main cast, including leads Evan Rachel Wood (Dolores) and Thandie Newton (Mae), had just spent the better part of an hour hyping the show's upcoming second season. There was sneak-peek footage shown that Nolan (unsuccessfully it turns out) pleaded to stay within the room and celebrations of a show that grapples with modern-day themes of female empowerment or the dangers of AI. But then, a moment foreshadowed in a Friday night tweet finally came to fruition.
"As a kid, I spent an unhealthy amount of time thinking about spaceflight," Nolan began. "I watched Super 8 movies of the Saturn launch, and that seems to have gone away a little bit. I’m passionate about it, but it was our grandparents who went to the moon and we haven’t gone back in our lifetime.
"But a while back, I had a drink with a friend," he continued. "We were talking about how to inspire people again. One of the beautiful things about spaceflight is, it’s all of us working together. They go nowhere unless thousands of people work together. So what we came up with was a red sports car and a David Bowie song…"
The session had been electric up to this point: new footage, great banter from beloved cast-mates like James Marsden (Teddy) and Jeffrey Wright (Bernard), Nolan even admitting they have a player piano defying the laws of the Old West. "We knew we wanted an icon, an image we came back to again and again every show," he said. "We stumbled onto it with the player piano—here’s the original robot. Though they didn’t have electrified pianos back in the West, they had pedals, and someone would have to pump it, presumably in exchange for bourbon."
The cast also described how Westworld changed their relationship to technology and what advice they'd give today's AI developers ("We’re all awaiting that incipient moment when AI would become smarter than us—we thought it would have to be a super intelligence to blow us up," Nolan said. "That’s not the case. You don’t need a smart AI to manipulate Twitter or Facebook. We’re about to enter this very slippery moment where the dynamic between tech and humans may be about to change.") And Newton even gave an impassioned and impromptu speech about the need for intervention and aid in the Congo, as illegal exports of materials required for technology like smartphones and gaming consoles has enabled violent militia (see vday.org for more).
But at that single moment late in the session, the biggest standing ovation of the day ensued. Elon Musk came out from backstage to greet the Westworld cast and embrace his friends Jonah and Lisa. The SpaceX CEO took the mic to briefly reflect on his company's historic moment just one month ago.
"There are a lot of things in this world that can get you down, but life can’t be about solving one miserable problem after another," Musk said. "There has to be things that inspire you, to make you wake up in the morning and be proud of humanity. That’s why we did this. There’s a guy, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who said, 'The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.' It's time to become a starborne civilization and expand our consciousness. I find that incredibly exciting, and I'm excited to be alive."
And with those words, Musk turned the mic back over to his friend Nolan. The director had been at launchpad 39A that day, watching among SpaceX workers and supporters as the Falcon Heavy surpassed even Musk's optimistic expectations. Nolan attended as no mere observer, either—he did what he knows how to do. He filmed something that would hopefully inspire the masses.
"There was incredible spirit there that day, something I hadn’t felt in an awfully long time," Nolan said as he introduced the video embedded above. "So we tried to capture that essence—to record it and spread it. And the only way I know how to share that feeling is with a trailer. It’s not for TV or a movie, it’s for the next part of the human story."