Westworld: The Invention of Michael Crichton and the Techno-Thriller
By: Jamie Steidle
Have you ever been bitten by a snake?
It’s not something that happens everyday (I hope).
Getting bit is not very common. It’s probably even less common than the question: “Have you ever been bitten by a snake?”
Snakes can be vicious. The odds of getting bit by one that’s around you is probably high. Snakes will bite and bite fast, right?
Not so fast. At least, that’s what Michael Crichton found out.
“Rattlesnakes are, in truth, rather frail creatures,” Crichton wrote in his memoir, Travels.
It should have been an easy enough shot for a film that was plagued by should-have-been-easy-enough-shots.
Filming “Westworld” (1973) was not an easy task, especially for a new filmmaker, like Michael Crichton.
Michael Crichton had been having trouble from the onset. The 30 year-old Harvard graduate and bestselling author of The Andromeda Strain was finding that the glitz and glamour of filmmaking was anything but glitzy and glamourous.
Writing novels and directing were two totally different and distinct things: whereas novel writing was a personal, private and lonely thing; filmmaking was certainly not private and lonely. Filmmaking was gritty — a gritty balancing act where trying to stay true to the narrative and keeping the executives happy was the name of the game and that game wasn’t necessarily fun.
This year is a year to reflect on Michael Crichton and his legacy. In 2015, we saw Michael Crichton’s famous blockbuster book, turned blockbuster movie get refitted onto the big screen as “Jurassic World.” Last year, “Westworld,” Crichton’s first foray into Hollywood filmmaking, was transformed into a miniseries by J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan.
The film “Westworld” is about a high-tech amusement park called Delos, where, for just a thousand dollars a day guests can experience three unique worlds that are populated by life-like robots: Roman World, Medieval World and Westworld.
Each park is a Disney-like set-piece of decadence, transporting the guests back to a Hollywood-styled past. Eventually, the robots become defective and the park turns on it’s guests and a lone-robot gunslinger faces off against the tourists and main protagonist. There are many similarities to this film and Crichton’s later work, Jurassic Park, which makes the experience of watching the film “Westworld” even more enjoyable.
The day of the rattlesnake was the last day of shooting. One of the leads, James Brolin, had to be bitten by a snake for this scene.
Michael Crichton, in Travels, recalls the moment when the snake was let loose. “Each time the poor rattlesnake just tried to get away. Eventually we had to form two rows of people, standing just outside camera range, and herd the frightened snake between us toward the lens.”
He then goes on to explain the feelings people had toward the predator.
“The outcome of this was that, although we started out with blankets and telephoto lenses and a nervous operator by himself, by the middle of the day all the crew were standing within a few feet of these giant rattlesnakes, turning their backs to them, flicking cigarette ash on them, talking of other things. Nobody worries about snakes any more. We had quickly and unconsciously adjusted to reality of what we had seen. The rattlesnakes couldn’t hurt us.”
In filmmaking, Crichton learned that nothing is ever as it appears. Simple scenes can become complicated and take the whole day. Even something you think you know can change into something totally foreign. Snakes are dangerous — but they really aren’t. Filming Westworld will be easy — but it really wasn’t.
Crichton’s style, his unique sense of “unraveling complexity” has its roots right here, in this film — not only in it’s script, but in it’s creation. What Crichton learned from making “Westworld” he took with him and put into his later books and films.
From “Westworld” we get Jurassic Park, but we also get Michael Crichton — the Michael Crichton we all know, the acclaimed novelist, author not only of Jurassic Park, but Timeline, Sphere, Prey and the creator of the TV series ER.
The Crichton we know today began with filming “Westworld,” where many of the tropes that are synonymous with a Crichton techno-thriller begin to come into fruition.
He had written novels previous to directing “Westworld,” but it was the making of this film that really helped solidify the speculative mind of Crichton and push many of his ideas to the forefront. Ideas like: major corporations wreaking havoc; the unknown variables of science can turn around and bite you in the ass (in Jurassic Park, quite literally); and we really don’t know, especially when we think we do, the consequence of any of our actions.
The problem with any film production is that it is a complex system; producing and filming a movie is extraordinarily intricate. Any semblance of order can be assumed to be pure luck, which is why many filmmakers and artists are superstitious.
Trying to further understand the filming of Crichton’s “Westworld,” I first reached out to its producer, Paul Lazarus, who was happy to talk about the making of the film and spoke readily, openly and at great length about Crichton and his own successes in the film industry. Lazarus had formed a friendship with Crichton that was lifelong and continued until Crichton’s death in November of 2008.
What was revealing in the interview was a different Crichton emerged.
According to Lazarus, Crichton rarely spoke of himself. He was quiet and often seemed to be in a different world. Much of this isolation seemed to stem from his height, which was a staggering six feet nine inches.
“The first thing everyone noticed was his height,” Lazarus said. He recalled a time when Crichton and him were on an elevator and a man entered and looked up at Crichton and asked:
“Are you a basketball player?”
“No, just a jockey,” Crichton replied.
“But he was always aware of his height.” And certain words bothered him because he was teased as a child. “One time I said the word ‘freak’ and he tensed up… He was uncomfortable about his height.”
It’s interesting to note these details because these characteristics developed the man. These details shine light on how he deals with situations. Crichton was a thinker, rarely speaking of himself. He developed an inward focus that grew outwards into his research of how things beyond him functioned: how the media works; how climate science can potentially create a state of fear; how control, overall, is an illusion. As Ian Malcom said in “Jurassic Park:” “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
The story of the making of “Westworld” began with the script, which Crichton wrote in August of 1972. Crichton was always a swift writer and the script itself only took about a month. The concept stemmed from a visit at Kennedy Space Center, where he saw astronauts training to be as machine-like as possible; and from Disneyland, where he saw machines acting as human-like as possible. Crichton was fascinated by these “blurring of lines” between man and machine.
In the paperback “Westworld” script published a year after the film’s release, Crichton introduced the beginning of the trouble with filming, “Nobody who had a choice made a picture at Metro, but then we didn’t have a choice.”
“Having an orderly production was impossible.” Crichton didn’t have a set cast until about two days before shooting started because MGM kept demanding changes to the script. During the negotiations for actors, Crichton felt as though he was slowly transforming into the cliché archetype of a filmmaker, “I vomit whenever I see that actor!” These headaches from MGM didn’t end in pre-production.
MGM had originally given Crichton and his team one million dollars to film the movie, but this, Crichton knew, was not enough money. After negotiations, Crichton was given an extra $250 thousand.
“Even at that higher figure, a number of old studio hands told us it couldn’t be done,” Crichton wrote.
He breaks down the costs and how each dime counted in production:
- $250,000 — Cast salaries
- $400,000 — Crew for six weeks of filming
- $600,000 — Everything else (sets, special effects, music…etc.)
If you pay close attention when you watch the film, much of the sets look the same. That’s because they are the same, with a little filmmaking trickery a hallway can grow longer, shorter — or even, turning around a corner, the same hallway can look like a new one.
As Paul Lazarus tells it: the day of the first shoot it was foggy and misty. Nothing looked right. Crichton didn’t want to shoot just yet. Before they captured a single frame of film they got a call from the studio. MGM stocks had plummeted.
The studio rep asked if they had started yet.
They told them they hadn’t started yet.
The shooting schedule was very tight. They had just under a month to shoot the film. This meant that there was no room for problems. But there were problems. A number of things went wrong.
On the third day of shooting, they realized that one of the corridors they were filming in was too white and didn’t look right on film. They didn’t resolve this issue until the day before the set was taken down.
Yull Brenner, the main antagonist in the film, scratched his cornea from a blank gun cartridge hitting his eye and couldn’t wear the contact lenses that were necessary to make his eyes look sleek and robotic. Crichton had to rearrange the shooting schedule around this.
The studio was overbearing from the onset and continued to check-in and make sure that production was moving along. Filmmaking was already stressful without the added stress of the judging eyes of studio executives. Which is why when a studio executive came onto set during a day of shooting, Crichton, having had about enough of MGM yelled, “Cut!” He walked straight up to the executive, backing him into a wall. Crichton towered over him and while leaning in he asked, “Can I help you?”
That was the last time the studio was on set.
Another aspect that needed a lot of work was the robot’s vision.
Crichton wanted the audience to see the point of view of the gunslinger, which meant he wanted to tackle something that had never been tackled before. He wanted to use computer graphics in film.
Crichton went searching for someone to process computer imagery, reaching out to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, he was given a quote of $200,000. This was simply too much money.
Eventually Crichton found John Whitney Jr., a computer-graphics artist, who said he could do it in 4 months and only for $20,000.
The process he used is called pixilation. The final product looks outdated, but for its time the graphics were innovative and “Westworld” is credited as the first film to utilize computer graphics.
The studio always has the last say. And even after that final shoot with the rattlesnake, the process wasn’t over just yet. The studio still wanted its final word. They didn’t seem to really feel that the film itself was promising.
Crichton had purposely camera-cut the film. This meant he shot the scenes the way he wanted to, with no extra material. The film could not be recut. It could only be cut one way. This made it particularly hard if there was a mistake not caught when actually filming.
There were two reasons why Crichton filmed this way:
1) he didn’t have time with the tight, filming schedule to take multiple shots and
2) he didn’t want extra material for the studio executives to use to recut his film. Crichton filmed the bare minimum of what he needed to piece together the film into what he wanted.
“No one in the world could do this except Michael Crichton,” Lazarus said about Crichton’s camera-cutting and its end result.
Two weeks after filming, Crichton saw the first rough cut. “It was horrible.” Crichton explained. “It was boring, contrived, self-indulgent and slack.” He did not find it promising.
But after a recut and the addition of an extra scene (a commercial at the beginning of the film describing Delos) the film was looking much better.
MGM executives, however, did not find the film too promising.
Crichton explained that the feelings for the film were divided, straight from the beginning: either people loved the idea or hated it. “The result was something like a civil war…”
The executives had a screening to see how it went over. If the viewers hated it, the film would have been dumped.
On the day of the preview, Crichton was nervous.
After all the work of shooting the film on a tight budget and a tight schedule — after all the juggling and sleepless nights — was it possible that the film was going to be dumped?
He had built up a sense of camaraderie with his cast and crew. Once they had started getting the rhythm of the film down, filming became a dance and Crichton was the instructor.
The viewers of the film for the preview were given cue cards. The film needed to have 75 percent good reviews for MGM to consider keeping it.
“The picture began.” Crichton wrote. “There was a lot of coughing and shuffling; the laughs didn’t work and came in the wrong places. I sank lower in my seat.”
But by the end of the film, there was great applause. Crichton was surprised to find that the movie had received a 95 rating.
The film wasn’t dumped.
After all was done, “Westworld” did really well, grossing about $10 million in 1973. The film was inspiring and helped shape not only the ideas discussed in this text, but also the movie industry in general.
It was not only the first film to incorporate computer graphics, but it was also one of the first films with the modern horror film elements embedded within it. John Carpenter noted in an interview with Interview Magazine in 2015 that his infamous character, Michael Myers in the film “Halloween” was based on the gunslinger in “Westworld:” “Well, the main influence was Westworld, which had a robot gunfighter. He kept coming back. He wouldn’t stop.”
It’s safe to say without “Westworld” there would be no “Halloween” or “Terminator;” and an entire genre of horror and techno-thrillers would not have become. “Westworld” was the forefather of these creations, as it was the forefather of Crichton’s later work.
What Crichton intended was to play on the cliché ideas of western films, using iconic shots, standard filming practices for westerns, to create the feel of the film. His camera angles and shots were not revolutionary, but that was his intention. Crichton believed, as he said about Hitchcock, that the camera should not be a character in itself, it should be a window.
The film plays with the same concepts and ideas Crichton will later rehash in his most successful creation, Jurassic Park.
“Westworld” was a precursor, the genesis of Crichton’s formula for the techno-thriller and the formula for his novels, where science and technology converge.
To simplify Crichton’s writing into mere themes is to drastically belittle his work; but it’s hard to miss that many of his plots center around a single, unifying trope: chaos. Not simplistic chaos, but the chaos that ensues from man’s stubborn quest for control. From building a theme park with genetically-engineered dinosaurs in a “controlled” ecosystem; to the chaos of a complex global disaster. Crichton warns us that the world is often too complicated for complete understanding and that we should doubt those who claim it. The world can’t be summed up in a simple graph, a simple statement or a simple scientific formula.
In a major speech Crichton gave on environmentalism titled “Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century,” he stated his belief about the environment and our impact on it: that we just don’t know how to manage the environment. The system is too complex and our ignorance is present in our failures at trying to balance the ecosystem. There is no better example than at Yellowstone National Park.
Crichton goes on to illustrate the disastrous effects that occurred in the park in order to keep it in equilibrium, failing to recognize that the ecosystem had a natural way of keeping itself stabilized, this caused the decline and devastation of many species and eventually one third of the park burned away in a fire in the 1980’s.
“Now, if we are to do better in this new century, what must we do differently? In a word, we must embrace complexity theory. We must understand complex systems.
“We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system — most minds, at least. By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance. Furthermore, a complex system demonstrates sensitivity to initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but the identical interaction the next day may yield a different result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will respond. Third, when we interact with a complex system, we may provoke downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must always be watchful for delayed and untoward consequences.”
What Crichton taught us is that the world isn’t fixed. It never can be known, because it’s so much more complex than anything we can imagine it to be.
We may think we’ve read all the signs, discovered everything there is to know, but that is only a page in the complexity of the ever-changing universe. There’s always another page and another side to the page. This shouldn’t stop us from wanting to know and understand, but it should give us pause to reflect on what we know and what we do with that knowledge.
As “Westworld” showed us, we may think we understand and we may think with this understanding we can control our surroundings, but it’s not that simple.
So before we build a theme park of robots and dinosaurs, let’s ask the question: “Should we?”
So how can we ever truly know?
How can we understand what’s around us?
That’s an open question. I don’t have an answer for you.
Crichton developed his sense that the notion of knowledge is flawed and in his writings he pushes us to question what we know — because with questions we understand the problem with certainty. Crichton wants us to know that there is no certainty. Just like there is no certainty that a snake will bite.
“Snakes, after all, are rather frail creatures.”