“I think no matter when you live, part of the human condition is we tell ourselves and each other stories to try to understand the world around us,” Taiwanese American creative Lisa Joy shares in an exclusive interview with NextShark.
Best known for her role in creating the hit dystopian HBO series “Westworld,” the 45-year-old screenwriter, director, producer and attorney has made her mark on the world of science fiction. Joy returns to the small screen as an executive producer of Amazon Prime Video’s sci-fi series “The Peripheral.”
Based on William Gibson’s 2014 novel of the same name, “The Peripheral” explores the dystopian future of humanity. In the show, which centers on Flynne Fisher — a girl struggling to hold her family together as a gamer-for-hire — time travel, robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and espionage clash as Flynne desperately searches for a way to save both her family and the future.
Joy: I enjoyed writing ever since I was a kid. And it didn’t really seem like it was a practical pursuit to try to make a living out of writing… but I just always gravitated towards [it].
I think sometimes, especially when you’re a first-generation American, you feel the responsibility to help give back to your family because you know how much they’ve sacrificed to give you opportunities. And so I definitely wanted to be able to have a stable job and to help support my family, which made it feel like going into something in the arts would not be feasible.
So I went to law school, but while I was there, I just loved writing so much, I would always do it, regardless of whether it was for a job or not. And I was just very fortunate — while I was studying for the bar, I submitted my first TV script to a friend of mine from Stanford, who passed it along to Bryan Fuller, who was staffing for “Pushing Daisies,” and I got staffed as a writer.
And so I felt really fortunate because I was able to make the transition from law and consulting to writing without a period of unemployment, or a period where I wasn’t making an income.
NS: From “Westworld” to “The Peripheral,” what is it about science fiction — and more specifically, virtual reality — that interests you? What about these genres allows you to explore themes that might not be possible elsewhere?
Joy: I think it goes back to these myths that I loved as a kid in mythology and in “Journey to the West.” There are these tales written on an epic scope, and they’re really metaphors for describing the world that people lived in and answering their questions – existential and in terms of the physical world and the scientific world, they wrote stories to try to explain events.
I think no matter when you live, part of the human condition is we tell ourselves and each other stories to try to understand the world around us. And that vast scope and ambition that I think addresses issues that are about the human condition… questions about morality, questions about identity, all of that really fascinates me.
Previously, I think a world of these bigger scope projects was really a world that was mainly occupied by male, probably white male directors and writers, [while] the stories that I gravitate towards are ginormous. And I remember when I first started, people would ask me if I wanted to write a rom-com or something like that; intellectually, that just wasn’t where my personal interests resided.
I would write these giant, ambitious pilots, and I was just a staff writer, and nobody would pick them up — they wouldn’t take that chance, they’d be very expensive and huge. I was writing that kind of stuff from the get-go, from when I was just a baby writer. … I basically just kept writing until somebody let me make it.
NS: The first episodes of “The Peripheral” highlight the lack of diversity and inclusivity in the gaming industry, which continues to be an issue in our modern world. What motivated you to emphasize these aspects of the show? Do you see your experiences and story reflected through the female protagonist?
Joy: When I read “The Peripheral,” I felt this emotional connection to Flynne and the idea of this ordinary girl trying to reach a much bigger world, and yes, the fact that she’s a gamer is something that we point out. But it speaks volumes in that she played for money as a kind of gamer jockey, which is a job that people actually do — you play to make money for players who aren’t as good as you, and they’ll pay you to get them to the next level.
And she does that, but she does it under a pseudonym, because if people were to realize that she was a [female], they wouldn’t pay her as much for the same job. I think that there are a lot of industries that are like that, where being a woman or any form of minority… there are just so many assumptions about your abilities and predilections that it’s easy to get undervalued monetarily and intellectually and philosophically.
[Flynne] grappled with that by taking on the pseudonym. I think we all deal with that in our own ways when trying to navigate this world. So yeah, that definitely resonated with me as something that felt familiar.
NS: Another issue that you brought up earlier was one of identity. I think “The Peripheral” does take on identity as more of a hybrid issue, where there are conflicts between man and machine and what’s authentic and what might not be authentic. Do you think that reflects how we approach identity today, where we have so many cultures in conversation with one another, where we can’t really identify one as authentic in comparison to the other?
Joy: I do believe that identity is a multifarious, complex and evolving thing — personal identity, also cultural identity, the identity of groups of people, you know, we are all made of many different elements, many beyond race and gender and sexual preferences. We contain so many different ingredients that no one’s identity can be fully summed up with one word, and even if you have this whole paragraph of adjectives to describe your identity, that identity will change over time. Not just on an individual basis, but on a cultural basis.
When my mom talks about her experience growing up in Asia, it’s very different from the Asia that I see when I go to Asia. There’s been more cultural cross-pollination, and so I think identity isn’t something that we can or should necessarily try to put in a box and try to hold still.
[Doing that] doesn’t give us room to grow, and it doesn’t take into account the organic nature of evolution and the complexity of every individual. But that growth itself, that embracing of all the many different aspects of one’s own identity at any given moment, that is the challenge we all face. … I think that is something that we all deal with all the time, and it’s that navigating of identity, of individuality, which is a hallmark of the human condition.
NS: “The Peripheral” also seems to grapple with ideas of future and predestination, and the characters attempt to take control of the options that they’re given and make choices in order for them to determine what will become of them. Do you see yourself taking control of your present in order to make your future? If so, do you have any examples you can share?
Joy: I think in film, TV and literature, there’s often this idea that fate will arrive in the form of some deus ex machina, especially if you’re a woman. You know, some wonderful suitor will come, or your evil stepmother will be banished. You’re just waiting for this outside event to occur so that you can go on with your life.
The great lie of that is those outside events don’t always occur. … People don’t give you the answers or your dreams by simply waiting for them. I think everything — whether it’s a job or a personal relationship – takes work, perseverance, and appreciation, just an appreciation for the complexities of, say, your craft or your partner. And that is something that you have to practice on a daily basis.
People always talk about the butterfly effect, like, “Oh, if you could go back and just change this thing, and have this domino effect that would change the future and reverse something apocalyptic, would you do it?” But we have to understand [that] we are in the past, and right now, this is the past, this is that moment. And those little things that compile are within our grasp — we can make the future through these little actions.
When you think about the future as this compilation of things within our control, as opposed to this third-party-interrupting influence, you start to realize how much self-reliance and a sense of will can determine the future.
NS: Could you share some of your favorite moments while working on “The Peripheral”?
Joy: I loved visiting Asheville and seeing the actors in this beautiful part of the country. It’s really wonderful to see the naturalistic camaraderie between the characters of “The Peripheral” — it felt like intimate relationships onscreen that felt familiar to me, like real family and real friends.
That kind of organic element is something you don’t see a lot in science fiction — you don’t see the sort of daily life, what it is to live in this country. And I watched a scene between Burton and Connor in which Britain tries to get Connor to enlist his help in what they’re dealing with. There’s so much history between those two guys, and so much pain and suffering. But you just see in the way that they talk — it’s casual, and it’s not really earnest in any way, but they’re speaking from a place of such shared intimacy that it was wonderful to see that almost familial bond.
And then meanwhile, I’m walking around fields with Chloë and her dog getting ready before she shoots a big outdoor scene there. And one of the coolest things when you’re shooting those things is we’re in this magnificent location. There’s fields everywhere, and it’s just massive in scope and very beautiful, and it was magic hour. … One of the fun things is also knowing that our visual effects team is going to be enhancing this and adding a whole other level of magic and scope to it. So just sitting there and both appreciating exactly where I was, and also imagining what it would look like in the future — it’s very fun.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
All episodes of “The Peripheral” are available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.