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Reminiscence director Lisa Joy on the ‘fucking nightmare’ of nostalgia

The Westworld creator talks her feature debut and reframing science fiction

Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) looks at a holographic woman in a red dress in Reminiscence Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

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Lisa Joy already explored the downside of wanting to live in an idealized past as the co-creator of Westworld. But in her feature directorial debut, Reminiscence, Joy takes the theme even deeper. The film-noir-saturated thriller takes place in a post-climate-change world where one of the main sources of pleasure is to be able to slip back into the past, with the aid of a technology controlled by Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) and his assistant Watts (Thandiwe Newton).

With the film out in theaters and on HBO Max this Friday, we talked to Joy about the seductiveness of memory, and why trauma and nostalgia are two sides of the same tarnished coin.

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

I feel like the heart of the film is the relationship between trauma and nostalgia — these are two types of memories that the characters can’t escape. How do they kind of relate together in the film in your mind?

Lisa Joy: God, that is such an insightful question and I have never been asked it. Everybody has some trauma, [but] some people have much more trauma than others, right? But those are the memories that metastasize and haunt you and threaten sometimes, in their strength, to try to engulf all of you and define you. It’s a scary kind of virus. And it’s very painful.

When we look back at nostalgia, we are trying to hold on to and keep things to counterbalance, in a way, the negative. That’s why we cherish memories and that’s why we over-idealize some memories so much — because trauma has a way of digging into our psyches and really hurting us.

I think it’s a constant battle for people, and it requires incredible strength to be able to both acknowledge the darkness in the world and the darkness of their experiences, but also to say, “That won’t define me. I choose this side of my experience, this side of myself, to define me as my kind of north star going forward.”

It feels like a kind of wish-fulfillment, to be able to replay a happy memory with perfect clarity, the way Nick (Hugh Jackman) can in the film.

It absolutely is. As a storyteller, I’m supposed to like stories, but for some reason, I long sometimes for the unadulterated documentary-like truth of a moment. The idea that you could actually transport yourself back to a time that really nurtured you, to really be fully there and not just trying to swim towards it against time. I really think it would be therapeutic and lovely.

The Miami coastline flooded by high seas in Reminiscence
A Miami of the near future
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

I was excited by the idea of a movie that talks about nostalgia in the post-climate change future, because nostalgia is part of what’s keeping us from addressing climate change. We have nostalgia for coal. We have nostalgia for the 1950s, and being able to drive everywhere in our big gas-guzzling cars. Do you think that having a movie that addresses the danger of nostalgia is going to help drive home that message about climate change and to help us to think about how we have to be forward-looking?

I think it’s human nature to almost not be able to fathom great tragedy. Like, we can’t process it because it’s so hard. I remember when COVID first started. It was like, “Okay, maybe we’ll be in lockdown for two weeks, and it’ll be really crazy.” And then a year later, here we are.

[It’s] the same thing with climate change. We’re scared, and we feel helpless, and it’s easy to turn to denial. And the problem is, we can deny it, but our children can’t. And in 30 years, we won’t be able to — and people in other countries won’t be able to, because they’ll be hit harder first.

I didn’t want to make this film all about [climate change]. There are movies all about climate change, [including] incredible documentary films. I wanted this to be matter of fact. I’m not even going to discuss it: the waters have risen. As soon as we can really wrap our heads around [the idea that] this is the new reality, then maybe we can start [asking], “How are we going to stop it?” In the film, we consciously put way fewer cars on the streets. We dealt with architecture in a way that shows how you can blockade some of the waters and turn a lot of the energy sources to solar panels. But you can also see it’s pretty late in the game when we’re doing it, and a lot of people have suffered, and there are still inequalities in the way that dry land is doled out.

You can be nostalgic for the past, but the past contains a lot of sins that got us to this time. So if you’re going to be nostalgic for the good things about it, you also have to acknowledge the bad things about it, and try to take steps forward.

I loved a lot of the visuals, and the way you depicted a post-climate change future. Did you talk to scientists? I know you worked with Howard Cummings, the production designer from Westworld.

I talked mostly to Howard, my production designer, and also Bruce [Jones, the visual effects supervisor], trying to build it out. But my biggest inspiration came from the world as it is. When I was in prep, there was flooding in Italy. And I was looking at how people had walkways, and the way that they changed their clothing to adapt to this world. And I spent a lot of my childhood in Asia looking at floating markets and night markets.

There is beauty in this sunken world, you know? People have dealt with something very difficult, and continue to struggle with it. But in my experience, in places like that, there’s still love and light and laughter, even though it is hard-earned.

Westworld is also about people trying to escape into an idealized past, except that it’s an idealized past from media, rather than their own memories. And Westworld also has that thing of like, extreme wealth and extreme exploitation. Do you feel like you were kind of exploring some of the same ideas but in a different way?

Yeah. I think that a lot of these ideas are just things that we have to contend with all the time, right? For somebody who is a first-generation mixed-race [daughter of immigrants], not born to a lot of money and everything like that ... I’m like, “The good old days for a lot of people were not the good old days for me and my family.” Nostalgia for good times for some people is my idea of a fucking nightmare.

And that’s what Westworld underscores, too. Everybody goes to the park for a great old time, just to let their id out — and meanwhile, Dolores and Maeve are sitting there like, “Oh, I’m in hell. I’m in the hell where I get to see what your psyches desire.”

The same with Reminiscence. There’s never enough time in any film to explore all the subjective experiences of the world, but I do try to look at something from a somewhat different lens. Like, in noir, it’s so often about the infallible hero, and the naughty femme fatale leading him astray. So I wanted to take those tropes and those ideas and kind of present them as what we’re so used to them being [in] those old black and white films we’re nostalgic for — and then look under them and say, But this is what it really might have been.

Because no hero is [infallible], and no woman is really [a femme fatale]. If you look past that layer, you might find a different narrative all together.

Reminiscence  director Lisa Joy on set
Actor Rebecca Ferguson floating on the flooded set for Reminiscence
(L) Lisa Joy directs the action (R) Actor Rebecca Ferguson floating on the flooded set
Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures

The way that you used the themes of film noir storytelling, which is often about trauma, and specifically generational trauma, really jumped out to me. Like, a lot of noir was shaped by World War II. In Reminiscence, Nick and other characters are veterans of a war that we keep hearing about. Was it important to you for there to be not just specific personal traumas, but shared generational traumas?

It was important to me, and it also felt realistic. We are in a moment in history where I think most of us want to be good people — but my God, is it very hard sometimes to figure out how to do that. Like, there are so many levels of feelings and considerations, and that’s incredibly difficult.

One of the things that this movie is about is that we can try to be good. We can endeavor to be the best humans, the best lovers, the best friends that we can be, but we’re going to fuck up a lot because we’re human. And it’s a little bit about learning to forgive ourselves and to forgive others and to know that it is a journey. Love is a journey and life is a journey, where we just try to do better and to love better and to love braver. I think that’s the best we can hope for. And acknowledging our fallibility — that there is no such thing as a pure hero or a pure villain or a pure sexy lady — allows us to have more open conversations, to be more vulnerable and more true and ultimately, to feel more understood.

Were there specific noir inspirations that you drew on?

Out of the Past was a big influence. And also, thematically, Vertigo.

The blindness, the inability to figure out something kind of right in front of him. I wanted to take it, as somebody who really appreciates the classic bones and all the great works that come out of noir, I wanted to say, OK, what’s my spin on it?

In old noir [films], darkness is when things are bad. In the dark, the bad crimes happen. [But] in this world, darkness is when people can actually go out and live their lives, because it’s so damn hot. [And] crime and true darkness — moral darkness — happens in the searing light of day. So it’s an inverted world that is meant to just reflect how our world is changing.

So I started out by asking you about nostalgia and trauma, and another thing that really jumped out at me in the film is that there are limitations to the memory-replaying technology. A person can’t revisit the same event too many times, and it’s possible to get trapped in a painful remembrance. Is this another way of talking about the pitfalls of our relationship with memory?

I worked in a DA’s office for a while. I worked in family violence, and I think some of that influenced my feelings on memory. Watching victims of violence get really traumatized by replaying these things — but also feeling it all through this fog. In some ways, the fog of trauma haunted them more than just being able to remember [the] brutal details and logically say, “That is the thing that happened, and now that is done.” [Because of] the emotional toll it took, it sort of ballooned into something bigger.

And meanwhile, the other thing that frustrated me was witness unreliability. It’s very hard to get a reliable witness, because when you’re in the moment, people change their stories over time. They add, and interpolate. And sometimes I was just like, “God, you are an unreliable narrator. You are seeing and remembering this through all sorts of layers of assumptions.” A crime has been committed [and] this person is scarred, and yet I can’t get an objective account of it. That was so difficult and so frustrating that I was like, “It would be so great if we could just put him through a tank [and] see what the hell happened.” And then not have to traumatize this person on the stand, trying to defend their version of a memory and how it felt, when everybody else is like, “Was it a man in a green coat or a man in a brown coat?” I just wish there were an easier way to go through memory in cases like that.

Reminiscence premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on Aug. 20.

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of Never Say You Can’t Survive, a guide to using creative writing to get through hard times. Coming in November: Even Greater Mistakes, a short story collection.

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