Perusing Lisa Joy’s professional CV, it’s easy to assume that she’s had a clear career trajectory since she landed a spot in the writer’s room for Pushing Daisies back in 2007. After it was canceled, Joy shifted to Miami noir hit Burn Notice, and in 2016 co-created an updated adaptation of Westworld with her husband, Jonah Nolan. But in truth, “attorney” was the actual intended path for Joy, the daughter of English and Taiwanese immigrants.
A Stanford grad and Harvard Law student, she passed the California bar and then worked as a consultant in Silicon Valley. But going back to her childhood in New Jersey, Joy was also always writing. She never formally pursued it as a viable career until Michael Green (Heroes, Logan) recommended her spec to Bryan Fuller, who then staffed her in the Pushing Daisies room, and she’s never looked back. But that doesn’t mean she’s quite wrapped her head around the concept that she is, by all definitions, a professional writer.
“Even now, when people ask what I do for a living, I just reflexively say ‘lawyer.’ I just can’t quite say writer because I think I’ll just feel like a poser,” Joy told Paste in a recent Zoom interview. “I think I respect the job so much and idolize it, I feel like it’s something that someone else gets to be.”
And yet, Joy can add feature film writer/director to her expanding list of titles with the release of Reminiscence on August 20. Based on an original script she wrote a few years ago, the film is a near-future noir set in Miami, where global warming has flooded seaside cities and polarized the social fabric even more for the haves and the have-nots. Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) is a P.I. with a side gig renting tech that allows people to relive their memories as an escape from reality. Deeply smitten with a new client, the enigmatic Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), Bannister’s life is turned upside down after she disappears and he obsessively runs back through his memories of her to peel back the truths of her life.
As one of the rare women in Hollywood who has been able to rack up sci-fi successes in TV and transition that into features, Joy took Paste on a journey through her own life, and how she’s still figuring out what professional title she wants to embrace most.
Paste: There’s a little bit of everything in Reminiscence: Action, noir romance, sci-fi, a thriller. As a kid, do you remember which of those was your earliest passion?
Lisa Joy: I wasn’t really allowed to watch TV or films when I was a kid. I started watching them when I was in college as an au pair. I used to teach kids with learning disabilities, and when they had gone to bed, I would watch black-and-white films and that’s how I got acquainted with noir. But I was in my 20s then. When I was younger, the only films I really saw were when I used to go to Asia. There’s this Monkey King story where [he] fights with a bo staff. He’s the coolest monkey and his name is Sun Wukong. I was obsessed with him and I would run around with sticks and try to beat people up. That’s where my love of action came from.
You have lived in a sci-fi storytelling space in recent years. Was there a seminal piece for you?
Joy: I think of sci-fi and genre in general as just modern myths. I must have been about seven and we have family friends in upstate New York, so I would go to their house. They had Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It’s so iconic in my memory. I started reading that and I became absolutely obsessed with Greek myth. I kept pushing in that direction in a variety of cultures and mythologies. I think that ultimately is why sci-fi feels so familiar to me. It’s modern mythology.
You can see the Reminiscence themes of epic romance and noir even in your first series, Pushing Daisies. How was that show as a first gig?
Joy: You could not have gotten a more new newbie than I was in the Pushing Daisies room. Literally two days before entering the room, I’d never set foot in a writer’s room before. I hadn’t had an agent. I hadn’t been an assistant. I had no idea what I was in for. I didn’t know if we would sit in a room and talk, or whether they would just send us to a remote location and chain us to a dungeon. Then I go in this room and literally I’m like, “Everybody stares at a whiteboard all day. And they draw lines on it. And then they say ideas.” It was really, really foreign to me. But it was a great way to learn and it was a great show to learn on. I’m still friends with Bryan Fuller.
What did that first job imprint on your writer’s DNA?
Joy: The thing that Bryan did that was great is his vision for worlds is so fully fleshed out. He is very authorial. He knows the world looks so unique because he has something in his mind and it’s very specific. And he very much does the thing that you are not supposed to do as a writer, that I now do too, which is direct from the page: We are the camera seeing this and pulling out. Because in TV, it’s how you can maintain tone and set the stage for a series that has continuity. In TV, the showrunner is, in a way, the director. And so when I’m writing features—and it probably would be annoying for a different director for me to direct from the page—but for me, it’s very helpful because I’m just transcribing the movie that I see in my head while I’m writing to the page so that my team can help bring it to life. It’s like the beginning of storyboarding for me.
You explore the intersection of technology and humanity in Westworld and now Reminiscence. What’s interesting about that space for you?
Joy: I think the mixed blessing of coming to film and TV late is that I don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of many directors of films, because I literally have not been able to commit as much time to watching the films as they have. I have some catching up to do on that once my children allow me to watch movies. But that means that when I come to these things, it’s from a very pure place. The idea that an action movie must be lots of punching, but not a lot of intellectualism, or a romantic movie is just sweet and saccharine, but there’s no danger, no edge; genre is artificial just like character tropes are artificial. They are shorthand ways of coalescing essentially memes that have developed over time in literature. I am not as familiar with those things.
When I was writing Reminiscence, I was pregnant, unemployed and pretty much figuring I would go back to being a lawyer. I had nothing left to lose, and I wasn’t writing for anybody but myself. In moments like that, I just wrote the kind of things that interested me so there was a lot of action, and there was some romance and there was some intellectualism. But also, a lot of heart. I do think that no matter what genre you’re working in, if you can’t feel a connection to your characters or that world internally, then certainly no one else will. And that’s where a lot of my specific work comes from, I think.
Because there was a lag between when you wrote Reminiscence and then filmed it in 2019, was this a script you tinkered with a lot as you came back to it?
Joy: One of the best things any writer, or certainly myself can do, is to be able to revisit a script with fresh eyes. This is why once my work is done and it’s been put out there, I never watch it again. Because I know I’ll have new fresh eyes and I will be filled with shame. I just am filled with shame, so I just have to block it out entirely. But this had a long incubation period, so I was able to look at it again with fresh eyes. The core of it, most of it didn’t change; a line or two here of dialogue, where I was like I’ve got something funnier here, or I can go a little deeper here.
Where I think it really took a new step, in terms of its evolution, was when I attached myself to direct it. I really needed to know the world inside out. And I needed to know exactly the aesthetic I wanted and the world I wanted, and the world I was prepared to make and bring to life. That is when I shifted it to Miami and I added water and I made it noir. Because those were things that I was very interested in, but I didn’t want to presuppose with a different director and dictate that kind of stuff. With me, I knew I could.
The other place it evolved was Saint Joe. When I was lucky enough to get Daniel Wu interested, I knew there were things that I wanted to explore about the Asian American experience, very specifically. I talked about that with him. And even getting to write Chinglish, as we call it, which is that mix of Chinese that I speak at home, was fun for me. It was the side of my life that I haven’t been able to express before that casting Daniel as an actor allowed me to really explore.
Let’s talk about how you came to direct. Did your experience directing Westworld ignite this new pursuit?
Joy: You know what, I didn’t push myself to direct. I was pushed into it very lovingly by my husband. He really believed in me, just in the same way that he got me my first screenwriting software. And he doesn’t sugarcoat it. In fact, I think we’re harder on each other because we’re so close and we don’t want each other to fail or look foolish. The first time I directed, once again, I was pregnant. I just keep getting knocked up for stuff. But I was super pregnant and about to have a baby and I was running a writer’s room. Life was busy.
We talked about me directing that season and I’d been interested. But I never really feel entitled to do things. I have a very diligent work ethic where I’m like, “I’m going to work and work and work and work, and then maybe, one day, I’ll earn it.” I think that I would keep doing that forever without making a leap if it was up to my druthers. But when I was really pregnant, Jonah said, “This is your time to direct. I know that you’re interested in it. You look at things from a directorial perspective. And we’ve done so much producing, it’s like you’re kind of directing already.” And I said, “You’re crazy. Also, look at me. I’m super pregnant.” He said, “You got this. If not now, when? There’s always a reason. Why not?” And I was like, “Well, the reason why not is because this episode that you wrote, I will have been two weeks out of the hospital from delivering a child when we start prep.” And he was like, “But it’s a hell of a good episode, eh?”
He basically said, “Consider this your push present.” And I loved [the script] so much, that I was like, “Fine. I’m gonna direct.”
How did it go?
Joy: It was crazy. I was running on a scout, sweating like mad because your body hasn’t really fully adjusted after giving birth. Then I was pumping all over the place between takes, but I had the support of an incredible crew and an incredible team who didn’t even blink at having a woman having to breastfeed in between takes. It didn’t slow us down. Nobody talked about it. We just got on with it. Jonah, not only did he co-write this amazing script for me, but he was very much helping take care of the kids at home so at that really young age I could leave them and pursue this dream. Once taking the step, I will own it and work as hard as possible. But sometimes it does take the people you love believing in you, and maybe sometimes they believe in you even more than you believe in yourself. I was very lucky to have that.
Did that experience make directing Reminiscence less of a proverbial mountain?
Joy: Doing something already demystifies the process for you. And I felt this even before entering entertainment when I was in the business world, or the high-tech world. Especially as a woman, there’s so many things that are thought of as outside your purview and foreign. They have these weird, very specific lexicons that they use to describe some of the phenomena in those rarefied fields. It really creates a barrier, where you feel unworthy of even entering that domain.
Once I had cut my teeth directing, I thought this job is challenging and rewarding. And just like any other job, you’re going to get out of it what you put into it, in terms of your thoughts, your care, your time and your commitment to your team and their commitment to you. It’s just that simple. The thing that I think saves me, aside from writing and disappearing into writing, is when I’m working, I think of nothing else other than doing justice to the world as far as I can, within the limits of my imagination. And mostly doing as much justice to my team members who I know are giving me a tremendous gift with their time and talent and collaboration.
Reminiscence is also original IP. With your company, you do a mix of original and adaptation projects. Do you feel the noose tightening around original IP projects?
Joy: Well, even though Westworld was a pre-existing property, I didn’t want to do it unless we were able to do something wholly new with it. Every single character, the world and general conceit of it was different. For me, doing this kind of work is an incredible luxury and you should follow your creative instincts. I don’t begrudge anyone who does adaptations and franchises. I think they do incredible work. But I also feel that, for myself, the things that interest me most as a creative are things that spring more from my head. I think it’s also where my talents lie. Now, of course, it is harder to get an original made nowadays because there is a safety built into the marketing, and the brand awareness of franchises. And that is scary. But I can’t worry about that as an artist. I can only make the kind of things that I want to see and hope that, somehow, they connect with people. But I would miss independent and original films if they went away.
Currently, you and Jonah are shooting the next season of Westworld, and you’ve got a feature film under your belt. What path is wooing you most going forward?
Joy: We go through different chapters in our lives, especially where the exterior gaze defines us as something. And that was something that Rebecca [Ferguson] and I really wanted to dismantle, that gaze and categories of women in this film. So, I understand that maybe representing myself as a lawyer is probably not the right answer right now, and probably not what other people will see me as. But if I think about how I identify most consistently, and the thing that I go back to, it’s basically “nerd hermit.” The thing that’s preoccupying me right now is which cave I’m going to hide in after this so I can work on the next thing. I’m gonna nerd hermit to a good location, and if you have any suggestions…?
Reminiscence hits theaters and HBO Max on August 20, 2021.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.