If You Tell ‘Reminiscence’ Director Lisa Joy To Stay In Her Lane, She’ll Just Make A New One

Almost from the moment, in Reminiscence‘s opening voiceover, when Hugh Jackman’s character describes memory as “A bead on the necklace of time,” you can sense that what you’re watching isn’t going to be the usual thing.

The film, written and directed by Lisa Joy (the co-creator of Westworld, with her husband, Jonathan Nolan) is set in a flooded, future Miami where nostalgia is big business. Hugh Jackman plays Bannister, a guy who, along with his partner, Watts (Thandie Newton), sells memories. Reminiscence is sci-fi in a way that we rarely see, action-packed, but not action-driven, neither bellicose nor satirical. It’s dense with mythology, so dense that it’s almost disorienting at first, and yet Reminiscence‘s futurism is a means more to explore feelings than to escape them, both unapologetically deep and entirely earnest.

Partly, Reminiscence isn’t the usual kind of thing because Lisa Joy isn’t. Before she wrote for television, Joy was a Stanford grad who worked as a McKinsey consultant, before eventually graduating from Harvard law. She loved writing all the while, though was perhaps too much the product of pragmatic immigrants (her father is English, her mother Taiwanese) to pursue it as a career. At least, not until a spec script for Veronica Mars she wrote while studying for the bar got her her first writing job — on the show Pushing Daisies, which she eventually left to write for Burn Notice, on which she was the only female writer. Reminiscence, from a script she first sold in 2013, is imbued with that DNA: casually brainy, unabashedly romantic.

One thing you have to keep in mind reading a transcript of Lisa Joy is that while she actually does quote Yeats poems that she can recite by heart — a phenomenon I thought only existed in movies, I had never before experienced it in real life — she also sounds every bit the part of someone who grew up in New Jersey. It’s an accent that’s recognizable more for its urgency than its vaguely nasal vowel tones, defined more by its dishiness than its slightly mushy consonants or staccato phrasing. Which is to say, it’s not really the accent of someone you expect to extemporaneously recite Yeats. Yet that’s part of Joy’s appeal. “I don’t want to stay in my lane,” she says.

It makes me very curious about the vernacular stew of the Joy-Nolan household, which combines Joy — conversant in Chinese, with a Jersey accent — and Nolan, who somehow sounds like a guy from Chicago despite being the brother of Christopher Nolan, who sounds distinctly British (Lisa and Jonathan actually met at the premiere of Memento). This has always fascinated me, but I never quite got around to asking about it. It’s just a little hard to broach that subject when someone is in the midst of quoting Yeats.

Or probably Lisa Joy just stories that were more interesting to explore than her husband’s confusing accent. Like the time Drew Goddard torpedoed his own director’s meeting to defend her vision in front of a sexist movie exec. Or the time her parents stuffed her in the back of a U-Haul to go see a Michael J. Fox movie. We spoke over Zoom this past week.

Vince, I’m going to warn you something right now. There is a chance I might throw up because my son gave me his stomach bug, but do not take it personally if I do.

I’ll take it as a high compliment.

I’m going to puke just a little bit, but I’ll just rebound. We’ll time how long the puke takes, be sure to extend the interview that exact amount, and I will try to hit the mute button beforehand if it does happen.

Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll be here either way. So, I thought there were some really cool establishing shots in this. Can you tell me about creating the look of the setting?

The world, this kind of sunken world, was always really important to me, but I also knew that I had about a quarter of the budget of most films. The great thing is we built some of it practically, so we were able to build the Coconut Club and that street and sink it. But I knew that I wanted to establish a world in a way that not a lot of films of this budget are allowed explore. I think working on Westworld has taught me some tricks about doing things on a budget, and I knew that water was getting easier for people to make in visual effects. I also am a big believer in giving my incredible visual effects supervisor all the tools he needed to succeed, which are getting as many drone shots and as many practical shots as possible so he’s never just building from nothing.

So was that a real skyline in the opening?

Yeah, we went to Miami. I think we scraped together three days to shoot and ran around like crazy people with Jonah [Jonathan Nolan] and Hugh, getting changed on public trains just to have the shots. I told my cast before we went, I was like, we can’t afford to do any of this stuff so you guys cannot bring an entourage or anything like that, I can’t pay for their ticket. And then I flew coach! I was like, I’m going to get these shots cause I need them for Miami. I do think that if you’re trying to sell Miami, you can’t shoot a whole thing in New Orleans. It really helps to ground it to do a bit of practical photography.

Did you always have this envisioned as a movie or was it ever a series or a book in your head?

I came from TV initially, and so of course the idea of a private investigator of the mind, of course you could have a weekly installment. But I didn’t really want to do that, just in terms of the repetitiveness of it. Features, that’s what I do almost like a hobby. My day job is in TV. When I’m writing something for myself, that’s when I go to features and I’m often trying to figure out something for myself. It’s a form of expiation in a way, more so than a journal entry or something. And so for me, I was fascinated by the idea of nostalgia.

I was pregnant at the time and my grandfather had died and I was thinking about all the times in our lives that would be meaningful, but I was also coming off of a very hard experience at work, where I was the only woman staffed on a show for a couple years. And this was before #MeToo, and there were no repercussions. I used to think of that poem, the Yeats poem, Leda and the Swan about, did she put on his knowledge and his wisdom and his power before the indifferent beak could let her drop? And it’s about the fact that I didn’t have any power and I had to contend with all these ideas of what men think about women. Even when I was selling Reminiscence, it was, it should be a romance, or why isn’t there a rom-com? Don’t you want to do that?

And I was like, no I want to do an action noir. I don’t want to stay in my lane. And that’s why I had to kind of sell it on the open market. Because when I walked into a room, all of a sudden, the idea of what I should be writing would change. I’ve gravitated towards male genres. Westerns, sci-fi, and now noir, in part because it allows me to tease out a little undercurrent of something that I think people have overlooked, the perspective of a woman in some of these things.

I read in another interview that you weren’t allowed to watch TV or movies as a kid.

Yeah, I just wasn’t allowed to, man! I was really nerdy. I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey and we didn’t have a lot of money. I’m a first-generation American so, I don’t know. They wanted me to study and I did, and I read a lot of books. But even books were a little too like, you’re not going to get a job with health insurance reading books. I’m sure you know this, it’s like, anybody who says they want to do anything involving writing, every parent’s mind just explodes a little bit and bleeds out of their ear, which is understandable cause you always want your kids to be safe.

Although once, for a birthday party, my parents took me and a couple of classmates, they rented, I can’t believe this, a U-Haul truck. You know one of those moving vehicles? We were, I don’t know, seven, ten, something like that, and we all bundled into the back and they closed the thing and it was pitch dark. No anything, just a bunch of young elementary school kids in the back of U-Haul. We drove to the movie theater, and the movie they took me to, my mom liked it because she thought it might be about a very successful person, because it was called The Secret of My Success. And it’s not about some dude getting into Harvard or anything like that. I do remember, at one point, a girl pulls down a guy’s pants in a swimming pool and my mom screamed. And so, I didn’t get to see a lot of them, but I do remember that one.

This one obviously feels like it has a film noir, femme fatale kind of influence. Were there specific movies or books that you were drawing on?

Yeah, I wanted to go with the classics. For me, part of the fun is just like in Westworld, how we looked at a lot of traditional westerns, and then the thing that we tried to do was pry at it from a different angle. So it was a subtle thing, but it was also a kind of turning it inside out. And so I was looking and studying a bunch of Fatales and one of them that I loved a lot for this was Out of the Past. That is a pretty good example of a detective chasing a femme fatale and kind of trying to figure out who the hell she is. Vertigo, which is not really noir, but about the male gaze. I thought, Hitchcock, he’s a pretty good director to look at for inspiration. Slaughterhouse Five is a novel I love and I found deeply moving and also deals with time and kind of meaning. And then a bunch of poetry and stuff that is probably too pretentious to mention. And art stuff, you don’t want to hear that.

This plot deals with selling nostalgia. Did you ever, in trying to sell this project, did you ever run up against people wanting you to sell nostalgia more? Wanting it to not be an original story and maybe be something else?

Well, the thing that they did want was, I was in a meeting once with someone who said, “You have to make Mae [Rebecca Ferguson’s character, the femme fatale] more likable, so that Bannister [Hugh Jackman, the detective] will look more manly. You have to make her more kind of supple and vulnerable. You have to give her a tragic backstory or else people, they won’t understand, and he won’t look manly. They also wanted a very happy ending. I think I do have a happy ending, by the way, but they wanted a more traditionally happy ending. Because I’m a producer on the project, I said no, and this is a story that involves Drew Goddard, who is just a lovely gentleman. I’d never met him before and I was pregnant at the time that this meeting happened, and he was there to talk about maybe directing it.

They had just brought him in to talk about it, and I didn’t know him, though I’m, a huge fan of his work. And so the person talked about how they wanted this to be the ending and the way it should go. And they said, “Well, you’ve got to talk some sense into her. She’s pregnant so she’s just emotional.”

And Drew, to his credit, not knowing me at all, and this is an industry in which I had never seen anything like this happen, he just turns to me, basically ruins the meeting for himself and is like, “Don’t change a fucking word. This is why it’s special.”

I’ve never seen someone just stick up for me. I was used to just blowing it off. And we were friends ever since. I was coming off of this difficult experience and it was incredibly transformative.

You talked about getting a note about likability. That seems like it’s sort of the ultimate studio note, that they want characters to be more likable. What do you think about that? Is likability, even a thing that you strive for with characters?

I always strive for likeability, I just think I like different people than what the classic Hollywood model says. I don’t know the girl that they’re describing. I can’t like her cause she’s fiction. I like the women that I know and the complexities that we discuss and it’s not always tied up in a tidy bow. And look, there is something wonderful about tropes and stereotypes, it’s an easy way to sort and classify the world. This world, let’s face it, is chaotic. So if you can find a way to simplify everything and be like, “Okay, this is a superhero movie so it’s going to have action and some deadpan humor and–” and “This is an arthouse film so it’s going to be very slow, but very meaningful and profound and beautiful.”

I like all those types of films, but I do not believe in these artificial distinctions. I don’t see a reason why Chloe Zhao shouldn’t make The Eternals and Nomadland or make a mashup of the two. I think genre in itself suffers from a gaze that is too strict. I dropped out of a lot of projects about writing Asian characters when I have not been able to agree with the type of Asian representation that they found marketable — which is “sad Asian immigrant” or “nerdy Asian Harvard lawyer.” These are literally things that are said, it’s not subtext.

And those people exist, I actually am a nerdy Asian lawyer, so it’s not like we don’t exist. But that wasn’t the only story that I wanted to tell. To try to break out of those boxes is painful. And when you’re the kind of person who, when people look at you and want to give you a rom-com, you say, no, I want to do this other thing, it’s a hard road. But I do this first and foremost for understanding the world, and I think that if I can understand it a little better by writing my way through it, then maybe someone else can too.

It seems like when people say to make a character more likable, it’s like they want them to be more traditionally moral in some way.

They want them to be safe and charming and do all the classically right things to quote-unquote deserve male affection. And I think we all know what those things are. You can be a little funny and smart, but not too smart. Sexy, but not slutty. Manic, pixie, dream girls were really in, but not so in anymore. So just a little dream girlish, but small, small dose of it. And honestly, every meeting I go to, I know, depending on what outfit I wear, I’ll be treated completely differently, and I don’t mean like a bikini versus a suit. I just mean, am I wearing makeup? Am I not wearing makeup? What do I want to be to them? Because it will absolutely determine the course of the conversation. And men I don’t think have as much variability to them, and it’s the same with people of color. I have a friend who’s black who was really interested in writing about the Salem witch trials, cause that’s what interested him, and every meeting he went into, people just couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that he would want to be interested in that. That’s what he likes. I like writing action. And there’s maybe not a clear lane for it, but you got to try to make one, I guess.

[She did not end up puking]

‘Reminiscence’ is available now in theaters and on HBO Max. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.