At 2018’s South By Southwest Conference, HBO and the marketing agency Giant Spoon created an epic promotion for Westworld, HBO’s series about a far-future Old West theme park where the rich elite play out their fantasies of heroism and villainy. Giant Spoon significantly rebuilt Texas’ existing J. Lorraine Ghost Town as a two-acre, real-life version of Sweetwater, a small Westworld town packed with plot hooks for visitors. They populated it with more than 60 costumed actors playing “hosts,” realistic humanoid robots that play a significant part in the Westworld story. Our SXSW culture team visited Sweetwater, and in these three linked articles, we each explore our versions of the experience, both within the story and behind the scenes.
The woman in the blue dress leaned in close to the sheriff of Sweetwater, whispering something into his ear — and he suddenly froze.
Moments earlier, he’d witnessed a murder in the town square, and had drawn his gun against the two men responsible. But now he just stood there, lifeless, as if he couldn’t even hear the duo saying that it had taken them seven trips here to finally pull off the killing. The woman in the dress — sunlight glinting off the “Delos, Inc.” pin she wore — took a look at the restless townsfolk and shouted: “Freeze all motor functions!”
And that’s what we did — each and every one of us.
We were hosts in Westworld, after all.
Over the course of three days, HBO’s Westworld attraction — dubbed the “Live Without Limits Weekend” — was the topic of conversation at SXSW. Roughly 4,000 guests visited the town over the course of three days, with some people coming in for quick 90-minute jaunts, and others showing up early in the day and hanging out until closing. On the night before the activation opened, I was able to visit the park for the press walk-through. My colleague Nick Statt and I talked to the hosts, stopped at the Mariposa for a drink, and got our photo taken by the town’s new photographer. We visited the post office, and wrote postcards that would be sent to our friends and family.
But the following day, the Giant Spoon team put me into the actual show, offering me the opportunity to take on the role of a host. As it turned out, that was the best way to understand what life as a Sweetwater resident was really like.
Building the park
The discussions for the SXSW event started soon after HBO completed its successful Westworld: The Experience interactive activation at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con. For the follow-up, the network turned to Giant Spoon, the marketing agency behind Comic-Con’s immersive Blade Runner 2049 installation.
“The team at HBO briefed us on the strategy, giving us some understanding on how season 2 is gonna unpack, and how the show creators were thinking about it,” Giant Spoon co-founder Trevor Guthrie tells me. “We ultimately settled on [creating] the park experience. And HBO was like, ‘Do you guys really think you can do this? This is audacious and bold.’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, we think this is possible.’”
In terms of practical execution, that meant finding a location that could functionally work for the park, while also not straying too far from downtown Austin, Texas, where SXSW is centered. The team took over part of an existing, home-grown amusement park called the J. Lorraine Ghost Town in nearby Manor, Texas, and spent five weeks building out the existing structures, bringing the place up to the necessary safety codes, and hauling in a train car actually used in the Westworld series.
“We really wanted that moment when you step off the train, and you’re looking down the main drag into Sweetwater. It was all about recreating that moment,” says Steven Cardwell, HBO’s director of program marketing and marketing strategy. “We wanted it to be exactly like the show, and represent that feeling of what it would be like to actually get off the train in Westworld.”
Meet Virgil Tucker
Every character who walked the streets of Sweetwater not only had their own specific scenes to play as part of the overarching plot, they each also had their own clearly articulated character profile. Selling the illusion of being a host meant the actors would need to improvise on the fly, drawing on their characters’ origins, allegiances, and secrets. Overseeing the entire creative process to make sure it remained true to the plans of the series, Cardwell says, were Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. “They read every page, every word, of every script — because god forbid we say something in there that’s contradictory to this whole world they’ve built,” he says.
The two-pronged approach ended up giving Sweetwater a palpable sense of verisimilitude and discovery. A guest chatting with Sheriff Baggert (Brad Hills) might learn that his wife and children had been killed several years ago, and that he had fallen in love with one of the women at the Mariposa. While chatting up town clergyman Homer Jorgenson (Tom Stell), guests might pick up on the idea that he had something to hide — and sure enough, they’d later learn he was involved in a plot to rip off the Sweetwater bank.
My character was going to be a deputy named Virgil Tucker, a new arrival in Sweetwater. While I wouldn’t need to worry about acting out any specific scenes, Virgil did receive the full backstory treatment, and a couple weeks before SXSW, Giant Spoon and writer-director David Wally offered me several takes on Virgil: he could be a confident fourth-generation lawman, a tentative rookie, a corrupt cop, a skittish coward scared of Sweetwater’s tougher elements, or a sadistic deputy who thought residents needed harsher punishment. We ended up going with a hybrid: my Deputy Tucker had just come to town after living in Pariah, but on the side, he’d also gotten himself wrapped up in the plot to rob the Sweetwater bank.
Living the host life
While the Westworld activation was open all day, the narrative within the park was run as a two-hour loop. The overarching storyline was relatively straightforward: a bank robbery had been planned, and over the course of the two hours, a number of hosts would create various distractions that set the stage for the heist. Everything culminated in the town square, when the heist storyline overlapped with some B-stories focused on a love triangle, and various characters seeking revenge over personal matters. In the final scene, the production would break the fourth wall when a host named Frank Dellacorte (Steve Rally) was killed by a Sweetwater resident who actually turned out to be a guest on a Westworld vacation. The entire production would then stop — freeze all motor functions! — while Delos lab technicians tended to Dellacorte and removed his body. Afterward, the hosts were sent back to their starting positions, and the entire loop began again.
Within the park, guests would occasionally hear a ringing bell. That was actually Tully, signaling that it was time for the show’s various act breaks. Movement throughout the entire park was tightly choreographed, with every character given a specific path to follow, so they’d need to be in the right places at the right time for specific scenes to land. But otherwise, they were free to banter with each other and interact with guests. In that sense, the entire production truly was like the Westworld of the TV show: it was a town full of residents who went about the same actions every single day, whether anybody was there to watch them or not.
After getting outfitted by the show’s costume designer in my deputy costume — unfortunately, they only had a left-handed gun belt, so I’d have to fake it on that front — I assumed I’d be given some specific instructions, or would at least join the show at the start of a loop. Instead, I was just walked out into the park to meet Sheriff Baggert, and joined him as we roamed the streets of Sweetwater, talking to townsfolk and visitors alike.
I’ve grown accustomed to playing myself in fictional scenarios through immersive theater and alternate reality games. During SXSW, I even crossed dimensions and eventually died in a four-day interactive “SimuLife.” But taking on Deputy Tucker’s persona was different. Thankfully, I could fall back on Tucker’s status as a Sweetwater newb, and let the sheriff do the talking while I furrowed my brow a lot. But I quickly realized I actually didn’t have to do much to make it seem like I was a host in Sweetwater. People would spot the costume, and assume I was exactly what I appeared to be. Guests visiting Westworld wanted to believe in the illusion, and it quickly became clear that all I really needed to do was be present in the moment, and chit-chat with the sheriff and other deputies about the weather, the strange guests visiting the town, or the love lives of the various residents. That, and avoid messing up a name or anything else that would make me stand out.
Wanted dead or alive (but mostly alive)
As a deputy, one of my duties was to mind the sheriff’s office and the Sweetwater jail. Wanted posters would be dropped off to us every time a new batch of visitors would arrive from Austin, and we’d nail up the posters so visitors would have the opportunity to track down the “outlaws,” whether the person in question was a friend or a complete stranger. I worked alongside Deputy Cobb Winslow (Randy McPherson) — an old-timer with a good-natured sense of humor — and Deputy Hamilton Butler (Ezekiel Swinford), a married lawman who confided in me that he was carrying on a secret affair with a younger woman. When a wanted guest was turned in, we’d stick them in the jail cell for a quick photo op, then let them go. (Bounty hunters were rewarded with a gold coin that doubled as a drink token in one of Sweetwater’s bars.)
But when we weren’t taking in captives, my fellow deputies and I would just hang outside the sheriff’s office and chat, like we were two people living and working in this strange western town. To the credit of the entire cast, the hours I spent in Sweetwater as Deputy Tucker were filled with moments that felt magically ordinary: talking to the residents about their problems, families, hopes, and dreams. A woman named Molly (Tiffany Feese) stopped by to talk about her father, the town drunk (Dan Tippen). Cobb cheered her up by recalling a childhood encounter with her father, which made her smile. The same conversations happened every time the loop reset, in the same way that Westworld protagonist Dolores Abernathy was always fated to pick up the same can of food in the television show’s early episodes. That was the best way to understand what Sweetwater had to offer: I didn’t have to worry about taking pictures, finding out if the church from the show was part of the town, or any of the other things the guests seemed concerned with. I could just spend time with the characters, loop after loop, learning what their “lives” were like.
While there were gaming elements in Sweetwater, there really wasn’t a game to play. Each guest had a personalized letter waiting at the post office, but while some letters directed them to do something specific, like talk to Sheriff Baggert, others appeared to just be cryptic riddles, meant to set the mood. Some guests were frustrated as a result; given the show’s penchant for mindgames and puzzles, it was easy to assume that even the smallest clue was pointing toward some larger quest. Plenty of guests tracked us down at the sheriff’s office and were dismayed that the sheriff himself wasn’t actually there. Others would show up looking for drink tokens, and were disappointed if there weren’t any outstanding warrants available. Dealing with the crowds as a Sweetwater lawman became bit of a dance. Half of the time, we were making sure guests felt like they were having an authentic, meaningful interaction; while the other half, we were directing them to areas like the Mariposa or the town’s new photography studio, so they wouldn’t feel like they’d hit a dead end. But if a guest was several drinks into the day, or was eager to see how far they could push things before the illusion would break, the dynamics could get aggressive.
At one point, a banker played by actor Richard Dodwell approached Deputy Cobb with a complaint: a young woman had stolen a drink token from his hand and run off. But as he lowered his voice, it became clear that this wasn’t a bit of story he was inventing; this had actually happened, and Dodwell was trying to find a way to address the situation without breaking character. Deputy Cobb lamented how rude some of the newcomers in town were, and we took down a description of the woman in question. Eventually, a friend of the thief turned her in, and after a few moments in the Sweetwater jail, everything went back to normal. Behind the scenes, it was clear that the production had plenty of security and support staff just out of sight in the event of a real emergency, but the exchange with the banker spoke to the very specific demands put on performers in these kind of installations. Maintaining the illusion of the fiction is key, or else the actions of one rowdy visitor can break the experience for every other guest in the park.
A town full of easter eggs
Life as a deputy primarily revolved around talking to guests and keeping watch, but for those visiting the park, there were a bounty of hidden surprises. All of Sweetwater’s clocks were stuck at 4:22, a subtle reminder of the second season’s April 22 premiere date. A small shack in the back of town had a suspiciously modern electronic lock — and if guests entered “0422” as the code, they would find a chamber that looked like a stone cave. Inside that, a hidden button would open a secret door, revealing a Delos technician working on the second season’s new “drone host” character. And guests in the right place at the right time might even come face-to-face with an armored samurai, a host from Westworld’s sister park, Shogun World.
“We buried a lot. Literally buried stuff in the park,” Cardwell explains. “One of the things we knew superfans would [know] is that the maze was in Dolores’ grave in season one. And so we just rested a shovel up against a tree and did nothing, said nothing. And sure enough, one person just took it upon themselves to grab that shovel and start digging, and found the maze. The thing winds up on Reddit, and then by the end of the day, the hole is actually, and I shit you not, the diameter of this table.”
Also buried in the ground: additional replicas of the “maze” prop, Shogun World equivalents of the Westworld drink tokens, and rolled-up copies of the horse paintings Dolores is seen painting in the first season. Duplicates of the spaceman-like drawings created by Maeve (Thandie Newton) were also found in various locations, or sent to individual guests via the post office. Hosts knew full well who Teddy and Dolores were — but if guests tried to point out one of the white-clad Delos technicians who would occasionally surface in the park, the hosts would claim they couldn’t see them at all.
Westworld For Real
While it ran for just three days, HBO’s installation was unquestionably a highlight of this year’s SXSW conference — and given how ideally suited an immersive experience is to the show, it does raise the question of whether HBO is interested in creating a long-term version of the park, where audiences would actually pay to visit Sheriff Baggert, Frank Dellacorte, and the town’s other residents. Functionally, the Sweetwater activation was strikingly similar to Sleep No More, the groundbreaking immersive theater production, wrapped in Westworld clothing. So I ask Cardwell and Guthrie — why not go all the way?
There’s a long pause, almost as if Cardwell’s gauging what he should say on the record. When he finally does answer, it’s clear that a permanent Westworld installation isn’t in the cards anytime soon. “That sounds like a tall order,” he acknowledges. “Nothing’s off the table, but just give us a minute. It would be great, but it would take a whole other team of people to keep that thing going. It’s a serious machine.”
“One of the big things that Jonah and Lisa are so adamant about is, wherever we go, we wanna go big, we wanna be there, we wanna have a real presence, we wanna be what everyone is talking about,” he continues. Simply repeating the same thing doesn’t make sense — hence the impetus for dramatically upping the ante from the Westworld experience it put together for last year’s Comic-Con. “But I think you could say this was a continuation of what we started in San Diego. So it’s how can we build on these ideas. Not saying that we’re going to keep scaling up and up and up, but I think we’re gonna build on this idea of marketing, and it’s a schematic of what we’re doing here.”
Whatever comes next, I just hope Deputy Tucker gets to go along for the ride.