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How Lisa Joy's "Leap of Faith" Led to One of 2016's Biggest TV Hits
February 16, 2017
Lisa is the co-creator and executive producer of the much-talked-about fantasy drama, Westworld, which received a Golden Globe nomination for best television drama series. Creative writing had long been a passion of hers, but her ideas about what constituted a “respectable life” might have kept her on a very different path. In a feature in Cosmopolitan, Lisa chronicles the journey that took her from management consulting and law school to the creative halls of HBO. 

Writing as relief

Lisa Joy (LAN 99-01, 05-07) actually began her professional life in Hollywood but in the areas of finance and high tech for entertainment companies and strategy for a film studio. Through several years of being professionally “writing room-adjacent,” however, she found time to access her creativity.

"No matter how long my day job hours were, I always made time to write," she told Cosmopolitan. "I wrote fiction, short stories, and poetry. I never shared it with anybody . . . I started taking UCLA extension classes for short stories and poetry. It was like a gift to myself and it allowed me to indulge in my sheer love of writing."

After becoming “[a] little bit restless,” Lisa decided to go to law school. She describes the practical motivation, saying, “When you don’t have a safety net economically as a young lady, you need to understand the systems around you . . . Having an understanding of the law is one way of doing that.”

The move from Los Angeles to Cambridge, Massachusetts put a lot of distance between her and her corporate job, but her then-boyfriend made sure that she’d never be too far from her writing: "Before I went to law school, [my then boyfriend, now husband] gave me a gift that changed my life . . . I opened it up and it was a bunch of metal brads that hold script pages together. Then he gave me a card, which was a gift certificate for me to buy screenwriting software for myself. He said, 'I see your passion for writing and how hard you work at it. I always believe that having the right tool for a job is half the battle.' He gave me the tool that I needed."

She used those tools to write her “first proper TV script” while she was in law school. She gave it to an old college friend, who passed it on to Bryan Fuller, who was developing a new show called Pushing Daisies. She thought that was the end of it. After passing the California Bar and rejoining McKinsey in San Francisco, however, she got word that, if she chose, it might be just the beginning: "About two weeks later, I was in the middle of running a meeting when I got a call. This guy said, 'You just got the job.' I said, 'That’s amazing and incredible! It will take a few months or so to finish up with this company, then I can fly back to L.A. and start as a writer.' The guy said, 'This job starts tomorrow. If you’re not there, you don’t get it.'"

Driven by rude awakenings

With this TV writing offer on the table – alongside her notions of job security and staring at loans from Harvard Law School – Lisa had to make a decision. "I had to take this leap of faith and it was a little scary for me. But because it was a writing job, I thought, 'This is it, I can have a passion for my work that I never even dared to dream of.'"

Writing for Pushing Daisies, Lisa was where she had clearly dreamed of being but soon discovered that she had entered a very specific space that could be hostile to women and people of color. "Early on, there was another junior writer who pulled me aside and said, 'You know, you really shouldn’t talk in a room because you’re just a diversity hire, and no one wants to hear from the diversity hire.' That was tough to hear." 

After leaving Pushing Daisies, Lisa joined Burn Notice as the only woman on the writing staff. "I was actually drawn to Burn Notice because it was macho," she said. "There was this thinking in Hollywood that women can’t write men or women can’t write action, or women can’t be funny, or whatever stupidity is in the air in that moment."

Writing to empower

Lisa would go on to write a graphic novel, sell it to a production company, and adapt it for TV and write and sell her first feature film. That was when J.J. Abrams approached Lisa and her husband about doing Westworld. "Jonah and I crafted the world, the characters, the episodes, and everything about it. We brought it in with J.J. and talked to HBO about it. They said, 'Good, go write the script.' We wrote the script, and then they said, 'Good, go shoot it.' And we did."

Talking specifically about the female characters in Westworld, Lisa says they are “a summation of 30-plus years of living as a woman put into fiction” and that her goal is to explore and describe the often-upsetting realities of what it means to be a woman: “This isn’t a story that celebrates those shackles. It’s a story that explores them and talks about the need for rebellion. And that’s the kind of story I was interested in telling.”

In the tradition of fiction that she’s drawn strength from herself – and characters that have helped her “feel less alone in the world” – Lisa describes the “magic” in being able to create characters and stories that provide that same feeling of empowerment and identification for fans of her own show. 

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