‘The landscapes really are characters’: HBO’s ‘Westworld’ returns to Utah in a ‘big’ way for Season 2

<b>Television • </b>HBO series features Utah’s amazing landscapes and vistas, although most of the season was filmed in Southern California.

(Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO) Betty Gabriel as Maling, Luke Hemsworth as Stubbs, Gustaf Skarsgard as Karl Strand, Jeffrey Wright as Bernard — with Lake Powell in the background — in Season 2 of “Westworld.”

Westworld” returns to HBO on Sunday, and Utah is among the returning stars.

No, not one of the leads. More like a supporting player in a pivotal role.

The futuristic drama about a theme park filled with incredibly realistic robots, where you can live out your Old West fantasies, picks up shortly after the end of Season 1. And at the end of Season 1, the hosts — the artificial people who have achieved consciousness — started murdering humans.

(Of course, as we learned in the Season 1 finale — which aired 16 months ago — the “Westworld” narrative is told on multiple timelines, some decades apart. Which sometimes makes it hard to pinpoint when anything is happening.)

The Season 2 premiere travels quickly to the shores of Lake Powell — a new location for the series, and one where series creator/writer/executive producer Jonathan Nolan “had been wanting to film since the pilot,” said location manager Mandi Dillin. And, over the course of the 10 second-season episodes, viewers will see a variety of southern Utah vistas.

When audiences think of ‘Westworld,’ I’d like to think that its spectacular Utah backdrops come to mind,” said Utah Film Commission Director Virginia Pearce.

How many viewers know they’re looking at Utah is open to question. As it turns out, the state is not seen as much as viewers in the know might think. Dillin estimated that 5 percent of Season 2 was filmed in Utah.

We were on the ground for, literally, five days in southern Utah,” she said. “And the rest of our schedule was in Southern California.”

There were two crews that each shot five days in the state, so that’s 10 days of production in Utah. Each of 10 episodes took 20 days to shoot … so, yeah, that works to 5 percent.

A lot of people think that we film the show 100 percent on location in Utah, which is not true,” Dillin said. “But because we maximize our time and show what I call the big, it feels like more.”

By “the big,” she means the spectacular scenery.

We go to Utah for the big, and we fill in the scenes with locations in Southern California,” Dillin said.

You can build a futuristic lab or an Old West town in the Los Angeles area. Dusty locations are dusty locations.

But you’ve got to go to Utah’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park to find scenery that’s so distinctive it seems like something created via CGI.

That is a place that should not exist in nature,” Dillin said. “You have these miles of literally pink sand in front of you, and then on one side is a pine forest. When you look at it, you’re like — what the heck? It’s incredible. It’s so stunning.”

The vistas don’t overwhelm the story, but they become part of it.

We joke that our landscape essentially became another character in the show,” Pearce said — and that’s not a joke to the production team.

The landscapes really are characters in the story,” Dillin said. “They are integral in telling the story.”

The locations allow the directors “to create a feeling and emotion.”

You look at some of these places where we filmed, and you kind of know what’s happening,” Dillin said. “You know this is a scary place. You know this is a beautiful place. It really sets the tone for the story, as well as what’s happening inside the character’s mind.”

The production was massive, with as many as four units — each with as many as 300-700 people — working at the same time. (Two in Utah; two in California.)

If you thought about how large the show is while you’re actually doing it, then you could freak out,” Dillin said with a laugh. “It can really get crazy.”

Pearce said Season 1 pumped about $1 million into the Utah economy; figures aren’t yet available for Season 2. And “Westworld” brought tourism dollars here, too.

Articles about the show’s spectacular locations racked up millions of media impressions since the first season aired, with international outlets such as Condé Nast Traveler detailing how to visit these locations,” Pearce said.

Season 1 evoked classic film Westerns, using iconic locations like Castle Valley and the Moab area that were featured in John Ford’s movies. Season 2 moves to new locations.

“Season 1 was Moab-centric, and Moab is kind of the postcard. It’s beautiful. It shows the best of Utah,” Dillin said.

But when I started to really get into the various landscapes that are available in southern Utah, it blew my mind. I couldn’t believe the variety we had.”

She spent months communicating with members of the Utah Film Commission about locations. There were discussions about returning to the Moab area, but based on Season 2 scripts the decision was made to go farther south and east — not just to Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Lake Powell, but areas closer to Kanab.

You’ll just have to watch to try to figure out exactly where. They’re keeping exact locations under wraps to prevent spoilers.

We wanted to see the traditional landscape that was established in Season 1, but we were also opening up these other worlds and these other parts of the Western world,” Dillin said. “And for that we just needed something that was totally different and really funky.”

Yes, there are other parks within this theme park. “Westworld” is more than just a place where guests can live out their Wild West fantasies. We’re going to see some of those other parks in Season 2.

And it remains a very adult show — violence, language and occasional full-frontal nudity, both female and male.

Most of that was shot in Southern California, however.

From the Utah Film Commission’s perspective, the show “continues to be a billboard for the state’s unique and diverse locations, and the potential and capability of the state’s film industry as a whole,” Pearce said. “TV series such as this are key for our local industry as they create full-time, year-round employment and have the potential of long-term commitment to the state.”

Officially, HBO hasn’t yet ordered a third season of “Westworld,” and if it does, there’s no guarantee the show will return to Utah to film. Unofficially, both seem like pretty good bets.

On TV • Season 2 of “Westworld” begins Sunday on HBO — 7 p.m. MT for the East Coast feed; 10 p.m. MDT for the West Coast feed. (Which one you receive depends on your cable or satellite provider.)