Amazon’s sci-fi series The Peripheral delivers a mind-bending, time-twisting thriller inspired by the work of visionary author William Gibson, with some of the genre’s most celebrated filmmakers collaborating behind the camera to bring its unique tale to the screen.
The story of a young woman who finds herself at the center of a conspiracy unfolding in both her own timeline and one in a far-flung, post-apocalyptic future, The Peripheral‘s executive producers include Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, along with filmmaker Vincenzo Natali (Splice), who directs several episodes (including the series premiere). With the series now available on Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service, Digital Trends spoke to Nolan and Natali about its origins, its narrative and visual inspirations, and whether we can expect to see a second season of the meticulously envisioned series. Nolan also offered a brief update on the status of the Fallout series he’s working on, based on the popular game franchise.
Digital Trends: Jonathan, what was it about The Peripheral that first attracted you to the project?
Jonathan Nolan: The first thing that was attractive to us was Vincenzo, with whom we’ve worked before. He’s a brilliant, visionary director. Vincenzo came to us with a William Gibson book. I had grown up reading Gibson’s work and had long wondered why it had so stubbornly resisted adaptation. We’d been massively influenced by Gibson’s work, so for us, the technical term for it would be a no-brainer.
What about you, Vincenzo? Since you brought it to them initially, what brought it to your attention?
Vincenzo Natali: Much like Jonathan, I’ve been enamored with William Gibson for decades. At one time, I had the audacity to want to adapt his first novel, Neuromancer, but I failed in bringing that to the screen. In a way, though, that became the progenitor for Peripheral, because I developed a relationship with Mr. Gibson, who’s an amazing mind and a wonderful human being. He sent me the book and I immediately thought, “This will never be a movie. It’s just way too dense and complex. But maybe it’s a TV show.”
Coincidentally, I was working with Jonathan and Lisa [Joy] on Westworld at that point, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize, “Oh, they might like this book and they’d be great to adapt it.” And so, within a 24-hour period of giving them the book, they read it and got back to me and said, “We want to do this.” It was kind of unreal. It was an “it never happens like that” scenario. And truly, I feel like this would not have happened without Jonathan and Lisa involved. You need people who are that well-respected, that visionary, to convince financiers this is going to work for a mass audience. They had already done it on Westworld and other things, so that’s how it all happened and why we’re sitting here now.
Jonathan, many of your projects weave a singular story together from threads that initially feel separate. Do you look for these kinds of stories when you’re contemplating projects to take on or push forward?
Nolan: No, I’ve always just wanted to do really simple things, but I’ve just been horribly typecast by the industry. [Laughs] But seriously, we love this kind of material. For me, it was always a revelation reading William Gibson’s books and watching films from like-minded filmmakers who were invested in not just presenting you with the real world — and I have great respect for naturalists and people who are interested in exploring our world — but also the seductive quality of exploring our world by way of a totally different world. There’s a little bit of playing God that goes into that. You get to come up with your own rules and change whatever you like.
I’ve also always been drawn to narratives that ask you to lean forward. One of the common experiences of reading any of Gibson’s books is that, for the first chapter, you have no idea what the f— is going on. That’s delicious. It’s such a gift to give a reader or an audience something that asks something from them. It’s not for everybody, but for me, I was always drawn to those shows and books and films that said, “No, you can’t do your shopping while you’re doing this …” Although with it on Amazon, maybe we shouldn’t say that? Maybe you can do your shopping while you’re watching this? I take it all back.” [Laughs]
It’s so important to establish a series with a strong pilot. Vincenzo, what were some of the visual elements you wanted to make sure came across in the premiere and the episodes you directed?
Natali: I think we collectively decided we wanted these worlds — and this is a very slippery word — to feel real. What that meant was, we wanted to shoot in real places. We didn’t want to create a CG version of future London. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with creating a CG world, but it would feel untrue to the Gibsonian methodology of creating worlds, which always feel like they have the patina of reality to them. They are very layered and textured, complicated and contradictory. So we almost immediately said, collectively, “Let’s shoot this on location as much as we can.”
I think Jonathan has a long history of trying to do things practically on camera as much as possible, rather than just sort of conjuring them in a computer, or at the very least, melding the two. So that was a big part of it. And there’s a flavor to the way you photograph that sort of thing, and an approach to shot design and so on, that is not necessarily typical of what I do. I tend to be a little bit more formal sometimes, but this time I had to hold back the formalist in me and be a little more naturalistic at points, which was also very freeing.
What were some of those creative discussions like when developing the look and feel of the worlds in The Peripheral?
Natali: Yeah, it was an exciting time not just shooting the series, but also preparing it and working as a group. It was like a kind of think tank. We had Jan Roelfs, who’s an amazing production designer, as well as Michele Clapton, who did all of the costume design, and then Jonathan and Lisa are among the few showrunners I’ve encountered who are truly cinematic thinkers. Jonathan is a director. He understands the language of cinema, not just the language of the script page. So it was a very exciting, stimulating, and for me, challenging group to work with — because they’re so damn smart. And we needed to be [smart] because of the material that was being worked with.
How do you strike a balance when creating a world that’s in the future but not so far off that it feels unreal?
Nolan: In this case, I think it starts with Gibson. He’s one of the great prophets in science fiction. This is the guy who gave us the term “cyberspace.” He didn’t just coin a technology — he saw it and fully realized it before it arrived, and to such a degree that he was able to name it. He’s an extraordinary thinker who was present at an extraordinary moment: The birth of the Internet and all these technologies that are going to inform and change and transmogrify society around us.
I think William has an excellent bullshit detector, too. It’s like [Ernest] Hemingway’s fabled bullshit detector, but it’s even more important in speculative fiction than it is in naturalism. You have to get the audience to accept the reality of these things, and I think that requires a lot of homework. Underneath all of Gibson’s books, you can see the thought that’s gone into it. He’s presenting the future as an iceberg model, and spent a lot of time thinking about not just how technology will work and what it will look like, but also how it will inform and adapt civilization around it.
Taking that as an ethos and applying it visually was, I think, one of the most exciting aspects of the project. You know what the narrative looks like and feels like, but what does it look like? How does it present itself? … You have to be very, very careful, and I think Vincenzo and the team have done an extraordinary job.
Amazon has been making a lot of headlines with its investment in big shows. Is there anything different on your side when it comes to working on a project for a streaming studio as opposed to more traditional studios?