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TV sci-fi Westworld filmed in California and Utah

WestworldTen-part sci-fi TV drama Westworld has filmed on location in Utah and California. KFTV talks to supervising location manager Mandi Dillin about the shoot.

Westworld is based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name and is set in a mysterious Western theme park with a 19th century-era design populated by artificial beings.

California’s boosted filming incentive currently allocates most of its funding to supporting television shoots and played a major role in making the Los Angeles area a viable location for the Westworld shoot.

The California locations were also the more convenient option for the Los Angeles-based key creative team headed by series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.

“We went into the pilot focusing on finding cinematic locations within the 30-mile studio zone of Los Angeles,” Dillin tells KFTV, referring to the area around LA where productions can shoot without having to organise overnight accommodation for crew. 

“Lucky for us, LA is surrounded by national forests, cattle ranches and both former and current agricultural zones so we had quite a lot of real estate to choose from.”

Much of the shoot focused on California’s Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio north of Los Angeles in Santa Clarita. The filming facility offers standing sets of a Western town, and a village that can stand in for Mexico, Europe or the Middle East with the right dressing.

Westworld on location

The Melody Ranch has previously hosted scenes for movies including Quentin Tarantino’s Western slavery feature Django Unchained. 

“Alterations to the movie ranches were completely dependent on what the scenes required,” Dillin says. “Most of the rural landscapes were unaltered. Some scenes filmed in Southern California involved dropping in a VFX plate of Utah in the background, which helped keep people in our world. In other cases, we brought a considerable amount of set dressing to the rural landscapes. 

“In Episode Three we see a campsite where several hosts are sitting in front of an unlit pile of firewood. The art department brought in period-correct tents and props in order to make the campsite look like it had been lived in for several days.”

For more on filming in California and for local contacts see our production guide.

Utah hosted the Westworld shoot for a couple of weeks of filming. The western state lies 500 miles east of Los Angeles and offers unique natural vistas. Producers can access a 20% filming incentive, but a small state production fund – less than $10m annually – means big-budget shoots rarely spend more than a few days there on location.

“I think the reasons for choosing Utah are apparent,” says Dillin. “It’s majestic. The scope and scale leave you breathless. The colours are stunningly deep and so real. 

“Utah’s natural landscape set the tone for the theme park. Combined with the forests and ranches in Los Angeles, we were able to build a complete world.”

Westworld carriage

Dillin describes the production schedule as a challenge for the Westworld shoot as a whole, with sometimes just a few hours for location scouting and permitting, but ultimately it was a success.

“The production designer Zack Grobler and I had spent considerable amount of time scouting as many potential locations as we could so we had a cache of places we liked and knew would work for the show. 

“Some sets proved to be more elusive than others but we a little bit of creativity and a lot of brow sweat, we managed to please the showrunners – at least we hope we did!”

Images: John P Johnson/HBO