A-minus at Loyola Academy fueled 'Westworld' creator

  • Jonathan "Jonah" Nolan grew up in Barrington, Evanston and England and credits a Loyola Academy teacher for his success in writing screenplays for TV and Hollywood movies.

    Jonathan "Jonah" Nolan grew up in Barrington, Evanston and England and credits a Loyola Academy teacher for his success in writing screenplays for TV and Hollywood movies.

Updated 10/18/2016 6:26 AM

An A-minus on a freshman high school creative writing assignment may not seem like such a big deal, but for future filmmaker Jonathan Nolan, that grade changed his life.

"That first A-minus is probably the single most important thing that set me on my course to creative writing and storytelling," Nolan said.


Nolan, who grew up in Barrington and Evanston, writes, directs and serves as an executive producer of HBO's new science fiction series "Westworld," based on Michael Crichton's 1973 thriller about a Western fantasy amusement park populated by performing robots that go a little nutty.

He has forged a remarkable partnership with his older brother, director Christopher Nolan, writing the screenplays and stories for his movies "Memento," "The Prestige," "The Dark Knight," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Interstellar."

For five years, Jonathan Nolan -- who prefers to be called Jonah -- wrote and produced the critically lauded CBS dramatic series "Person of Interest."

And it all began with that A-minus, given to him by Jim O'Loughlin, legendary English instructor at the Loyola Academy in Wilmette, where Nolan graduated in 1994.

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"If you got an A from that guy, you were doing well. He was a naturally brilliant teacher, and he never gave A's," Nolan said. "He was the master of breaking down and understanding the aspects that went into a well-crafted sentence. He gave me a real appreciation for the craft that went into writing, especially the economy of language."

O'Loughlin has since retired, but his former student says his successful writing career all began with the confidence gained from that A-minus. Now, he's at the helm of one of the most provocative shows to premiere this fall.

The premise springboards from Crichton's linear plot into a chronologically shifted storyline involving a large ensemble of characters in Sweetwater, an elaborate adult role-playing resort in which patrons pay big bucks to live out Wild West fantasies, including sexual encounters and gunfights with robot actors allegedly programmed not to harm the customers.

"I've written several projects about AI (artificial intelligence)," Nolan said. "Here I had an opportunity to tell a sympathetic story from the perspective of all those robots.


"It's not about us figuring out what's wrong with them, or fears that they're going to take over the world. It's about them figuring out who the people are who have taken over the world, and why are some of them a little broken?

"The biggest question posed by the series is, do they really want to be like us? Or do they want to chart their own course?"

"Westworld" was co-created and is co-written and co-produced by Lisa Joy, Nolan's wife, a New Jersey attorney he met after taking a wrong turn down a Manhattan street.

Nolan accidentally ran into an old friend from Loyola Academy who invited him to meet one of his associates. He later met that associate, Lisa Joy, on the red carpet at the premiere of his first movie, "Memento," an idea that Nolan pitched to his brother during a cross-country road trip to L.A. from Chicago.

Nolan was born in England, son of Brendan and Christine Nolan. Dad was a Brit. Mom was an American raised in Ohio.

"They spend 42 years happily married and arguing over where to live," Nolan said.

The family moved to Evanston when Nolan was 2 and moved back to England three years later until he was 11.

"Then, Mom got tired of English weather and wanted a real cheeseburger, so we moved to Barrington for a few years, then moved back to Evanston," Nolan said.

Dad wanted the boys to get a good Catholic high school education in England. Chris did. Not Jonah.

"I wasn't keen on the idea," he said. "I had grown fond of Chicago, particularly with the weather and the cheeseburgers, just like Mom."

Nolan went on to earn an English degree at Georgetown University in Washington, where every morning before breakfast he ran up and down the famous steps used for the ending of "The Exorcist."

Asked what he values most in life, Nolan launched into a list of blessings involving his own family, his brother, his education, his parents, growing up in Chicago and working with amazing people.

He abruptly stopped talking.

"Mr. O'Loughlin would not like that response," he said. "He put a premium on precision and I completely blew it with that answer!"

-- Dann Gire

• Jamie Sotonoff and Dann Gire are looking for suburbanites in showbiz who would be good stories. Contact them at jsotonoff@dailyherald.com and dgire@dailyherald.com.

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