From show creator Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers, Lost) and based on the iconic graphic novel co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, the HBO drama series Watchmen is set in an alternate history where masked vigilantes are treated as outlaws and the police conceal their identities behind masks to protect themselves from a terrorist organization, known as the Seventh Kavalry. It’s a story that is equal parts challenging and thought-provoking, as it looks at so many of the modern issues that plague us today, and questions who the true heroes and villains really are.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, executive producer Nicole Kassell, who also directed Episodes 1, 2, and 8, talked about why Watchmen is such a fun series to be a part of, how she was let in on as much as there was possible to know about the overall arc, how she wanted to set up the series with Episode 1, what most interested her in this material, letting Lindelof be the one to shoulder the burden of living up to expectations for the show, why she hopes the audience will have patience before issuing judgments on what they’re doing with the material, and whether they’ve even spoken about future seasons yet.
Collider: This show seems like an embarrassment of riches, with so many fascinating characters to follow, which I would imagine, as a filmmaker, with all of these threads in the story and the characters to play with, it must be so much fun to do something like this.
NICOLE KASSELL: It was so much fun. After Episode 2, I was editing with the editor, and we’d been working on the American Hero story sequence, and tired and unfiltered, I said, “I don’t know how I’m gonna direct anything after this.” It’s so much fun. It’s such a wild palette, it’s so ambitious, and you got to do so many different things, all tied up in one.
Because it is such a big show, if you’re going to do more than one episode, do you have to split it up at beginning and the end, so that you have a little bit of a break in the middle?
KASSELL: Yes, exactly. And we brought on a co-executive producer/producing director to direct multiple episodes, as well, because it was so much to take on.
How much of the bigger picture of what Damon Lindelof has in his head for this did he discuss and talk about with you? Are you pretty aware of the overall story that he’s trying to tell, with these characters?
KASSELL: Very much so. I came on early. I came on in January of, so I was there. The writing had already been happening, but in terms of production, I was the first hire. Every conversation he had with HBO, to walk them through the series, I was in all of those meetings, just so that I could constantly download what he was doing and where he was going. He’s also a writer that really responds to what’s on the screen, so everything was subject to evolving, but I knew as much as there was possible to know.
So much of setting up and directing a pilot is setting up the look and feel of what the series will be, so did that also help influence what you wanted to do, as far as setting up the first episode?
KASSELL: For sure. Other than the unique set pieces, like the silent film in 1921, once you land in 2019, we created a bible of what the world rules would be and what defines this place because it’s an alternate universe. So, for every episode and for every department to have things in place, there was a continuity to the rules of this place. Redford has been president for 30 years, so we don’t have a climate change crisis. Cars are electric, very little plastics used, electricity is sourced from different ways, and dirigibles fly in the sky. So, we were drawing from the source, and then creating the world. I’ve listened to other filmmakers talk, whether it’s the production designer on Black Panther who said she had a 500-page book on the rules of that world, or Children of Men, or Blade Runner, you just having to be very specific, so that it feels grounded.
You’ve directed material in this genre before, and you’ve worked with Lindelof previously on The Leftovers. What was it about Watchmen specifically that most appealed to you? What got you most interested in the specific themes and ideas that are being explored?
KASSELL: Well, number one was definitely Damon. After working on The Leftovers, and to this day, I would go anywhere that Damon goes. He’s just an exquisite writer, and it’s so fabulously original, and yet truthful. One thing that I’ve found myself saying is that I’ll read a scene where a character does something that’s entirely shocking, yet at the same time, totally true to their character, in a way that just blows me away. So, Damon was number one, and then, number two was what he was tackling in the story. Like a lot of us, I was left reeling from election of 2016. And I’m from Charlottesville, Virginia and was actually reading the pilot script while there. That horrific incident in Charlottesville had happened just a couple months earlier, and I am close family friends with people who wear MAGA hats and love me like a daughter, and yet I’m married to an Asian man. So, wrestling, personally, with what’s happening in this country, when I read the pilot, honestly, I was shaking. It felt like this is the answer, to me, for what I can do now to respond to this political time. As hard and scary as it is to take on, I’m so grateful to have been a part of it. I was so relieved to see Damon taking it on because it was an outlet for where to try and to respond, and we could, in that way
At the same time that you’re telling this story that does feel so very current to what we have to live through, every day, it’s also being told under the Watchmen title and, because of that, interest in and expectations for the show are very high. Lindelof has previously talked about how he went through a period of terror, worrying about screwing it all up. Do you share that same terror? How do you wrap your brain around the fact that it is all under the Watchmen banner?
KASSELL: One is utter denial. There’s only so much that you can take on. For good or bad, I’m not a born and bred fangirl. I have an arm length’s distance to the material. I came to it last year. I understand, 100% now, why it was named one of the Top 100 books of the 20th century by Time, but I’m not precious about it. Not that fans are, but Damon is that person. The short answer is that I’m letting him shoulder that burden. I believe in it, 100%. I really believe, if you’ve got an avenue to talk about important issues, it’s your responsibility to do so, and Damon is an artist with a very big platform and a big megaphone, so whether or not he wants to, it’s his responsibility to. He may be hated for it or loved, but my greatest wish, and this is where I’m very naive, is that people would hold off judging until they’ve seen the series, as a whole. Maybe the judgment is valid, but the intention was earnest. Every reporter I’ve talked to so far has not known about Tulsa ‘21, and I’d say that 98% of the cast and crew did not know about it, until we told people that it was real. If the only thing that comes out of this whole show is that people were informed about a true incident in our history, then it’s worth it.
Watchmen definitely feels like a show that you’ll need to finish watching to gain proper perspective on.
KASSELL: Right. I find people who know the source are more frustrated by feeling confused, whereas the medium of television is about mystery. It’s about setting up and paying off. I just wish were for patience. There was no way that Damon was just going to just do an adaptation. We all know there’s no reason to. He’s been so deeply inspired by it, as an artist, and this is what inspired him to take on and say. At least, I think it carries on the spirit of being wildly original and totally tapping into the anxiety that is present today, comparable to the ‘80s and the source being a very different reason.
Have you had conversations with Lindelof about how long he wants to tell this story for? Have you spoken about how many seasons this could go?
KASSELL: No. Honestly, this was a massive undertaking, and we’re in it. It’s just being born, right now. We’re going to be saver the birth first, before it goes to college. I don’t know what the analogy is here. Right now, let us rest and recover and recuperate, and celebrate a really massive undertaking and achievement. I will say that this season will leave you wanting more, with a very exciting, “Oh, my god!”
Watchmen airs on Sunday nights on HBO at 10/9c.