The series premiere of Damon Lindelof's Watchmen is a lot to take in. It's excellent, but it throws viewers into the deep end via delayed explanation and the hot-button, potentially controversial use of real historical events and contemporary racial politics. The series, which debuts Sunday at 9/8c on HBO, opens with the 1921 Tulsa massacre, during which white people destroyed the thriving black neighborhood of Greenwood and killed an estimated 100-300 people. From there it jumps forward into an alternate-universe 2019 Tulsa in which cops wear masks or superhero costumes to protect their identities from a white supremacist militia called the Seventh Kavalry that's targeting them. (This doesn't reflect reality, since police are more likely to be complicit in white supremacy than victimized by it.) Watchmen is obviously building to a point, but it plays its cards close to the vest while it's getting there.
It's a tough line to walk, and to help execute his vision, Lindelof turned to director Nicole Kassell, who has directed episodes of some of the best TV shows of the past decade, including The Americans, Better Call Saul, and Lindelof's previous series, The Leftovers, where she helmed two episodes that focused on Christopher Eccleston's character, Matt. Kassell directed the first two episodes of Watchmen, and therefore set the visual style and shaped the tone of the show going forward. She talked to TV Guide about how she came to the project, how she drew influence from Alfonso Cuarón and Rihanna, and how she made sure the complexity of the show was handled with care.
How did you get involved in the project?
Nicole Kassell: I knew Damon from working on The Leftovers. And then, I knew along with everyone else that Damon had signed onto Watchmen. And as he was nearing getting ready to share the pilot, I sent a note and just said, "You may not know, but I want to do this." Because I'd never talked Watchmen with him or bonded on comic stuff. And it's not my origin story. But knowing just what a fan I was of his work, I knew I would want to be involved. And so I just sent him a note saying, "I want in." And he put me in the mix, and over Christmas of 2017 he called me, we talked, and he kind of talked me through what he was doing, and then I read the script, and it blew me away, and immediately really inspired the look that you see. And so I put together a look book and I pitched for it. It was a pretty classical situation where I really showed how I saw it, which I felt was really important to show him and HBO. To say, "This is how I see it," because it's a very subjective thing, the actual look of a show. And to make sure we were all speaking the same language, and of what that vision is. So I put together a very specific visual presentation and he bought it.
What were some of the ideas in the book and is that what the show looks like? Did that vision hold?
Kassell: It did. I'm really thrilled to see that, actually. Right when I read the script, the movies that came to mind as I read it were The Conformist, Children of Men, and Blade Runner, and then add in a dose of a Rihanna music video. That was just how I saw it. And just the very graphic compositions, a very lived-in kind of gritty noir world. That is how I saw it, and I'm really pleased. As I was preparing to start the press circuit, I went back and looked up the look book and my original notes and the through line is all right there, which is really cool to see.
Were you a fan of the comic? Had you read it before or did you come in cold?
Kassell: Nope. I came in cold. I bought the book as soon as I heard that Damon was doing it, but I just didn't read it. And then as I got closer to talking to him about it, I realized, I knew what a fan Damon is of it, and how important it was to him. So I felt, let's preserve my objectivity and respond to his story; just [be] pure. This is me reacting to his story, not with any expectation or baggage. And then I can also be most protective and in service of his story.
And then, once I signed on and once we agreed to do it together, then I did a very deep, deep dive into studying the book and the source and taking that on. It's a huge responsibility, obviously, to be adapting this material and to be able to pay homage to it visually as well as in the story, was really important to me. So I'd say I'm fully embedded in Watchmen world now, but I wasn't when I came on. And I think just having those perspectives between Damon and me was invaluable in that that's what we want our audience to be. We want our audience to be the diehard fans and the complete novices. So to be able to have both of those kind of in the room at all times was I think, invaluable.
How did you approach all the different styles that you have to direct in the first two episodes?
Kassell: That is the essence of directing. I take a scene, I look at it, discuss with Damon in depth what the tone of it is. And then I think what my approach is, I need to always ground it in reality. And story first and foremost. And when I say "reality," it has to be truthful to the character. So we went through [and] we very specifically defined the rules of our 2019, so that informed what we were looking for in location scouting, production design, costume, props. So I'd say I didn't think, "Oh, there's all these different styles I have to figure out, how do you do that?" It was really just what is right for this scene and what's right for that scene? Just being super specific, I think. I love the phrase "the devil's in the details," but that is definitely how I operate. The details matter enormously to me.
One of the details that blew me away in the pilot is when there's the jump from 1921 to the present, and it's signified by a Future song, "Crushed Up." Can you talk about how that needle drop was selected?
Kassell: I can. I also want to totally give credit where it's due. That was totally Damon's finding. There was actually a different song scripted, more like a honky-tonk, classic Oklahoma song.
That's a little too on the nose, I think. Right?
Kassell: Exactly. I think one of my favorite things about Damon's work is his use of music. And he's so good at finding a song that is a perfect contradiction to a scene yet then it somehow works. And the words of that song is actually really relevant to the theme of the episode or the title of the episode ("It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice"). So, I love that find. And it's 100 percent Damon.
The way history is used in this show is so interesting. And something I really respect about Watchmen is that it assumes its viewers' intelligence and kind of trusts that they'll follow along through the uncertainty, both in terms of the complexities and ambiguities in the storytelling, as well as the politics and the history and how that's all used. But culturally right now it feels like some people have a hard time with complexity and ambiguity. So do you have any concerns that the way Watchmen doesn't moralize will lead to the show being misunderstood?
Kassell: Yes. The short answer is absolutely, but I also think that it's still essential to risk that rather than spoon-feed or do anything differently. That's a huge part of the whole point of doing this. And again, why I wanted to be involved and why I love Damon's storytelling, is that I think it's so daring, and it feels so good as an audience member to be treated, like you said, with intelligence and to reflect a world more as it is than maybe as we wish it to be. And I'd say that what you just said is also very, very true to the source material and the tone of the source.
Yeah, 100 percent. And that's another thing that kind of blew me away was just the tone of the Watchmen book is so unique and so complex, and just that the show was able to stay true to that is an amazing thing.
Kassell: I think absolutely the most important thing to Damon and all of us is exactly that. And when there's moments where I got upset with Damon, where I want a happier situation or this or that, and he would remind me that the source is cynical. He was going to most importantly safeguard that.
And it's a lot of tricky, hot button stuff. So in terms of choices that you made, how did you make sure the depiction of the Tulsa Massacre, for example, was done in a non-exploitative way?
Kassell: It was essential to me that it not feel gratuitous or sensationalized. It's a horrific, true story that many of us don't even know is true. And I didn't know until I read the script, I didn't know that had happened. I didn't know Bass Reeves was a real character. So for that, I did a deep dive in research and Damon gave me a book called The Burning by Tim Madigan that is all about that incident. And so I read that book and then ... the first stop we made when we started location finding was to go to Tulsa and to Greenwood. So an incredible amount of research and care went into that entire sequence and being as truthful to it as we could be based on the historical research that exists.
Watchmen premieres Sunday, Oct. 20 at 9/8c on HBO.