HBO's 'Watchmen' director shares how being from Charlottesville made the series incredibly personal, and her thoughts on a season 2
- Nicole Kassell, a director and executive producer of HBO's "Watchmen," talked to Business Insider about why she was eager to take on the TV series.
- Kassell worked with series creator Damon Lindelof on "The Leftovers," so already knew she wanted to reteam with him. But after reading the script, she realized it was the perfect vessel for her post-2016 creative energy.
- Kassell is from Charlottesville, Virginia, where the 2017 "Unite the Right" white nationalist rally occurred. One of the biggest themes of "Watchmen" is racial division as a white supremacist group terrorizes a police force.
- Kassell also talked about the influence of the graphic novel the show is based on, the possibility of a second season, and Jeremy Irons' mysterious character.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Warning: This post contains spoilers for the pilot of HBO's "Watchmen."
Before signing on as a director for "Watchmen," Nicole Kassell had never read the acclaimed 1980s graphic novel of the same name, about a group of costumed vigilantes who are roped into a vast conspiracy after one of their own is murdered.
But she had worked with Damon Lindelof on HBO's "The Leftovers," which he cocreated, and knew she wanted to reteam with Lindelof on what he did next - especially when she read his script. That script ended up becoming the TV series "Watchmen," also for HBO, which debuted on Sunday.
"It shook me in the best ways," Kassell told Business Insider of the pilot script.
Kassell is from Charlottesville, Virginia, the site of the violent "Unite the Right" rally of 2017. HBO's "Watchmen" centers on a white supremacist group returning to terrorize the Tulsa, Oklahoma police force. And in the world of "Watchmen," police officers wear masks to protect their identities.
It's a stark contrast to the graphic novel, in which regular citizens took crime fighting on themselves in masks and costumes. Lindelof has described the TV series as a "remix" of the novel, though the source material's events and characters are canon.
"It was an amazing gift to have this source material to pore over," Kassell said.
Kassell, who directed the first two episodes and is an executive producer, talked to Business Insider about why "Watchmen" was so personal for her, the influence of the novel, the possibility of a second season, and actor Jeremy Irons' mysterious character.
This interview was conducted on October 11 after viewing the first two episodes. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Travis Clark: How did you become involved in the project? You worked with Damon [Lindelof] on "The Leftovers," so did he ring you up?
Nicole Kassell: No, I rang him up [laughs]. After "The Leftovers" ended, I heard that he was going to do "Watchmen." Really anything he was going to do, I was interested in. I had not read the book yet, but when I knew he was getting near to probably looking for a director, I just sent him a note and said 'hey, I want to put my hat in the ring.' I just wanted him to know I was interested and he very kindly said it was a very nice hat [laughs].
Around Christmas of 2017, we got on the phone and he told me what he was doing with the script, and I told him I was in and that I wanted to read it. In 12 hours, I was reading it and followed up right away, and told him why it means so much to me. It shook me in the best of ways.
Clark: Why did it mean so much to you?
Kassell: Well, I'm from Charlottesville, Virginia and I was reading it while there, the home of Trump supporters. I'm married to a Chinese man who is an immigrant, I have biracial children, I'm half Jewish myself. So the events of Charlottesville [the 2017 "Unite the Right" white supremacist rally] were painful. It was a wake-up call that all of that was always there, but the band-aid that was on the thin veneer disguising it had been pulled away. It felt very personal.
Since the 2016 election, I've felt upset and shocked, and as an artist I didn't know what I could do with that energy. When I read the ["Watchmen"] script, I said "this is it." This is tackling everything I want to talk about. It felt very important while also being very cinematic. It's wildly ambitious and entertaining and to have an African American female lead [Regina King] - it was just radical.
Clark: So when you decided that this was the project you wanted to work on, did you go back and read the book?
Clark: Did that resonate with you in a similar way? Was there anything visually from the book that you wanted to capture in the show?
Kassell: I absolutely did a deep dive of the book. But I wanted to read Damon's script first so I could be beholden to his vision and not be reading [his script] from the viewpoint of, "Oh, he changed this, he changed that." I wanted to give it a clean read. But with any adaptation, I would read the source to make sure I'm also honoring it. And it was just extraordinary to have a visual reference, from framing to composition.
You'll see in the show a lot of match cuts, such as a shot [in episode two] of Sister Night moving from a crime scene into Nixonville. That kind of graphic transition is all over the comic, so it was an amazing gift to have this source material to pore over.
With every episode, we would look back through the comic and just look at the details and compositions. The crew was full of real fans, so a set dresser would come running over with a panel from the comic and compare it to the monitor. That was not by chance. I wanted to give those kinds of treats to the fans. Things like in the classroom scene, when we first meet Angela [Regina King] - the smiley face with the eggs was scripted, but I wanted to make the bowl look like an owl.
Clark: Not only does the show strike a similar visual template, but there are a lot of Easter eggs and callbacks to the book in the show. There's a poster of "Important Presidents" in that classroom scene that includes Nixon and Robert Redford. In episode two, we see the newspapers from the comics, The Nova Express and New Frontiersman. Are those Easter eggs written into the script or do those ideas come as your filming?
Kassell: It's really all of the above. Some are definitely scripted. Like in the pilot, Angela walks by a man carrying a sign who has red hair. That was a scripted Rorschach reference. But the presidents in the classroom? That was the production designer, or the set dresser. Like I said, every person on the crew was looking for opportunities.
This is a world where there are newspapers everywhere. So we would be in touch with the writers room and say "We need the name of the newspaper and the content."
Clark: Because there's no cellphones in this world, right?
Kassell: Exactly. So there was this constant communication from the production to the writers room. In the classroom, there's also a diagram of the squid composition. We had to ask ourselves, this is our world so what would be in it? Everybody looked for those moments and it made everybody feel really invested.
Clark: I felt that music and song choice was really important to the show, similarly to how it was important to the book. Like at the end of the pilot, I didn't know the song, but when I looked up the lyrics I found it was "Pore Jud is Daid" from the musical "Oklahoma!," which plays a big part in the pilot. In that way, Judd's [Don Johnson] death is foreshadowed.
Kassell: A number of the songs were scripted, but I will totally give my hats off to Damon on the music side. He is a genius with music and takes the lead on what music goes in the show. If you look back at "The Leftovers," song choice is always carefully done. I think he's just brilliant with all those choices.
Clark: Was "Pore Jud is Daid" scripted?
Clark: So Damon had a lot of that thought out from the start then?
Kassell: For sure. The integration of "Oklahoma!" and the setting [Tulsa], yeah. When you get to the end, you would now understand the title [of the pilot, "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice," which is a lyric from "Pore Jud is Daid"].
Clark: "American Hero Story" is a show within the show. Is that a reference to "Tales of the Black Freighter" [a comic within the "Watchmen" comic, whose two narratives intertwine]?
Kassell: Yes. I wasn't in the writers' room, but the structure of "American Hero Story" being a part of the show was definitely a reference to "Black Freighter." It was an opportunity to take the aesthetic of a comic-book show and say "here's an entirely different way to do it." It's more melodramatic. It's a TV show within our show made on a different budget level [laughs].
It's also a great way of telling a piece of history from the book in the show in a very entertaining way.
Clark: Does that play a significant part in the rest of the series?
Kassell: It's definitely a thread throughout. Anything that's on screen is there for a very important reason.
Clark: Damon said at Comic Con that by the end of the season, the questions and mysteries will be resolved. Was that important to you going into this?
Kassell: Well I never really doubted it. The essence of the series is that it's ultimately a murder mystery that we can hang so many other topics on. I trust Damon's craft. Almost every time I may have been confused when reading the script, he had written the words: "If you're confused, it's okay. Trust me. Hang on."
I worked on "The Killing" all five years and when the killer wasn't revealed at the end of season one, that was so infuriating to the fans. But I never actually asked myself if that would happen with this material. There's definitely a mystery where you'd want to come back for season two, but I heard [Damon Lindelof's] plan and never doubted it.
Clark: What's the likelihood of a second season? Will there be more story to tell?
Kassell: It's fun that I can answer that from the position of a fan and not as an insider. As a fan who has seen this whole thing, I definitely think there is content for a season two, if not more. I think it would be delicious and wonderful to see. But it's not for me to reveal inside conversations.
Clark: I really want to ask you about Jeremy Irons before we end, but I assume you can't reveal anything about his character's identity.
Kassell: [laughs] Probably who you think he is?
Clark: But my theory is that he is probably not who we think he is and you're all just saying that.
Kassell: Oh, I love it!
Clark: If he was who everyone thinks he is, then why keep it a secret?
Kassell: Yeah, great question [laughs]. I think you'll be pleased. Throughout the whole [season], it's a wonderfully satisfying character to spend time with.