Why Watchmen Had to Be the Most Detail-Obsessed Show on TV
"The level of detail really needed to be there in order for it to call itself Watchmen," said executive producer Damon Lindelof.Photo Courtesy of HBO TV Features Watchmen
[Note: The following contains mild spoilers for the season premiere of Watchmen.]
It is very, very easy to nerd out over HBO’s Watchmen while talking to Damon Lindelof. The executive producer of the new HBO drama took on the challenge of expanding upon one of his all-time favorite stories with a great deal of nervousness, ultimately creating the story of what happened to this dark weird world of costumed heroes after the events of the iconic 1986 comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Lindelof pinpointed two key ideas that sparked inspiration for his take on the show: “I got really wrapped up in the idea that a mask would simultaneously conceal and reveal, and that that idea felt paradoxical,” he said. “And so I was like, it hides your face, but it also shows who you really are. And I was like, I want to talk about that. I don’t know what that means.”
In addition, as he’s discussed more than once, he wanted to examine the issue of race and America, “and how I felt everything that I was seeing around me in the media was a reflection of these sorts of these dual histories, what I will call the story that I was told versus the versus the story that was hidden. And I started asking myself if Watchmen, as a word, an idea, a concept, could contain a conversation on race.”
While Lindelof was a massive fan of the comics from the beginning, director Nicole Kassell was not — her first exposure to Watchmen came through Lindelof’s script for the pilot. However, she said, “I was blown away. ‘I had to do this’ was the feeling that came over me.”
However, she still held off on reading the graphic novel until after she officially got the job as producing director on the series, feeling that “the fact that I wasn’t a fan would give me fresh eyes to taking in the story, he was telling without judging it against something else.” Once she came on board, she then began a deep dive into the comic and its surrounding mythology. “I realize that I’ve still only scratched the surface. But once I was a part of the team, it was essential to me to be, you know, incredibly responsible and respectful to the source. And the fans that come with it.”
Almost every frame of the show is packed with details that speak to the differences between the world of Watchmen and the real world (such as it is), which Lindelof said was directly inspired by the Moore’s scripts for the comics, which are incredibly dense and detail-filled, sometimes spending an entire page to describe just one panel.
“That’s where the bar is. Essentially, we needed to put in that much thought,” he said. “In order for an episode of Watchmen to work, you had to be able to just watch it and enjoy it, or at least make relative sense of it over the course of an hour. But then if someone decided to watch it a second time, there would be all sorts of things for them to find that they missed the first time around. So those things can’t be so distracting as to say like ‘look at how look at this incredible level of detail,’ but the level of detail really needed to be there in order for it to call itself Watchmen.”
The scripts, to be clear, were a lot simpler than Moore’s, because as Lindelof said, “I want the scripts to be fun reads, and I think that they would get overwhelmingly dense if we put everything in them.” Moore’s genius as a writer is matched by his reputation for eccentricity, and Lindelof joked that “I could never go full Alan Moore — only Alan Moore can go full Alan Moore. The full Moore is one of those things where, like, you come across somebody and they’re naked and they’re covered in mud, and their hair is all askew and their eyes are wild and you say, ‘What happened to you last night?’, and that person just goes ‘I went the full Moore.’ I don’t know if I’d ever be able to come back from it.”
As the scripts did contain plenty of details, Lindelof said that they were a bit longer than typical, running around 65 pages for a 55-57 minute episode (traditionally the math breaks down as one page equals one minute of screen time). But, he added, “there’s a lot of information that is being passed between us and production that is not on the page.”
So on top of the scripts, there is an auxiliary document that Kassell and the writers assembled called the World Book, which Lindelof estimated is close to 75 pages long and encompasses the full alternate history between November 1985, when Watchmen the comic ends, and September 2019, when Watchmen the series begins.
“It’s never something that I think that we would publish because it’s in our vernacular. It wasn’t written to be consumed, but it was written to be referred to. So it’s a bit textbook in its presentation, like how to assemble a piece of furniture,” Lindelof said. “I wouldn’t call it a bible. That’s an insult to the Bible. It’s much more like IKEA schematics.”
This document was shared with the whole production team, empowering them to add details on their own that would fit within the show’s history. And, in Kassell’s opinion, they knocked it out of the park. As one example, she referred to the classroom in which we first meet Angela/Sister Night (Regina King), which is decorated with posters featuring squid anatomy and four famous Presidents: Washington, Lincoln, Nixon, and Robert Redford.
“I did not, in prep, micro-manage what would go on the walls of this classroom,” she said. “We said ‘fifth grade classroom,’ and then I walk on set and there’s that poster of the four presidents. Once I started framing then it’s like, okay, let’s move that poster here, so I know it’ll be in the shot. But then there were a lot of things I didn’t even look at too closely until even in post production. It’s just brilliant because it’s them saying, ‘what would a classroom be teaching its children in this world?’”
Another detail she referenced was when Jeremy Irons’ character, marooned in a mysterious other realm, receives the gift of a watch from one of his servants, wrapped in a rabbit fur hide. The hide wrapping, Kassell said was, “something the props master came to set with, because we had said ‘we’re in a world where all they have to work from is things that they could get on this property.’ I didn’t plan that, Damon didn’t plan that — but the prop master was inspired. I love that kind of contribution.”
One big detail that becomes a thread running throughout the series is American Hero Story, a show-within-the-show which tells the story of the early days of masked heroes through a very specific point-of-view. The title is, of course, a direct reference to Ryan Murphy’s American [Blank] Story franchises; Lindelof didn’t tell Murphy about the reference in advance, calling it “an elbow to the ribs” rather than a full parody of those shows. This is because not only does Lindelof “love [Murphy] as a person, and I think as a TV writer, and producer, he’s amazing,” but American Hero Story is quite deliberately inspired by American Crime Story, but meant to be cheesier.
Lindelof said that composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross had “so much fun” doing the score for Hero Story, because of how different it was from the rest of the Watchmen soundtrack. And Kassell, who got to direct some of the show-within-a-show, said it was “just a blast, [because] it allowed us to approach this entirely differently. The extreme emotions and hyperspeed and freeze framing and bright colors and bad lighting — it was over-the-top and melodramatic and you know, absurd but insanely fun.”
At one point in the production process, Lindelof revealed, they considered including post-credits sequences after each episode which would emulate the structure of the original comic (which features lengthy “ancillary materials,” like excerpts from memoirs or historical texts, at the end of each issue). If they had done so, one of those segments might have been a behind-the-scenes featurette for American Hero Story, similar to the BTS interviews that HBO runs after episodes of Barry or Game of Thrones — featuring Ryan Murphy as the “creator” of the show. But, then, Lindelof realized, “it can’t actually be Ryan Murphy, because then I would start feeling like the show actually has to be up to Ryan Murphy standards.”
So instead, Lindelof said, the creator of American Hero Story is “a mysterious and elusive, reclusive showrunner who doesn’t give interviews, unlike me, who fucking blabs and blabs and blabs and blabs endlessly.” (This was about 20 minutes into our conversation, and to be honest I had no complaints.) There will also be some material released over the course of the series’ run that expands upon American Hero Story and its place in this world, because as Lindelof said, “Lord knows we talked about it.”
When it comes to Watchmen, there’s only one big detail that remains ever-so-slightly vague: Whether there will be another season of the show. When Lindelof and the writers initially talked about how they would describe Watchmen, the comic, one adjective they used was “self-contained” — the 12 issues come together to tell a complete story with an ending, making it unique in a medium where characters like Spider-Man and Batman go on forever.
Thus, it felt important that the show end its first season the same way. “I felt that if these nine episodes end without feeling like we completed a story, in the same way that we feel that at the end of a season of Fargo or True Detective, you know, then it’s not really Watchmen. It’s just another continuing show where you have to come up with a cool cliffhanger for the finale,” he said.
Kassell said that “Seeing is believing, I guess. I feel like as a fan, I just can say I truly hope for more, and there’s undeniably more story that could be told. But this will be satisfying as a single season, too.”
In addition, he said, “it’s also not my story, right? I appropriated it. And so the idea that someone else could come along and do a another season of Watchmen, that’s really exciting to me too. I would watch the fuck out of that. These nine episodes are sort of everything that I have to say at this point about Watchmen, and then we’ll kind of go from there.”
“Ryan Murphy’s Watchmen?” I pitched.
“Oh, my God. Yeah. Sign me up,” he said, but also had his own idea: “Ryan Coogler’s Watchmen.”
New episodes of Watchmen debut Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.