Watchmen’s Nicole Kassell Opens Up About Paying Homage And Breaking Free From The Comics

Watchmen’s Nicole Kassell Opens Up About Paying Homage And Breaking Free From The Comics
Image: HBO/Foxtel

Watchmen became a different kind of show following Agent Laurie Blake’s introduction earlier this season, but after this week’s episode, the show has transformed once again. Despite the series’ shifts into new forms, executive producer Nicole Kassell recently explained to us that as wild as things have become for Angela Abar and the rest of the crew as of late, the place that Watchmen is in now was always part of the grand plan.

Below you will find part of Gizmodo’s discussion with Kassell. You can read more of our chat here.

Gizmodo: You’ve spoken about how you weren’t exactly a diehard Watchmen fan before you began working on the series, and how you aren’t particularly precious about the source material. How has not being emotionally tied to the comics given you more creative flexibility to build out this narrative?

Nicole Kassell:  When it comes to story, the story that we’re telling is entirely the creation of Damon [Lindelof] and the writers. My not being connected to the book until after reading the script allowed me to put Damon’s script first and foremost, and I wasn’t going to come to the show with any baggage like “Oh, you can’t do this!” or “How dare you?” It allowed me to be totally free from that pressure. But at the same time, once they come on board, it was of the utmost importance to me to really show respect and appreciation for the book.

Gizmodo:  We’ve seen how conflicted Angela is over Judd’s death because obviously she cared deeply for him. But at the same time, he has his Klan robe and she doesn’t know what to make of it. From your perspective, where is Angela emotionally at this point in the series? [Editors’ Note: This interview was conducted around episode three.] What did you want people to get from this frustration she feels that she can’t really articulate to others? 

Kassell: You know, the question really is posed to her in episode two when old man Will says to her “Who are you?” He knows who he is, but suddenly this woman is thrust into a new space that’s going to be the setting of her journey.

The interesting thing is that, for all of us, there’s no “right” way to answer that question. “Who are you?” Working on this show has made me think about this a lot because there are moments where I, like Angela, wonder whether I know who I truly am because I don’t know my whole family history.

Angela, when we meet her in episode one, is very confident and very clear in her right and wrong, black and white, good and bad, and she thinks she has a great nose for white supremacy. Her closest friend’s just been killed by lynching and really, that’s where her mind’s at. The mystery of the show is what she’s focused on. She knows Judd had the robe, and she needs to understand what that means, which is what Will wants for her, but she’s got to go deeper and deeper. She doesn’t realise that it’s all building to something, but that’s the point.

Gizmodo: Talk to me about the conversations that you guys had about the concept of legacy. Obviously, the show exists within the legacy of the Watchmen comics, but within the text of the show itself, everyone”whether or not they know it” is being defined by the legacies that they’re part of. What were the big ideas about legacy as a concept that you wanted to define the series?

Kassell: It all comes back to the concept of inherited trauma that you’re either conscious or unconscious of. The way that race factors into people’s lives today is a result of the last 400 years, and there’s trauma that’s been passed down from generation to generation. What we wanted to do, though, was to explore that idea: How does that trauma get passed down and how can it manifest in people.

Gizmodo: Talk to me about Will as a character. He’s introduced really mysteriously so early on, but by episode six, once we’ve had this exposure to American Hero Story, the bits and pieces of truth that have been doled out suddenly make sense and radically change the entire narrative. Was the idea always to sort of generational trauma hidden in plain sight?

Kassell: Well, yeah. The first few lines of the series, you know, the first dialogue spoken is that little boy saying “There will be no mob justice today. Trust in the law.” But Will walks outside, mob justice is happening, and he realises that he cannot trust in the law. That is the critical beginning of this character’s journey and what this show is talking about. What happens when you can’t trust in the law? There’s a huge portion of our society that cannot, and those of us who can have taken that for granted for so long. Today, people are really talking about police brutality and inequality in terms of how justice is served, and we really wanted to contextualize the conversations people are having now within a larger history.

Gizmodo: “She Was Killed by Space Junk“ marked a really big turning point in the series because you’ve got a sense of who this world’s power players are, and”bam! Laurie brings this living, breathing, direct connection to the original comics in such a concrete way and she has a perspective that really sort of makes it obvious how odd the situation in Tulsa is. Was she always the one that you wanted to be able to bring kind of a level of clarity to the situation?

Kassell: Yeah. I love Laurie as a character, and Jean Smart is just smashing as her. To have one of the lesser characters from the source material come back and be in the spotlight, and to see just how much she’s changed and become this wicked, fascinating person, is so fun because it gave us the chance to dig deeper into what her perspective on the world is like.

Her point of view is so essential because she was a vigilante, you know, and for her the history of this whole world is so strange because she’s an integral part of it. She is the Comedian and the Silk Spectre’s daughter and she did what her parents do because that’s just what people do. But she lived through so many changes, like the outlawing of vigilantism and having to make this deal with the government, ultimately, to ensure that she could remain free.

Gizmodo: What are we to take away from the fact that Laurie’s been using Trieu’s service to make these phone calls to Doctor Manhattan on Mars and is, well, like a top tier user paying top dollar to leave these messages that are going unanswered?

Kassell: Part of me doesn’t want to answer that because that’s purely for the audience, I think. I don’t want to tell someone what to feel, but to me, the beauty of Laurie’s story there is being able to see a woman who always has her guard up when she’s out and about and you’re getting this incredibly private moment with her. I find it so moving to see that she’s still part of a love story. She lost her lover, and we’re using her pain to explore the reality that even though she’s not wearing a mask, she has this veneer that she puts up.

Gizmodo: Something that has really just become very apparent about this show is just how dynamic and compelling all of its female characters are. In a way that the original Watchmen comics were not. Laurie…not a secondary character, but she didn’t really have much interiority that you could read on the page, and the same was true of her mother. What were the conversations had about making Angela and Laurie and Lady Trieu complex, and at times difficult to relate to?

Kassell: For this take on Watchmen, I think that was ground zero, really. Looking at the source material and figuring out what it couldn’t or just wouldn’t do. Women and people of colour were not handled with such complexity and care. They’re so absent from the source, but they’re part of the world we’ve always lived in. Their voices have been so underrepresented historically, and with the show, we had a chance to at the very least try to elevate them.

Gizmodo: What creative muscles has Watchmen really challenged you to flex and develop in ways that your previous work hadn’t necessarily?

Kassell: I think the biggest learning curve has been the world of visual effects. You might not always see it, but there are so many visual effects in this and in the past, I’d used them very, very minimally, like just with green screens and a bit of clean up. But here, it’s just so much more, and at this point, my toolbox has become so much more, well, dynamic and diversified. When it comes to directing, it’s the same skillset but just applied to this narrative.

It’s thrilling to get to direct these scenes. I’d always wanted to do a musical number and now I’ve directed a scene from Oklahoma, and with American Hero Story, we had this over-the-top action sequence. Jeremy Irons’ character, we’ve got Remains of the Day kind of storytelling. The show’s just let me be wildly creative on such a broad canvas and it’s been a blast.

Gizmodo: You bring up American Hero Story, and I’m super curious to hear”what kind of show is American Hero Story, do you think? What kind of show is it to the people within the world who are watching it?

Kassell: To me, it’s a tongue-in-cheek comment about where a lot of our media is going. It seems to be getting more violent, more sexualised, more explicit. It’s one direction where things could easily be going.

Gizmodo: When we begin to see how American Hero Story‘s really downplayed or just fully erased Hooded Justice’s being black”this incredibly important aspect of black history, I’m assuming that was always the plan? To have that tucked into the story?

Kassell: In the original Watchmen, there was the assumption that Hooded Justice was just another white strong man, you know? It’s just what everyone assumes. To me, American Hero Story is doing the accurate, “truthful” reenactment of the book, and what we wanted to do with our plot was to say “No, this here is the true story.”

Gizmodo: There are so many moments in the series that feel like loving jabs at Watchmen fans themselves, like when Laurie’s making fun of Petey and the “˜80s. That was always intentional? Telegraphing that yes, this is a Watchmen story, but that people needed to be ready to let this story being its own thing?

Kassell: Yeah, absolutely. In the writer’s room, there’s Damon, but there’s also Jeff Jensen who’s just imbued with all things Watchmen, so there’s this element of self-deprecation, but there’s also reverence there. They’re poking fun at themselves, but there’s an appreciation for the fact that they’re creating fan fiction, there’s a whole community of people out there who are creating fan fiction. Damon’s been very open about that because that’s what this is: fiction inspired by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. There’s absolutely that self-awareness, but we’re playful with it.