Robert Redford has been president for 28 years. Cell phones and the internet are outlawed. Fossil fuels are a thing of the past. Costumed heroes were popular, then banned. Police wear masks to protect their identities and cannot use their guns without a dispatcher unlocking them first. Reparations were issued for racial injustice, and our country remains ever divided.
This is the alternate history America of Watchmen, HBO’s upcoming drama series from writer-producer Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) that’s a bombastic mix of inspirations from Alan Moore’s “unfilmable” 1986 graphic novel infused with new characters and socio-political themes. “It’s so wildly ambitious and original, it’s like nothing I’ve seen before and also addresses important issues,” says director Nicole Kassell of Lindelof’s scripts.
The story is set three decades after the events in Moore’s Watchmen text. Most of the graphic novel’s iconic characters are apparently dead or in hiding, though a character we suspect is Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandius, is kicking around in a mansion (and played with gilded smugness by Jeremy Irons), and the staggeringly powerful Doctor Manhattan is rumored to be hanging out on Mars. The focus instead is on a new character, Angela Abar, an Oklahoma police detective (The Leftovers‘ Regina King) with the secret superhero identity of Sister Night. Abar is investigating the reemergence of a white supremacist terrorist group inspired by the long-deceased moral absolutist Rorschach.
Below Lindelof gives his first in-depth interview about Watchmen, as well as discusses another title for the first time — The Hunt, a film he co-wrote with Nick Cuse that likewise touched on topical political divisions. The Hunt made headlines when it was pulled last month from its planned Sept. 27 release by studio Universal after President Trump and others attacked the film.
Entertainment Weekly: After The Leftovers, you probably could have done whatever you wanted. What made Watchmen right — aside from wanting a very difficult job?
Damon Lindelof: I ask my therapist that question on a weekly basis now. “Why, why Watchmen?” First and foremost this is something I love and something that made a very profound impression on me when I read it when I was 13 years old. In the same way, I wanted to work on a Star Trek movie [Star Trek Into Darkness] and an Alien movie [Prometheus] this is something from my childhood that I carry a tremendous amount of nostalgia for. The fantasy I indulged as a young man was maybe one day I can tell Watchmen stories. The first two times [Lindelof was offered the opportunity to write a Watchmen adaptation] it was incredibly tempting. I said no for various reasons. First and foremost, the timing didn’t feel right — [director Zack Snyder] had just made his [Watchmen] movie. And secondly, revisiting the source material meant adapting something that I knew was so perfect. I knew the best job I could do adapting the original Watchmen was just being a really good cover band.
So is there a way to take this thing I love and be inspired by it, not erase it, but build upon its foundation? That depends on whether I have the right idea. The ideas started to come with what to do with Watchmen and then it didn’t really feel like a decision anymore but something I felt compelled to do. That sounds arrogant and full of hubris but when I haven’t made choices based on that feeling things haven’t turned out so well because then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. But when you get really inspired you have to chase it even if it leads to ruin.
You’ve said that the project is not a sequel and not a remake but a “remix” and I think some are confused by that. Can we accept that what happened in the comic/film happened in the past of your world? That if we re-read the graphic novel or watch Snyder’s movie that we have a firm handle on what occurred 30 years ago in this story?
Yes. Look, [the new series] certainly fits into the “sequel” box, and definitely doesn’t fit into the “reboot” box. We treat the original 12 issues as canon. They all happened. We haven’t done any revisionist history, but we can maneuver in between the cracks and crevices and find new stories there. But for all the reasons you just articulated, we wanted to make sure our first episode felt like the beginning of a new story rather than a continuation of an old story. That’s what I think a sequel is — the continuation of an old story.
After the Television Critics Association press conference this summer, some stories claimed Robert Redford was actually in your show because the president in HBO’s Watchmen for the last 28 years is “Robert Redford.” But the actor is not appearing, right? Were there any concerns about making a real person the president in your show and depicting their real-life liberal ideals as leading to a more totalitarian society without that person actually being involved?
The short answer is yes. I’ve had a lot of reservations about a lot of the creative choices made in the show. I don’t think any of the choices were made without reservations and conversations and ultimately a decision. I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to defend every decision I made, but I’ll be able to explain why I made it. We had that conversation you’re suggesting. But the world of Watchmen is so heightened and so clearly it’s an alternate history that it will be clear to everyone we’re not talking about the real Robert Redford.
More importantly, the way we handle this story, you can’t blame Robert Redford for everything that’s happened in the world. The show says Redford has a liberal ideology, much like the actual Robert Redford, and he was incredibly well-intentioned in terms of the legislation he passed and the America that he wanted to create. But that doesn’t mean it worked out the way he wanted it to. And that’s not on him, that’s on us.
Can you tell us more about this alternative world beyond the lack of cell phones or Internet — which, of course, are also helpful to eliminate from a screenwriting perspective when telling dramatic stories?
Yes. We’re living in a world where fossil fuels have been eliminated as a power source. All the cars are zero emissions and run on electricity or fuel cells — largely thanks to the innovations of Dr. Mahattan decades earlier. There’s also this legislation that’s passed, Victims Against Racial Violence, which is a form of reparations that are colloquially known as “Redford-ations.” It’s a lifetime tax exemption for victims of, and the direct descendants of, designated areas of racial injustice throughout America’s history, the most important of which, as it relates to our show, is the Tulsa massacre of 1921. That legislation had a ripple effect into another piece of legalization, DoPA, the Defense of Police Act, which allows police to hide their face behind masks because they were being targeted by terrorist organizations for protecting the victims of the initial act. So … good luck sound biting that!
I saw the opening of your pilot depicting the massacre then Googled “Tulsa 1921” and — like you said in another interview — I was surprised and embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of this tragedy before. Why was that incident in particular, and Tulsa in general, the right setting for your story?
Like you just said, my ignorance of the fact that it happened made me feel compelled to educate others. And I could go around to my friends or put it on social media but I feel the biggest platform that’s been afforded me is I get to make television shows that potentially millions are going to watch. And for a show like Watchmen, which already had a built-in audience that has nothing to do with me, to use Watchmen as a delivery mechanism for this piece of erased history felt right as long as it was presented in a non-exploitative way.
Also, the superhero genre always feels like it takes place in New York, Gotham City or Metropolis. And Gotham City and Metropolis are just New York paradigms. So I was like: What does a superhero show look like in Oklahoma? That idea was interesting to me in terms of what it would look and feel like and kinds of people we would populate it with. I also just felt that tickle in my gut that was like, Do it here. That tickle has not always steered me right but it is the thing that makes me do the things I do.
In some ways, there’s also the added challenge of not just doing Watchmen but doing a superhero deconstruction story when there have so many other superhero deconstruction stories in recent years — from Kick-Ass to Deadpool to The Boys. Did that factor into your thinking as well? How do you break new ground on super anti-heroes when even that is now common?
That’s a great question. It’s almost like the truly subversive thing that you could do right now is to celebrate a superhero because the “dark” version, or deconstructed version, is so in the culture. And by the way, in the mid-80s, Watchmen and The Dark Knight both did it, so the idea of deconstructing the superhero myth is 30 years old.
Fully aware of that, I started to think that for Watchmen maybe the more interesting point is to think about masking and authority and policing as an adjunct to superheroes. In Watchmen, nobody has superpowers — the only super-powered individual is Dr. Manhattan and he’s not currently on the planet. In The Boys, you have superpowered individuals in capes that can shoot lasers out of their eyes and fly around and have feats of strength and turn invisible. Nobody on Watchmen can do that. So I felt like we wouldn’t be deconstructing the superhero myth because all the characters in Watchmen are just humans who play dress up. It would be more interesting to ask psychological questions about why do people dress up, why is hiding their identity a good idea, and there are interesting themes to explore here when your mask both hides you and shows you at the same time — because your mask is actually a reflection in yourself. What’s the trauma an individual has that goes into the mask they wear? All that felt Watchmen-y to me. Again, these are not original ideas, but ones I thought were timely when we all have these different identities in code now.
You a sprawling cast. Is there somebody you want to single out who particularly surprised you with their take on they material?
I can’t say enough amazing things about Regina King. The opportunity to make her the star of the show is one of the reasons this was worth doing. It’s not that Regina hasn’t had opportunities to show the world what an incredible actor she is, but to be at the center of the show is a pretty big deal. She’s able to surprise me constantly with her choices as a performer even though I worked with her on The Leftovers for a season and I’ve seen everything she’s she’s ever done going back to 227 and Southland. Yet she’s still able to make choices that make me go, What?
I also want to say that I’m constantly delighted — and I’m not a person that experiences the emotion of delight in my life — by what Jeremy Irons is doing in this show. I’m not only been a fan of his for decades, but I’m just delighted of the choices he’s making.
And that’s not to the exclusion of anything that Jean Smart does, but she’s not introduced until the third episode. Tim Blake Nelson knocks my socks off. And last but not least — and again, there are others I’m not mentioning that are fantastic — Louis Gossett Jr. You don’t get to experience him much in the pilot but starting in the second episode and all through the season he’s a living legend and it was truly a gift to have him say our words.
I re-read your 2018 Instagram letter to fans about doing a Watchmen series and one line now pops out: “We also intend to revisit the past century of Costumed Adventuring through a surprising yet familiar set of eyes and it’s here we’ll be taking our greatest risk.” Does that refer to the fact that King’s character is an original creation yet the apparent focus of the story? I’m not sure — even after watching the pilot — I know what that means?
Very insightful. You should be in exactly the place that you are at the end of the pilot, which is: “I’m not sure what he’s talking about yet.” By the end of the sixth episode, it will be clear who I was talking about. There won’t be any space for debate. I think people will start to theorize who I was talking about prior to the sixth episode, but that’s the one that makes the subtext text.
Landing Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor as your composer was a big get for a TV show. He’s got such a specific style and the music makes a pretty big impact. What’s that collaboration been like?
It’s Trent and Atticus Ross, they do all their composition work together. We were talking hypothetically about composers and I love the composers that I’ve worked with in the past — like Michael Giacchino on Lost. With The Leftovers, I wanted the show to sound different than Lost so we got Max Richter, who was amazing. When talking about Watchmen, I had to start all over again with somebody I haven’t worked with before because the music is a big part of making shows unique and different from one another. At the top of my wishlist were Trent and Atticus. I called HBO and said, “Look, they haven’t done TV but it’s worth an inquiry.” And [HBO drama executive] Francesca Orsi said, “This is the weirdest thing but their reps called us this morning and asked about Watchmen.” Within 48 hours of that call, Trent and Atticus and I were in a room together and it turns out they’re huge Watchmen fans. They signed up on faith and faith alone. They get the scripts at the same time the actors do. They started writing the music even before we shot the pilot so we can get a sense in our heads of what it would sound like. It’s been incredible. They’re doing some cool stuff I can’t talk about stuff inside the world of Watchmen musically that I think is going to be really cool. They go deep.
I think perhaps your boldest move I’ve heard about so far is Regina said about in an interview we did that you’re not only diving into very hot button topics but you’re handling them in such a way that viewers can read whatever they want into their meaning. You’re avoiding moralizing at a time when popular entertainment is terrified of being misunderstood because there’s such a willingness online to accuse artists of bad intentions. Is that an accurate read? And does that kind of freak you out?
The read is completely accurate and yeah it freaks me out. But when I’m freaked out is when I get excited. I can’t write or create from a nervous scared space. If you stop and try to talk yourself out of doing something that might be upsetting or might make people onerous or confused or uncomfortable you’re never going to do anything interesting. You have to jump in with some degree of forethought and responsibility and then afterward you can ask yourself why you did it. The time for contemplation is not at the edge of the diving board because going back down the ladder is worse than the distance to the pool. I also kind of feel like, unfortunately, we live in a space where hate runs rampant not just on the internet but in real life and it’s important to remind ourselves this is a TV show. It is not real. Although it is dealing with real issues and it’s meant to generate and provoke conversations and emotions we have to contextualize that this is fiction.
That answer could also apply to another of your recent projects, the movie The Hunt (where a group of red-state conservatives are seemingly hunted for sport by liberal elites). From what I gathered from an early version of the script, the film, ironically enough, was attempting to satirize the same sort of divisive online political outrage that led to it being pulled from release. There was a lot of confusion about what the film was actually about. What were you trying to say with that one?
The Hunt is, and always was, a story about what happens when political outrage goes to the most absurd, ridiculous extreme. Because we wanted the movie to be fun and entertaining, we did our very best to make fun of ourselves while making it. The last thing we wanted to do was make a “message” movie. The audience doesn’t want to be preached at so, if anything, this is a story about what happens to folks who deem themselves holier than thou. Spoiler alert: Things don’t turn out great for them.
What was your reaction to Universal canceling the film’s release? Is there a chance of distribution somewhere else?
I’m a TV guy, so I’ve seen many shows “canceled” then revived, so, of course, there’s always a chance the same will happen for us. I understand why the movie was misunderstood, but I really hope people get a chance to see it and make up their minds for themselves.