Unfortunately, if you’re like me, then the first 10 minutes of HBO’s Watchmen was a horrifying revelation. Watching the opening sequence, set during the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, I was horrified and disturbed at the brutal on-screen imagery. The slaughter of innocents – of men, women, and children and all Black Americans – felt like an ice cold glass of water to the face. Stepping into the world of Watchmen, I didn’t know where the series was going, but it had my attention.
And then a quick Google search informed me that this was no fiction. This tragedy really happened, and I had never heard of it. Thankfully, writer/creator Damon Lindelof and director Nicole Kassell brought this shameful and shamefully unspoken blight on the face of American history to the forefront of their new HBO limited series.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one to react this way.
“Honestly, if nothing else came of the series, just the fact that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people suddenly knew about that event made it all worth it,” Kassell admitted. “Like you, I had no idea, and hundreds of our cast and crew didn’t know. So, just to have it kind of smash into people’s homes and reality was extremely profound.”
Beloved and acclaimed on first airing, Watchmen found new relevance this spring in late May when George Floyd was murdered at the hands of the police and millions of Americans protested (and rioted) across the country. Kassell and I spoke the day after the initial rioting in Minneapolis, and it was difficult for either of us to focus on much else.
Watchmen is a television show, and yet, it feels all-too-real.
“One of the cinematographers from Watchmen posted this beautiful photo of Louis Gossett Jr. sitting in the seat that the little boy sits in when he says, ‘Trust in the law.’ It takes on a whole other resonance looking at that image this week. It’s a beautiful, elderly, African-American man, and everyone should have the opportunity to reach this age. The grief that comes from not being able to trust in the law…”
Kassell and Lindelof conceived of the first ten minutes set in Tulsa 1921 because it sets the tone and theming for this new Watchmen series. To Kassell, Lindelof knew the only way he could take on something as iconic as Watchmen was to find the proper narrative. So, the Tulsa sequence situated the audience within a real-world context where, later, adults wear masks (also oddly prescient) to protect their identity. They use that setting to continue to explore race, trauma, and inherited trauma themes through the rest of the series.
Kassell filmed the pilot before the series received a full pick-up from HBO. To construct the pilot, she assembled a look book of written and visual cues as to how she would make the episode. Influences included The Conformist for its bold, graphic compositions, Children of Men for its noir, sci-fi alternate, yet familiar, future setting, the films of Wong Kar-wai, Amelie, and a Rhianna video. Kassell’s vision also included nods, of course, to the original graphic novel. That helped appease life-long fans of the original material.
“With Damon, I pitched my vision. Doing the pilot and then having a window between pilot to series was invaluable because then we could go through the pilot, and I could hear what he was really responding to. We wanted to lean even more into the noir and look at characters within objects and frames,” Kassell explained.
Nicole Kassell’s work on the Watchmen pilot, titled “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” garnered her a Director’s Guild of America award. Winning for this episode was a tremendous honor, Kassell said. It positions her and the series itself as major front runners in the upcoming Emmy limited series races. Moved by the recognition and the entire Watchmen experience, Kassell wants production companies to take similar chances on filmmakers as Lindelof and HBO did with her.
“There’s so much talent out there whether it’s been recognized by an award or not. Damon and HBO had the guts to go with me and give me a huge shot for a pilot of this scale while having only done one pilot before. I just encourage people to keep giving others similar opportunities.”
Watchmen is currently streaming on HBO Max.