Veteran cinematographer Greg Middleton recently followed up a twice Emmy-nominated stint on Game of Thrones with perhaps an even more challenging visual production in Damon Lindelof’s remix of Alan Moore’s fabled graphic novel, Watchmen.
In our discussion, Greg speaks about melding the different visual style required for each time period and location, as well as the deepening resonance of the show since its last episode aired in December of last year. Like many of us, we couldn’t have possible known that Watchmen would be so prescient and speak so clearly to the times we live in. But as Greg relates here, maybe we shouldn’t be quite so surprised.
Awards Daily: So, I imagine that most people who’ve worked on Game of Thrones would probably consider that the peak of the career. But then, you did Watchmen. (Laughs). How did you come to the show?
Greg Middleton:I was aware of Damon Lindelof’s work for a while and I know a couple of people who’ve worked with him before. When the show got announced, one of the directors named was Nicole Kassell. She’s a director that I had worked with three times on a show called The Killing. We did some great episodes together and I really loved working with her, and we’ve been in contact ever since–trying to find more things to do together. She and I had a quick meeting in L.A. I was already committed to the second unit of season 8 of Game of Thrones. I was committed to that, and unfortunately the schedules overlapped. I wasn’t available for the pilot, but I had a great meeting with Nicole and she thought I’d be sort of perfect for it. Many months later after they made the pilot I got a chance to join the show.
AD: I’ve been lucky enough to speak to a few folks on Watchmen and at the one constant about Damon–aside from his creativity– that people have mentioned is his effort to make a low-maintenance, harmonious set. Was that your experience as well?
GM: Well that’s actually similar to how David and Dan and the producers of Game of Thrones also looked at who they hired. When I joined on season five, the show already had a certain following and was very successful, but they only wanted people involved that were totally committed to making the show great and loved the show. It’s very similar with Damon. He wanted people that were willing to to jump on board with what was going to be a very ambitious and kind of a risky venture–especially considering the subject matter he was going to tackle and integrate into his take on Watchmen. He just really wanted that kind of person around. He’d worked with Nicole on The Leftovers andI think he trusted her implicitly with the kind of people that she would bring on board.
AD: What was it like working with Damon?
GM: The one thing that’s so exciting about working with someone like Damon is he’s very, very detailed and he writes in such an entertaining way. He took on incredibly complex and difficult subject matter and integrated it brilliantly into a piece of work that also honors the Watchmen comic, and honors all the issues and themes within it. He has this brilliant way of using the back story of the main characters and bring in a piece of real history, which is also what they did in the original comic. In our case it was Tulsa 1921. To be involved with an artist that is taking a big swing and really trying something is super exciting. I came out of independent/arthouse cinema originally, and all those people in that realm, those filmmakers, like Nicole (Kassell) who made The Woodsman starring Kevin Bacon, I just knew they were willing to take a risk in telling the story.
AD: The storytelling is so complex that I imagine it made the visuals a challenge as well.
GM: It’s incredibly intricate and complicated figuring out that world. You have to figure out an individual language to do that with while also honoring the graphic novel.And we had all these different time periods to work with and points of view to work with–it’s a real visual puzzle. I was all up for a huge challenge like that. It takes time to do really good quality work and designs that work. I’m sure Damon and the writers will say, here’s a first draft, and then you refine it and fight for your ideas in the writer’s room. You have to whittle away at it to make it as tight as possible. It’s the same kind of thing when you’re developing and you’re shooting a series – even a limited series like this – you learn some from lessons before.
We took some things from the pilot that worked and also tried to bring a few more visual ideas from the graphic novel, like using split screen, and deep focus occasionally, and composition things from the graphic novel, and little match cuts between characters going to different different spaces in time, but being in the same place in frame–which is something they did in the graphic novel a lot. Both for the audience but also to give it its own unique visual language. To be able to try things like that and to be given so much leash by Nicole and Damon was really great. There was a real opportunity for the police station to become a much more interesting visual character in the show once we’s figured out what we wanted it to look like.
Kristian Milsted, who was the new production designer – Mark Worthington did the pilot – came on and he and I were talking about whether it should be brutalist in terms of architecture, and he had a few great references. He came up with the concept of the briefing room – where we had a few big speeches that would be integral to the exposition, but also set what the world would feel like. His idea was to make it kind of like the houses of Parliament – sort of a group of people facing each other as opposed to the normal flat auditorium, which is something we’ve seen a million times. This allowed for some interesting stacking of faces and characters by having them sit across from each other. It provided this Gothic sensibility which we wanted so the police would feel forboding.
Because you didn’t know early on if the police were going to be villains or not. The moral questions of the of the show are so big. Every character does things you don’t approve of, and the institution is both good and bad. That moral ambiguity and complexity is integral to the original graphic novel. We pitched this to Damon in a concept meeting. Kristian had done a bunch of renderings and concept art and stuff, and I pitched this lighting shift that would create this transition in the space and Damon was super excited. We had been warned in advance that historically he was not a huge fan of sets. But the pitch went down great and helped us believe that we were hitting the target, and thinking the right way about the show.
AD: That’s a very fluid way to work on a big project.
GM: Right. The other thing about working with someone like Damon Is we didn’t have all of our scripts for the entire season–unlike Game of Thrones where you’d have the entire season, or at least all the treatments. Damon really does like to respond to the production and how the characters are portrayed as the show is filming. He’s constantly working on how things are going to go and he, to be fair, crafted a ludicrously complex (laughs) narrative in terms of the characters and their journey, and all the flashbacks. To keep it in your head and to try and make sure it all made sense would be really difficult for anybody. But the great thing about him responding to new things is that he would see something and be inspired by that and that could lead to new ideas. To be in that part of the creation process knowing that what you’re shooting and designing can help inspire the solving of these riddles in the story down the road is also really exciting. That happens a lot on independent film. Making Watchmen was basically like making a nine-part independent movie.
AD: It’s hard to imagine a higher degree of difficulty to set for yourself than to take a beloved piece of material that had already been made into a movie that received a very mixed response, sort of remix it while trying to stay faithful to the spirit of the original text, and then add this third rail type issue of race into it as well. Did you look at this project and think, how in the world are we going to do this?
GM:There’s always a certain amount of apprehension when you’re taking on challenging subject matter. You could easily not handle it well and be ridiculed. In this case, I felt confident that Damon’s heart was in the right place. One of the integral moments in the show is who is Hooded Justice? Why did he become Hooded Justice? What’s his relationship with Angela? That became the heart of the story. It was genius, the way that Damon explained the origin of Hooded Justice, and also to wrap it up in a piece of real history. How it was going to get received is something you can’t really control. One reason that I think the film in some ways didn’t work for people is that even though it is very faithful, and has a beautifully artistically rendered reality, the context was lost on the audience. When the graphic novel came out in the ’80s, it was a critique and a reaction to the comics of the times. I think what Damon tried to do is to take the structure of the moral quandary of the characters and expand upon that with a modern story. Rorschach is mentioned by some people who love the comic as a hero, but he’s a delusional lunatic. In the comic, he says he doesn’t compromise, but the truth is, he does continually, he just doesn’t see his own compromise–he has a blind spot. That’s what makes him really compelling, because he is morally guided in his own way, and in other ways very confused and very deluded–which is also the case for almost everybody in that story.
That’s what I think Damon wanted to bring into the story–this sense of moral confusion and overt certainty, and how easily you can be manipulated when you feel that way. Damon wanted to take those themes, re-explore them with these new characters and a few of the older characters and mirror that in the new story, and make it as true to the explorations of the original piece of work as much as possible, but still feel contemporary. Although, my first question was who the hell is even going to watch this or get this at all if they don’t know the comic? (Laughs). And then those that do know the comic might just hate it because it’s not a proper remake of the comic. I think Damon won people over with the piece because it’s thematically so close to the comic and is exploring the same things in the same way. All these complex ideas are integral to how he wrote the piece.
AD: There is a different visual look for each time period. There’s monochrome for the Tulsa 1921, black and white for the Hooded Justice origin, there’s serial styled footage for the Bass Reeves segments, I imagine all these different visual looks were challenging to create and still remain cohesive to the whole.
GM: When I started with the show on episode two, we had the first few scripts, but we didn’t have full knowledge of where we were going to end up. We were trying to come up with different looks for everything and also what would be the correct look for the feel of our original Watchmen world. We did a lot with restricting the palette in terms of what colors would be available. We left yellow as the primary color, but a lot of other primaries are removed. Then we had to deal with the flashbacks. The first three pages of episode two have a German war office, a typing room, and then we get inside an apartment in the ’30s, and then suddenly you’re back at the at the tree from the pilot. Then you’re in this bakery–that’s all in the first few minutes. (Laughs). Coming up with looks to keep them distinct but also not be heavy-handed I think was the real mission. I’m hesitant to make a really bold photographic look that feels so extreme that it’s noticeable, because I don’t want to pull the audience out of those scenes. In that context, by the time I got to episode 6, we had done a lot of different things between the TV show, and the flashbacks, that we were struggling with, what should this episode look like–how should it be unique?
Then Damon said, what if we do a full black-and-white? I thought that could work, we just had to decide because it was a very tight schedule. But it gave it its own distinct thing, I suggested that maybe we leave just the color red in there a few times, because red was an important color with the the book for the mesmerism and it was also linked to the the Seventh Calvary. The red light was the thing that would lead Will through his story. Then of course Damon being the writer that he is, he seeded that idea in the dialogue of episode five when they’re discussing in the alternate present how Spielberg had not made Schindler’s List, he’d made his black and white epic about the massacre in New York about the giant squid–and then the character talking to Tim Blake Nelson describing the girl with the red dress, who everyone remembers from Schindler’s List. He plants this whole idea of that narrative device in the episode before. So, when it comes up in episode six, it’s already something that you’re kind of remembering, and realize that it’s important and you should pay attention to.
AD: The Jeremy Irons sequences at the castle are in a completely different style as well.
GM: It was quite an adventure. All shows are built with giant teams and I was very fortunate to be the cinematographer to be given a lot of responsibility to help push the look forward. However, all of the scenes at the castle location in Wales with Jeremy Irons were all done during prep, as we were doing episode two–they were shot by Chris Seager. All of those scenes for the entire season involving that location were shot in a two-week period. Chris and I discussed a few things that would distinguish that place from what we were designing at the time, because Damon felt like that should feel like its own separate movie–a sort of Merchant Ivory production. He wanted you to feel like you stepped into some strange period film during those scenes. And then because of the production schedule, we had to do some scenes with Jeremy Irons in Atlanta and they wanted to shoot them in parallel with another unit. So, we brought in another cinematographer, Alex Disenhof, who also shot the finale. Alex was basically doing a bunch of second pick ups, and also all of Jeremy Irons work in the sets we built in Atlanta, like his cell and also also all the stuff on the hill with the catapult.
We were scheduling stuff around each other. I’ve worked for other shows, particularly Game of Thrones, with multiple cinematographers–we don’t always get a chance to work together–but it’s really great to have other DPs with you as a team when you’re discussing ways to solve problems, and to have other people to bounce ideas off of . They’re all amazing, brilliant people and everyone was equally as excited as I was to get a chance to try and put a bit of a stamp on the show. There was a real team spirit. I was incredibly grateful for all those amazing collaborators.
AD: I was astounded by the boldness of the single character episodes. Over the course of just nine installments, there’s a real risk of slowing down your main story when you do that. Especially the Hooded Justice episode.
GM:Yeah, we were going to follow Will’s trauma all the way through. A lot of the series revolves around how trauma shapes people. We want to know that stuff. We don’t want to just hear about it, we need to experience it. The opening of episode 5 of Wade being stripped naked in the fun house, and having all these intense feelings, blaming himself for being foolish and gullible, and then he rushes out the funhouse, and everybody’s dead…it’s a brilliant piece of writing. Damon had used that type of structure and has been able to pull off stories told in that way previously, so I was really confident it would work. I thought at this point we really are invested these characters. We basically have four episodes in a row that are every character-centric: Looking Glass, Hooded Justice, Angela’s flashback, and then Dr. Manhattan’s flashback.
Damon had done that on the first couple of seasons of Lost to to great effect and made some of the greatest episodes of TV. Like the episode of Desmond in his underground bunker on Lost. I had confidence that it was going to work as a structure because I had seen him pull it off before.–each episode was so incredibly thrilling to read. When I read the script for six and what he had pulled off with the idea of using of the noose and what led Will to become Hooded Justice, I was just so impressed. The real magic trick I find with drama in general, or especially with the writing, is if you can surprise the audience but also make the surprise feel completely inevitable once it happens. Because then it’s not only surprising but completely believable. I think he managed to pull that off with all of those characters in this piece. That’s also why it works so well for Dr Manhattan in 8, and Angela in 7, and Will in 6.
AD: It’s amazing how pertinent Watchmen was on its release, but how it’s even become more so since it finished. I have to tell you, I knew nothing about Tulsa 1921 before Watchmen. I felt insulted by my history books from K-12.
GM:Very few people did. That’s why Damon put it in there. He didn’t even know until he found a book on it. He was shocked that no one knew about it.
AD: The last episode aired in December and since then, it seems like nearly every theme of the show is playing out in our streets right now. Are you stunned by how prescient the show suddenly feels?
GM: Yeah, the imagery of police and masks and other themes that were so dystopian in our show–I didn’t expect to see in reality less than a year later. I think it’s shocking that what was once sci-fi is now in the news. What’s going on now is the kind of thing you expect to see in a movie about the end of civilization. It’s shocking, but the show was written out of an exploration of history–all these things are still in the culture. To see them come to the forefront like this shouldn’t necessarily seem surprising. We forget that the Civil Rights movement wasn’t that long ago and that this country in some ways was born out of the Civil War. We forget that.
AD: The show has gone on to receive extraordinary reviews and the honors are starting to roll in. The Peabody Awards recognized Watchmen recently, and you wouldn’t necessarily think a show that’s nominally about costumed crime fighters would receive that sort of recognition. It has to feel good to be a part of something so successful in terms of both viewership and critical response.
GM: It’s an enormous honor. I think if you pitched Watchmen as this TV series that had baby squids falling from the sky, that’s not the Peabody Awards type of situation. (Laughs). However, the underlying part of the story is not just about bringing awareness to this part of American history it’s about trauma and what it does to people. It’s about eventually healing past that trauma and like in the finale of the show. How do you get past that? How do you not be trapped by it? I think that’s the reason why that it resonated.