“I hope that we made something original, something surprising, something engaging, something worthy of discourse, something dangerous, something interesting, all the adjectives that I affix to the original Watchmen,” declares Damon Lindelof of the HBO series that is set to make its world debut today at New York Comic Con.
Based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ acclaimed and genre shattering comic from the 1980s, this Watchmen from The Leftovers co-creator is distinctly set in an America of 2019. A nation where Robert Redford has been President for decades, where there is a lot less technology distracting people, where police wear masks and where superheroes once walked the Earth. Premiering on the premium cabler on October 20, the Tulsa set and Regina King-led Watchmen also unveils a nation that has seen reparations paid to African-Americans and the return of a white supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry to plague the land and its citizens.
At NYCC for a panel and screening Friday, Lindelof sat down with me to talk about the long shrouded in secrecy series and what’s the story behind the story he and HBO are telling in the nine episodes of the Louis Gossett Jr, Don Johnson, Jeremey Irons and Hong Chau co-starring show. The Lost alum also addresses being the white guy in the room, if there will be more seasons of Watchmen and the fallout from The Hunt, which was suddenly pulled for good by Universal in August after controversy exploded around the politically themed thriller.
DEADLINE: Watchmen has been kept uncover more than a Presidential call to the Ukraine of late, dribbles here and there, but today you’re previewing the series at New York Comic Con. So, now that it’s going public is this ultimately the Watchmen you wanted to make?
LINDELOF: You know, I honestly don’t know if this is the Watchmen that I wanted to make.
The honest answer is sometimes I feel like, yes, we got very, very close to it and other times I’m banging my head against a wall in frustration. I don’t know if the audience is going to have a similar experience.
I do feel like the show itself is a Rorschach test. You’ll see in it what you want to see. I think that hardcore fans of Watchmen, devotees like myself will have a much different experience than people who had no familiarity with Watchmen. I hope that by the end of these nine episodes that what we’ll see is very opposite poles.
DEADLINE: That’s a little cryptic …
LINDELOF: (laughs) Well, does this show deserve to stand shoulder to shoulder with the original 12 issues? I’m the least qualified person on the planet to say that.
I hope that we made something original, something surprising, something engaging, something worthy of discourse, something dangerous, something interesting, all the adjectives that I affix to the original Watchmen. Most of all, it’s something original. Again, I’m not qualified to say that. I am proud of what we did but I’m also very nervous about it.
DEADLINE: You have spoken about how this is not a version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s iconic comic, and the swirling issues of white supremacy and American history that you wanted to tackle. In concocting your own Watchmen, how did those themes come to the fore for you?
LINDELOF: The beginnings of the idea for this season of Watchmen started with the question of what’s the political landscape in 2019 versus what the political landscape was in the mid-1980s. What is the undefeatable evil that superheroes can never defeat? So that was another question that was sort of swirling around in my head. Then I was reading a lot of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I read his book Between the World and Me and all of his essays in The Atlantic.
DEADLINE: What effect did that have?
LINDELOF: The one that stayed with me is The Case for Reparations. In that article, as I mentioned at TCA, he wrote about the raiding of Black Wall Street in 1921. Now, I had never heard of Black Wall Street and Tulsa, Oklahoma and what are these things. I looked it up on the internet. Then I ordered some book and I read them. I felt compelled by the story.
Now, I’m sure that many more talented people than I have been trying to make a story out of this. But if I were to tell this story in the context of a larger, wider known, pop culture franchise, maybe it would come to more people’s attention. Then everything kind of went into the stew and this Watchmen is what came out.
DEADLINE: You noted that a number of people in recent years have looked into telling the horrible and hidden history of the racist massacre that occurred in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa almost 100 years ago. Are you concerned about being the white guy now telling that tale and the lens through which you’re telling that tale?
LINDELOF: All the time. Constantly. Over and over again not just while I was incepting it but while I was making it and certainly now. You know, this is sort of like the first interview on the first hardcore full day of press, and all I think about is how I’m going to answer that question because it’s a reasonable question to ask. But I’m ready to answer it.
I take full responsibility for the show but the Watchmen pilot and in fact the entire season was thought out and questioned and challenged and debated vigorously and a writers’ room of 12 talented and smart individuals. I was certainly the showrunner, but it’s not just me. I’m proud to say this isn’t me talking about numbers and statistics and all that but I’ll say there were four white dudes in that room of 12. That’s important and listening to all of those smart and talented individuals was and is important
DEADLINE: Speaking of smart and talented individuals, Watchmen is a reunion of the creative collaboration you started with Regina King on The Leftovers. In telling a story of a seminal event in African-American history, what has that relationship been like this time round?
LINDELOF: Obviously I think Regina is a lot more equipped to talk about the trust on her end.
It doesn’t really require any trust on my end because, A, I know that it’s Regina King. I mean not only have I worked with her before on The Leftovers but as someone who is prone to hyperbole, she is one of the world’s greatest living actors. She’s got the hardware to prove it now.
DEADLINE: Was she a fan of Moore and Gibbons’ comics?
LINDELOF: Regina actually came to this material without a lot of knowledge about Watchmen. I think, if memory serves, she may have seen the Zack Snyder movie. She certainly hadn’t read the graphic novel. So the pilot script was the first thing that she read. She had been actually, unbeknownst to me, been developing a project about Black Wall Street. So when she saw that the pilot opened the way that it did she was like is that from Watchmen? I can’t believe this.
So that led to, as you might imagine, a very intense conversation between she and I. We met for dinner and it ended up being about a five-hour long conversation about what I was trying to do. Then it was her choice as to whether or not she wanted to jump in. She was pretty game for it. So again, as far as me trusting Regina King, not a problem.
DEADLINE: In a show sprinkled it seems with characters from Moore’s work, you also have another Oscar winner, Jeremy Irons in the cast as the comic’s genius and almost world killer Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias – how will that connect to the Tulsa tale?
LINDELOF: First off, we are not officially confirming that he is playing Ozymandias.
DEADLINE: Um, OK
LINDELOF: …Therefore, all I can say is that this storyline featuring Jeremy is not parallel to the Tulsa storyline. By parallel I mean there are two storylines that are running and they will never ever meet. They are on a collision course with one another. Jeremy Irons is a runaway train in many ways both literal and figurative. He will in fact come colliding into the other story.
To how and when that is going to happen I am not going to say. It will definitely happen this season. So as a fan, I would be immensely disappointed if that didn’t happen, but exactly where he is and when he is and what the fuck he’s doing are all questions that will be answered by season’s end.
DEADLINE: In that, if renewal was a given, how many seasons is your Watchmen?
LINDELOF: I’m not being flippant when I say that the answer is one.
Does that mean that there isn’t going to be anymore Watchmen? Not necessarily. Does that mean that I will be working on subsequent seasons of Watchmen? I don’t know is the answer to that question. We designed these nine episodes to be as self-contained as the original 12 issues. We wanted to feel like there was a sense of completeness, to resolve the essential mystery at hand. Obviously, there is a potential promise for the further exploration of the world but like the seasons of Leftovers that I did as opposed to Lost, which was designed to have cliffhanger finales and a promise of future storytelling.
DEADLINE: It sounds like a lot of work to be one and done, no?
LINDELOF: When we all sat in the room and talked about what this season of Watchmen was going to be it required a tremendous amount of world building in terms of all the events that we inherited that occurred before November of ’85 when the book ends, or December I guess technically.
Then we had to create a new sense of history from ’85 to 2019, which we did and then we had to actually write the show.
We did all of that work but we did not talk about what would happen beyond the resolution of this season’s story. I feel like it was hard enough just to figure out how to do this season. So my hope is that when this season ends that the audience will feel the same thing we did as storytellers, which is a feeling of completeness and resolution.
DEADLINE: Resolution is something that it feels like you did not get on The Hunt, which Universal pulled in August from its September release as controversy, political and cultural swarmed the Craig Zobel directed thriller that you co-wrote. Where does the flick stand now?
LINDELOF: I understand that we are living in volatile times, but if I tried to avoid telling stories because they’re “controversial,” I should probably retire. The Hunt is not the movie those who haven’t seen it seem to think it is and I genuinely hope people get to decide what it is for themselves
DEADLINE: People will see Watchmen for themselves on the second day of NYCC. How are you feeling about finally opening it up to the world?
LINDELOF: I’m incredibly excited and very nervous. I’ve been having lots of very strange dreams.