The HBO limited series inspired by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ DC graphic novel thrusts us into the 1921 Tulsa massacre, which is known as the single worst incident of racial violence in U.S history.
It is the moment from which series creator Damon Lindelof builds his expansion of the Watchmen universe, in which we meet Angela Abar aka Sister Knight (limited series lead actress Emmy nominee Regina King), a former police officer turned vigilante in current day who ultimately meets the grandfather she never knew, Will Reeves (formerly the superhero Hooded Justice played by Louis Gossett, Jr., Emmy nominated in the supporting actor limited series category). He’s just hung Angela’s boss, local police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) who apparently has a white supremacist history, literally in his closet.
Watchmen takes place in a world where the cops are squaring off against white supremacists who’ve infiltrated the government. In the wake of this summer’s #BlackLivesMatters’ movement and the death of George Floyd, the HBO series continues to have an uncanny resonance that lingers profoundly following its October premiere.
Watchmen opens on a young Black boy who is watching a silent film about Bass Reeves, the famed Black deputy U.S. marshal who worked in the Oklahoma territory during the late 1800s. The boy ventures outside the movie theater to find himself in what looks like Main Street in the middle of an apocalypse, with Black vs. white; a visceral, bloody melee. The boy eventually is hidden in a wooden box, that’s driven away in a trunk, surviving bullets that zing through the box as he escapes.
“The sequence definitely took up the majority of our pre-production energy and focus. To really put ourselves in the shoes and the eyes of the boy, knowing the things he was going to witness, deeply imprinted in his head,” explains filmmaker Nicole Kassell who received her first Emmy nomination for the Watchmen limited series pilot “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice.” Her work on that episode also delivered her a DGA dramatic series win earlier this year.
Talking about striking the proper balance in tone, Kassell says, “As horrific as it was, we couldn’t shy away from what it is because it was true, and it was also essential to not stay there (in a scene) any longer than you had to. You can’t be gratuitous or sensationalizing for entertainment value. It was a fine line to dance, and tipping into gratuitous was offensive to everybody who went through it.”
Kassell shot the scene in a day and half, with a half a day for the garage scene in which the boy makes his escape. In staging the brutal fight, there were little vignettes occurring throughout the street with the boy’s point of view shot via four cameras comprised of a Steadicam, extreme wideshot as well as hidden cameras to capture everything that was going on. This also minimized production time so that the actors didn’t have to repeat the intense drama multiple times.
Kassell’s career as a filmmaker promptly began after graduating from NYU’s MFA Film program. Her short film, Jaime, won the DGA student female filmmaker prize, and her thesis film, The Green Hour, premiered at Sundance in 2002. This was soon followed by her first feature movie The Woodsman starring Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, which made its world premiere at Sundance 2004 and went on to win multiple prizes including the CACAE (art house award) at the Directors’ Fortnight at The Cannes Film Festival. That pic also dealt with another tough topic, about a child molester who returns to his hometown in an effort to start a new life. She also directed the Watchmen episodes “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,” in which Abar deals with the aftermath of Crawford’s death and the penultimate episode, “A God Walks Into a Bar” in which she meets and starts a romance with superhero superbeing Dr. Manhattan (Emmy supporting actor nominee Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
Listen to our great conversation with Kassell below in which she expounds on Johnson’s improvising, and striking an original tone with Watchmen that still paid visual homage to Moore and Gibbon’s fanboy bible. Watchmen is up for 23 Primetime Emmy nominations including Outstanding Limited Series.