How HBO’s Watchmen Was Brought to Life

HBO turns to Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof to tell a new story within the Watchmen universe.

Damon Lindelof turned down Watchmen twice. 

The creator of Lost and The Leftovers is one of many who consider Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel a sacred text. When Warner Bros. broached the topic of a Watchmen TV show with Lindelof a year after Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film premiered in 2009, he said no. When the subject was raised again a couple of years later, he said no once more. His reasons were legion: the original work is considered by many to be unassailable in its influence and brilliance, Alan Moore is famously resistant and often outright contemptuous of any adaptations of his masterpiece, and Snyder and others have already gotten a crack at adapting or expanding on it both on the screen and the page like with DC’s Before Watchmen prequels and a sequel, Doomsday Clock.

Then in 2017, as production wrapped on the final season of The Leftovers, HBO approached the show’s creator one more time. He nearly refused yet again but decided to take some time to think it over.

“I went off and asked myself, ‘Is there any reason that Watchmen needs to exist as a television series?’” Lindelof recalls. “And if it existed, as a fan, what would I want to see?”

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Now, almost a decade after he was first asked, writer and executive producer Lindelof is ready to show everyone just what he would want to see when Watchmen premieres Oct. 20 on HBO.

Watchmen defied conventional constructs when it was first published by DC Comics between 1986 and 1987. Moore and Gibbons’ work wasn’t so much a new take on superhero stories as it was an atom bomb dropped directly onto superhero myth itself. Watchmen introduced characters inspired by relatively forgotten Charlton Comics heroes to imagine a world where masked vigilantes fighting crime was reality, and the presence of superheroes significantly changed the outcome of world events. With the help of costumed adventurers and the superhuman abilities of Jon Osterman, a.k.a. Doctor Manhattan, the United States decisively won the Vietnam War, turning Vietnam into another American state and keeping President Richard Nixon in office through the book’s present day of 1985.

When Lindelof began to imagine what a Watchmen continuation would look like, he realized it would be necessary to ensure the altered geopolitical reality of the books remain canon. Or, in the parlance of Lindelof’s series Lost, “Whatever happened, happened.”

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“It’s a wonderful alt-history, and an exciting one,” Lindelof says. “We’d say, ‘Everything that happened in the original Watchmen through the end of ‘85, we inherited.’ That happens, we cannot aberrate from it. But now we have 30 years of alt-history between ‘85 and 2019 to construct ourselves that is in conversation with all of those events that occurred. We now have the opportunity to take some risks and come up with some new ideas that are supported by the foundation designed by the original Watchmen.”

Some of those risks and new ideas include expanding on how presidential term limits have become more of a suggestion than a requirement. For example, after Nixon dies in office in this universe’s 1988, Vice President Gerald Ford takes over to finish out his term. He is defeated by Robert Redford in 1992, a detail also present in DC’s Watchmen comic book sequel Doomsday Clock. Redford remains president during the series’ version of 2019.

But maintaining the alternate reality of the Watchmen universe isn’t the only task at hand for Lindelof and his team of writers. There’s also the matter of developing a story within that universe. The show will feature a collection of new characters along with a handful of familiar faces. Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) stars as Angela Abar, a lead detective in the Tulsa Police Force who dons a mask to protect her identity. Don Johnson (Miami Vice) is the Tulsa chief of police, Judd Crawford. Jean Smart (Fargo) portrays FBI Agent Laurie Blake, a name with significance to Watchmen fans. Tim Blake Nelson (Ballad of Buster Scruggs) is Det. Looking Glass. Jeremy Irons (Justice League) is a mysterious and unnamed lord of a British manor.

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“My true north always was ‘what would I want to see?’” Lindelof says. “To do Watchmen without having any of the legacy characters in it would piss me off, so they had to be in it. And then the question was how many of them should be in it and how central to the storytelling should they be? Should we use them as antagonists or protagonists? Or is there even such a definition of antagonism and protagonism in Watchmen?”

Lindelof adds that in the early going, the show is weighted toward the introduction of new characters that weren’t in the original Watchmen before the plot starts to introduce more legacy elements. The goal is to create a balanced experience both for fans of the comic and newcomers to the story.

“The show is becoming a bit of a Rorschach test in and of itself,” Lindelof says. “I don’t want to come out there and say, ‘This is what it is. And this is how I define it, and you have to define it that way.’ I want to let the audience define it the way they want to. The pilot has been constructed as an entry point for people who have no familiarity with Watchmen. But my feeling is that, as the season goes on and the episodes unfold, it should still be accessible and understandable to a new audience.”

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Watchmen executive producer and director  Nicole Kassell, who previously worked with Lindelof on The Leftovers, was determined to include some recognizable symbols and images for devoted fans.

“I really wanted to give Easter eggs to the diehard fans – a piece of production design, a prop, costume design, everything,” she says. “We’re always looking at whether we should be paying homage to the source.”

Kassell arrived to the project as a Watchmen neophyte, having not yet read the graphic novel when she signed on to direct three of the series’ nine episodes. She devoured the original while sick in bed, during a 2017 weekend when nuclear tensions between North Korea and the United States were heightened.

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HBO Watchmen: Executive Producer/Writer Damon Lindelof and Executive Producer/Director Nicole Kassell

“I just felt like, ‘oh my God, we’re right back at a nuclear standoff,’” she says. “It felt amazingly or eerily relevant [to] the anxiety of the period. It really tapped into the anxiety we’re feeling now.”

Watchmen has an uncanny ability to feel relevant regardless of the time period in which it’s read, and that’s something Lindelof says is important for the HBO show to capture while still maintaining its own sense of self.

“There was never going to be a version of us making Watchmen that is as good as the original,” Lindelof says. “Nothing’s ever going to be that good. And to aspire to that bar, we would have been setting ourselves up for failure. So we had to try to do something different. It’s obviously called Watchmen, but it had to be its own thing.”

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Plot details and trailers for the series have remained deliberately vague, which is unsurprising given Lindelof’s appreciation for mystery and HBO’s appreciation for the massive intellectual property it has on its hands. What can be revealed, however, is that this Watchmen’s version of ‘80s Cold War paranoia is the 2010s’ ugly intersection between race and policing in America. The seeming antagonists of the pilot are the Rorschach mask-wearing domestic terrorists known as the Seventh Cavalry. Their reign of terror has led to the Tulsa police force wearing masks of their own, because there is power in anonymity… as anyone with a sturdy internet connection can tell you.

HBO Watchmen: Jean Smart as Laurie Blake

Fraught and disturbing comparisons to our own political landscape arise just as easily from this version of Watchmen as in the original book. Kassell, who is from Charlottesville, Virginia, read the pilot in the winter of 2017, just months after a white supremacist rally and subsequent riot within the city shocked the country.

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“I have neighbors in Charlottesville who wear the red hat and they love me like a daughter,” Kassell says. “I don’t agree politically with it on such a major level. I’m married to a Chinese man, an immigrant. I have biracial children. I was grappling with how do you live with this inherent contradiction of some of your closest friends being good people that signify so much that you hate or that you signify what they hate.”

Even though Watchmen did it in 1986, capturing the intricacies of the modern world is quite the tightrope act for the new series—a reality of which Lindelof is well aware.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he says. “I don’t even know if it worked. There was a lot of experimentation going on and I feel like I learned a lot from making these nine episodes, but I’m not entirely sure I’m able to articulate to you what I learned.”

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The difficulty of bringing Watchmen to 2019 is steep enough that Lindelof hasn’t yet considered what the future of the show could hold beyond these nine episodes.

“We are presenting a mystery and we are resolving that mystery,” Lindelof says. “It doesn’t mean that it can’t continue, because of course it can; it always can. But it wasn’t designed to have a cliffhanger where it’s like, ‘Wait till you see what we do next season.’ It’s just not built that way.”

Damon Lindelof turned down Watchmen twice. He accepted Watchmen the third time for reasons he himself may not yet be able to fully articulate. One thing he is sure of, however, is that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work is one of pop culture’s great teachers.

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“It taught me that there are rules,” he says. “There are rules by which the genre conventions play out. It’s so clear to me when I read the original Watchmen that it was written and designed by people who loved comics. I think that, very often, Watchmen is misunderstood as being this incredibly subversive piece of art, which it is. But very often people missed the love of the genre that is built into it. It isn’t just a takedown of superheroes, it’s a celebration of them. You have to love it first before you take it down.”

Watchmen premieres Sunday, Oct. 20 at 9 PM on HBO.