SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the series premiere of “Watchmen,” which aired Oct. 20 on HBO.
The protagonist of “Watchmen” is leading a double life. By day, she goes by Angela (Regina King) and is a bakery owner, daughter, wife and mother who is first introduced to the audience while visiting her son’s class. By night, or whenever the situation calls for it, though, she is Sister Night, a masked defender of society and those within it’s rights. Both sides to her offer her different ways to be a hero, albeit a complicated one.
“When we introduce her for the first time as Sister Night, to show that car and the montage of her getting ready, these are tropes of the genre, but we wanted to put our spin on it, just enjoying the elements of her costume and how it functions and how bad-ass it is. And when she gets out of the car and storms into that suspect’s trailer, her strut and her body language is entirely different,” executive producer and director Nicole Kassell tells Variety. “The first thing she does is beat information from someone, and to me that very much starts the arc of her character. We constantly have to be discussing, what is she saying? It’s essential to me as a filmmaker and an artist and a person in this world to not be glamorizing violence.”
While much of the flash of “Watchmen” focuses on the “costume adventure thread” of Sister Night, says Kassell, “the story of family is to me what it’s truly about. We meet Old Man Will at the end, and the mystery between these characters is what’s most important to me, and what’s most interesting.”
As the series unfold, it will become clearer whether Old Man Will is an ally or a foe for Angela aka Sister Night. After all, early in the premiere he asked her if she thought he could lift 200 pounds. Some may assume he needed such physical prowess to get Judd (Don Johnson) up in the tree; others may assume he knew what was to come and wanted to try to help by getting him down.
Kassell says the “Watchmen” team wanted to “embrace” the “wildly original” source material, in part through the framing of shots, “trying to find a vertical frame within the frame as much as possible” to pay homage to the comic grid. The color palatte was also a source of inspiration, as was the “very noir, very gritty” world. But because they were not out to do a direct adaptation, they were also on the lookout for “candy” in the form of Easter eggs to deliver to the fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original tale.
One of the very first few pieces of Kassell’s candy came in Angela’s introduction scene in the classroom. She is there to give a cooking demonstration to the children, and laid out in front of her are two bowls and a whisk. They resemble an owl in the frame, something Kassell notes “wasn’t scripted; it was just me and my team poring over the source and constantly looking for these opportunities.”
Similarly in this scene, Angela is wearing glasses for the first and only time (although she is later seen with her face obscured by different kinds of masks). The idea for Angela to wear the glasses, Kassell shares, came when King showed up to set that day in a pair. Creator Damon Lindelof liked the look, and “boom, we show her face for the first time taking off a pair of glasses, and that’s a nod to Superman. And obviously the whole show is talking about, when are you really wearing a mask: when you actually have one on or when you don’t?” she says.
Kassell previously worked with Lindelof on his previous HBO drama, “The Leftovers.” The duo developed a collaborative relationship that allowed her to take what she saw on the page of his scripts and enhance the visuals as necessary. Another integral example of this in the premiere episode of “Watchmen” is the interrogation pod.
On the page, Kassell shares, the space was written to be all-white, and when she read it she felt like she’d seen it before, on-screen in the newer “Blade Runner,” as well as in real life, in Apple Stores. Being a fan of “giant steel structures that have this rust texture,” she worked with production designers Kristian Milsted and Mark Worthington to come up with something that didn’t have “any hard corners or edges” and could have projected images on the curved inside walls.
“In writing you’re telling story but also trying to give a mood for the space, and we are trying to create an alternate present tense, and I was very much aware of being careful and not falling into something we’d just seen recently,” she says.
Kassell was also cognizant of defining the rules of this alternate world both on-screen, as well as on-set for the cast and crew, so everyone could use such details to further ground their work. Essential elements, she says, are the fact that “it’s a more environmentally-friendly world; climate change is not a disaster there. Things are electric-driven, there’s no cell phones, there’s no personal computers.” Additionally, she notes, the world of “Watchmen” is still very much a “paper world,” so every set “had to have books and magazines and papers, because that’s how information is still passed along.”
Visual effects were needed to create different skylines and drop unique power structures into the horizon in specific long shots in the show, as well. Kassell was greatly interested in setting up some of the bigger differences in the world in subtle ways to remind the audience, “You’re not in ‘today.'”
But as big as the world could sometimes be — including a fast-acting storm of squid falling from the sky — Kassell needed the actors to stay grounded in reality.
“It needed to be about how a person in that time and life would react,” she explains. “The squid fall, it’s equated to an L.A. resident feeling a tremor as opposed to the Big One. That’s where we found the relative reference for the actors; we didn’t want it to be like what our reaction would be in the living room watching this, ‘What the f— was that?!’ Because then it would be a world event and what the show would be about.”
“Watchmen” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.