Home Interviews ‘Watchmen’ – An interview with Damon Lindelof
‘Watchmen’ – An interview with Damon Lindelof

‘Watchmen’ – An interview with Damon Lindelof

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It’s regarded as the greatest graphic novel of all-time and now Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is about to find new live as an original series from HBO in a move that is sure to intrigue many long time fans.

Cult creator Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers, Prometheus) is behind this new reinvention of the classic graphic novel work, and for him it’s both a project of passion and professionalism as he looks to dissect and reassemble the very notion of what superheroes are.

Check out a brand new interview with Lindelof below as he opens up on the significance of the show and his approach to re-interpreting it’s cult source material:

Q: Damon, we last met for the final season of The Leftovers, and obviously while this is a very different show, it also expects quite a lot from an audience – you’re not putting out a simple narrative for people to follow. Would you pitch it more as an experience than simply a television show?

DL: I just always think of things in terms of stories and I think with good stories, what you remember from the story is not plot, but instead you remember what your emotional reaction to the plot was. So, you’ll say, ‘I was surprised.’ That’s in reaction to something exciting happening in the plot, but it’s creating an emotional reaction in you.

When we’re doing our best work, we’re creating a symbiotic relationship between the audience and the characters, so they’re experiencing the things that the characters are. The characters don’t know that they’re in a made-up television show – those things are very, very real for them, and when people start to perceive the television show as real and actually happening and if a character is sad they start to feel sad, that’s when you’re firing on all cylinders.

So, I do want it to be experiential, but I’m not out to make some kind of artistic tone poem. We are telling a story after all, we want it to make sense, but it should feel like something when all is said and done.

Q: Leading into the show with the recreation of the Tulsa massacre of 1921, I felt very ignorant, and very British, for not knowing anything about it.

DL: I’m an American, I found out about it four years ago.

Q: Were the original stories set in Tulsa or was that something you added that in?

DL: From the original Watchmen? No, it was New York City.

Q: So, was it because of that piece of the massacre that made you want to locate it there?

DL: I think that there were a number of different ideas that were starting to swirl around my head. The first was how come all the superhero stories and these genre stories are set in New York or a metropolis or Gotham City? What happens if there’s a crime in Wisconsin?

Q: Maybe there’s no crime in Wisconsin.

DL: No, there’s crime in Wisconsin. There’s dangerous things happening outside of New York and all across the country. So that was instinct number one. Who are the superheroes in the off-brand markets who haven’t moved to New York?

And then the second thing was that I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay for The Atlantic, The Case For Reparations. That essay completely, totally shifted my thinking and educated me on American history in a way that I hadn’t ever been before. Things that I thought I knew but didn’t really know or understand in their full context. In that essay, he mentioned Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Massacre of ’21 and, at that point, I had no idea what that was.

So, I went on Amazon and I Googled Tulsa Massacre and there are all these books about the Tulsa ‘race riot’ and then suddenly I was like, ‘Wait a minute, it didn’t sound like a race riot. Why would they call it that?’ And so that began a deep dive into understanding what happened there in Tulsa. And I think that even though that was 1921, almost a century ago, the idea of an affluent African-American society here in the United States – in Oklahoma, where they owned their own businesses and were prospering, were highly educated, there were a number of World War I veterans – this utopia existed in 1921 in the Jim Crow era America. Literally one generation removed from emancipation. And all of it was utterly decimated within 24 hours. The federal government flew biplanes and threw bombs onto this town and the true death count is still unknown.

The more I learned, the more I felt embarrassed that not only did I know nothing about what happened during the Tulsa Massacre, but I had never even heard of it before then. And so, I kept wondering why this story hadn’t been told and with all my power and influence as a storyteller, can I tell this story as a white man? Is it appropriate for me to tell this story? And in the midst of those questions, I was being asked, ‘Hey, do you want to do Watchmen?’ Suddenly I was like, ‘Hey, maybe that’s a way to tell this story. Maybe that’s a way to do this in a way that it’s housed inside a piece of pop culture entertainment,’ but a very specific piece of pop culture entertainment that asks difficult questions about a provocative and political and cultural idea, in terms of what it is to be American. And can Watchmen basically retain a conversation about race? And then how far do we want to go?

Q: I know that you looked at the source material and saw parallels between the concerns of the 1908s with the Cold War, and the major issue of concern now being issues of race and racial tension. What year are we talking? Was it pre-Charlottesville?

DL: Yes. It was around the time of Charlottesville, because by the time Nicole Kassell read the script, Charlottesville had already happened. It’s hard for me to completely and totally understand where that happened in the midst of things. We definitely hadn’t written the pilot before Charlottesville, but I think the idea of Watchmen dealing with race preceded it.

And I just felt like, and continue to feel like now, every time I turn on the news the story is actually about race in some way, shape or form. Either directly or indirectly. And I know that even in the midst of a massive impeachment enquiry, the story of the white cop who shot the black guy in his own apartment is a lead story, and the racial dynamics are crackling all around the edges of it, as they should.

Q: Do you think the tensions that we’re feeling now – not just the tensions, but the expression of those tensions – is something that’s always been here and has just been legitimised, or do you think there’s a new piece of racial tension in this country now, over the last four or five years?

DL: I feel like I’m incredibly unqualified to answer that question as a white man, because the parabola for me hasn’t changed over the course of the last 400 years, but my awareness of it has increased.

Q: I think one valid question is whether we would prefer things to be under the carpet and insidious or out in the open where they can be dealt with but potentially encourage more violence?

DL: Well, that’s back to the whole idea of the show in general, which is what do you hide, what do you reveal, what do you see? And I think that one of the ideas that is the most threatening to us and one of the things that we wrestle with culturally is can both things coexist?

You take Chief Crawford, for example, and obviously I don’t want to spoil anything about the pilot, but here’s this guy who is heroic and one of his best friends is an African-American woman and her family and he’s completely and totally super-charming, but he is also something else and you wonder, was he pretending to be one thing but he’s actually the other? Or is he actually just codeswitching? Is he moving between both those worlds? And I think the idea of what are the physical masks we wear is less concerning than what are the masks that we wear in terms of the way that we behave?

Q: The psychological masks, yes.

DL: If we’re different people as we walk through different avenues, who can we trust? I think that it’s not an unreasonable assumption to make that a number of people are going to watch Watchmen and not trust it or me and basically say, ‘Who does he think he is to be telling this story? Is he trying to shame me? Why is he using Watchmen to tell a story like this? That’s not allowed.’ And I want to call that out for what it is, which is fear and confusion and it’s the culture that we’re in.

I can’t speak to what’s going on in the mind of all of those individuals who break out and act violently, but for the most part, mental illness aside, I always try to look at anger through the prism of something a very good therapist once said to me, which was that: ‘Anger is not actually a real emotion. It’s fear or sadness in disguise.’

So, if you think back to any time that you’ve ever been angry in your life it’s because you were very, very scared or very, very sad and for me that was applicable. Now, the anger is real. It’s not a false emotion. But the true root of it is perhaps some degree of loneliness, existential loneliness, sadness or grief, and I feel, no matter how much vitriol comes out of their fingers as they Tweet up a storm about anything and everything, I can kind of see it for what it really is, which is that they’re scared that the world has moved beyond them, or they’re lonely because they can’t find their place in the world, or they’re sad because they can’t connect, or they’ve lost someone close to them. Maybe that’s a generous assessment, but I do think that we’re all in it together. Just the degree.

Q: Yes, it’s like the T.S. Eliot poem about putting on the face to meet the faces that you meet. That’s just something that we’re expected to do now. Can you ever get away from it, because it’s such a factor in real life now.

DL: I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

Q: Your show definitely asks where is that line between heroism and vigilantism. It’s all perspective.

DL: One of the things that I learned is that – and again, African-American culture is not a monolith – but there are a number of black writers on Watchmen whose official position was that the police were already legitimised vigilantes, because they are not following the law and the fact that they wear a uniform and have a badge, that legitimises behaviour that is unlawful, as we’ve seen. The fact that there just had to be a trial for what happened, is because this woman was a police officer; if she had not been a police officer I think it would have been a lot more cut and dry.

We also had an African-American cop on the staff. She was a Chicago cop for seven years and her mom is also a Chicago cop, so matriarchal Chicago cop family, who would sometimes defend the police and other times be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s ******,’ and she was the only one in the room who could really speak to the experience of being a police officer.

I do have very strong feelings about what is right and what is wrong, but I do agree that someone who wants to be a police officer, that’s a very dangerous job, and the decisions that you make affect people. If I make a bad decision and write a shitty episode of television, people get mad at me – that’s it. If you’re a cop and make a bad decision, someone could end up dead. So, there’s an enormous responsibility and the way that kind of responsibility, pressure and anxiety affects people is huge. And I do believe that a lot of people who become police officers are incredibly well-intentioned – but I also believe that there are many who become jaded or cynical as the process goes on.

This is why our story starts with a little boy in 1921 looking at a big projected version of a guy with a badge and he sees a face that looks like his own and he says, ‘Trust in the law. There will be no mob justice today. Trust in the law.’ That’s where he’s starting, that little boy, and by episode nine he’s ended up in a much different place.

Watchmen will premiere on SoHo on Monday 21 October at 2.00pm and 9.30pm and will air later that night on Neon, with repeat screenings on Wednesdays on SoHo from 10.30pm.