Welcome to Emmy Contenders 2020. This month, SYFY WIRE is speaking to some of the actors and artisans whose work earned them Emmy nominations this year. Today we chat with Nicole Kassell, Emmy-nominated director for HBO’s Watchmen.
As both an executive producer and a director of three key episodes of Watchmen, Nicole Kassell was the architect of the limited series' celebrated visual style. She created the lookbook that laid out the series' major influences (drawing on works as diverse as Blade Runner, Children of Men, Amélie, The Conformist, and even old Rihanna music videos), and she also devised a separate “world book,” which set up the rules of this alternate universe for other creative departments. (Why are there no cell phones? Why are there only electric cars?)
Right from the start, Kassell began planting subtle visual hints linking Angela and Cal with Dr. Manhattan and callbacks to the original graphic novel. (See all the blue clues in the Abar home? Now you do.) Kassell chatted with SYFY WIRE about Watchmen’s real-world relevance, Easter eggs, and baby squid rain.
You’ve been talking about this quite a lot, but what does it mean to you that Watchmen became part of the national conversation?
Everyone says it was so prescient, but even back in the fall when it aired, we were talking about something that’s been very loud and clear to a group of people in this country for centuries. It’s like the dam just broke, and now it’s front and center on everyone’s consciousness. It definitely felt uncanny, the degree to which things were happening, like everyone putting on masks, you know? It definitely felt eerie. Damon Lindelof and the writers just put their finger on the pulse and read what was right there, if you stopped to look.
A lot of the parallels between real life and the fictional world of Watchmen have been noted and analyzed in depth, in regards to racial injustice, but a subdivision of that could be the white supremacist and conspiracy theory cults and terrorist groups that grew around the misinterpreted writings of the uncompromising objectivist Rorschach and real-life QAnon. They just diverge on masking — Seventh Kavalry members wear Rorschach’s mask, while QAnon supporters argue against wearing masks, despite the anonymity they could provide.
I’m definitely observing it as an outsider and a spectator. It’s not my area of expertise as a cultural critic, but the word that comes up for me is "uncanny," to see this parallel, and realizing kinds of layers of naiveté or ignorance peeling away, as these kinds of groups have been percolating or circulating for a long time. When the pandemic first arrived, I remember calling Damon early on and saying, “You know, I feel like I’m living in all three of your television shows: Lost, The Leftovers, and Watchmen. And I don’t like it!” [Laughs.] I’m happy to watch that on television, but to be living it is so, so hard. It’s hard on all of us, obviously.
Even in the beginning, before wearing masks became so political, I was just observing how it did alter people’s behavior. It was disconcerting, people avoiding eye contact, the judgment that was kind of flying around. Now that it has become kind of an overt political statement, it’s a whole other thing, you know? It’s a little less clear in New York, where I take it as more of a belief system on how safe or unsafe it is when you’re outside.
Even though you hadn’t studied the original graphic novel until you joined this project, you became one of the fiercest advocates for the original, in terms of paying homage. From what I understand, you’re the Easter egg queen of Watchmen? Sometimes literally, with the eggs.
Yes, literally! [Laughs.] There is such a huge fan base, so it felt important to do what I could to honor the fans, because they’re very hard to please, and very vocal. [Laughs.] I knew Damon was absolutely taking care of the big narrative Easter eggs, but this is how I approach any project I do, once I sign on — I research it very deeply and kind of feel like I’m studying for a Ph.D. on that subject.
So I went deep into the world. I actually loved watching the motion-animated series, too. That allowed me to really listen, but also study the visuals and how the transitions work. For each episode, we would go back and look through the book for anything we could pull out to contribute, and I just empowered the whole crew to look for opportunities to plant things. Sometimes, you just arrive on set and find a moment, like Regina King as Sister Night, drinking from an owl mug in Crawford’s office. That mug really has no place in that world, but for a fan? That’s like, “Ooo, Nite Owl.” We put owls everywhere we could. It’s a nod to the source.
I dipped my toes into that, but I didn’t go deep on that, because with each week’s episode, there was such a level of performance anxiety. I had made it, and I kind of felt like my job was done and now it was totally in the hands of the audience. I had zero control over what they took or didn’t take from it.
I remember once going down a rabbit hole on an Easter egg website, and it was so fun, and such a gift to see all that hard work was really appreciated. I’m glad that it landed exactly as I hoped it would. One of the hardest ones was in the trailer. When we meet Angela Abar, she’s cracking eggs into a bowl, and the eggs would make a smiley face. That was scripted. But I took it to the next level, like, “Let’s make a face out of this arrangement of utensils, with the whisk as a nose.” I saw somebody did a screengrab of that, and I was thrilled.
There are some overt Superman references in the show, mostly regarding Will Reeves/Hooded Justice, but they could apply to Angela Abar/Sister Night as well.
Who was she more truly like? Angela — because that was a disguise as well — or Sister Night? I love the first frame of her in the show where she’s pulling off the glasses, because that was definitely a direct nod to Clark Kent. That was us saying, “Here’s our superhero. Off come the glasses, and they’re never going to come on again.” It was definitely meant as a tongue-in-cheek homage to Superman.
Regina King and I talked about that a lot. She’s putting on a mask, whether she’s Angela or Sister Night, and we discussed that the moment that she’s her most true self in the pilot is when she’s making love to Cal. He’s the only person who knows her and [to] who she’s willing to expose her vulnerability. In Episode 8, she’s 10 years younger, and she’s got a toughness to her, but still [has] some naiveté compared to when we see her again 10 years later, as an adult who has survived all the things going on in Tulsa.
What was your favorite weird moment from one of your episodes?
The flying winged reporters, when they return to the scene of the crime of Judd Crawford’s hanging. The reporters infiltrate the scene on these wings, and it just seems so ludicrous and random and hilarious! One of our goals was to look at everything and say, “What makes this Watchmen? What is the one element we can add?” So winged reporters, who knew? [Laughs.] It just seems very out there, but in a way, that lands you in this alternate reality.
Obviously, the squid stuff was a blast. I grew up in Iowa, and we frequently had tornado drills. We just knew that sound, the siren going off that meant "get on your hands and knees under your desk, hands over your head." And Damon and the writers being L.A.-based, they had a reference with earthquake drills. Everyone knows how to stay calm when it’s just a little one, even though the threat of the big one is still very present.
It was a visual effect, right? Did you ever try to do that as a practical effect?
We tried. We all ended up with cute little baby squid toys as a result. [Laughs.] We did design the little squids, and we made some practical ones, but we were filming on an actual overpass, and it quickly became clear that it would be far too dangerous to fire any of those off in case they bounced down below, startling a driver. So we ended up using those mostly on the wide shots. We placed them on the pavement as a point of reference for focus, in a place where we knew visual effects could easily remove and replace them. And we had actual practical squid goo that we put on the car, knowing that visual effects would have to enhance it.
So I have a baby squid. And I got the stuffed animal that Topher carries around, Adrian Veidt’s cat, so I have a Bubastis. And the props master gave me an amazing gift, Russian nesting dolls painted [like] Dr. Manhattan but also our other cast, such as Sister Night, Red Scare, and Laurie Blake. It’s a divine goodbye gift.