Lindelof recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about why he decided to take on “Watchmen,” his collaboration with star Regina King and why he didn’t want to continue the show past this season. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Damon, are you nuts taking this on? Because people love the movie, people love the graphic novels. What possessed you to want to take on such a challenge?
Damon Lindelof: Oh man, not to reduce this to some sort of grand romantic gesture, but it wasn’t really a choice at the end of the day. When you say yes to these things, you become compelled to do them and it is a bit of a degree of insanity. If you’re applying logic and saying, “Should I do this?” and “Here, let me write two columns. Here’s the reasons to do it. Here’s the reasons not to do it,” I think the “not to” column would have very much overwhelmed the reasons to do it. But HBO and Warner Bros. came to me a couple of times over the years and there was always a very good reason not to, which was I was doing “The Leftovers” at the time. When “The Leftovers” ended, they came back to me and said, “Do you want to do ‘Watchmen?’” And at that point, I felt like I had the beginnings of the right idea for it. And before I got too scared and was able to talk myself out of it, that came later. In fact, every day that I was on this job, you can ask anyone who was in proximity to me, they would hear me mumbling to myself that this was the most significant mistake I’ve ever made in my life. But it was too late to turn back. So I think that the answer to your question is I was crazy and I did it anyway.
GD: You made a point of the whole show having a very distinctive female voice, especially with your lead, Regina King, but also with some of the directors you’ve chosen, writers, craftspeople. Nicole [Kassell] won at the DGA a few months ago. Why was that important to you?
DL: Well, I’ve been a professional television writer in writers’ rooms since the late ‘90s, and certainly the case on “Lost” that there were always more men in the room than women and I was responsible for that as the showrunner. When “The Leftovers” came about, that was the first room that I was in where there was a real balance. In fact, by the end of “The Leftovers,” there were more women in the room than men, and I actually felt like that was a better experience. So I don’t want to say I’m never going to hire men again. But I do feel like for certain types of material, hiring people who don’t look like you or think like you or have the same background as you do, whether that’s your gender or your social class or your race or anything, the more… I hate using the word diversity because it feels like it’s a box to be checked, but in this case, it was just immensely important in terms of generating a show that we could all be proud of and more importantly, had an authenticity to it. And so, I had such an overwhelmingly amazing experience, a positive experience with Mimi Leder, who basically was a showrunner on “The Leftovers,” along with Tom Perrotta and Tom Spezialy and myself and Nicole Kassell came and directed several episodes of “The Leftovers” and we hit it off so well. So it just felt like she was really an obvious choice to take that role, not just directing the pilot, but as an EP on “Watchmen.” I didn’t give her the job because she was a woman. I gave her the job because she was the most qualified person for the job. But I do think that there are way too few opportunities for female directors in our business and I’m doing everything that I can as someone who is in a position to hire them to show the world how incredibly talented they are. Nicole Kassell was not my discovery. I was just smart enough to say she’s incredible.
GD: Take credit everywhere you can on the good ones, on the good people that you get to work with.
DL: She deserves all the credit independent of me and I think the show speaks to that.
GD: Pilot episode which she directed, it’s a very challenging subject to start a series, going back a century to a very dark time in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Why that choice?
DL: I first read about the Tulsa massacre of 1921 in an article that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for “The Atlantic” called “The Case for Reparations,” which I highly encourage anybody listening to this who didn’t know about Tulsa and now knows about it actually to read this article, “The Case for Reparations,” which changed the way that I saw my place in America and the grand American experiment writ large. But it’s just a paragraph in that article, I was like, “What is he talking about? How is it that I don’t know about this?” And so I went on Amazon and there was a book written about the Tulsa massacre, which was known as the Tulsa race riot for a very long time and I read that book and I was just astonished and horrified by what happened there.
Obviously, the story of Tulsa in and of itself and what was taken, what was stolen, is hugely significant in terms of the story of America. But even more significant is that it was erased, that it was buried. And I think this exhumation of that of the Tulsa ‘21 massacre is something that for reasons that I can’t explain, I became just creatively obsessed with and right at the time that I was wondering what’s the best vehicle by which to tell this story, the “Watchmen” offer came to me. I was like, “Is ‘Watchmen’ a piece of popular fiction that can actually hold true history?” And it felt like it was possible, so we just proceeded accordingly and we handled it with the highest degree of sensitivity that we possibly could, understanding that we weren’t really the ones to tell this story and then surrounding ourselves with people whose story it was to tell and getting out of the way when it was appropriate to do so.
GD: Now, Regina King is your leading actress in the project. You’ve worked with her before. Did you catch her at the right moment before her Oscar win or after her Oscar win?
DL: I think she said yes to “Watchmen” before she won the Oscar. She had won multiple Emmys and you have to fact-check me on that. Regina was winning so much stuff.
GD: It’s hard to remember where in the timeline where she’s won a particular award or not. Well, she’s as good as anybody, I think, in the whole entertainment industry, as an actor. What did she bring to you even beyond what you were expecting as you wrote and plotted this out?
DL: I think as a writer, you’re always looking for actors who are going to take the character, the garment that you’ve basically sewn for them and they’re going to sort of just tear out of it. And then that forces you to get out your measuring tape and make something that is just for them, is customizable. And I think that I had an idea of who this character was before Regina started playing her, and then as soon as we started, as soon as we got on the set and saw the dailies, I was like, “Oh, wow. I’m just so inspired to go deeper now based on the choices that Regina is making.” And so, there’s a conversation that’s happening between writer and actor where you’re putting out an idea and then someone like Regina is just elevating it every time and then you feel a certain degree of anxiety in terms of, “Is this worthy of her?” I think that I agree with you completely and this isn’t to the detriment to any of the other actors that I’ve worked with but she is one of the greatest living actors. That’s incredibly intimidating. But it’s also when she says, “Yes, I will play this,” you also sort of feel like, “OK, if Regina sees something here, I really better put nose to the grindstone here and be worthy of her.”
GD: For the Emmys, you’re competing in Limited Series because there’s no plan to continue beyond this particular season. This could have gone on for years and years and seasons and seasons. Why did you want to end it after this run?
DL: I don’t know if you’ve heard this, Chris, but I know what it feels like to go way beyond the expiration date of an idea.
GD: No, I will not have you denigrate “Lost” in any way, because that’s one of my five or six favorite shows of all time. So we’re not going down that road.
DL: I’m not denigrating it. I’m just saying if it had only gone on for four seasons, maybe it’d be your favorite show of all time. But I think the broader point is I would have loved there to be just about 80 episodes of “Lost” and instead there were 120. So I think particularly in the moment that we’re in now, storytellers, we get to decide how long the story should be versus letting the dictate of the industry itself tell us this show’s just going to keep going on and on and as long as people are watching it, it’s going to continue to exist. The original “Watchmen,” which was written in the ‘80s, it was 12 issues and for 30 years, that’s all there was. There were some prequel comic books and then the movie adaptation that Zack Snyder did in 2009. So I sort of like, “If we’re gonna do a ‘Watchmen’ story, one of the things that makes ‘Watchmen’ work is that it has kind of a defined beginning, middle and end.” And although our ending has a certain degree of ambiguity to it, I hope, at least it was designed to feel very complete.
When we talked to HBO and Warner Bros. about it and they were immensely supportive, I can’t say enough about… I know that we’re supposed to say this as storytellers but the levels of creative support that I received from HBO and Warner Bros. when I went in and said, “This is just gonna be one and done. It’s possible that there could be subsequent seasons of ‘Watchmen’ like there are of ‘Fargo’ where it wouldn’t necessarily be in the same time and place but I want to tell a very complete story and let’s see where we get to when it’s all over.” They were completely and totally on board with that. I think that maybe they hoped that I would change my mind when we got to the end of it. But that really empowered us in the writers’ room in particular and then later on the set. We put all of ourselves into this, knowing that it was a very special time that we were all going to be together and then it was gonna be over. We were gonna leave it all on the field, as it were. And I feel like if we can’t do better than this season, then we shouldn’t go back just for the sake of saying there’s another season of “Watchmen.” So every great idea that I had went onto the screen and that’s kind of all I got.