Television

How Watchmen’s Director Staged One of the Worst Race Massacres in American History

Regina King in Watchmen
Regina King in Watchmen.
Mark Hill

This Sunday sees the premiere of Watchmen, the hotly anticipated HBO series that serves as a sequel to the landmark 1980s comic books. Created by Damon Lindelof, of Lost and The Leftovers, the HBO series picks up 30 years after the events of the original miniseries, in a present day, if not our present day. (Short version: Costumed crime fighters have been a constant since the 1940s, the U.S. won the Vietnam War, and Robert Redford has been president for 30 years.) The first episode, however, starts in the past, with the notorious Tulsa massacre of 1921, when white Oklahomans attacked a prosperous black neighborhood, burning businesses and killing hundreds of black residents. The responsibility for re-creating that terrible incident, and the rest of the show’s world, fell to director Nicole Kassell, who directed three of the first season’s nine episodes. Kassell joined The Gist’s Mike Pesca to talk about staging history both real and fake, what she learned from Ava DuVernay, and anticipating the reactions of angry comic book fans. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

Mike Pesca: In the pilot episode of HBO’s new series, Watchmen, there’s brief shot where we see the headlines and subhead of a newspaper. A couple of the subheads read, “KKK Vandalism Closes Down Statue of Liberty” and “Boise Squid Shower Destroys Homeless Camp, Kills Two.” This was an amazing, world-establishing pilot. You have to do that, right? It’s not just you come in, you direct the hell out of action sequences, you get the drama from the actors. It’s a little bit extra, right? How does it show up in the choices you make as a director?

Nicole Kassell: Everything. It’s similar to a feature in that sense that you are creating every decision, every element. This is the groundwork and obviously in the pilot we go through the different times, but for 2019 we created a whole history of world rules, and we called it the World Book.

Like an out of print almanac.

Exactly. Now we have it for Watchmen, the series. I assembled that with input from the writers room and from production design, props, costumes, everything so that the future episodes could refer to it, and we shared it with the departments all the way from top to bottom. Everybody had their eyes and ears on. These are the rules of our universe.

In this pilot, we can say that there is a rationale for masks, not necessarily even masked superheroes. The masks of a superhero are the symbol of the superhero, and even if they’re not heroes, the masks are iconic. Rorschach’s mask is iconic, but there are many others wearing masks and the masks seem to communicate something. Tell me about those choices and how you made them.

Right. Well the idea was definitely that … cops, the cop force has one uniform. The yellow obviously is referencing something significant—

Evocative of the happy face that’s the ultimate symbol of Watchmen. Same tone.

Exactly. Then the detectives get to choose their own costume. Each one has a reason, and that reason for our main characters may be revealed. It’s definitely an expression of the self. As you think about masks, it’s really the analysis of: When are you wearing a mask? When are you not? Are you wearing a mask when you’re Mom at home, or in a classroom, or when you’re dressed as something for cop life? Further referencing, obviously the source, Watchmen, the Minutemen, they all have their costumes and they got to self-select. That’s really why the detectives in our world get to. That’s kind of a straight throughline.

It does seem that some of the detectives, it was this tossed-off choice. The masks are shoddy—they may be old. One guy, maybe there’s a chance he’ll become a bigger character, but he’s wearing just a red ski mask that he’s shoving some food into when we first see him. Doesn’t seem to be the amount of care and attention that Spider-Man put into his mask.

Exactly. It’s definitely meant to be something just anybody can make. Whether it’s a fancy one or just the jumpsuit. What’s that say about his character? He just has a red uniform and it’s sloppy, but maybe when he’s not a cop, maybe he’s in his Gucci and Armani. Even in the workspace, in the police precinct, we imagined, what if there’s just a box of masks you can put on when you show up if you don’t have something? You see the big old panda head. Really, we wanted the whole world to feel well-worn, gritty, and from these characters. It’s actually not superheroes.

It starts with the Tulsa race riots in 1921. Pretty shamefully, a lot of people might not know this was a real event. Hundreds died. We don’t even know. This was less than 100 years ago. They couldn’t even put a count on the number of citizens that were dead, accurate within 100. Had you directed anything like that before?

No, absolutely not.

Who do you go to for advice? Do you just do it visually? Do you talk to someone?

Enormous amount of time went into planning that. From reading a book, The Burning by Tim Madigan. When I read the script, Damon told me Tulsa ’21’s real. I also didn’t know Bass Reeves was real, who’s the hero of the silent film. 1921’s real. I read a book and my assistant director did and that whole team, so that we made those vignettes from the book and just did everything as historically accurately as possible. We went to Greenwood and Tulsa and met with the people there, the center there. It was 250 people at least. Incredible number of stunts. I definitely did the research. I remember reading how Ava DuVernay did the bridge sequence in Selma. How Spielberg did Saving Private Ryan. As a film person I had been studying those sequences and I definitely remember reading that Ava had that set blessed. We happened to be filming on the 97th anniversary. Our Day One of production was Day One of the massacre. We had a priest come and bless the set.

In advance, we wrote a letter to the entire cast and crew making sure that especially background actors and stunt actors heard from us, our gratitude for what we are asking them to do, whether they were perpetrator or victim, and making sure that letter got to everyone. We just really went every step to make sure people were taken care of emotionally and physically. It was a very bonding experience. We started, like I said, that day with bringing everyone together. Also, it’s rare to get to rehearse with background, but the day before or a couple days before, we re-created the street on our backlot and ran sequences with background actors. Not all of them, but a lot of them. Each one would be designated a point person for their little story scene. They therefore knew the assistant director team more closely, and it was just really going deep to take care of everyone.

There is a scene in a classroom, which has, as many fourth or fifth grade classrooms might have, the list of presidents. It’s over a character’s shoulder. It’s a little fuzzy. I said, “Wait a minute—who’s that next to Bush and Reagan?” I rolled back and it was Robert Redford, and I said to myself, great joke, but it’s not a joke. A kid mentions reparations but he says it wrong. He says Redfordations. How much do you think that people will make the initial connection that it wasn’t just some kid mispronouncing reparations? Do you think they’ll get it right then and there?

Did you?

I’m smart and I rewound it.

No, maybe not. His delivery is that it’s clearly an insult. Why is that an insult?

Exactly evocative of Obamacare. That’s the analogy.

Exactly.

The pilot is shot with white supremacy as the major theme. This is a white kid with an Oklahoma accent and you might think that he might come from a family that would degrade reparations as Redfordations.

Exactly. Whether or not you immediately put it all together that Redford’s still a president and that he’s been president for a long time. You may not make all those connections right then and there but—

Later on, we hear it in the background of a radio show. They talk about Redford’s 30 years as president.

The tone is clearly insulting, and then in the car right after, the young one kind of clarifies that it was an insult. We want the audience asking why is that an insult if they don’t already know.

Does Redford show up in the series?

No.

OK. But you had to get his permission to use his—

No.

No?

Public.

What if you make him a horrible, horrible killer?

We of course looked that all up. You’re not allowed to disparage a public figure but—

If I were your lawyer, I’d argue for it. It would just seem to be a little dicey, legally.

No, we got it cleared.

That’s good.

It’s not a total invention. At the end of the source book, they say maybe Redford would run for president. Again, that’s a great homage to the original.

Have you or Damon or anyone else girded yourself or talked about inevitable comic enthusiast backlash?

A lot.

What do you do?

Honestly, what do you do?

I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s an Ava DuVernay script for it.

No. I think what you do is what Damon’s done. In the spring, right before we started filming the pilot, he wrote this incredible letter to the fans saying, “I know you’re going to be upset with me or wonder why I’m doing this and this is why.” It’s three pages. It’s a beautiful letter and just so earnest and it’s basically saying, this is why. What we’re asking of the viewers is give us a chance. Please watch the nine [episodes] before judging. To the diehard fans, just know that he agreed, it’s not adaptable, so we haven’t adapted it. It’s an entirely different piece of work.
It’s a love letter, I’d say, to the source and in the nods that are made, both storywise and visually.

What if a Watchmen superfan wants to nitpick, why is that character not in there? Why is that character’s headpiece different? That’s what you open yourself up to. How would you answer that?

You’re lost. Sorry. You can’t win everyone.

To listen to the full episode, click on the player below or listen on your favorite podcast platform.