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Why Emmy-winning writer thinks ambiguity works well for ‘Watchmen’

‘The people that we trust to carry out the law--- if they decide that the law doesn't apply to them or that the law is flawed---does that empower them to become vigilantes and do whatever they want?’

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NEW YORK, USA – “Watchmen” writer Damon Lindelof grinned like a Chesire cat when asked what is the message of his latest HBO series based on the iconic graphic novel published by DC.

SCENE FROM 'Watchmen' (Photo courtesy of HBO)

SCENE FROM ‘Watchmen’ (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“The original ‘Watchmen’ is a Rorschach test,” began the Primetime Emmy winner. “If you want to see satire, you will see satire; and if you want to see staunch reverence to all the right philosophies through that lens of Rorschach, you can see that too.”

In short, it’s each to his own—so long as you enjoy watching and you pass the popcorn.

“I’ve learned over time that my intentions and what I want something to be are secondary to the interpretations of people. I can say to someone, ‘You know you were wrong about it, this is what I meant it to be,’ but they can go, ‘Well, that’s not what I saw.’ And so I’ve gotten to a place where I’m no longer trying to enforce my will upon people—they’re going to see what they’re going to see, and that doesn’t make them right or wrong. All I can do is put my head down and and do my best work.”

“Watchmen” is set in an alternate history where masked vigilantes are treated as outlaws. According to a statement, it embraces the nostalgia of that graphic novel, while attempting to break new ground of its own.

We met and interviewed here some of the stars as Regina King, Yahya Abul-Mateen II, Louis Gossett Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Hong Chau and Jeremy Irons. They were one in saying the curious story of “Watchmen” and the creative geniuses that comprise the team convinced them to sign up for the project.

For Damon, it was a no-brainer. He’s been a fan of “Watchmen” from the very start.

“I’m a huge fan and I’ve consumed a lot of— like, sort of every interview—the creators of the original ‘Watchmen’ have given.

“One of the pieces that inspired them was the Mad Magazine comic book which regularly satirized all sorts of things. And one of the things that they said that really stuck with me is that you have to really love something in order to make fun of it. If you’re making fun of it without loving it, then it’s just being cruel.

“When you read ‘Watchmen’—those 12 issues—it’s clearly made by people who love the art form of comic books and also the heroes. I would say it’s less satirizing as much as taking a much more introspective and deep and complicated look at things.”

Here’s the rest of the interview that day with Damon by journalists flown in from all over the world:

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ALTERNATE REALITY

“The original ‘Watchman’ has an absurd quality to it that we tried to create here. There had to be an absurdity to it, a sense of play and fun; simultaneously, a sense of complete devotion to the characters.

“The original 12 issues were written in the mid 1980s, and they were very specifically about what was happening emotionally, culturally and politically at the time, even though it was an alternate reality where Nixon was the president when we had, in fact, Ron Reagan as the president here.

“So, when we made the decision to set this story in 2019, the question that we had to answer was what’s the cultural moment right now in the United States. What’s happening? What’s creating anxiety? And the answer to me was mistrust in authority, not just in terms of the police, but also in terms of the highest levels of government.

“So, the people that we trust to carry out the law— if they decide that the law doesn’t apply to them or that the law is flawed—does that empower them to become vigilantes and do whatever they want? Those ideas that were part of the original ‘Watchmen’ still felt incredibly relevant today.”

SETTING
“Don’t superheroes, are comic books, like, you know, don’t they exist anywhere else in America? What about the middle of the country, what’s happening in Oklahoma? ‘And I’ m suddenly, like, ‘Oh right, Tulsa!’ I said maybe the whole thing should just be set in Tulsa, because I don’t want to put another TV show in New York.”

CLUELESS
“It’s challenging to do the show. The audience that didn’t read the comic book and didn’t see the movie, will they understand what the stories are about?

“But the good news is I always make television that the audience doesn’t understand. And that’s my favorite kind of storytelling, which is what people can do into a world that they don’t know the rules, yet they have to figure things out as they go.

“That to me is life. In life, there’s no instruction manual as to what choice to make or how to move through it. You kind of have to figure things out for yourself or through community.

“My hope is that by the end of the first hour, at the very least, you’re curious. You know who the characters are, you know that one of them has been murdered. Then you want to know who murdered them and why the police can’t use guns and why they are wearing masks.

“You want to know a lot of things. And by the end of the nine episodes, those questions will be answered—hopefully to your satisfaction.”

‘DOES THIS STORY MAKE SENSE TO YOU?’
‘I needed to write a version of ‘Watchmen.’ This was a formative cultural event in my adolescence when I read the first 12 issues. But I knew we would fail if the show was only for people who had an intimate knowledge of ‘Watchmen’ like I did.

“The first person I talked to about it was this guy, Jeff Jensen, who is a friend of mine and he ended up being a writer on ‘Watchmen.’ He’s the only person I knew in the world who was a bigger fan of ‘Watchmen’ than I was. And I said, ‘Will you come over to my office and hang out for a couple hours? I’m going to talk to you about something.’ And he came over and I told him that they had offered it to me and then I was thinking about Tulsa, and doing ‘Watchmen’ in 2019, and I had some other ideas that we ended up doing on the series. And he said, ‘You’re crazy….Kim, can I work on it?’ And so I was like, well at least he’s excited.

“And then I went on and had a meeting over at HBO. In that room, there were about six or seven people and five of them had no knowledge of ‘Watchmen’ at all beyond maybe the movie while the two others had an intimate knowledge of ‘Watchmen.’

“And I get to them for about 90 minutes, what my plan for the season was, and all seven of them were totally into it. They asked a lot of really interesting questions when I was done, they felt engaged.

“And then I hired writers—a room of a dozen people, myself included, and only four of us were white dudes and everybody else wasn’t white dude. And so we started bringing in other perspectives, cultural perspectives, personal perspectives.

“I’d say half of us had a fairly intimate knowledge of the original ‘Watchmen’ than the other half. And when I was hiring those people, I had to have meeting after meeting, just basically saying, ‘Does this story makes sense to you?’ And some of them they were, like, ‘This makes no sense to me’ so I said, ‘You’ re in.’ Because if I can get you—if I can get it to make sense to you—then it’s mission accomplished.”

NONLINEAR STORYTELLING
“How did’ Watchman’ influence me? First off, most of the issues took a singular character in the ensemble so that by the end of it, you didn’t realize there was a singular hero, but you get multiple different perspectives. The idea is that this one’s going to be a side episode, this one’s going to be a cage episode, this one’s going to be a star episode, this is going to be a bad episode. So doing an episodic structure where you were just looking through one person’s eyes, that was from ‘Watchmen.’ Certainly, the idea of nonlinear storytelling as jumping into the past through flashback, that particular issue is the master work of storytelling and the character.

“I think the original ‘Watchman’ is a highly interpretive text and that’s why it’s lasted as long as it has. And I want to do stories that are highly interpretive—not vague and ambiguous—but interpretive.”

LEEWAY
“There’s a lot more space for experimentation in the superhero genre than people are currently allowing for because they don’t want to screw things up. And ‘Watchmen, ‘ they’re not iconic characters, like, I would never be able to do this with Batman or Superman. But with ‘Watchmen,’ you can. I think there are more interesting stories to tell (because of that). ”

(“Watchmen” premieres same time as the U.S. on Oct. 21, 9 a.m. on HBO GO and HBO. The episode encores on HBO on the same day at 10 p.m. New episodes premiere every Monday)

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