NYCC 2019: Watchmen Panel Recap

HBO brought Watchmen to New York Comic Con tonight; not just a panel, but a screening as well, giving the audience at the Javits Center their first look at the upcoming series that picks up 30 years after the end of the classic miniseries from writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. Cast and creators gathered on the main stage at Javits for a post-screening discussion of the show, alternately joking and analyzing everything from the text to the audition process to who was and was not "lunch-worthy," as half the stories began with a lunch with showrunner Damon Lindelof and the other half did not.

At the top of the panel, Lindelof acknowledged one of the elephants in the room: that Watchmen writer Alan Moore had asked Lindelof and HBO not to use his name (this request was honored even in the credits, as the show was listed as being based on characters co-created by Dave Gibbons for DC Comics).

"I think that as I said before I introduced the pilot, Watchmen has an incredible emotional connection for me," Lindelof told the audience after the screening.

Before the movie started, he had said that when he was 13 years old, his late father handed him the first two issues of Watchmen and walked away, telling him as he went, "You're not ready for this." At the start of the pilot, then, Lindelof said that he's about 25 miles from where that conversation took place all those years ago, and his father has passed away, but as he prepared to press play on the Watchmen pilot for its first-ever audience, he didn't feel like he was ready for that, either.

Originally, he was approached and declined the project, but "after they asked me, I started to get really jealous of the idea that they were going to do this thing without me even if I said no -- and it would be 9:00 on Sunday nights, and I'd see the HBO logo and Watchmen, and that I was missing out because I was scared," he explained. "I had such reverence for the original material and just doing it again was not necessarily something I wanted to see as a fan. I started thinking that Watchmen was written in the mid-'80s and it was about the mid-'80s and it was very much of its time....So I started thinking to myself what happened 30 years later? What happened to Adrian Veidt after he saved the world? What happened after this giant squid attacked? And Robert Redford is writing for President, what happens if he wins and if he's still president after 30 years?"

That starting point allowed him to be as speculative and open to new aspects of the world as he could, Lindelof said.

"We held it with such reverence but at the same time we realized that we would need to take a few risks for it to work, and so the rest is history," he explained.

"When we did LOST, the press started saying 'you put all these little Easter eggs in LOST, it's so cool,'" Lindelof recalled. "I said 'Watchmen did this 20 years ago, I stole it from them -- the idea of putting theses little detailed nods that are really only there for the true fans or the careful watcher.'"

He said, therefore, that it was basically impossible to make a new Watchmen show and not do the same thing.

"It was amazing to have the book, the images, as the source for inspiration," Nicole Kassell, the Westworld and The Leftovers veteran who directed the pilot and several other episodes of the 9-episode series, said when asked about her visual approach. "Damon was telling the story, the story was all set, but [we asked], 'how can we continue to pay homage to it on every layer?' The most exciting parts on set were when I would set a frame and we had comic fans all over the crew, and it was like we're setting the frame and here's the shot [in the book]!"

As he had previously established in interviews, Lindelof used to have a policy against working with the same actor twice -- but in this case, he broke that rule, returning to Regina King of The Leftovers fame.

"I'm glad I didn't know about the rule because I would have thought [the offer] was a joke," King told the audience. "But he so graciously sent a letter with the script that no one else was able to read. Usually you get the script through your agents first and they read it as well as you. It came directly to my house and it said this is his next project and it's dear to him and he couldn't see anyone else to be on this journey with. And I was like, I don't even care what it is, I want to be in it."

She said that there was an envelope in the script that said "don't read this until you get to this page; don't cheat."

"So I didn't cheat, and I read the script, got to that envelope," King said. "I'd never read anything like this. I'd never seen this world, I'd never seen this woman before. So complex, and you may have heard me before in the interviews talking about playing complex roles, but she just blew me out of the water. How could I not say yes? Just tell me where I need to show up."

"In the envelope, it was at the part of the show where you first meet Sister Night and I opened it up and it was an artist's rendering of my face as Sister Night," she said.

Asked about her affection for the Incredible Hulk (somehow they failed to mention that her Watchmen co-star Tim Blake Nelson was in a Hulk movie), King said that while she has been public about that enthusiasm before, it is not Hulk specifically as much as Hulk is representative of a kind of character she likes.

"There are other heroes that I like besides the Incredible Hulk, but he's just such an unlikely hero," King said. "I guess I always root for the unlikely hero....I'm very familiar with cartoons that were comic books. In addition to the Hulk, for me, the female superheroes that were huge were Wonder Woman and Firestar because they, although Wonder Woman has on the costume that she has on, I never felt that she was objectified. I probably wasn't able to articulate that the first time I saw them, but I knew I felt the power and not from the way of objectification. That did not answer the question about the Hulk, but just to let you know that I am attached to this comic book universe in some way."

Getting Jeremy Irons was apparently a coup for Lindelof, who joked that the whole time they were talking about the role, he was repeating over and over in his head that he was talking to Jeremy Irons and not to screw it up.

"Damon took me to lunch, and talked for an hour and a half, very quickly, with enormous enthusiasm, showing me he had an imagination and enormous wit," Irons told the crowd. "And I ate and listened, and understood about ten percent of what he was saying. He was talking about this graphic novel, comic book world, about which I knew nothing because I live in England and I'm over 45, and somehow that whole world had passed me by. But he was introducing me to it and I was fascinated. I had nothing to say, there was no time to say anything. So I ate well, and at the end of it I thanked him for his time and then I left and he gave me a script, or bits ofa . script, which I read, and it amused me hugely. And I thought, this is a very interesting character ,but mainly what I thought was, that man I just had lunch with has such energy and enthusiasm I doin't know what he's going to do, I don't know what he's going to make, but if he thinks I can be of some help in his story, then I'm aboard."

Eventually, he says, he read the source material -- although it sounds like he may not have completely "got" every bit of it.

"I did [read it]. The problem is, when you're over 45 and th eprint is that big, it's really hard work," he joked. "But I did, I got through to the end and sort of discovered who I might play and what he'd done and all about him, and that was sort of my background, but how I read the comic book without meeting this one and hearing his ideas -- I probably would have just gone on and read something else. I find comic book difficult to read. It's just how I was brought up; I know you'll all hate me for this."

His co-star, Jean Smart (who plays Laurie Blake, the former Silk Spectre), had not read it either, but has referred back to it during production. "I had not read the graphic novel before, I was not familiar with it, but when I was offered the role of Laurie Blake, I immediately bought the book," she said.

"I'm from Brooklyn, New York, and back in the schoolyard, there was Hopalong Cassidy, Captain Marvel, Superman, and those were our heroes," said Louis S. Gossett, Jr. "We were in this fantasy world, and we were post-Depression so we needed that fantasy....So I was raised by Superman. So I read this script and I said, wow, my favorite things are in this script. Fantasy, Bass Reeves, the Tulsa bombings, which are important part of history, and HBO."

He joked that the HBO imprimatur was enough to get him on board because "my momma didn't raise no fool."

Hong Chau says she got the comic on the way out of her meeting with Damon, and that she read it right away; her character was not in it, but it was very helpful in acclimating to the world.

"I have three sons, so yeah, I read the novel," Nelson joked. "I barely got away with not going out to Area 51 recently for what came ot be known in our house as the potential nerd holocaust. So yeah, I was familiar with it. And I just felt when I read Damon's script that the temerity and the welcoming of danger actually not only to take this on but to imagine its future in this alternate universe to our present was just so exciting. To do it in a way that hewed really nicely to the aesthetic terms of the souce material, there was just no way I wasn't going to join on. Damon's just one of those people with whom you want to associate yourself. The first person I met, because I don't think I was worth lunch with Damon, so he called [Kassell] and said 'you deal with him.' So we sat and talked for an hour about art history because she's so f---ing smart, and it just underscored why I would want to be a part of this. It was very exciting."

"I was moderately familiar with the Watchmen comic book," Yahya Abdul-Mateen II said. "I did Aquaman and that was my introduction into comics. I never read comics and high school. I did basketball and chess and debate. Comics, that was just a little too far down the hallway I didn't go all the way. But when I did Aquaman, I started to turn all the pages through the Aquaman comics and the Suicide Squad, and a friend of mine said you gott ahceck out this one. read about half of it, and I loved the drama and I loved the tone and later, I got an invitation to come in and audition and meet Regina and when I had an opportunity to come on, I said 'HBO? My momma didn't raise no fool either.'"

They then aired a pair of short clips featuring some of the actors who did not appear in the pilot.

"I think because she was brought into the masked vigilante culture at a very young age and her parents were masked vigilantes, she has a lot of resentment for that culture," Smart said. "Although I think a part of her misses that. I think she misses that a little bit, but she has for a variety of reasons joined the FBI and is now arresting young vigilantes. She has a lot of issues."

In terms of backstory, Smart said that she thought a bit about what had happened to Laurie between the '80s and the present, but that she hadn't hashed it all aout before she started getting scripts.

"There was so much that Damon had put into my first episode, which is episode three," Smart said. "There was everything I could possibly ask for for my chgaracter to be introduced. It was almost a complete little movie from beginning ot end, so I didn't feel that I needed a lot of that yet, but as we've shot the season I've gone back anreferenced that and tried to think of how she got to where she is."

Laurie has a precedent in the comic, but Lady True, the character played by Hong Chau, does not.

"Obviously she's a boss bitch," Chau said. "She is an enigmatic trillionaire businesswoman and I guess she's just kind of everywhere but people don't know what she's up to."

They had screened a scene featuring her character, which Chau said was the first that she had filmed. It involved a pair of characters not in the main cast, and the actress said that shooting with guest actors instead of someone who had more context for the show was a wild first scene to shoot, and that it was an intense scene to go with first-day jitters.

At this point, they introduced special guest Dave Gibbons.

"I first spoke to Damon at San Diego Comic Con in 2018, and he talked nonstop for what seemed like at least an hour and a half," Gibbons joked. "I did discover that Damon had a huge knowledge of Watchmen and a huge respect for what Alan and I had done. And I think if anybody is going to do a TV series of Watchmen, he's the one."

He added, "I think what particularly attracted to me was that what Damon had in mind wasn't a prequel or a sequel but kind of an extrapolation. What we did with Watchmen was that we said what if superheroes really existed? What would they be like and what would the world be like? But I think what Damon is answering here is if it ha d happened back in 1986, what would the world be like now? That 30 years is a long enough time that all sort of unexpected things have happened and you end up a million miles away from the graphic novel but still with extreme fidelity to it, so to me it's an amplification of it and not a dilution."

"What Dave and Alan did doesn't need to be rebooted in any way, shape or form," Lindelof added. "Everything that happened in those 12 issues of Watchmen absolutely happened in the show. Independent of what peoplf feel about our version of Watchmen, if it's a gateway for them to go buy the original 12 issues which have now been collected in a graphic novel, it's one of the greatest thing ever written and illustrated. If you haven't read it you must."

Asked about the fact that Rorachach's followers are a white supremacist group in the comic, Gibbons said, "Rorschach is a very interesting character. Obviously Alan very much came up with Rorschach and wrote all the words that came out of his mouth. I think there’s a dreadful appeal to character like Rorachach in that you can’t possibly agree with them but they’re so definite and so sure in what they’re doing that they’re quite arresting. I can definitely see that Roschach would be kind of a role model for people with these views in the future."

Lindelof acknowledged that anything they do without Moore is, on some level, "appropriating" Watchmen. He said that played into the decision. "We felt like on a meta, pretentious level, it would be interesting to see characters appropriating Rorachach the way we appropriated Watchmen," he said.

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Lindelof also said that the series may very well be only a single season.

"One of the things that makes the original perfect is that those 12 issues were designed and well thought out and it's very clear that there was a beginning, middle and end in mind," Lindelof explained. "There may bave been a little bit of play in terms of how David and Alan got there, but we knew we had to do the same. We planned out these 9 episodes to be the same way....We wanted it to be immensely satisfying and we certainly didn't want the season to end with a bum-bum-bum, wait for season 2....We really want to see how it's received by you guys. If the show is out there and the conversation that surrounds the show suggests that you're hungry for more, we'll have that conversation."