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Damon Lindelof On Exploring Modern Themes Through ‘Watchmen’

Damon Lindelof makes a habit of taking big swings. That’s what happens when you pivot from wrapping one of television’s most narratively ambitious shows (Lost) to playing in both the Star Trek and Alien sandbox and then masterfully meditating on grief, loss, and love with The Leftovers. With Watchmen (which premieres Sunday at 9ET on HBO), he continues that trend, building a bridge from the mid ’80s era of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ mightily revered comic book to 2019 and a host of spiritual plagues and slow rolling traumas that resonate despite the fact that the new series exists in the same alt-history space as the original. And because it’s him, the journey across that bridge is indirect, fraught with interesting distractions, and ponderous.

Uproxx spoke with Lindelof in New York recently about this latest swing, revealing his reverence for the source material, his desire to speak to some of today’s issues, and why he wanted to expand on the idea of a Robert Redford presidency.

With regard to taking this on, is it that it scares you or that it interests you?

Both. I feel like a lot of thinking went into making the choice, and then, simultaneously, it was also just like an impulsive move. Certainly, once the decision was made, there was a tremendous amount of, oh shit-ness. “This was a horrible mistake.” But I was already kind of speeding down the hill and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t ready. It’s just like you can’t go back at that point. I did say no a bunch of times but it kept coming back. I don’t have the hubris to say, it felt like it was meant to be. But I can be honest with you and say that there was a certain degree of professional jealousy and arrogance around the feeling of, “They’re going to do this. There is going to be a TV show called Watchmen, and I have a choice. I can either be one of the people making it or I can be sitting at home on Sunday night when the HBO logo comes up and I hear the [sound].” Am I going to be thinking, “I can’t believe that I didn’t take a shot?” Did I not take a shot because I was scared or did I not take a shot because I felt like it shouldn’t be done? Because it’s going to get done.

The more important question, the only question, is just, was there an idea? Was there a story worth telling? Was there a way that you could do Watchmen where you weren’t ripping off or doing another iteration of the original? Is there a way to do this in a way that feels original and fresh but still deserves the title Watchmen? That challenge felt so exciting to me, even though I knew that there was a massive and significant chance of failure. It felt like it was worth going forward.

Has the idea of what the show is changed substantially or [was it] pretty much you had the idea and just developed it out?

I think it’s the latter. I mean, I think that the initial idea of what I wanted this to be about hasn’t fully revealed itself yet. By the time you see the first six, then in the middle of the season, that’s when I can say to you, that’s the idea of the show. The first idea that I had is basically sort of revealed in the fifth and sixth episodes. You obviously get strong hints of it in the setup for the season. But what I wanted the show to be about is really encapsulated in those episodes. Then I hired a group of writers — and there were a dozen of us — and we worked for I think 10 to 12 weeks before I even wrote the pilot, talking about those ideas.

I’ll say, for someone who’s used to doing a lot of talking himself, I did a lot of listening at that point because… not just about other people’s experience with Watchmen. In that room, there were people like me who are chapter and verse acolytes of the source material. And there were people who had never read the 12 issues until they took the job, and there were men and there were women and there were people of color and people from widely different vantage points that I had, all of whom were interested in Watchmen. And my job was not to pitch ideas that made everybody happy, but to do a lot of listening in terms of what should actually be on the screen. The building of the iceberg below the screen, you know, the 30 years of alt-history that occurred between the original Watchmen and our 2019 [version]. I wanted to treat Alan [Moore] and Dave’s [Gibbons] original vision as cannon, so that was all done. That part was relatively easy. Once we got into the mechanics of episodic building and storytelling, that’s always the hardest work and there’s a fair amount of discovery there. But in terms of what was the original plan versus what we actually did, [it was] pretty close.

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You mention the period in between. Is that fully flushed out somewhere, either in your head or in a show bible?

Yes, there is. It’s not called a show bible, but there’s like 25 pages of notes on legislation that the Redford administration tried to pass, and what the composition of the Supreme Court is, and the history of reparations, and gun legislation and all that stuff. That all exists. Some of it we’re going to be releasing as ancillary materials as the season goes on in the vein of the original Watchmen.

Do you have an idea of how you want this to end or is it going to kind of reveal itself to you over time?

We wanted to design this season in the way that the original 12 issues were designed, which was as a self-contained story. There’s no big cliffhanger in the ninth episode so that it’s like, “Oh God, I can’t wait to see what happens in season two” or “I can’t believe they did that.” It ends. The central mystery of the season is resolved. In fact, I believe all the mysteries of the season are resolved. Is there a potential for there to be more Watchmen after this season? Sure. Am I going to be the one doing it? Unclear. I look at Watchmen, the way that I look at something like True Detective, which is that word doesn’t necessarily need to be about the same characters moving forward. And so I definitely don’t think that there should be another season of Watchmen set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m not sure that the next season of Watchmen needs to be set in 2021 or whenever it airs.

The passage of time makes it relevant to do it like this, but I’m curious what it was, creatively, that made you want to set this 30 years after the events of the comic?

I’ll tell you when my calculation was… I’ll also say, I’m not sure that my calculation was correct. To some degree, we’re all just like the people in Apollo 13 on that with our slide rule trying to figure this stuff out on the fly. The calculation was the original Watchmen was written in the mid ’80s and it was about the mid ’80s, an alternate mid ’80s. But one of the reasons that it resonated was that if the problem that Adrian Veidt was solving was inevitable nuclear destruction in a conflict between the United States and Russia, I would put down an issue of Watchmen and be like, “That is a problem in my 1986.” We were still many years, half a decade away from the Berlin Wall falling. So, that would be something that I would have legitimately been worried about. To set a story in 1986 from the prism of 2019, it doesn’t feel timely or relevant. So, in order to echo the sentiment of Watchmen, it should be in a contemporary 2019, albeit an alternate version of one and it should be dealing with some of the same political realities that we are in our 2019. And that was the calculation. On a lighter note, but seriously, we’re not going to be able to do the 1980s better than Stranger Things or The Americans. I kind of feel like the ’80s’ nostalgia is played out and I wanted to do something contemporary.

How much research goes into this? Cults and domestic terrorism. Other dark places.

The answer is a lot. I mean, it’s a fictional world, but when you’re dealing with contemporary counterparts, you need to dot your I’s and cross your T’s. I mean particularly, as you know, reparations or as they’re referred to on the show, Redford-ations, are a part of this. That required a tremendous amount of research. And because we’re using Tulsa as a very specific flashpoint for that… it turns out that not only did the 1921 massacre happen in actual history much in the same way that we represented it in the pilot, but in the early 2000s, Johnnie Cochran actually represented four of the initial survivors of the Tulsa massacre and they sued the state of Oklahoma for reparations and won. But then it got overruled on appeal and the Supreme Court refused to hear it. So doing research like that and knowing that that stuff actually happened is really important. To know and be able to answer responsibly, where does real history end and alt-history begin. We’re really curious about the sort of cult of the Seventh Cavalry and what we wanted to model them after. So, we ordered the Turner Diaries, which is the book that sort of inspired Timothy McVeigh to do what he did in Oklahoma City.

So you’re on some lists, is what you’re trying to say.

Yeah, I’m definitely on some lists now.

Definitely.

That’s a really scary book, but yeah, you do research where it’s necessary.

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Can you talk about using Robert Redford and his specific ideology?

The hard and fast rule was don’t deviate from the canon. And at the end of Watchmen, Robert Redford, is, in fact, running for president against Nixon, and that’s in the original Watchmen. And so there’s an election coming up in ’88. We imagined that Nixon beat Redford in the ’88 election and then died in office in ’90, making Ford, who was his Vice President at the time, the president for a couple of years. Then Redford runs again and beats Ford in ’92. So that was our decision.

Was there ever any consideration to make it Donald Trump?

I think having Donald Trump be the president in an alt-history makes it less of an alt-history. I’ll also just say, I often feel like I’m living in an alt-history. I mean, you and I are having this interview today and the news this morning is that Donald Trump wanted to build a moat outside the border wall between us and Mexico and he wanted to put snakes and alligators or crocodiles in the moat. And if I put that in an episode of Watchmen, people would think that was the most ridiculous thing in the world. At least we can parody and make satire out of Robert Redford. I’m not comfortable doing that as it pertains to our current commander in chief.

What’s the value in [satirizing] Redford’s liberal ideology? Obviously, there are some things that have gone awry in the show world.

Yes.

What’s the value of that in the story?

I think that there’s this sort of fantasy amongst liberals — of which I consider myself one — that if we controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, that the world would be some sort of utopia. I’m more interested in seeing what happens when liberal ideologies don’t work out the way that we were told, because there’s sort of a downside to over-regulation. I do believe that taking everybody’s guns away is a really bad idea, for a variety of reasons. So I wanted to see what that would look like in practice. So I think it’s a little bit easier to make fun of liberals, because I’m a liberal, than it is for me to make fun of conservatives. And I think that it’s just a classic case of every Twilight Zone that I ever loved, which is, it starts with the wish. You know, “I wish that people would just leave me alone so I could read my books,” and then it ends up with the nightmare, which is, “I broke my glasses.” I think that this idea of like, if liberals were in charge, racism would no longer be a problem, is bullshit. Racism ain’t going anywhere anytime soon and nobody’s got a good solution for it.

Are there any Third Rails with regard to the Watchmen canon that you’re just not interested in touching? Characters you don’t want to revisit? Just things you want to leave alone that are best left alone.

Good question. Third Rails. Yeah, I’m sure there are. It’s interesting. I think that my answer to that question would be, the Third Rail is the source material itself, that is to say anything that is in a panel of those 12 issues. Obviously I think that there are echoes of dialogue. Like you’ll hear someone saying, “Nothing ever ends” in our Watchmen, which is obviously in the source material, but we’re using it in a different context. But I think like the Third Rail is just any cover version of something that I considered to be perfection. You know, Alan and Dave did it better than it will ever, ever be done again. So the Third Rail in and of itself is that source material. So I can refer to it. It all happened, but I think that if we were to show any of it, why would we do that? Especially since Zach (Snyder) already did, you know? I mean, it’s been covered and recovered.

Watchmen premieres on HBO Sunday October 20 at 9PM ET

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