Emmys 2020: Nicole Kassell ’94 on Directing HBO’s Megahit Watchmen

Nicole Kassell by Jeff Kravitz_Filmmgic


HBO’s Watchmen is already a winner, receiving 26 Emmy Award nominations — more than any other program in the 2019 season. The show is based on the hugely successful 1986 graphic novel of the same name, which depicts an alternate ’80s American history, mixing the real (rising Cold War tensions, the Vietnam War) with the fantastic (superpowers, futuristic technologies); the HBO series picks up in 2019 in the same fictional world, focusing on mostly new characters living with the repercussions of the novel’s events. Told primarily through the eyes of Angela Abar/Sister Night, a police officer and masked vigilante portrayed by actress Regina King, Watchmen unflinchingly tackles issues of race, historical trauma and political corruption.

Nicole Kassell ’94 is an executive producer of the series and directed three episodes, including the pilot, which opens by thrusting the viewer into the horror of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, then jumps to the present day and then moves off-world to Jupiter’s moon Europa. For her work on the episode, Kassell received the Directors Guild of America Award for Dramatic Series; this Sunday, September 20, she is nominated in the Emmy category of Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special.

CCT spoke with Kassell before the broadcast to discuss directing, American history and Easter eggs; the following is excerpted from our conversation.

Columbia College Today: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination and DGA Award! What was it like building on a piece of media that already had such a devoted fan base?

Nicole Kassell: It was definitely daunting, but I believed in the story and what we were doing. I just had to put that pressure to the side, because there’s nothing constructive to do with it. It was only when the show finally aired that I realized how tremendous that weight was.

CCT: The graphic novel Watchmen is mainly about a group of white men, while the HBO series primarily focuses on women and people of color. What was it like telling this updated story?

NK: That was the deep work that the writers did. As a director, my job is to walk in anyone’s shoes as best I can and to put the character’s story forward in the most honest way. So I really approached it like any other script: Who is my hero, who is my point of view? And then I tried to be honest and deep in that perspective.

watchmen-hbo-tulsa-race-riot-massacre-1921CCT: The pilot, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” opens with a heart-wrenching, gripping scene from the 1921 Greenwood Massacre. A lot of people learned, for the first time, about this very real atrocity committed against Black Americans thanks to the show — Google searches for “Tulsa Race Massacre” and “Greenwood Massacre” spiked around the original October airdate, again when the series concluded in December and then again on Juneteenth when the series became available on Hulu. How does it feel to know your work brought recognition to an event that has been largely ignored in American history books?

NK: I identify with the audience, in that I learned about the event through reading the screenplay. [I have] very complicated feelings about that episode being the voice for so many people. We’re extremely proud to have raised awareness, but also equally ashamed that it took a show to raise awareness. But I’m grateful that the story is finally out and that history is being looked at and talked about in a way that it hasn’t for the last 100 years.

CCT: That opening scene is so powerful. What was your directorial approach to filming it?

NK: It was essential to me to make it a visual experience, and to make it feel as real as possible. Putting it together probably took most of our pre-production. I studied films like Schindler’s List and Selma. I wanted first and foremost to connect the audience to the little boy and understand that we are witnessing this through his eyes; that this event is branding him for the rest of his life. I had an extraordinary team and amount of support. Every vignette is from real recordings of the massacre.

CCT: The pilot episode crosses so many genres — you have the historic scene in the opener; an action-packed shootout at a cattle ranch; sweeping pastoral, Victorian-drama-style shots; and sci-fi influences. How did you approach making a cohesive story out of such a variety of styles?

NK: After I read the script, I said to [Watchmen creator and writer] Damon [Lindelof] that it felt like a visual version of the song Bohemian Rhapsody — it shouldn’t work, but it’s a masterpiece. Cinematically, I approached it by being as truthful to each scene as I could. Whatever the different genres were, do it 100 percent. A big part of the groove was coming up with very specific, constructive transitions. And then the sound design, the score — all of that glues it together. But really, number 1 is narrative. You’re catapulted into this world and go on this wild ride.

CCT: How did you get tapped to direct Watchmen?

NK: I worked with Damon on The Leftovers. When it ended, I knew he was going to do Watchmen next. We had never spoken about it, and as the time approached when I knew he would be starting his search for a director, I sent a cold email saying, “I just want you to know I’d love to have my hat in the ring,” and he wrote back promptly: “Awesome!” So I got on the short list of directors he was meeting with to discuss it. After I read the script, I just felt deeply, deeply passionate about it and inspired visually. I put together a presentation and just really put my heart and soul forward in how I saw it.

CCT: There are a lot of Easter eggs [insider references] in the first episode that call back to iconic moments from the book, and many scenes had a graphic-novel feel to them. Were you staging them to recreate those classic Watchmen comic layouts?

NK: That was absolutely my intention — I wanted to pay homage as often as I could to the source and to the fans. We were deeply influenced by the structure and the images of the book. There were moments where I would set up frames and then someone would run up with a page from the book and ask, “Are you referencing that panel?” And I was! It was really fun to have people see that.

CCT: The show, while set in an alternate reality, touches on many current events in America: institutional racism, police corruption, the dangers of white supremacy. It also manages to be very entertaining. What do you hope viewers get out of the series?

NK: For me, it was a very bold take on talking about things that are so real and present in our culture — obviously even more so now — but at the time [of filming in 2018], they were not being spoken of. To see it addressed head on: These are issues in America, and we’re not going to shy away from it. We’re going to make it wild and zany and entertaining in order to make it fun for people, but also give them something very, very real to think about.

CCT: What was your reaction when you got the news about the Emmy nominations?

NK: It’s very special — it’s overwhelming! I was floored, to be honest. I just never anticipated the avalanche of 26 [nominations]; that has been beyond exhilarating. I’m so happy to see all of the crew members, who worked so hard, be recognized as well. For every one of them, there’s another 50–100 people who helped make that happen. It’s just tremendous.

The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards will be held on Sunday, September 20.