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Watchmen director Nicole Kassell on staging the perfect Doctor Manhattan reveal

Plus: a major secret about the bar in ‘A God Walks into Abar’

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

As HBO’s Watchmen series has rolled out, three names have dominated the discussion about the show: Alan Moore, who wrote the original Watchmen comics series (and wanted his name off the 2019 sequel show); Damon Lindelof, who created and produced the show, and Regina King, who stars as masked vigilante cop Angela Abar. But another name should be part of any breakdown of what the show looks and feels like. Nicole Kasell boarded Lindelof’s project early on, and she was one of its chief architects, both as executive producer and as the director of the series pilot and two other episodes.

[Ed. note: this interview contains major spoilers for Watchmen episode 7 and 8.]

Most notably for the moment, Kasell directed episode 8, “A God Walks into Abar,” which lays out the story of how nigh-omnipotent being Doctor Manhattan turned into the seemingly ordinary Calvin Abar, Angela’s husband. Episode 7, “This Extraordinary Being,” revealed that Cal (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) had been Doctor Manhattan all along. Episode 8 fills in the backstory, then moves forward to a moment that looks like it could be the character’s end. And then, after the closing credits, the episode includes a lengthy scene where Adrian Veidt, the former superhero Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons), is punished for his behavior throughout the series.

Polygon spoke to Kassell shortly before the episode aired, to talk about what went into directing the episode, which visual references to Moore’s Watchmen fans should watch for, how the post-credits scene references the comic’s structure, and why Doctor Manhattan acts so damn dumb sometimes.

Polygon: The title of episode 8 is “A God Walks into Abar,” which is a pun on Angela’s last name. Did you name her for that pun when you were breaking the season down? Which came first?

Nicole Kassell: Isn’t that amazing? Honestly, the character’s name came first. In the writers’ room — we would need Damon to verify this, but they have whiteboards where they break down the show, and it was written down “…and he walks into a bar.” When it was written out big like that, boom, it just lit up right before their eyes.

The three Watchmen episodes you directed are the series’ key installments. Given how early you came on, and how involved you were in creating and laying out the show, did you pick which episodes you wanted to direct?

I was hired to do the pilot, and I wanted to do episode 2, because we took a down period after the pilot. We completed and cut the pilot and presented it for pickup. We weren’t ordered to series beforehand. So as executive producer and director, I wanted to do episode 2 because we were relaunching with a whole new crew, and getting the show set up for the full series. I wanted the continuity from 1 to 2. And then episode 8, it was just logistical. The schedule worked out best for me to direct, and I wanted that deep dive with Regina, Yahya, and Jeremy.

One face two face blue face blue face.
Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

This seems like a particularly challenging episode, given how long you have to hide Doctor Manhattan’s face in the bar. What went into that decision?

That was 100 percent in the script. It was essential to Damon and Jeff [Jensen, the episode’s co-writer] that we approach it that way. Yes, it was incredibly challenging to do 25 pages of two people in a bar where you can’t see one person’s face, and to make that engaging and dynamic. We broke down how to film it in a very limited period of time, very analytically trying to create a progression of the visual language through those scenes so it was still cinematic.

How did you work around that limitation?

With very methodical prep, I storyboarded with the cinematographer, Greg Middleton. We photo-boarded it, literally getting actors to come sit down for us and do pictures of what we were going to shoot, while going through the script scene-by-scene and word-by-word. Due to filming restraints, I did repeat some shots through multiple scenes, so we could do block shooting, but I was very judicious on what shots I would repeat, so we wouldn’t be seeing the same shot throughout the episode. And the transitions were scripted. Those were one of the most important things to us on the show, the transitions between scenes. They were absolutely calculated. Every in and out point was designed. So even if the editing evolved, we had that anchor of the ins and outs.

Was Yahya playing Doctor Manhattan the entire time?

Absolutely. And we wanted to tease that out. That’s why there’s that shot of his hand reaching for his mask, and taking the mask off. You might think in that moment, we might show his face, but the camera stays with his hand. To me, that tease is really an essential step of the storytelling, to keep it mysterious even though people already know. When Doctor Manhattan is fully revealed in the morgue, it’s a wow moment that would have been diluted if we’d shown who he was any earlier. We wanted the emphasis on the reveal. And I also think it’s very important that before he takes Yahya’s form, he’s the Doctor Manhattan of the source comic. And there’s no getting that exactly right for the fans, for everyone. Their internal image is precious to them. What we don’t show allows people’s imaginations to stay true to their own vision. We’re not erasing someone’s version of the source comic.

People have been theorizing online that you’ve been teasing Cal’s identity for a while, by dressing him in blue or backlighting him in certain ways. Were you hinting at that reveal?

For sure. I absolutely did not want people to know in advance, but at the same time, I wanted them to have that pleasure of seeing the clues in retrospect. It’s totally fine if people figured it out. But yes, the reason he’s dressed in blue, and the house is painted in cooler grays and blues, is because this is his home, and his taste. I wanted circles to be a very strong motif in their home, as an homage to Doctor Manhattan’s symbol. And because Angela was from Vietnam, and that is where they met, I wanted an Asian influence in their home. I love that their decor did double duty of referencing both those things.

As you were trying to match people’s visions of Doctor Manhattan, how did you design his look?

An enormous amount of conversation went into that. We did extensive camera tests on Yahya, to find the right color of blue, literally the color of blue. We played with a lot of different options for his eyes — did we want the white discs, did we want his eyes. Damon was absolutely integral to the decision-making steps, along with our visual effects supervisor, Erik Henry. The camera test yielded an enormous amount of information, as we found the right blue makeup for him, and figured out how to apply it. We decided quite early on that we really only wanted him to glow, and to have the white eyes, when he’s using his powers. Otherwise, we really wanted to keep him grounded and real and in our universe.

Why the decision to put the Jeremy Irons sequence after the credits?

That’s a structural thing. It really didn’t fit organically into the story. This story flows as a whole so perfectly. It was very mathematically calculated and mapped out in the writing. And the structure of the source comic — it has those chapters in attendance at the end of each chapter, the Under the Hood excerpts and other notes. It allowed us to do an episode that was structurally an homage to that structure in the comic.

And you weren’t concerned about impatient people turning the show off when the credits started, and missing the sequence entirely?

I don’t know! That’s a great question. We’ll have to figure out a way to tease that everyone should stay tuned in.

The first two episodes were densely packed with visual references to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and they continue in episode 8, with images like Angela and Cal’s shadows evoking the shadow lovers throughout the comic. But it seems like there are fewer visual echoes now than at the beginning. Was there a decision at some point to focus less on them?

No, they just had to be organic to the scenes at hand. We didn’t say “Let’s step back from that,” we just weren’t going to force any into a scene where they wouldn’t fit organically. There are many visual references to the source comic in the bar. I just don’t like giving them away. It’s so fun to see people picking them out, and that’s been a lot of the joy for the viewers.

Did those visual references primarily come from Damon, or from the writers, or the directors, or the design team?

All of the above. From the writers, for sure. From our production designer, the props team, the directors, the set dressers. I asked everyone at the very beginning to keep their eyes out for opportunities, whether it’s was in the framing or in more specific references. It was absolutely a team effort. For my part, in terms of choosing camera angles, when Doctor Manhattan goes to [Ozymandias’ home base] Karnak, in this episode, there are a couple of shots from the actual source that I specifically recreated.

And the bar is from the source comic, Eddie’s bar in Vietnam. [Ed. note: This is the bar in Chapter II of the Watchmen comic, where a pregnant woman attacks her lover Eddie Blake, aka The Comedian, and he murders her in front of Doctor Manhattan.] Time has passed, and now a city’s grown up around it. When Doctor Manhattan walks into the bar, there’s a sign that says “Eddie’s,” and the set dressing is inspired by panels from that sequence in the comic.

What are you proudest of in this episode? What was hardest to crack?

I’m just so proud of the whole series. But it was particularly incredible to work so closely with Yahya to find out who Doctor Manhattan is, to figure out the change in his voice. The real challenge was finding Doctor Manhattan for him — he had to play an entirely different character from Cal, and a character everybody who knows the comic adores. So diving into that with him and finding it was a really exhilarating conversation and collaboration. Together we asked, “What are Cal’s characteristics vs. Doctor Manhattan?” With Damon, I had tone meetings to discuss who these characters were. What are their backstories? What are their primary character traits? By the time we got on set, I had a very short list of words I could say to Yahya for direction, because we were fully in sync on the character.

In the bar, the voice he took on was very hard. It’s out of his normal voice range, which was exhausting. There were moments when I’d have to say, “I’m hearing Yahya too much right now.” It’s similar to any character discovery you do with an actor, but this one was really fun to find with him.

As you were working to understand the character, did you come up with a theory about why Doctor Manhattan is so bullheaded about telling people around him what’s going to happen next, when he knows from experience that everyone hates it and it always comes out badly?

Oh, that’s funny. I think he is just impossibly honest. For him, it’s literally just the facts, without an emotional attachment. Until he’s actually experiencing these fights, it doesn’t have an emotional resonance. So he’s stating something in the present, not feeling the emotional context of the actual moment. It’s key to who he is that everything just is, without that emotional weight that we bring to it, or civilians bring to it. I think a big thing to grapple with in this character is, he is not perfect, even though he’s the most powerful being in the world. He’s not perfect, and that’s very important for us to ponder.

That’s also might answer the biggest question people are going to have out of this episode, which is why he didn’t just go elsewhere, instead of standing still to be shot.

Exactly I’m with you — I’m mad at him! [Laughs] But let me just say, that’s one of the most important things catapulting us into episode 9.

Damon’s repeatedly said he doesn’t have plans yet for another season. But given the positive reception to the show, is HBO pushing you to continue?

I’m leaving that conversation to Damon and HBO. They they need to speak for that. I’m not going to give a peek behind the curtain there.

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