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The eerie prescience of HBO’s Watchmen

Director Stephen Williams on the many real-world resonances of the HBO miniseries, from police violence to masks.

Jovan Adepo plays Will Reeves, aka Hooded Justice.
Hooded Justice makes an early appearance in “This Extraordinary Being,” the best episode of Watchmen.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One of the most acclaimed TV episodes of the last year is “This Extraordinary Being,” from HBO’s miniseries version of Watchmen, which aired in late 2019. In it, the series’ main character, Angela (Regina King), imbibes a drug called “Nostalgia,” which allows her to enter the curated memories of Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr. in 2019; Jovan Adepo in the 1930s), the grandfather she’s just met. As she viscerally experiences those memories, she discovers the ways in which superhero stories and American racism are hopelessly intertwined.

The episode has received eight Emmy nominations, out of Watchmen’s total 26, and one of those nominations belongs to its director, Stephen Williams, a longtime TV director whose work with Watchmen showrunner Damon Lindelof also includes Lindelof’s earlier series Lost. Williams turns Angela’s journey into the past into an eerie reflection of our own history — both because Watchmen takes place in an alternate timeline version of our reality and because it’s touching on darker parts of the American narrative that are rarely presented within the confines of superhero stories.

I recently spoke with Williams via Zoom about the ways our real-world conversations around structural racism informed Watchmen, how “This Extraordinary Being” depicts America’s queer history, and how jarring it is to suddenly see everybody in the real world — not just the characters on a fictional TV show — wearing masks. Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Stephen Williams attends the premiere of Watchmen in October 2019.
Leon Bennett/WireImage

One thing I have really been struck by in revisiting Watchmen is how prescient it turned out to be. Structural racism in America and the intersection of racism and policing are eternal issues. But the way that masks ended up being such a vital part of the show’s iconography and how that would filter into reality is something no one working on the show could have predicted. What are the benefits and downsides of filming actors in masks?

When you film someone wearing a mask, you are not able to take advantage of the full landscape of emotions that the actors are offering up. However, actors inhabit a total and comprehensive physical posture, and we were blessed with such an amazing cast on our show and specifically in this episode, “This Extraordinary Being.” There is a totality of physical presence and a body language that the actors are able to utilize in portraying their characters.

That’s the challenge of photographing and filming actors who are wearing masks, but masks were a huge motif in terms of our show. They conceal and reveal aspects of the characters who wear them. That was something that we were trying to include as part of our overall narrative approach.

When I’m out and about now, and I see people with masks on everywhere, my writer brain goes into overdrive trying to think of how to describe what that looks like. Does the same thing happen to you? If you see this very visually different world, does that strike the part of your brain that thinks about how you might depict these images?

These are singularly bizarre times that we are all collectively living through. Certainly the more or less ubiquitous utilization of masks presents a completely different visual landscape on a human level than we’re accustomed to.

But some people have very personalized masks. Masks have become a human billboard in a way. It’s a way for a lot of people to reflect and represent various points of view that they have about issues that may be prevalent or current in our society. That’s interesting and cool to see and in some cases powerful to see. And other people recede into a kind of anonymity behind their masks. It’s a surreal visual experience for sure.

“This Extraordinary Being” depicts many things that could make people feel uneasy or make people feel uncomfortable in the filming process. In particular, I’m thinking of the choice to film much of the episode’s lynching sequence from the point of view of the character. What were the conversations like as you worked out how you were going to present these story elements in a way that was honest but not exploitative?

Our whole intention with the episode and certainly my approach to the episode was to try to remove as much as possible any barriers between the viewer and the subjective experience that the characters were undergoing as they made their way through the narrative arc of our story and of that episode. At the same time, lynching occupies such an ugly part of our nation’s racial history, so it was important to us to be honest about the subjective experience of the near lynching that appears in the episode, without being exploitative. [We also tried to be as] forthright in a depiction of the horror of what that experience could be as possible.

Once we landed on the idea that the visual grammar of the piece was going to be first-person and subjective, then the question became how to make that as visceral and as real and as truthful as possible. It was a very complicated sequence to execute from a technical point of view. And we did many, many things — including fitting the hood that eventually gets repurposed by Will in ensuing scenes with an air bladder — that allowed us to replicate as closely as we possibly could his panicked breathing as he is being hoisted up in this tree by his malevolent coworker cops. The whole approach was to try to be as honest as possible about the sheer, ugly terror of that experience without crossing over into a voyeuristic or exploitative depiction of it.

Say a cast member or someone is filming a scene like this and says that something about the approach makes them uncomfortable — how did those conversations play out on the set of Watchmen? There are so many TV sets where that kind of conversation would just be shut down, but I’ve talked to enough people who worked on Watchmen to know that it didn’t happen on the show. How do you build that sort of collaborative working environment?

From the outset, we understood that this was going to be a very special episode but also a very emotionally harrowing experience for everybody. For cast, for crew, for all of us. So I gathered everyone, cast and crew, together before we ever started shooting, very early on in prep, and talked in great detail about what the technical approach was going to be, involving really long takes and an extended period of immersion in the narrative material.

I talked about how sensitive this material was and how upsetting and disturbing and emotionally raw it was. We wrapped arms around everybody and encouraged us all to be as respectful of each other and as honest and compassionate with each other as we possibly could be. We tried to stay present with each other through every moment of this journey.

We were very aware that we were depicting events that had actually happened in our very recent history. More than anything, I wanted to honor those lives that had preceded our arrival on set in Georgia — not only the suffering that many of those lives entailed but also being as compassionate as possible about the task of depicting these events.

This episode aired last year, but it has incredible resonance with the events of the past several months — the death of George Floyd and many of the other instances of police violence we’ve been seeing in however many years it’s been since the cellphone camera became ubiquitous. As a director, how do you think about the fact that people are capturing these filmed images of such brutality, to the degree that we can’t escape them, both how we might internalize those images and how they might create change?

That’s a really big question.

At its simplest level, the events and experiences that Black Americans have been experiencing since the birth of this country and have been talking about and bearing witness to since the birth of this country have, in very recent times, gained a visual context that has not existed prior to the technology of the cellphone.

The power of those images — specifically I’m thinking of the video of the murder of George Floyd — appears to have broken through a kind of membrane of credibility for any number of reasons that have not been present before. It seems to have had an impact that is both new and old at the same time. It revealed to a seemingly larger group of people than ever before that which had been spoken about for centuries. So in that sense, it’s good and useful and valuable. It inserts itself in the social discourse and the quest for justice in a way that is pivotal and hadn’t existed before.

But beyond that, it’s still somewhat soul-destroying that after all these centuries of the presence of Black Americans on American soil that this institutionalized racism is still happening to the degree that it is happening. I guess we should all be grateful on some level that cellphones have captured this ugly, painful, tragic part of our social fabric, so we can turn to the more important work of trying to bring justice and fairness into every aspect of our lives as a country so that we never have to witness another one of those videos again.

What sorts of conversations did you have around those questions of police violence when making the show itself? And how did looking at those issues via the prism of an alternate reality affect the way you perhaps see our reality?

Honestly, conversations about cellphone videos of acts of police brutality against Black people in this country weren’t really something that we talked about while we were in production on the show. But subsequent to our show being completed and released and seen at large, it feels like an ongoing tragedy in our national life that acts of violence like this from those who are supposed to be protecting and serving every member of our community with equality and fairness and justice continue to happen with unfortunate and tragic regularity. It has only heightened so much of what we were trying to address in our show.

Sometimes in a paradoxical way, it’s very effective to look at real-life events through the lens of fiction. This isn’t a new function of fiction. It’s something that has been true since the inception of storytelling. It felt like our show was located in that lineage of fictional enterprises that by virtue of the degrees of difference between real events and fictional events allows someone to enjoy the narrative that is contained in the show in and of itself, but also be very aware and mindful of the fact that it is commenting — hopefully in an illuminating way — on real-life events.

Jovan Adepo in a police uniform
Jovan Adepo plays the young Will Reeves, an embittered policeman who becomes the superhero Hooded Justice.

One thing I also appreciate about “This Extraordinary Being” is how it depicts a sort of hidden queer history of America alongside all these other topics, by Will falling in love with another man. What were discussions like around the question of how to portray a love affair between two men, one white and one Black, that is sort of simultaneously informed by societal homophobia and then the toxicity of racism?

One of the first decisions we made was that the graphic novel Watchmen was going to be treated as canon. It was going to be our Old Testament, and the remix version of Watchmen that we were going to execute was going to be, to extend the analogy, the New Testament.

Insofar as there are intimations of the Hooded Justice character’s sexuality in the original [which heavily suggests the character was gay], we wanted to not shy away from that and lean into that. What isn’t revealed in the graphic novel is the true identity of Hooded Justice, which left us free to invent our particular incarnation of who that character would be, namely this Black man named Will Reeves.

On the relationship level, it was important for us to depict a relationship that embodies the complexity of the way in which race asserts itself in the relationships of people from either side of that Black/white divide. There’s arguably genuine affection between the two lovers, tinged with maybe some cultural tourism — an affinity for the exotic. Maybe on some level it even speaks to the notion of performative allyship. But when the rubber hits the road, our white character is nowhere to be found. He fails and abandons Will, and that somehow felt also true and honest, in terms of the multi-layered nature of this character but also as a marker about race relations in our country.

Where did the choice to shoot in black and white originate from? What do you think it adds to the episode? It’s a great choice, but it’s maybe not the one everybody would have made.

Very few people, as a general rule, erupt in immediate exaltation when they hear that a filmmaker wants to shoot in black and white. I was very much aware of that. Yet in discussions with Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson, who co-wrote this episode, we felt that insofar as the bulk of the episode is this journey back to these very specific, curated events from the memory of [Will], that largely take place in the late 1930s, it would be evocative in the right way to film those scenes in black and white. That would separate them from the present time and locate them in a memory dreamscape that defines the experience that Regina as a character is having.

The episode deals with the idea that the superhero story is an act of cultural appropriation — the first superhero was Black, and then white people stole that idea and colonized it. What do you see as the line between cultural appropriation, which isn’t good, and something like homage, which all art needs to have somewhere? How do you navigate the gray space between them?

There is an obvious tension between cultural appropriation and depictions of or the creation of cultural artifacts from within a specific community, whether defined by gender or ethnicity. I would say that for myself, where we are now as a culture is in a place of heightened awareness that, for too long, voices from marginalized communities have been given short shrift in the cultural marketplace. We’re at a juncture where it’s really important for the dominant culture to make room for the full array of voices and representations that exist in any particular society or culture. A lot of that has to do with folks recognizing when it’s time to step aside and do more listening than acting, depending on which side of the cultural coin you find yourself on.

It’s definitely a tricky cultural space to negotiate and navigate, but the starting place should be a humble recognition that there are voices we need to hear from, and that those of us in the business of creating cultural artifacts would do well to listen to people who are on the front lines of the experiences that any particular narrative is attempting to depict.

Watchmen is available on all HBO streaming platforms.

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