a long talk

Like It or Not, Damon Lindelof Made His Own Watchmen

And he’s pretty sure Alan Moore put a hex on him for doing it.

Photo: Mark Hill/HBO
Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

It’s January 2017, and Damon Lindelof is profoundly worried. HBO and Warner Bros. have just approached the erstwhile Leftovers and Lost showrunner for the third time about an extremely sensitive topic for geeks: Watchmen. The graphic novel of that name was originally published in serial form by DC Comics in 1986 and 1987 and has subsequently been hailed as one of the greatest superhero stories ever published. It depicts costumed adventurers as narcissistic, violent perverts who leave destruction in their wake, and fans have long admired it as a deconstructionist take on a hoary genre. However, it’s also been a source of great controversy on two fronts. For one, progressive critics have cast aspersions on its portrayal of women, queer people, and people of color.

But more pressing to Lindelof was the second matter, which has to do with creators’ rights. Watchmen was written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, and the initial plan was for the rights to the book to revert to them after a period of initial publication. However, there was a stipulation that the Warner-owned DC would hold onto the rights if the book didn’t go out of print — which it never did, and rather than follow up on Moore’s intended outcome, DC used that quasi-loophole to hold onto the rights. A displeased Moore eventually severed ties with DC over that and other disputes, and has declared his disapproval of all subsequent uses of Watchmen properties, such as a 2009 film adaptation and a 2012 series of prequel comics. (Gibbons has been more cooperative, and you can read more about the counterarguments to Moore’s stance here.)

Lindelof is a longtime Watchmen superfan and Moore admirer, so when HBO and Warner asked him to do something with the book on television, he initially refused. They asked again; again, he turned them down. But on that third time … well, he started wondering whether he might be able to do something interesting with it. It was soon after that I received an odd email asking if I’d be willing to speak with Lindelof about a mysterious matter. We scheduled a phone call, during which he explained that he had read a Vulture essay I’d published just a few days prior. DC had started to incorporate Watchmen’s characters into their mainstream superhero universe, meaning they could meet up with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the gang. I thought this was a bad idea.

Lindelof was receptive to that argument and, after swearing me to secrecy, told me about the HBO/Warner offer and asked if I thought it would be smart to move forward, considering their history with Moore. I told him it was probably unethical, but that if he went through with it, there were ways he could make it interesting. Eight months later, it was announced that Lindelof was making a Watchmen series. Later, he published an open letter (which I offered some prepublication notes on, per his request) saying the show would not be a straight adaptation, but rather a “remix.” Over the next year, we emailed occasionally about how the series was developing. I was far from a consultant on the show — indeed, I knew no details until I saw media screeners a few weeks ago — but I told him he owed me a big interview before it came out. “A Lindelof always pays his debts,” was his response.

Fast-forward to last week, when I sat in Lindelof’s memorabilia-lined office in Santa Monica for 90 minutes and we talked about Watchmen, both the book and the show. It was an intriguing conversation, revealing Lindelof as a man both proud of what he and his collaborators have made, but also deeply unhappy with his decision to make it in the first place. He’s also pretty sure that Moore, an avowed practitioner of magic, put a curse on him. No, seriously.

How are you feeling?
How I’m feeling, in general, is excitement. It’s very hard not to feel excited when I’m driving around and I see Watchmen billboards with Regina [King]. There’s relief that it’s finally going to be out there. But there’s a lot of fear and trepidation about how it’s going to be processed. Not just the usual “Will people like it?” Obviously, I’ve come to some degree of peace that not everybody is going to like it. It’s not going to be universally loved, especially because it’s Watchmen and especially because it’s about what it’s about. It’s more a fear of being misunderstood or wondering whether it should have been this. I’m alternately proud of it and second-guessing myself.

The rights to Watchmen, the book, were supposed to revert to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. But DC Comics didn’t do that and Moore has historically been furious about it, as have readers who advocate for creator rights.* What does it feel like to make a show that a lot of people are going to oppose on principle, independent of the quality of the material? Is that something you think about?
That’s something that I think about a lot. What are the ethical ramifications of this even existing at all when I completely and totally side with the creator? Acknowledge that the creator has been exploited by a corporation? Now that very same corporation is basically compensating me to continue this thing.

I ask, “Is it even hypocrisy?” Then I say, as a fan, “Where would I come down on this thing if someone else was doing it? If I heard someone else was doing an HBO series called Watchmen that was not a strict adaptation of the book?” I felt that I’d be really angry about it and then I’d watch it. [Laughs.] I wonder how many of the angry people who don’t think it should exist will actually have the discipline to not even watch it. Those are the people that I really admire. The ones who are like, “This shouldn’t exist and I’m literally not watching it.” That’s an admirable position.

Does it keep you up at night? Or have you made your peace with it?
It wakes me up at night, but much less so now that it’s done. I’m about to say something very ridiculous, but in all sincerity, I was absolutely convinced that there was a magical curse placed upon me by Alan [Moore]. I’m actually feeling the psychological effects of a curse, and I’m okay with it. It’s fair that he has placed a curse on me. The basis for this, my twisted logic, was that I heard that he had placed a curse on Zack [Snyder]’s [Watchmen] movie. There is some fundamental degree of hubris and narcissism in saying he even took the time to curse me. But I became increasingly convinced that it had, in fact, happened. So I was like, “Well, at least I’m completely and totally miserable the entire time.” I should be!

When Zack was making Watchmen — and I only know this because I watched the DVDs — I was like, “This guy is having the time of his life!” And I did not enjoy any of this. That’s the price that I paid. Psychological professionals would probably suggest that I emotionally created the curse as a way of creating balance for the immorality.

When we first spoke, you were pretty sure that HBO and Warner Bros. were gonna get someone to do a Watchmen show. You were like, “If it’s me, I can make it as good as it can be so it doesn’t suck.”
That’s hypocrisy, too. It’s like, “Well, I didn’t kill the animal. The steak’s already there. So me not eating the steak doesn’t save it.” It’s a bogus argument to say, “Someone else would have done Watchmen, so it might as well have been me because I loved it the most.” I have to accept the bogusness of that argument and say the truth, which is I just wanted to do it so bad. I wanted to return to the source. This thing that I read when I was 13 years old is what made me. I tried to say “No” twice, but it kept coming back. Twenty years from now, am I going to be regretting that I didn’t do Watchmen because I was scared? If I’m a professional storyteller and I love and revere Watchmen and I spent countless hours of my life thinking about this thing? I wanted to do it.

You keep talking about being miserable; how miserable are we talking here? Was there nothing joyful about putting together the show?
I don’t think it’s fair to say that there was nothing joyful about it. Certainly, the first ten to 12 weeks that we spent in the writers’ room, where we started talking about the vision for the season, that was immensely challenging and not fun. It was work. And, obviously, we’re talking about white supremacy. When you spend hours and hours talking about that stuff, it is supposed to be unpleasant.

There were some days that I came home and I was like, “We had a really good day today.” I was never suicidal. I was never fearful of my life. I don’t like using the word depressed because I know people who are really depressed. That feeling of not wanting to get out of bed and despair and hopelessness — I had all those feelings, but they were attached very specifically to the show. What I was saying to my collaborators on a fairly constant basis was, “This was a huge mistake. I never should have done this. Why did I do this? I can’t quit, I have to see it through, but this was a huge mistake.”

Doesn’t that demoralize people?

How did this show get to the finish line, then? How did you manage to power through?
A lot of work that we did in those 12 weeks ended up being the show. Also, the first thing that we did was we wrote all of Jeremy [Irons]’s material. We went to Wales, and we shot everything, all the way through the finale, for him. He’s not in episode six, but every other episode, you get this Black Freighter–esque interlude. We had to plot all that stuff out and shoot it right after. They picked up the pilot, and then, based on the weather, we were like, “We’ve got to go to Wales. This thing has to be finished shooting by the end of October or things are going to get very inclement, literally and figuratively.”

Jeremy Irons in Watchmen. Photo: HBO

So the Veidt stuff was super-duper fun because we did it first. It gave us a road map. It’s like we had run mile one, mile seven, mile 15, mile 18, mile 21, and mile 26 of the marathon, so it was just kind of connecting the dots. The other part was the material that we were getting back from [shooting in] Atlanta. The stuff that we were getting for [episodes] two and three was like, “Jean Smart is really good. Regina is really amazing. This stuff is working.” As miserable as I was, I’d watch dailies and I’d be like, “That’s pretty cool.” 

The short answer, now that I’ve monologued about it, is the show stopped feeling like it was mine and it started feeling like it was ours.

Given the racial and gender politics of the show, I didn’t want this to just be a conversation between two white men. So I reached out to a group of women of various ethnic backgrounds who wrote a series of essays called “Women Watch the Watchmen” to ask them what they’d want to ask you. The first question comes from Chloe Maveal: “Do you feel like this show is something that can help redeem Watchmen to literally anyone who’s not part of a straight white male audience? Do you, as both a fan of the comics and showrunner of the TV series, feel like the comic books here need redeeming in the first place?”
[Long pause.] I’m only thinking because words are very important. The word redemption is not semantics.

Take your time.
I don’t think that the original Watchmen requires redemption on any level. In any way, shape, or form. I accept it in its totality as a staggering work of art. I also acknowledge that my relationship with Watchmen is that of a hetero straight male who read it as a 13-year-old, which may be the perfect sweet spot. I am not in a place where I can be critical of Watchmen. I am in a place where I can acknowledge criticisms of Watchmen. I will say that a number of the women who worked on Watchmen — wrote Watchmen, produced Watchmen, directed Watchmen — had found the treatment of women in the graphic novel to be less than ideal.

Let’s talk about Laurie. In our presentation of Laurie 30 years later, instead of apologizing for or mocking her younger self, we can show she’s evolved. I think that we were given clues at the end of the original Watchmen — when she says that she wants to get some guns — that she’s feeling this kinship with her dad. So I’m like, “Instead of casting somebody to play Eddie Blake in flashbacks, what if Laurie is now Eddie Blake?” Not to write her in a masculine way, but to give her that level of nihilism and cynicism. It’s not an idea about redeeming the original Laurie.

Jean Smart in Watchmen. Photo: HBO

We would have Watchmen book club in the writers’ room. Every two or three days, we would unpack an issue. We would argue and debate on areas of ambiguity. I think it’s just fascinating that these characters are so dimensionalized — most of them. You really care about them, but they don’t fit into a very, very simple box. Laurie, I would say, lacked the same level of dimensionality that some of the other male characters in Watchmen do. I would actually argue that Silk Spectre, her mom, is fairly dimensionalized. That’s a very provocative idea in 2019, let alone in 1986, that a woman is in love with her rapist. I think, through a certain prism, that idea would require some redemption.

Because I’m not Alan Moore, I get to make a Watchmen that’s like, “Here’s how I feel about female characters. Here’s how I feel about characters of color. Here’s how I feel about Rorschach.” I get to have those debates in the writers’ room. Those other writers get to say, “Well, here’s how I feel about it.” Of course, in the writers’ room, there was a wide range of whether or not Rorschach was a white supremacist. I said, “That’s not relevant. He’s dead. What’s interesting is that you can make a compelling argument that he was and I can make a compelling argument that he wasn’t.”

That gets to a question from Sara Century: “Why is it important to reimagine Rorschach?”
I don’t think that we are reimagining Rorschach. I think that we are interpreting Rorschach. The meta-ness of Watchmen was critical, I think, to its success. This idea of a comic book that is deconstructing comic books, to the degree where a comic book, The Black Freighter, is inside the comic book. You’re actually deconstructing the form. For Veidt to be able to say, “I’m not some Republic Serial villain” with a straight face when he is monologuing about how he just dropped a fake alien squid on New York City and killed 3 million people? That is meta at its most brilliant meta-ness. To that degree, the show is about appropriation. We’re appropriating the original Watchmen. We’re reinterpreting it. We’re saying, “Instead of just being a cover band, we’re going to try to make a new album that is inspired by the original Watchmen and bears its name.”

One of the things that really struck me on my reread of Watchmen, as we were writing the show, was how ineffective Rorschach is. He actually doesn’t accomplish anything. He finds the Comedian costume in Blake’s apartment and then he goes to warn Dr. Manhattan that someone is coming after masks. First off, Dr. Manhattan would know if somebody was coming after him, so Rorschach’s theory is entirely wrong. Then his investigative technique is to just walk into bars and break people’s fingers. He gets suckered by Moloch and gets thrown into jail. Dan shows up and gets him away, then he shows up in Karnak too late to stop Veidt’s plan. Then he insists on exposing it all to the one person who he knows is going to kill him. His journal doesn’t out Veidt because everything that he learns in Karnak was not in his journal. So he’s not the brightest bulb. He’s got some very non-progressive views about the world. He’s sad and he’s tragic. At the same time, I love Rorschach. I loved him as a 13-year-old, and I still love him. When you see the tears streaming down his face when his mask is pulled off, one of the cops is saying, “This little runt is wearing lifts.” It just breaks my heart every time. I have such empathy and compassion for this guy who’s losing. The world is sickening, and there’s nothing that he can do to stop it. He’s broken, so he’s going to appeal to broken people.

I worry that the first six episodes, in some ways, can almost be read as a white-supremacist militiaman’s vision of America. Like, “Cops care too much about black people, and they’re cracking down on proud whites like me who just want to see a pure country.” But in reality, the much bigger problem is cops not caring enough about black people. Was that something you thought about? Was that something that worried you?
Yes. I’m not even going to use the past tense. What we’re really worried about, in my opinion, it’s not the television show. What we’re really worried about is a reflection of the real world. The paradox is: How do we feel about the police? When you say “the police,” you can mean it quite literally, which is just people wearing police uniforms. But how do you feel about authority? How do you feel about the law? Is the law just? The answer to the question, “How do you feel about the police?” Well, are you white? Are you a man? Are you a woman? Are you a person of color? What part of the country are you living in? Those are all questions that you should be asking.

We understand that being a police officer is a dangerous job. At the same time, we understand that there are police officers who are not following the law, who cannot be trusted, who do not behave in ways that are demonstrative of equality. This is demonstrated for us over and over again, to the degree where I think anyone who says that there is no issue in the United States in terms of policing and race is a crazy person. That isn’t to say that all cops are racist is any more ridiculous than saying all cops are not racist.

Tim Blake Nelson and Regina King in Watchmen. Photo: HBO

When we went to TCA, the very first question was asked by Eric Deggans from NPR, a writer who I think is phenomenal. He also happens to be a man of color. He said, “I think the only interpretation that you can possibly take from this pilot is that we’re supposed to believe that the cops protect black people in this world? I don’t buy that for a second.” I was like, “Well, I think we should revisit this question after you’ve seen all nine episodes.” I’m not going to hide behind the fact that this is an alternate world. I’m not telling anybody how to feel about the police. It’s a TV show. At the end of these nine episodes, are you going to feel that the police are racist? No. You’re going to feel like some are, and you’re going to feel like some aren’t. What are the effects of covering your face?

One of the great superhero questions.
Why would you wear a mask? Does the mask protect you or does it unleash your most dangerous and violent tendencies? Those are the ideas that I’m more interested in exploring. People keep saying Watchmen is about superheroes. Other than Dr. Manhattan, they’re not. None of them have powers. They’re vigilantes, at best. So it’s like, “What if the police start dressing up?” It’s a provocative and interesting question. When you get to the end of the season, it’s not resolved. In 100 years in the United States of America — if we make it that far — we’re still going to be worried about the police and whether or not they treat everybody the same. This is not a solvable problem. But at least I could create a piece of television that had us talking about it.

Not to be a provocateur for provocation’s sake, but the thing about Watchmen is you can create a space to have these conversations. The territory that worries me the most is what I’ll call the Joker territory. Was this irresponsible to do? Is it harmful? Not just in the most extreme case, where God forbid, somebody goes and sees Joker and that incites them to engage in a violent act. But if somebody wanted to be Rorschach for Halloween, would they go, “Maybe I can’t do this anymore because Damon Lindelof ruined Rorschach. Now, if I put on this mask, people are going to think that I’m a white supremacist.” I don’t want to ruin Rorschach. But at the same time, when you were dressing up as Rorschach before I made this show, which part of him were you idolizing?

In the world of the show, a lot of the racial politics emanate from the fact that Robert Redford, a well-intentioned liberal, has been president of the United States for decades. You don’t say he’s created a dystopian nightmare, but you certainly don’t say we all lived happily ever after.
What you’re talking about is exactly the intention. Clearly, it was off the table to say that the president of the United States was going to modeled on Trump in any way. Then it’s not Watchmen. Also, we were left a clue at the end of the original, which is that Robert Redford was running for president. We contend that he never, ever would have been able to beat Nixon at the height of Nixon’s popularity, especially post-squid. So Nixon wins in ’88, he beats Redford, and then he dies in office in ’90. Redford gets to run again, against Gerald Ford, and he wins. We had all these conversations about, “Who was on the Supreme Court in ’92 when Redford became president? Who would have been on Nixon’s Supreme Court? How many years would it have taken for Redford to get a Supreme Court that would go liberal?” In the meantime, the world is still spinning as a result of 3 million people dying in New York.

Liberals get two things wildly wrong, in my opinion as an unabashed liberal. One is we spend way too much time wagging our fingers. The second is we don’t know when to stop regulating. Regulation is important, it’s necessary, but that’s what the people on the right legitimately fear. So, when does it stop? What is it to be 30 years into a liberal regime? That felt like low-hanging fruit that is too delicious not to not grab at. It’s going to be imperfect. You need a two-party system in order to achieve some level of balance. It doesn’t mean that I’m not wildly progressive. But if you said to me, “How do you feel about a Senate that is divided 70-30?” I’d say that’s no bueno. That’s not going to be representative of America.

How did you sell it to Redford?
I didn’t.

I was really afraid that he’d say, “Please don’t do that.”

Redford had no say on any of this?
There was a time that we wanted every episode to have a post-credits sequence, just like the comic book. One of them was Redford giving an excerpt from his State of the Union. That would have required us going to Redford and saying, “We would like you to actually play the president of the United States.” Then, literally four days after Jeff [Jensen] drafted an outline for it, Redford announced that he was retiring from acting. I’m certainly not going to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, I’m the guy who completely totally ignored what Alan Moore wanted me to do. Now, I’d like to also disrespect your wishes because it’s all about me. I couldn’t help but notice that you retired from acting, but would you like to play yourself as president of the United States?” He’s going to say, “What the fuck are you talking about?” So we just did it.

You haven’t gotten any complaints?
I hope that he’s tickled by it. One of the things that I always loved about Veep, which is one of my favorite shows ever, is that the president is just off-camera. When you see Nixon in Zack’s movie, when it was an actor playing Nixon, it took me out of it in a weird way.

So yeah, the classy thing to have done would have been what I did with Alan, which is writing him a letter saying, “I’d like your blessing to do this.” Then getting a letter back that says, “Leave me alone.”

You got a letter back from Alan?
I’m paraphrasing. I didn’t get a letter back from Alan. [Pauses.] I received a communication back from Alan, in which he made it clear — and I want to respect this — that he didn’t want his name to be used in any way. It’s not really possible for me not to mention his name, like he’s Voldemort. But if you want to support Alan Moore’s wishes, do not watch the show. That’s what he would want.

If Dave Gibbons, another co-creator of the book, had said no, would you have done the show?
[Pauses.] Probably not. When we talked to Dave, Jeff and I, we were able to say to him, “We’re not doing your 12 issues, we’re doing 30 years later. We’re going to have Veidt and Laurie. It wouldn’t be Watchmen if Dr. Manhattan didn’t make some kind of appearance. But it’s just going to be those three. They are in support of a new story. This isn’t their continuing adventures.” Dave is like, “That sounds really cool.” If he had said, “That doesn’t feel like Watchmen to me” or “I think you’re getting a bit out over your skis,” that would have given me serious pause.

Do you think people should read the comic before they watch the show?
The way that I feel about it is that everybody should read Watchmen. Not everybody’s going to like it, but it’s [like] Catcher in the Rye, Huck Finn, Things Fall Apart, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies — these are the things that we should all be forced to read and discuss at some point in our education. So, you should read it whenever it strikes your fancy.

Look, I just love this book and I think it’s amazing. I would agree that it is imperfect, but it has to be. It has to be imperfect. It’s just a fascinating piece of art. So, should you? No. Do you have to? Definitely not.

If you were Adrian Veidt at the end of Watchmen, would you push the button? Would you drop the squid?
A hundred percent.

Really? It’s that easy for you?
Absolutely. Adrian Veidt pushing that button is completely and totally contingent on his belief that the equations and mathematics that he had run about the inevitability of nuclear holocaust said this was his only way of stopping it. I think that he could have accomplished the same goal with less of a death toll. Maybe not New York; you’d probably accomplish the same thing somewhere else. But other than that, I find no fault with the plan. I think it’s quite brilliant.

Spoken like a true storyteller who’s playing with lives every day. That’s how it works, right?
Yeah, why stop at 3 million?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

*Update: This question was rephrased for clarity.

The show is explicitly about the struggle against racism and right-wing extremism in America (albeit in an alternate reality). Alan Moore has long been open about being a practitioner of magic, particularly magic involving snakes. Jeremy Irons plays Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, a mortal but hyper-competent character from the comic, who is portrayed in a surprisingly comic mode in the show. Laurie Juspeczyk was a costumed adventurer in the comic. Her father, Eddie Blake, a.k.a. the Comedian, attempted to rape her mother, Sally Jupiter, a.k.a. Silk Spectre, at one point. In the show, she’s played by Jean Smart. Blake is a violent, jingoistic, sociopathic bastard whom Laurie despises in the comic, and she only learns about her parentage near the book’s end. Silk Spectre, a.k.a. Sally Juspeczyk, was a costumed adventurer in the 1930s and ’40s. She is depicted in the comic as a strong-willed, somewhat vain woman who became intimate with Blake, despite his attempted sexual assault. Rorschach, a.k.a. Walter Joseph Kovacs, is a costumed vigilante with a lethal streak and an unshakeable sense of right and wrong. Speaking of right: He’s profoundly socially conservative and an avid reader of a trashy right-wing magazine. In his diary, he writes about his distaste for queer people and other marginalized groups. The Black Freighter is a comic that exists within the narrative of Watchmen. It’s about pirates, a topic that became very popular in that world because superheroes never caught on, what with the fact that they were real and therefore somewhat dull. At the comic’s climax, Veidt unleashes a bizarre assault on New York City wherein he fakes an interdimensional invasion from a giant squid–like creature with psychic powers and deliberately kills 3 million people in the process. The goal is to unite the world at a time when the U.S. and the Soviet Union are about to go to war. Jon Osterman, a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan, is a blue-skinned being from the comic with honest-to-God superpowers, such as the ability to manipulate and destroy matter at will. He is romantically involved with Laurie, but he decides at the end of the book to leave Earth behind. Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. Nite Owl, is Laurie’s other beau. He’s a nerdy and slightly paunchy costumed adventurer with a lot of gadgets. In the comic, Nixon wins the Vietnam War with Dr. Manhattan’s help and makes that country the 51st U.S. state. Riding a wave of popularity, he ends the constitutional prohibition on third terms and serves all the way up through the events of the comic in 1985.
Like It or Not, Damon Lindelof Made His Own Watchmen