Looking back on Watchmen, the HBO series shepherded by Damon Lindelof that captured audiences and critics alike last year, still brings a host of pleasures. The acting by the likes of Tim Blake Nelson, Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Yayha Abdul-Mateen II, and of course the ever-excellent Regina King as the lead, Angela Abar, shows a striking commitment to the fantastical while also demonstrating the lived-in emotional realities of these disparate characters. The visually dynamic cinematography and direction challenge expectations, and the writing nimbly interweaves an outlandish comics narrative with emotionally resonant character beats and historically profound themes.
The entire show is a testament to the dedication of the cast and crew in telling this story, which spun out from writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’s landmark 1986 graphic novel. The entire series remains a prickly delight, challenging and dazzling in equal measure. But its pinnacle may just be episode six, “This Extraordinary Being,” which tells the story of the young Will Reeves (Jovan Adepo) as his granddaughter, Angela, is overcome with his memories after taking a lethal dose of the drug Nostalgia. What comes out of this sensational premise is a remarkably nuanced treatise on the failures of working inside an inherently racist systemic force (in this case the police), Blackness, memory, and the traumas we inherit.
One of the most memorable aspects of “This Extraordinary Being” is its bravura direction from Stephen Williams, who previously directed many episodes of Lost and one of my favorite episodes of The Americans, season three’s “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” Following his Emmy nomination for directing the episode — one of three nods Watchmen received in the category this year — I spoke with Williams about the technical marvel that is “This Extraordinary Being,” balancing the tonalities of the episode and its striking racial commentary.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
I’m curious how you look back on the episode, given the response to it, and how it stands as basically an independent statement on policing within the context of the show.
To be completely candid, when I look back on the episode, I think about first and foremost the experience that we all had making it. The cast, the crew, our dedication to being as truthful and as honest as we could, to be as respectful as we could, to the thematic concerns that the piece was addressing, and to the lives of the people who had lived through many of the kinds of events that we were depicting throughout the course of the piece — I just remember us all being really, really focused on being truthful, honest, and respectful.
In terms of the piece’s commentary on policing in America, I feel it’s this weird kind of experience: It’s both depicting, in many ways, the tenuous relationship between Black Americans and policing that has been present since Black Americans first appeared on the shores of this country in chains and shackles, up to and including the complicated interrelationship between Black Americans and police seen today, and institutionalized racism and the way in which it finds itself still in every facet of our society, including the police force. And so the episode both looks back and comments on the present, like the murder of George Floyd.
There’s a lot of fascinating visual choices made in this episode. For example, I’m a big fan of noir and was really struck by the use of high-contrast black-and-white photography. Were there any specific movies that acted as a visual reference?
When we decided that we were going to execute this episode, or a significant portion of this episode, in black and white — which was a choice that we made after much discussion and consideration, because ultimately we felt that was best visual grammar to evoke the time period, which is basically the late 1930s and therefore set it apart from the present-day events that were occurring in the rest of the episode and the rest of the series — once that decision had been made, then the question became, what specific quality of black and white are we going to deploy? And it felt that the best kind of visual grammar for that was going to be inspired by German expressionist movies from the early part of the last century, all the way through to film noir. As you said, low-key lighting, high contrast, that would be a great foundation to help to evoke a sense of the dreamscape experience that our characters were having during the course of the episode.
I can say I was definitely influenced by movies which are not black and white, curiously enough, like Birdman and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Neither of which are either noir-ish, or German expressionist, or black and white, for that matter. But there’s a certain kind of commitment to presenting a character’s subjective points of fears that exist in both those movies that I felt was essential for the appropriate telling of our story in this episode.
There aren’t a lot of moments that are direct point-of-view shots, which make those from Will’s perspective, when he’s nearly lynched by his fellow officers, very striking and effective. Can you talk about the inspiration behind using a point-of-view shot there?
That was a very, very tricky sequence to film for lots of obvious reasons. There was a very fine line to walk between depicting the ugly horror and terror of that experience, which has befallen far too many Black Americans during the course of the last couple of centuries, and arguably even before, and being exploitative and being voyeuristic about it.
So it felt like throughout this whole episode, I was really desirous of trying to place the viewer as closely as possible in the footsteps of the characters that were making their way through the narrative journey of the piece, and to try and put ourselves as viewers in the subjective mind space of what the characters were experiencing. As opposed to, from an objective point of view, depicting an event. I wanted the experience to be much more subjective, and that determined the way in which we set about executing that sequence.
What was your approach to portraying violence against Black folks without being exploitative? I feel like we see a lot of violence in this episode, but it never feels gratuitous in the ways violence against Black folks in film and television often does feel.
[We were all] very, very attuned to not wanting to contribute to the vast storehouse of images that exist in our culture of violence executed and perpetrated against Black bodies. At the same time, that violence is an inescapable and unavoidable part of the journey of Black Americans through the chapters of history. So that exists in the piece, but that exists in hopefully a very specific context. Which is to say as a marker of the traumatic experience that the Will Reeves character has experienced going all the way back to the opening scene of the series, when he’s a young boy growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 and specifically during the time of that brutal and horrific racist-inspired massacre there.
So the images of violence against Black bodies that intrude their way into the Will Reeves character’s memory, and that are depicted in the episode, are, again, hopefully not voyeuristic in any way but are intended to function as very powerful markers of the kind of cross-generational trauma that this character experiences and that his descendants, namely Angela Abar, experience. By hopefully anchoring the depiction of those events in the very real, subjective, emotional reality of the Will Reeves character, they acquire a different kind of context than if they were depicted just objectively.
That actually brings up another question I was curious about on a craft level: The apparitions from the Tulsa Massacre that appear throughout the episode in color, I’m curious how those were planned, and what was it like integrating them into the shooting process?
So this episode was a very technically challenging episode to execute. So I plan everything very, very carefully. I actually, along with our cinematographer [Gregory Middleton] and our production designer [Kristian Milsted], a kind of skeleton crew and our stand-ins shot the episode entirely on an iPhone and edited it, and looked at it, and studied it, and made adjustments, and then shot it again on an iPhone, and repeated that process until I finally got to a place where I felt like I had been able to calibrate the visual approach in a way that I hoped was going to be an effective representation of how I felt that particular story wanted to be told.
So from the beginning, we knew that those memory pops, if you will — like the piano player from the opening sequence in the theater in the pilot episode and the various other interjections of memory — were going to be a part of the tapestry of our story.
But there was a slight complication in how the Black stories are meant to be reflections of curated memories that the Will Reeves character has embedded in the drug nostalgia, which Angela Abar ends up taking and experiencing. Trauma has a life of its own. So those memory pops are traumatic intrusions into the curated memory that the older Will Reeves character, played by Louis Gossett Jr., has created for Angela. And so those traumatic intrusions needed to be visually separated from the curated memory. And so the best way to do that, I felt, was to have those portions of the memory be in color. The camera would pan off in some sequences and then crew members would wheel the piano into a portion of the sets and then vanish, hopefully seamlessly and soundlessly, by the time the camera panned around and then found the piano player sitting there, seemingly all in one shot in a place where previously she had not been seen before.
Interesting. Can you talk about the choice to shoot a lot of scenes with a dolly, like tracking a character? I’m sure that made things more tricky in the shoot.
Seemingly every choice I made made things harder on me. [Laughs.] That was just trying to find a visual vocabulary to depict the curated memory, and memories feel to me like they function in a different way than the more prosaic real-time experiences that we have in the rest of our life. There’s a kind of fluidity and a dreamlike quality — they’re more akin to the language of poetry than they are to the language of prose. And so I tried to figure out how to photograph those sequences in a way that would evoke that feeling. It felt to me like long, unbroken takes with very, very minimal editing would be the best way to set them apart and to give them a kind of feeling and a vibe all their own.
Once I made that choice, I committed to it. And it of course makes everything on a production level way more challenging, because they’re all one take. So everything has to be right, it has to be rehearsed within an inch of its life. And our amazing cinematographer has nowhere to put his lights because the camera is roaming in this kind of freeform, fluid way where it’s basically seeing every inch of every set we’re in. And a lot of the sequences are at night. So it was very, very challenging, but it felt, intuitively, like the appropriate choice to make, and so we made it, and committed to it, and tried our best to execute it.
How was that for the actors?
It was challenging for the actors, as well, because in some cases you’d start a scene with Jovan playing young Will Reeves and, in the context of the same scene without cutting, the camera would leave him for a fraction of a moment, in which time Regina King would then enter that spot that had, only moments before, been vacated by Jovan, and then the camera would find her and the scene would continue. It is a testimony to the brilliance and the professionalism of Regina and Jovan and Danielle Deadwyler [who plays June] and the whole cast that they made that very, very tricky approach as painless and as seamless as possible.
One of the most striking things to me about Watchmen’s direction is its very assured handling of tone. How did you find the right balance between the different tonalities of the exaggerated Minutemen show that the episode opens on, Will’s past memories in Tulsa, and then his experience as a cop as an adult?
Probably the best and most truthful answer to that question is that Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson are both genius writers. I’ve worked with Damon for several years, and he is consistently one of the great writers that we have working in our media. I don’t have enough superlatives to describe his writing. I only met Cord on the show, and he’s also just a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant writer. So that tonal balance existed on the page, truthfully. One of the most important things for a director to recognize are those moments when he or she should stay out of the way of things that are already working. And I, as best I could, tried to stay out of the way of that and just let that tonal balance exist in the way that they have conceived and written it.
How did you direct the performances to help support that tonal balance and rhythm? Because they are very striking.
Regina King is a national treasure. Louis Gossett Jr. is a national treasure. Jovan Adepo will soon be a national treasure. He just hasn’t been on the scene long enough, but he has all the makings of a national treasure. Danielle Deadwyler is an insanely, insanely brilliant actor. And I could go through Jean Smart. I could go through that entire cast list for the episode. Look, it felt like we were all united by common purpose. And so they, all the actors, showed up prepared, researched, ready to immerse themselves, ready to live inside the parts and the roles that they were depicting in the piece. I had to do very, very little except, again, try to create as safe an environment as I possibly could for them to do what they do best. So it really was just about us talking about the text, being clear about the intention of each scene and the context in which each scene existed, in terms of the overall travel of the narrative arc. Other than that, they just delivered. I could not be more humbled and grateful to have the experience of working with that cast, and I can take no credit for their performances. They’re amazing in and of themselves.
Given that the episode is about a drug called Nostalgia, I’m curious how you define the experience of nostalgia. Do you consider it the pain from an old wound? And if so, I’m curious if you think the oldest and deepest of those wounds for America is racism itself?
I would say that your definition of nostalgia is perfect. So just as a general definition of the word, I’m going to piggyback on your definition and say that according to my own sense of what that word means and that absolutely in a specific sense, yes. This evolving social experiment known as America, race is a huge [wound], but indigenous people, I would imagine, would have something to say about the wound. I would imagine that women who have not been, up to and including this present moment, afforded full equality in our society and culture would have something to say about a wound. And beyond that, there are subsets, so Black women would have something very specific to say about that wound. But as it pertains to Watchmen, for sure, race is, I guess, the central wound. But it’s not by accident that our lead protagonist in the piece is Regina King’s character, Angela Abar, a Black woman. So that is something that we are trying to say about a number of those things.