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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Director Stephen Williams

Watchmen director Stephen Williams on uncovering the series’ real American hero story

Director Stephen Williams
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola, Photo: Jocelyn Snowdown; Photo, Mark Hill (HBO)

Given the track record for comic book adaptations, Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series, an adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel, stood an equal chance of telling a ripping action-adventure story as it did ending up like so much space squid on a windshield. But with the help of producers like Stephen Williams and writers like Cord Jefferson, Lindelof was able to craft one of the boldest and most resonant dramas in recent years. The series balances costumed fighters and sci-fi concepts with a rumination on the legacies of trauma and racism (both of which are, regrettably, thriving) in the U.S.—all with visual panache and a driving musical score.

The culmination of the Watchmen team’s efforts is found in the sixth episode of the series, “This Extraordinary Being,” a rich and evocative installment that’s part origin story, part subversion—and may just snag multiple Emmy Awards next month. Williams helmed the episode, which he says left the crew in tears between takes for its nuanced, but nonetheless unflinching, depictions of violence. For his work on “This Extraordinary Being,” Williams is nominated for Outstanding Directing For A Limited Series, Movie Or Dramatic Special. The A.V. Club spoke with the veteran director and producer about the episode’s drug-fueled trip to the past, whether we can reclaim tools of subjugation and violence, and the key role that inclusive staffing played in telling this story.


The A.V. Club: Watchmen has several great episodes that could have been submitted for Emmy consideration, but there’s a reason “This Extraordinary Being” stands out. How soon did you learn about the Hooded Justice reveal we see in this episode?

Stephen Williams: I found out fairly early on through discussions with Damon [Lindelof] that it was going to be essentially an origin story, or our version of an origin story, of the character Hooded Justice, who initially appeared in the original Watchmen comic in the 1980s.

AVC: There are so many layers thematically to the show, but you also managed to capture that in a kind of grayscale in this episode. The flashbacks—which make up the bulk of the episode—are in black-and-white, but the present and the flashbacks within the drug trip are rendered in color.

SW: As you say, the bulk of the episode takes place in the past, specifically in the late 1930s. Those scenes that take place in that time period are, in fact, the curated memories—specially selected and curated memories that the character Will Reeves, played by Louis Gossett Jr., has embedded in pills. Specifically, a drug called Nostalgia. He has every intention of Angela Abar, played by Regina King, taking them at some point. Only, she preempts his plan and imbibes an abundance of these pills all at once. That triggers her subjective reliving of these pivotal moments in Will Reeves’ life. We felt like the best way to separate those memories—the essential dreamscape of those memories and all the scenes and sequences that they involve—was to separate those while concurrently evoking the time period of the 1930s. It ultimately felt like the best way to do that and the most evocative way of doing that was by shooting those in black-and-white.

But we were also interested thematically in addressing concerns of trauma and how trauma is generational, and specifically in this case, the trauma that we are looking at and shining a light on is the trauma of the experience that many Black Americans have of race and white supremacy in this country and throughout this country’s history. Even though Will Reeves has taken great care to curate specific memories that he wants Angela to be privy to upon taking the Nostalgia drug, there are also traumatic events in his life, like the events of Tulsa in 1921, which occurred when Will Reeves was at the Race Massacre that took place in that part of our country when he was just a boy. It’s obviously a hugely informative experience in his life.

AVC: There’s also the sense that, yes, this is an origin story, but on some level for Angela, it’s also like she’s tripping. It’s a bit of a hallucination for her, and there’s just so much going on, and the different palettes really capture how many levels of story the show is operating on.

SW: Those memories intrude, they force their way into the memories that he has specifically chosen and curated. The trauma is so present and persistent, and intrusive and influential in a person’s life, that those traumatic moments erupt, if you will, into the more controlled memory environment that he has created. To demarcate those intrusions of traumatic memory and recollection, I decided to slightly color those, so that they weren’t the same color content, color quality, and color value as the present time scenes, and they obviously weren’t black-and-white, like the recollected evoked scenes of the 1930s, but were something different. They had their own kind of visual identity, and together, that was how the color palette of the episode is meant to work.

AVC: I also want to ask you about when Hooded Justice confronts the racist shop owner, Fred, after having found a branch of Cyclops in his store. There’s a moment where he dives through the glass storefront. He dives through that window, and he’s frozen in time. There are different ways that the show nods to its comic origins. That for me always looked a bit like a comic panel, the way that it’s frozen. I was wondering if you could take us through what it was like to put that together.

SW: Well, the version of that sequence that exists in episode six in “This Extraordinary Being” is the recollected version, the subjective memory that Will Reeves has of how that event went down. But it was found in an earlier incarnation, as part of the American Hero Story, which is our show within a show. It appears in an earlier episode and is photographed in a more objective, albeit graphic novel-influenced, visual vibe, but from a more objective point of view. The version that appears in this episode, we wanted to separate that from the earlier version of the same scenario by placing the audience in the subjective shoes of Will Reeves and then having that experience be depicted in our episode. That’s what we were striving for there.

AVC: That lends itself well to one of the show’s themes, which is of reclamation. I spoke to Louis Gossett Jr. last year—god, saying “last year” really feels like saying five years ago at this point.

SW: It sure does.

AVC: I spoke to him about how a lot of cinematic heroes were inspired by Bass Reeves, but so few people are aware of not just the whitewashing of history involving Black Americans, but also just the whitewashing of those heroes. I think the way that the show plays with reframing that same moment really speaks to that larger theme of reclamation.

SW: Absolutely. I think you’re totally right and your observation is smart and very on point. The series kicks off with a depiction of the Tulsa 1921 Massacre of what was then colloquially known as Black Wall Street. Just a savage horrific tragic event in our recent history, which it turns out is not openly discussed or included as part of the American story along with so many other comparable events.

Bass Reeves, the character that we also portray, again, in a film within a film in our series, is in many ways considered to be the true avatar, if you will, or forebear of Lone Ranger, who of course, was depicted as a white man, not as a Black U.S. marshal. The continuum of that effort at reclamation, at shining light on a facet of our American history, specifically as it revolves around the axis of race and the depiction of Black Americans, that the continuum of that thread is followed through up to and including the presentation of our version of the origin story, Hooded Justice. We had a great opportunity there because the original graphic novel that Alan Moore wrote and that emerged in the 1980s did not identify or clearly indicate the racial identity of the Hooded Justice character, who is essentially a fairly peripheral character in the graphic novel. We thought that that would give us a great opportunity to impose or suggest our own interpretation of who that character could have been and what the specifics of the origins of that character could have been.

It felt that, given that we were interpreting and remixing the original material as part of this process of reclamation that you so accurately have articulated, what better choice to make than to make the essence or the roots of this character’s origin story be a part of the larger racial tapestry of the country and to make him a Black man?

Regina King
Regina King
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO

AVC: “This Extraordinary Being” also includes a lynching scene. That kind of violent act hasn’t always been handled well on TV, but it’s obviously important to the story, because again, we’re talking about reclamation. And Hooded Justice, he uses the same symbols or he uses the instruments of violence once used toward himself as symbols of his fight against those things. What was it like to film that scene? Did you have any reservations about filming something like that when there are just so many examples of this, on the news and in real life?

SW: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, to begin at the beginning, there is unfortunately an over-abundance of imagery that involves the perpetration of violence against the Black body in the cultural kind of storehouse of American imagery. I wanted to be very, very careful and considerate and mindful and respectful about how we portrayed this event in our episode and in our story. I wanted to make sure there was nothing gratuitous about it, that there was nothing exploitative about it, as best as we possibly could.

I didn’t want to avoid it because it’s a very real part of the long legacy of horror and violence and terror meted out against Black Americans since 1619 and on. Insofar as that was a truth about the experience of Black Americans, I wanted to make sure that we depicted it. It felt like the best way to do that was, again, from the subjective experiential point of view of the Will Reeves character.

Obviously, at the tail end of that sequence, we swap out Jovan Adepo playing Will Reeves for Regina King’s character, because she is in fact the person who is reliving that experience that the Will Reeves character had, and she’s reliving it courtesy of her having taken Nostalgia. But it just felt like we wanted to be... I know I took great pains that day and talking to the crew and the cast and preparing everybody for this harrowing sequence that we were going to depict. We were all, cast and crew alike, united in this common purpose of trying to bear witness to this kind of horror that so many of our forebears experienced in this country, but to do it respectfully and honestly and truthfully and just carefully and mindfully as we possibly could.

AVC: I know that Cord Jefferson pitched this idea of this being Hooded Justice’s origin story. I don’t by any means think that the instinct was ever to sensationalize that kind of violence, but as we’ve seen in other shows, not all treatments or depictions are the same. I do feel it is done respectfully on the show. I just wondered as the director, what it was like to have to dig into something like that.

SW: Yeah, it was, thank you. I appreciate that. It’s an entirely reasonable and valid question, so please don’t feel as if you have in any way overstepped. It’s a totally legit question, and I’m glad you asked it. Yeah, we shot that in one night, and it stands out. I will tell you that at the end of that sequence, and even during it, we often fell into each other’s arms in tears, overwhelmed, and overcome by just the realization that so many people actually had this experience that we were trying to shine light on in a fictive context. But that was a very, very real horrific experience that so many innocent undeserving people had to go through as part of our ongoing journey towards greater equality and greater fairness and greater recognition within the larger culture. The weight of that was harrowing and inescapable.

We were, cast and crew alike, at various points during that night just overcome. And we would stop, and we would cry, and we would comfort each other, and we would hold each other up. And we would remind each other that the journey that we were on, we were trying to be as truthful and as honorable as we could in this depiction. We forged ahead with that kind of posture.

Jake McDorman and Jovan Adepo
Jake McDorman and Jovan Adepo
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO

AVC: I’ll be honest, before I was able to research who wrote what episodes, I was like, “Oh gosh, how is this going to turn out?” But you’ve mentioned a couple of times the importance of subjective framing—making sure that when that happens to Will, that we’re viewing it through his eyes and not through the people perpetrating the violence, which would diminish his experience. Because you can’t tell a story about racism, and certainly not Black Wall Street, without Black people behind the scenes, as well as being on screen. Do you see Watchmen as progressing, moving that conversation forward in terms of who is telling these stories? Not just who is being seen in them, but who is actually getting them out there?

SW: I would say that I see Watchmen as part of the ongoing drive towards a fairer, more equitable landscape in terms of the full representation of the American tapestry, both in front of and behind the camera. I can only say that, as everyone knows, this remixed version, this iteration of Watchmen was initially inspired by Damon Lindelof and his relationship to not only the original source material, but also his very, very significant encounter with the Ta-Nehisi Coates essay that appeared in The Atlantic magazine a few years ago called “The Case For Reparations.” The way in which that article introduced Damon to the existence of the Tulsa 1921 Massacre and how he set about trying to blend the original Watchmen graphic novel and the narrative that it presented into a more current and present relevance. He was wise enough and smart enough and humble enough to understand that, on some level, this was not his story to tell, although he was in large part the conduit through which the story came to be.

But he very wisely and carefully made sure that the writers room was representative, both in terms of race and gender. The protagonist of our story is not just Black, but also a Black woman. It’s important that those perspectives were embedded in the DNA of the writers room. I feel that that was the case. Certainly, in terms of the episode that we’re currently discussing, “This Extraordinary Being,” I feel like Damon and Cord Jefferson—who is not only a brilliant writer, also a Black man—I think that his involvement and his creative point of view was so essential to the execution of this episode, both on page and on the screen. The notion of representation is something that we will continue to have to strive for and battle for and struggle for in an unrelenting way. But it was something we were very conscious of in the construction of Watchmen and did our best to embed that awareness behind the camera as well as in front of.

AVC: I don’t think there’s any question that you guys nailed it.

SW: Well, I’m so happy to hear you say that. Look, there was never a moment when we were not aware—painfully and acutely aware—of the precarious nature of what we were attempting to do, but I can only tell you that, just from a working experience, it was one of those singular experiences that one is very rarely fortunate enough to have in this or any other business, where it wasn’t a job. It was a calling. It felt like we were compelled to live inside the truth of this story, and that’s what guided us. There was never any guarantee that the story was going to be received well once it aired. As you yourself have indicated, you had your own reservations, and you would have been crazy not to. We just put our heads down and tried to be, at the risk of being repetitious, as respectful and as honest and as truthful as we possibly could about these characters and about these themes. We just tried collectively to bear witness to this very, very central facet of the American story.

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