Damon Lindelof makes a habit of taking big swings. That’s what happens when you pivot from wrapping one of television’s most narratively ambitious shows (Lost) to playing in both the Star Trek and Alien sandbox and then masterfully meditating on grief, loss, and love with The Leftovers. With Watchmen (which premieres Sunday at 9ET on HBO), he continues that trend, building a bridge from the mid ’80s era of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ mightily revered comic book to 2019 and a host of spiritual plagues and slow rolling traumas that resonate despite the fact that the new series exists in the same alt-history space as the original. And because it’s him, the journey across that bridge is indirect, fraught with interesting distractions, and ponderous.
Uproxx spoke with Lindelof in New York recently about this latest swing, revealing his reverence for the source material, his desire to speak to some of today’s issues, and why he wanted to expand on the idea of a Robert Redford presidency.
With regard to taking this on, is it that it scares you or that it interests you?
Both. I feel like a lot of thinking went into making the choice, and then, simultaneously, it was also just like an impulsive move. Certainly, once the decision was made, there was a tremendous amount of, oh shit-ness. “This was a horrible mistake.” But I was already kind of speeding down the hill and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t ready. It’s just like you can’t go back at that point. I did say no a bunch of times but it kept coming back. I don’t have the hubris to say, it felt like it was meant to be. But I can be honest with you and say that there was a certain degree of professional jealousy and arrogance around the feeling of, “They’re going to do this. There is going to be a TV show called Watchmen, and I have a choice. I can either be one of the people making it or I can be sitting at home on Sunday night when the HBO logo comes up and I hear the [sound].” Am I going to be thinking, “I can’t believe that I didn’t take a shot?” Did I not take a shot because I was scared or did I not take a shot because I felt like it shouldn’t be done? Because it’s going to get done.
The more important question, the only question, is just, was there an idea? Was there a story worth telling? Was there a way that you could do Watchmen where you weren’t ripping off or doing another iteration of the original? Is there a way to do this in a way that feels original and fresh but still deserves the title Watchmen? That challenge felt so exciting to me, even though I knew that there was a massive and significant chance of failure. It felt like it was worth going forward.
Has the idea of what the show is changed substantially or [was it] pretty much you had the idea and just developed it out?
I think it’s the latter. I mean, I think that the initial idea of what I wanted this to be about hasn’t fully revealed itself yet. By the time you see the first six, then in the middle of the season, that’s when I can say to you, that’s the idea of the show. The first idea that I had is basically sort of revealed in the fifth and sixth episodes. You obviously get strong hints of it in the setup for the season. But what I wanted the show to be about is really encapsulated in those episodes. Then I hired a group of writers — and there were a dozen of us — and we worked for I think 10 to 12 weeks before I even wrote the pilot, talking about those ideas.
I’ll say, for someone who’s used to doing a lot of talking himself, I did a lot of listening at that point because… not just about other people’s experience with Watchmen. In that room, there were people like me who are chapter and verse acolytes of the source material. And there were people who had never read the 12 issues until they took the job, and there were men and there were women and there were people of color and people from widely different vantage points that I had, all of whom were interested in Watchmen. And my job was not to pitch ideas that made everybody happy, but to do a lot of listening in terms of what should actually be on the screen. The building of the iceberg below the screen, you know, the 30 years of alt-history that occurred between the original Watchmen and our 2019 [version]. I wanted to treat Alan [Moore] and Dave’s [Gibbons] original vision as cannon, so that was all done. That part was relatively easy. Once we got into the mechanics of episodic building and storytelling, that’s always the hardest work and there’s a fair amount of discovery there. But in terms of what was the original plan versus what we actually did, [it was] pretty close.