Nicole Kassell’s résumé could easily be mistaken for an Emmys highlight reel. The director, who achieved early acclaim with her first feature film, The Woodsman, in 2004, has spent most of the past 10 years lending her talents to some of the most significant television of the decade: The Killing, Rectify, Better Call Saul, American Crime, The Americans, Westworld, and more. But with her latest directing project, Kassell also steps into a new role—that of executive producer. Reuniting with Damon Lindelof, for whom she helmed two episodes of The Leftovers, the director is part of the creative team behind Watchmen, for which she filmed the pilot and two more episodes in the first season. As producer, she has remained with the series throughout its first season, playing an integral role in bringing this reimagined world to life. She spoke with The A.V. Club recently about creating HBO-sized action scenes, paying tribute to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work, and keeping herself far away from the film adaptation of the graphic novel.
The A.V. Club: What was the initial conversation you had with Damon Lindelof like, in terms of brainstorming what this world of Watchmen was going to look like, and what the mood and tone of the show were going to be?
Nicole Kassell: Damon told me a little bit about what he was doing before I read the script—like, on the morning of—and then he sent it, and I read it, and it really blew my mind. And I called him right away, and I told him what I saw as I read it. I said that I saw The Conformist, I saw Children Of Men and Blade Runner, and a Rihanna music video. And he was like, “Huh. Okay.” [Laughs.]
And I talked him through why, but what I love about directing is that when I read, I see, and there was something in his words that just… that’s where my mind went. [The pilot] starts with a black-and-white silent film—you land in 1921—and that had to feel real and historically accurate. So that was the kind of sepia-toned vision, and after I read the script, I put together a visual look book, walking us through the aesthetic of the pilot, including what Oklahoma! the musical [A performance of which appears in the pilot —Ed.] would be, and what American Hero Story [The show within the show about the original Watchmen —Ed.] would be, and I just laid it out in imagery how I saw it. And fortunately, he dug it and brought me on board.
AVC: Were there certain components to the story that particularly attracted you, or things that stood out to you as opportunities to put your stamp on the visual style of the series?
NK: I think every inch of it, honestly. It’s a totally original piece. I really believe the story comes first. Performance comes first. I want both every frame to be frame worthy, as in a photograph, but at the same time it’s very important to me not to call attention to the camera just for visual’s sake. That seems kind of contradictory, but that’s what I love when I watch a film or TV—I have a really high bar for what I feel the visuals can and should be. It should never override the story.
AVC: You’ve helmed action sequences before, but there’s a kind of heightened stylization and aesthetic that comes with this material. How did you conceive of what you wanted those sequences to play like? Because they really have to strike a very fine balance between delivering this elevated action but still sitting comfortably within a dark and grounded story about violence and trauma and all this somber stuff.
NK: Imagine you’re being told the show is following in the footsteps of Game Of Thrones. [Laughs.] And you have to direct an action sequence, and those shows… the action is just astonishing. The scale of those battles, it’s a hard shoe to fill. And especially in such an entirely different genre. We’re not doing a war. Honestly, I kind of got that message, whether it was said to me in those terms or not. And so that was our goal. This is HBO. To me, we are making the Star Wars of television. And to be that ambitious and bold with the big set pieces was what I liked.
AVC: Shooting a pilot seems like the most comparable to shooting a feature film, in that it really is the director bringing their personal aesthetic to create visuals to best serve the material that set the tone for everyone after. You’ve done that once before, with Claws. Are there any striking similarities or differences in the process for shooting the two pilots?
NK: Actually more similar than different. What was great for both of them is that we shot the pilot first. We then had the pilot, and it was its own beast. And then we picture-lock the pilot [When all changes are completed and approved —Ed.], and it got picked up to series, so it was more like the old-school model instead of just going straight to series. That was just how it was done on Claws, and it’s how Damon wanted to do Watchmen. And honestly, it’ll be hard for me to let that go, because you learn so much from the pilot, and it’s such an amazing opportunity to study and either keep, course-correct, or shift. But it all comes down to a story. And that first and foremost, the production value is really just kind of dictated by what’s in the script.
AVC: This is also the first time you’ve been an executive producer on a TV project you’re shooting. How has that affected the way you engage with the material as a director? Does the fact of wearing two hats in that way change anything about how you shoot?
NK: Not how I shoot. It changes it in the sense that I am in the DNA in episodes one through nine, rather than just director on one, two, and eight. And I did it on this because I felt so deeply passionate about the story that was being told. Damon’s writing is so good. What was being told, the level, the production value, the ambition, that no two episodes are the same—I was at a moment in my life where I just knew I wanted to be a part of every piece of this. And when we even just started discussing the pilot, Damon was very open from the beginning that his wish would be for the pilot director to stay on. And I wanted to be a part of this big baby.
AVC: It’s such an unusual project, in that it’s based off of a graphic novel but telling a wholly different story. What was it like using the raw materials of Moore and Gibbons’ work but creating your own look? I imagine it’s difficult using the influence without feeling beholden to it.
NK: I think because we’re not remaking it, it was really fun to me to go back and study the book and use it as source of inspiration visually, in framing and composition and props. Like, what are the Easter eggs we can give to the fans? Because we’re not giving them the story. So I just did it as often as I could, giving visual Easter eggs. Damon definitely makes sure the [Easter egg] story stuff is there, all over the place. I did a deep, deep dive on the book, studying the graphic design and the vertical framing—frames within frames, transitions. The book is astonishing, if you look at how these transitions match frames. And then putting dirigibles in the sky and taking the rules of the world and making them come from the source. But I definitely wanted to honor it, and the best way for me to honor it was to be visually inspired.
There was more than one time where I would set a frame and then one of the Watchmen fans on set—one of the crew members—would run over with a screen grab of that frame, from the source that I was paying homage to. That was really fun. Or even in the pilot, when Regina [King] is cracking eggs into a bowl, I set it so that they looked like an owl. And then I saw, somewhere on the internet, someone who had pulled a screen grab of the owl ship and put it next to that frame, and that’s exactly what I wanted the fan to be able to do. It’s like, nobody wrote in the script, “She sets the eggs in the bowl to look like eyeballs, and a whisk, a nose.” But I was like, why not? To pay that kind of attention to every frame was very exciting to me, and that’s what I thought was essential for this and that comic. Every frame is a piece of art.
AVC: Was there any discussion of the film? Surely the adaptation was mentioned at some point.
NK: Oh, for sure. I have not seen it. Just because it felt like I didn’t want to bump into it. The DP had, the production designer had, so I trusted them. I just knew we were doing something entirely different.
AVC: The show is tackling some really fraught real-world issues. It’s got this far-right extremist group who may as well be labeled “alt-right” white supremacists, and you’ve also got this narrative trying in unexpected ways to create sympathy for this beleaguered police force. Do you see the show’s politics as foregrounding certain issues in a provocative way?
NK: We were fully aware—and it’s honestly part of what made me want to do this—that the story is trying to grapple with and process what is happening now. I read this while being home in Charlottesville, Virginia, four months after the incident in Charlottesville. And like so many people, the 2016 election had left me reeling, and wondering what I could do. How do I respond? And when I read the script, I just felt that yes, this is where I can put my creative energy, in trying to tackle or digest or make sense of what’s going on now.
AVC: Looking back on your career over the past 10 years, it really does read like a roster of some of the most significant television of the decade. How much of that was happenstance, and how much have you been able to craft and choose projects that resonate with you?
NK: Definitely more of the latter. It’s a complicated answer. I aim to work on shows I really care about. As an artist, I want to personally connect, politically connect, and visually feel inspired to do something great. Starting with The Woodsman, that’s what I really aimed to do, and I feel really fortunate that my work has led me to work with such amazing writers and television. I am careful what I take and what I do. But also, I feel very lucky I’ve had these opportunities.