Real to reel: Director Nicole Kassell discusses bringing ‘Watchmen’ to life

Nicole Kassell will be in conversation with VAFF Program Manager Chandler Ferrebee, available for streaming beginning October 21 at 10am. Photo courtesy of VAFF Nicole Kassell will be in conversation with VAFF Program Manager Chandler Ferrebee, available for streaming beginning October 21 at 10am. Photo courtesy of VAFF

HBO’s hit series “Watchmen” presents a universe where high fantasy collides with horrible reality, a world where an alternate world replete with superheroes and interdimensional creatures shifts to a very real American atrocity. Building on the 1985 graphic novel Watchmen, writer/executive producer Damon Lindelof (“Lost”) has crafted a frequently askew viewing experience around the 1921 Tulsa massacre, a brutal incident of racial violence.

Having previously collaborated with Emmy-winning director (and former Charlottesville resident) Nicole Kassell on his series “The Leftovers,” Lindelof hired her to direct the “Watchmen” pilot, “It’s Summer, and We’re Running Out of Ice.” Kassell wisely approached the series’ often arcane events with an abiding goal: verisimilitude.

“I think that’s especially why Damon had brought me onboard,” Kassell, 48, says, “because as wild as the scenario goes, I keep it grounded. Number one is keeping the performances totally grounded in realism.”

The show’s excellent ensemble cast, headed by Regina King, must “fully believe the world around them,” she observes.

Lindelof worked closely with every facet of the production. “He sees everything, from production design to key props, before it goes on screen,” says Kassell. “And especially with this one because there was so much inventing of new things.” The two collaborators had a “lot of dialogue,” she says, “because we’re all working together to create a new and interesting world and a new language.”

The “Watchmen” pilot also required Kassell to pursue another kind of realism. The episode opens graphically on a true-life American tragedy: the racist destruction of Tulsa’s African American Greenwood district. Their depiction of this historically neglected 1921 atrocity is likely its first-ever dramatization, and Kassell felt an unstinting commitment to do it justice.

She thoroughly researched the event, using Tim Madigan’s book The Burning as her primary source. When location scouting began, her very first stop was Tulsa’s Greenwood community. “It was essential to me that we started there, to go to the Greenwood Cultural Center and talk to people, and stand on the street where the Greenwood Theater was, and take in that history,” she says.

Kassell describes the two days of filming the sequence as “definitely intense.” It was meticulously designed in preproduction, “and most importantly,” Kassell says, “we really worked to inform the cast and the crew of exactly what we were doing. Because so many of us were learning about this [event] for the first time from the screenplay.

“It was essential to me that we were not taking it lightly or in vain or just for dramatic purposes…to treat it with the utmost respect. It was very powerful and very harrowing and disturbing. But everybody involved, whether they were playing the perpetrator or the victim, we were all there working together for a cause.”

That intensity created a bond on location. “The gift was really to see, in-between takes, background actors sitting, chatting, laughing together, and these were people that had just been fighting during the take a moment before.”

No stranger to Virginia, Kassell spent “half my childhood” in Charlottesville, she says, and has been a guest at the Virginia Film Festival in the past. She was here in 2004 with her breakout film The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon.

Proud that the enormous viewership of “Watchmen” has inspired discussions of key issues like race, Kassell was initially excited that the series was “just giving a place for people to talk about these issues.” Now, she notes, “so much more has happened that is causing the conversation, which is invaluable that it’s happening.”

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