‘Nostalgia Is Toxic’: Damon Lindelof on His ‘Watchmen’ Adaptation
When Damon Lindelof was a teenager in 1989, he and his comic book-loving father spent $35 on a bootleg copy of the script to Watchmen, Batman screenwriter Sam Hamm’s attempt to adapt Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal deconstruction of superheroes and their stories. Over sandwiches, Lindelof’s dad began reading aloud from the opening scene, where terrorists attacked the Statue of Liberty and were fended off by a superhero team calling themselves the Watchmen. The scene got so many things wrong about the source material, literally and thematically, that the elder Lindelof had only one response, as Damon recalls 30 years later: “What the fuck is this?”
Today, Lindelof calls the comic an enormous influence on a career that’s included huge hits like Lost and the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek films (which he co-wrote), cult classics like HBO’s The Leftovers (a.k.a. the best TV show of the 2010s), and divisive work like the Lost finale or his scripts for Prometheus and The Hunt, a satirical film about liberals preying on red-staters, which Universal recently shelved after criticism from President Trump. So it feels fitting that he’s in charge of HBO’s new TV version of Watchmen — and ironic that Lindelof’s take is such a departure from Moore and Gibbons’ work that it’s easy to imagine the comic-book-loving fathers of 2019 also asking, “What the fuck is this?”
The series, which debuts October 20th, takes place 34 years after the events of the comic and is linked to it in many ways. Its chief villains, the racist members of the Seventh Kalvary, wear masks inspired by Watchmen vigilante Rorschach. Jean Smart is playing Laurie Blake (formerly Laurie Juspeczyk, a.k.a. ex-vigilante Silk Spectre), and Jeremy Irons sure seems to be playing an older version of brilliant hero/villain Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias. But the show’s setting (Tulsa, Oklahoma), chief subject matter (white supremacy), and other lead characters (the ensemble includes Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson, and Don Johnson as Tulsa cops) all seem far removed at first glance from the comic that so dazzled the adolescent Lindelof.
We spoke about the massive shadow Watchmen cast over his writing career, why partway through the project he became convinced it was “the hugest mistake that I’ve ever made in my life,” and a whole lot more — including how he’d feel about a Lost reboot.
When did you first read Watchmen?
I read the first two issues at the same time. I was 13, in the spring of 1986. My recollection is, my dad handed them to me and said, “You’re not ready for this.” It was a bit of a dare.
What did you think of it?
First off, it was for grown-ups. The first issue of Watchmen is quite shocking. It’s very violent. And it felt adult. I was 13 years old. I had not yet seen any real pornography. Maybe I saw a Playboy. The sensation of reading Watchmen was not dissimilar: “This isn’t for me.” The idea that this was a comic book and it wasn’t for me, because I was a kid, fried my brain a bit. Just trying to understand what Rorschach is saying in his journal, it made me a little bit dizzy. It felt more real than any of the comic books I had read before. As a 13-year-old, I knew that Richard Nixon was not the president of the United States, but there were other things where I wasn’t sure when we were in alt-history and when we were in actual history. I think that my introduction to the idea of what rape is was with Watchmen. And that’s [in] the second issue. I was like, “Oh, Sally’s being attacked by the Comedian. He’s just a mean guy.” I literally didn’t get that she was being sexually assaulted until probably a couple of years later.
Were there parts of the comic that you didn’t understand then and do now?
Many, many, many. One of the first things we did when the writers room convened was we would have Watchmen book club. We would reread an issue and every few days we would meet to unpack it frame by frame. There was still stuff to be mined, even as a 45-year-old. I wouldn’t say stuff that I missed, but new revelations or pieces of setup, in terms of the intricacy of the story.
How would you say that Watchmen has influenced other things you’ve done before this?
A lot? That’s the short answer. The idea that it’s psychological realism. It’s really interested in asking why people behave the way that they behave. Obviously, the idea that every issue switched point of view for characters. Traditionally, we can identify who the hero of the story is. Even in the Avengers movies, they’re ensemble-ized but clearly Tony’s story; he’s at the center. Watchmen, I still struggle with answering the question: If you have to pick one, whose story is it? I’m inclined to say Rorschach, because his journal is what kicks it off. But I can make impassioned arguments for all the characters. Watchmen is the first one to go, “This one’s the Nite Owl one. This one’s the Adrian Veidt one.” Clearly, a model that very much was used in Lost. And most significantly, nonlinear storytelling. Not just in terms of the usage of extended flashback, but when you look at the Dr. Manhattan issue, the idea of telling a story out of time is something that I’ve been trying to replicate in my own way ever since Watchmen. I could tell you with no equivocation that there would be no Desmond Hume if there was no Dr. Manhattan. That’s a direct rip; I’ll call it what it is.
What did you think of the Zack Snyder movie?
Zack knew that I was a Watchmen junkie, so he reached out after he finished shooting and asked, “Will you watch it? I’m going to have a friends and family screening.” It was very early days. The movie he screened for us was almost a full hour longer than what was released. Billy Crudup was covered in little blue lightbulbs and wearing a unitard. The effects weren’t done yet. So it required a certain level of imagination. Seeing the movie at that point, I lost all objectivity. It was like David Copperfield taking you backstage and saying, “I want your opinion about this illusion I’m going to pull off.” So I could never ever see the trick without feeling, “Oh, I know how that is done.”
All of that said, my feeling about Zack’s movie — and this is also mitigated by the fact that I know Zack a little — is that this guy’s love of Watchmen is, if you’ll pardon the pun, true blue. This was not a guy looking to make a cash grab. This is a guy who loves the book, can recite chapter and verse. His desire to get it right — and I just did my first season of Watchmen, and I don’t know if I got it right — was so intense and so genuine, that I just was rooting for him in any way one can. That said, my primary criticism of the movie is you cannot take these 12 issues and jam them into a theatrical experience. What makes Watchmen Watchmen is its density, its slow-burn-ness. It just doesn’t lend itself into being adapted into a film. Given the boundaries of, “You need to make this movie so we can release it in theaters, so it has to be under three hours,” you have to play the hits. Every shining moment in the book needs to be in the movie. So there’s no way to end up with a better movie than the one Zack Snyder made, in my opinion. I’m not going to sit here and say, “How do you do Watchmen without Max Shea and without The Black Freighter?” The answer is, it’s impossible.
So when you got the chance to make this show, you easily could have done a straightforward adaptation of the comic that included all of the things Zack didn’t have room for. Was that something you even considered?
I thought about it. The first time that I was approached informally, we’d heard this criticism out there in the zeitgeist that the movie had to be fit inside a certain box; what if you could do it as a prestige television drama? This conversation was in 2011 or 2012, and the movie had just come out. I [didn’t] think I could do Watchmen better than Zack did it, even as a prestige series. So now I’ve got to cast a better Nite-Owl than Patrick Wilson? Or, I’ve got to make a different owl ship from the one that he made? It felt like, people saw that story, I’m not going to be able to execute it better than Zack Snyder, so why bother? More importantly, the reason that I watch television, the stuff that I love and think about before I go to bed and while I’m driving my car, is stuff where I don’t know what’s going to happen next. The excitement of that, you can never do with Watchmen. The minute you see a red-headed dude carrying an “End is nigh” sign in the pilot, you go, “Rorschach.” All of the exciting revelations [of the] comic book, we’re now denying the audience, because you’re just painting by the numbers. I realized that [even doing] my best version of Alan and Dave’s masterwork, I’d just be a cover band. So it wasn’t going to happen.
And we have to talk about the elephant in the room at some point: Alan really was very explicit in saying that he didn’t want anyone to adapt these 12 issues for any medium outside comics. He also said lots of other things that I ignored, but I did agree with him on that one.
Once you decided you weren’t going to do a straightforward adaptation, how did you land on this version as what you wanted to do with the material?
I have to be a little bit cagey — the idea that made me want to do this take on Watchmen has not been presented to you yet. It’s the big idea of the season. That was the idea that came first. You’ll know it when it happens. But in the meantime, I can talk about other things. Those things will alternately make me proud of myself and also make me want to punch myself in the face, because they’re ridiculously pretentious. But: I want to be inspired by things I deeply care about versus “I’m just making stuff so lots of people will watch it and I can make lots of money.” Having created a couple of TV shows, to me the most important thing was to do something different. Not just for difference’s sake, but, “OK, Damon, you questioned spirituality and the purpose of why we’re here on this planet, and whether or not it’s happening for a reason or is completely arbitrary. We get it, dude. We got it with Lost, and now we really get it after The Leftovers. Existential crises are a bitch. Thank you for stating the obvious, repeatedly. And also, your daddy didn’t tell you he was proud enough. Boo-hoo. We get that, too. What else you got? We’ve heard you play Joshua Tree. Let’s get a little experimental here.”
I felt that I spent a tremendous amount of my time in my life, and certainly in the last five years, thinking about the political situation, how America has gotten to where it’s gotten, and the issue of race. I understand that I’m a white man, and I have all the benefits therein, but this is something that affects me deeply. I’ve avoided talking about it in my work, because every time I’ve tried, I’ve felt I’m not in a position to say anything about it because I’m a white guy. But I still think about it and read about it and talk about it and absorb a lot of it — unfortunately, from the position of an observer who’s not affected by it. I’m not getting pulled over by the cops. I don’t have to worry about my children being pulled over or unjustifiably incarcerated. But all of these are things I have very strong feelings about. And I feel like I have to start putting that in my work somehow.
Those feelings coincided with me reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” which was an essay he wrote in The Atlantic that went viral. When I read it, it profoundly shook me. These things that I kind of knew, but didn’t want to think about or address, were there, presented in this incredibly passionate and beautiful and cogent way. And in the article, Coates mentioned the Tulsa massacre of 1921 and the existence and destruction of “Black Wall Street.” And I was like, “What’s that? I’ve never heard of that.” I looked it up, tried to find a book about it, and there was a book, but I had to buy a secondhand copy through Amazon. I read the book, and this was around the third time they came to me and asked if I wanted to do Watchmen. It all just sort of smashed into the supercollider of my inspiration. This season of television is the result of that. And then there’s another big idea that I can’t talk about yet.
You had trepidation about writing about race as a privileged white guy. You’ve now made these nine episodes. How do you feel it’s gone?
I don’t know. I’ve shifted from, “I feel compelled to do this, and I’m going to do everything I can to do it right” at the start, to a point of, “This was the hugest mistake that I’ve ever made in my life. I was a fool to have done it, and more important, it was irresponsible for me to have done it. I should have stayed in my lane. This is not my story to tell.” That’s the refrain my wife and therapist have heard repeatedly. I don’t think I am wired to ever be the guy who is like, “Nailed it!” That’s not self-deprecation or false modesty, it’s just the way that my brain works. I don’t spend any time putting my feet up on the desk and lighting a cigar. I don’t know. My hope is that this season of Watchmen doesn’t feel exploitative, and most importantly, that it feels authentic. My best stuff works when it feels authentic — even when it’s the wildest, crazy storytelling. The “International Assassin” episodes [of The Leftovers] shouldn’t work, because if you’re explaining what happens in them to someone who doesn’t watch The Leftovers, they’ll go, “That sounds stupid.” But if you watch it, it feels like it was made by someone who really cares, like it’s transmitting something about our lives through the lens of popular fiction.
Another idea that really captivated me thematically about this season of television is the idea of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a perfume that Adrian Veidt is basically selling at the time of the original Watchmen, as he is preparing to move into his new scent, Millennium. This is something that’s kind of cribbed from Midnight in Paris: The moral of that movie is that every generation feels like the generation before theirs was the generation they wanted to live in. He wants to hang out with Hemingway, and Hemingway wishes he was there for the Moulin Rouge. I think nostalgia is dangerous. It’s toxic. I don’t want to get political, but this idea of, “Let’s travel back to the past,” particularly when you look at that idea through the construct of race and racial inequality in our country, that is bad. I see malevolence in Norman Rockwell paintings, and I wanted to talk about that, too.
What would you say to someone who looks at this and asks, since it’s so different from the comic, “What’s your justification for calling this Watchmen?”
My justification is there are characters from the original Watchmen. And more importantly, we inherited a world from the original Watchmen that is in continuity with this world. Everything that happened in those 12 issues, happened. We’re not erasing or changing any of it. Therefore, to not call this television show Watchmen would be disingenuous, and probably illegal. I feel like this is a continuation of, and in conversation with, the original Watchmen. Here’s another instance where I want to punch myself in the face: I called this thing a remix, because it doesn’t feel like a sequel to me. But it does by the traditional rules of a sequel, in that this chronologically follows the original. But it’s also kind of a prequel, because this story starts in 1921, which predates any of the events of the comic.
I tried to make the Watchmen that I thought I would want to see as a fan. There are people who do adaptations and go, “I had to put the book aside in order to do my job.” I’m still reading Watchmen. I thumb through it all the time. I’m in love with it even more deeply than I was before. It’s a masterpiece, full stop. That said, I feel like what made it that is, it took risks. It defies explanation as genre. The original Watchmen is a sequel, but the first story never got written. It drops you into this world where all these things that happened in the Thirties and beyond inform what’s happening in the Eighties; you just don’t know any of them yet. Where our Watchmen sits, we’ll be able to have that conversation from a much more informed place following the end of the ninth episode.
And I’m very curious how people with no preexisting relationship with the source material process the show versus people who have an intimate relationship with the source material. But at least for the first episode, I imagined two people sitting in a room, one of whom had never seen anything of Watchmen before, including Zack’s movie. Just came in cold. And the person sitting next to them is someone who has read Watchmen a million times and can quote Under the Hood chapter and verse, and will bore you to tears with all their knowledge. My desire was, when the pilot ends, the person who’s never seen Watchmen before turns to the person who is the Watchmen expert and says, “I’m confused, can you explain things to me?” And that person goes, “Nope!” And so they’re like, “Oh, cool, at least we’re in it together.”
Now, as the show goes on, I think if you have an intimate knowledge of the source material, you’re going to appreciate the show on a different level than the people who don’t, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to appreciate it more. I think it will be harder for people who love Watchmen to like the show than it will be for people who don’t love the comic. You can only watch the show through the metric of comparison. It’s called Watchmen, it has characters from the original Watchmen, the creator of the original Watchmen thinks it’s an abomination. These are all barriers to love. I fully embrace that. It won’t be fun — I’m glad I’m not on Twitter — but I knew that when I got in.
So let’s talk about that. You don’t enjoy being criticized harshly. And you’ve taken on this holy text, and are doing this radical version of it that you know is going to confuse people, anger people, push buttons. Why do this to yourself?
[A long pause, followed by an audible sigh.]
[Jokingly quoting the eventual story:] “Parenthetical: Lindelof sighs.”
The only way that I can answer that question honestly is, I feel like I owe Watchmen something. And this was the way to repay my debt. And in the repayment of the debt, I knew that I was going to have to get beat up.
From the time that Lost ended to now, how do you feel fan behavior has changed?
First off, I don’t think it’s fair to generalize it. We can acknowledge that it’s gotten much worse since the ending of Lost. It was nasty, it was mean, it was unpleasant. But it wasn’t Gamergate. Nobody was threatening to kill me or hurt my family because I made a TV show. Putting that notion aside — again, the benefit of being a white male is that I’m less inclined to receive those threats, where if I were a woman or a person of color, they are part and parcel of the job now — look at what happened at the end of Game of Thrones. That level of toxicity, where the creators and actors have to literally go into hiding, drop off the face of the planet for a month? I don’t think that’s good. Fans have the right to not like stuff. But we know there’s a difference between not liking something and starting a petition to reshoot an entire season of television.
Now, that’s the bad. There’s lots of good. When something gets canceled that we love, be it Veronica Mars or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it’s the fandom that wills these shows back to life. There is a ressurrective quality to fandom that’s beautiful. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I guess we have to accept that both of these things are true now. The one thing I refuse to do is refer to the fandom as a monolith. There’s pockets of fandom.
Do you have a favorite piece of work you’ve done so far in your career?
It changes. What’s my favorite versus the one I feel closest to or the one I feel proudest of? It all shifts. Right now, it’s the first season of Lost. I have enough distance from it now. I was 31 years old when I worked on that. It was 15 years ago, and I’m [only just] like, “I love that season of television.” My son is watching it for the first time, and my wife is re-watching it for the first time. I will float in on occasion and watch an episode with them, the first time I’ve seen it in 15 years. I get very emotional watching it. I’m like, “Oh my god, Boone died! That’s really upsetting.” I’m separated from the process of needing to call Ian Somerhalder and be like, “I know five weeks ago you just found out you’re part of this pop culture phenomenon, and now I have some bad news for you.” That happened so long ago that now I’m just able to cry for Boone.
You’ve just adapted a piece of work whose creator has very strongly said that he doesn’t want it adapted. How are you going to feel when someone inevitably does their version of Lost?
I’m sort of excited about it a little bit, or certainly curious what someone else would do with it. And definitely, that someone should not be me. Lost is over, I’m not interested in doing any prequels or sequels. We had three years from the moment they said we could end the show to do whatever we wanted with Lost, and we did it all. So my time holding the conch is over. It’s time to pass it along. I think there’s a version of Lost out there that’s incredible. The worst thing that could ever happen to that version is that the person [making it] is worried about pleasing me. I not only think it’s inevitable, but I welcome it. The idea of different storytellers getting their chance to do their spin on the story is the greatest cultural aspect of storytelling. We’re all just telling the same story over and over and over again. The only thing that differentiates it is who’s telling it.
The Leftovers had that divisive first season, but once it was done, the dozen or so people who were left for the next two seasons loved every single thing you did. After having done all these other things that were big hits, but where people loved some parts and didn’t like others, what was it like to have this thing that was universally acclaimed, but in a really tiny universe?
If the universe were any larger — if there were just one other planet, or another moon — then it wouldn’t be universally acclaimed. The size of the tent made it so the work could be super-duper intimate. And super-duper intimacy was what The Leftovers had to be in order to work. The idea of having gone from a band that played arenas to a band that just showed up in a dive bar and had 30 people in the audience was an incredible experience. At first humbling, and then incredible. It was such a special thing, I’ll never be able to replicate it. Which was another incentive to do Watchmen. I have to let the small venue thing with The Leftovers be that. Now it’s time to try to go back to the arenas.