How ‘Watchmen’ Director Nicole Kassell Set Show’s Tone With the ‘Opposite of a Superhero Opening’

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “When you have adults dressing in costumes, you really have to … make sure it stays grounded and doesn’t get absurd or silly,” Kassell says

A version of this story about Nicole Kassell first appeared in the Emmy Hot List issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

Not only did Nicole Kassell have the burden of directing the first episode of HBO’s “Watchmen” limited series, she had to introduce a massively-scaled series that would go from Tulsa in 1921 to a moon of Jupiter in an alternative present.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” she said. “The success of the show, at that moment, is in your hands. You know you have a great script, but now it’s in your hands, and you can either make it wildly successful or you can fail. And you’re absolutely at risk of failure, but that’s the exhilarating part of it.”

Since “Watchmen” was inspired by the 1986 DC Comics series, Kassell said that brought an additional challenge: “When you have adults dressing in costumes, you really have to hone in on the visual style and also find the right tone, to make sure it stays grounded and doesn’t get absurd or silly.”

But the first episode didn’t start in comic-book territory at all: It begins with a clip from a (nonexistent) old movie, then immerses us in the 1921 “Black Wall Street” riots in which a white mob in Tulsa attacked Black businesses and residents. “When I read the script and saw it started with a black-and-white silent movie, nothing says more clearly, ‘This is not going to be the “Watchmen” you expect,'” she said. “This is as opposite of a superhero opening as you could find. And then going into Tulsa in 1921, it was essential that it feel truthful. It’s a true story, and the burden of putting that on film felt enormous. It needed to feel truthful but not be gratuitous, and to lay the foundation for the whole season.”

Kassell directed three of the nine “Watchmen” episodes, and Steph Green directed a fourth — a sign, she said, that women are being entrusted with large-scale genre projects that might have once been the exclusive province of male directors. “There are predecessors: Kathyn Bigelow, or Patty Jenkins doing ‘Wonder Woman,'” she said. “Those were the breakthrough moments, and now Marvel is putting female directors in charge of ‘The Eternals,’ ‘Black Widow’… People are finally catching on that women can do any genre just the way men can.”

Read more of the Emmy Hot List issue here.

EmmyWrap Down to the Wire cover