“Watchmen” director Stephen Williams has a curious analogy for how Damon Lindelof weaved the Tulsa Massacre into his HBO update of Alan Moore’s acclaimed graphic novel.
The nine-episode run begins by going back to the site of the ugliest, and mostly untold, moments in American history that is widely considered to be the country’s single worst incident of racial violence. Williams said, “In much the same way that the destruction of the planet Krypton was the birth moment for Clark Kent/Superman, so too this event could become the catalyst to set all the pieces of the narrative puzzle into play.”
Williams’ comments came during TheWrap’s Emmy contenders virtual roundtable with directors and showrunners on Monday, which also included Derek Cianfrance (“I Know This Much is True”), Nichelle Tramble Spellman (“Truth Be Told”), Alan Poul (“The Eddy”) and Paul Simms (“What We Do in the Shadows”).
In “Watchmen,” the Tulsa Massacre serves as the start of Will Reeves’ story, after he witnesses the event as a child. Reeves, of course, would go on to assume the moniker of Hooded Justice, the first vigilante in the alternate-reality world of “Watchmen.”
The show has been lauded for its inclusion of the event, which had gone largely unknown by the general American public and has taken on even greater resonance in the aftermath of the nationwide protests against systemic racism that have marched on since Memorial Day.
“As people have continued to excavate that portion of American history that has been buried and left in the shadows for many people, as that event has come to life and many others in recent times, in recent days and years, it’s acquired particular resonance and refracted off the construction of ‘Watchmen’ in a way that we certainly hadn’t imagined, but are satisfied is finally now being seen for what it is, and is being examined and explored,” Williams said.
Elsewhere in the panel, the participants spoke about the challenge of having to film one actor playing dual roles. “I Know This Much Is True,” based on Mark Lamb’s novel of the same name, stars Mark Ruffalo as twins Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Cianfrance, who directed and co-wrote the limited series, said that he didn’t want it to feel like a “technical trick.” One way he was able to do that was to have Ruffalo gain 30 pounds to play Thomas, who suffers from schizophrenia, but that meant that they would have to shoot all the scenes that featured both brothers twice, and months apart.
“We ended up shooting 16 weeks of Mark as one twin, and then he went away for 6 weeks. He gained 30 pounds and then we came back to the same location. Sometimes, the big challenge was to shoot a driving scene in a car, where one side was shot in April and the other side was shot in September, and to have that continuity between the two characters,” Cianfrance said, adding that Ruffalo “embodied a completely different person.”
How different? Ask Mark’s dad, Cianfrance said. “When Mark Ruffalo’s dad first saw the trailer to our show, he asked Mark, ‘Looks great, who did you get to play your brother?'”
Spellman added for “Truth Be Told,” which features Lizzy Caplan as twins Josie and Lanie Buhrman, that they had specific days for Caplan they called “twin days.”
“Everybody prepared for twin days. It just took a little bit more time,” she said, before praising Caplan’s ability to make both characters feel like completely separate people. “She really made them different. The first day that she was in the blonde wig for one of the twins, I walked right past her.”
In the book that “Truth Be Told” is based on (Kathleen Barber’s “Are You Sleeping”), Caplan’s twins are the central characters. But the Apple TV+ series shifts the narrative around Octavia Spencer’s Poppy Parnell, a minor character in the source material. “That would mean it was very closed-ended, if we just followed that,” Spellman said. “We basically had the spine of the novel, the basic story that we wanted to tell with the mystery, and then it sort of bloomed from there based on casting, based on the fact that we wanted to have a little more longevity.”
Even Simms had that experience briefly on “What We Do in the Shadows,” which featured an episode that saw the main cast play their own characters’ ghosts. “Each of the vampires acted opposite themselves as their own ghosts. We did actors playing two parts but four times within one episode,” Simms said. “I know what a nightmare it is. But fun.”
Alan Poul was the only person on the panel who wasn’t working off some type of pre-existing material. That allowed the series the ability to create something from scratch and show something not often depicted on screen: Modern-day Paris.
“One of the things we knew going in was we wanted to show Paris as it is now. You say you’re going to do a show set in a jazz club in Paris and everybody says, ‘Ooh, 40s? 60s?’ I never had anybody think the show was contemporary when I told them what the show was about. But what we wanted to show was Paris today. The multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-faith Paris, which is really what Paris is,” Poul said. “The challenge was building a world that we had to keep authentic, even though we weren’t French.”