Damon Lindelof’s new HBO series, Watchmen, finds the writer and show-runner a very long way from the “middle-aged white men and women having existential spiritual crises” at the heart of his best known previous work, Lost and The Leftovers. The new show — based on the 1986 sci-fi alt-history created by Alan Moore, illustrator Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins — opens in the murderous furnace of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, in the midst of the police/KKK bombing of Black Wall Street. For the first time in his career, Lindelof is directly engaging with the issue of race, and he is fully aware of the tightrope he’s walking. “It’s hard to quantify worry,” he says during our hour-long chat. “I’ve been significantly and constantly worried since we embarked on this show.”
There is nothing new about a respected white man using the history of violence against black people as a canvas. To Lindelof’s credit, though, he seems to know that he shouldn’t be left to his own devices. In fact, it’s his history as a “benevolent dictator” in the writer’s room that pushed him to employ his most inclusive writing staff to date — only four of the show’s 12 writers are white men — and rethink what creative inclusivity actually requires. On one level, Watchmen stands as a “game recognize game” hat tip to the source material. On another, it is Lindelof’s attempt to catalyze discussions about the complications of race, policing, and the power of symbols that connect our contemporary reality to the scary fictive world that Moore introduced so long ago.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
GEN: How’s it been spending the last two years in Alan Moore’s head?
Damon Lindelof: His mind is impenetrable. I have a lifelong attachment to his writing, so the paradox was moving past the fact that he is still alive and doesn’t want me to make this show, on one side of the coin; and on the other, I want to be making this show. Someone is going to be making this show. I understand I am doing the wrong thing, morally, but I have to create a fundamental justification beyond, I just wanna do it anyway. The justification I have speaks to the spirit of your question: What would Alan Moore do if Alan Moore told him not to make Watchmen? And that’s not a hypothetical. We both know what he’d do. Every time he’s come to a character, whether it’s Swamp Thing, Superman, or Batman — he just did whatever the hell he wanted. He’s punk rock.
I couldn’t resist the challenge: Can you call something Watchmen knowing there’s no way it will feel like it’s written by Alan Moore? I can’t do what Alan Moore does. But my fandom of Watchmen has to be a part of this story. There has to be some meta-approach to fandom inside the walls of the storytelling. In the same way there was in the original Watchmen. Many panels are dedicated to the comic within the comic.
When you’re dealing with the issues of policing, corruption, and racism, I imagine that there’s a lot of worry in making this show. How are you feeling now that it’s out in the world?
I’ve been significantly and constantly worried since we embarked on the show. Once we committed to doing Black Wall Street as an origin story, questions popped up like, “Is that irresponsible? Is that exploitative? Is that insensitive?” And the answer was: all of the above. But it can also be other things too. Is it worth me being worried or even potentially being accused of appropriating something to be having a conversation about Tulsa ’21 in the pop culture sphere? If we’re talking about Black Wall Street, is that conversation worth the fact that there will inevitably be people who say, “You should not have done that?” It becomes a calculation.
Every time I’ve ever been worried or felt nervous, that’s when my most interesting work has been generated. My intentions are not to be a provocateur. But I got to a point where the stories I told were just about middle-aged white men and women having existential spiritual crises. I could no longer deny that our country is completely and totally divided by race. This seemed to be the new Cold War and there is a reckoning that should be happening. As a white man and a beneficiary of this system, do I approach this with guilt and shame or can I approach it from a vantage point of service?
It’s time for me to start paying back, less in a sense of debt and more, This is what I’m compelled to do. When I say that I read “The Case for Reparations,” that wasn’t an academic exercise. I had an emotionally profound shift. I knew all this was happening. But to have the story so personalized in the context of Coates’s writing was moving. I like to think of myself as an educated person interested in United States history, and the fact that I got to be 42 years old and had never heard about it; or even worse, had heard about it and just ignored it… Those feelings compelled me to tell this story. I brought together a writer’s room, where the white dudes — there were only four of us out of 12 people — had to sit back. I had to hear some hard truths.
Can you elaborate on that a little bit? How did they challenge you?
What happens in a writer’s room is a sacred space.
I don’t want to violate it in terms of what anyone else’s experience was. Because the white writers aren’t a monolith, the black writers aren’t a monolith, the LGBTQ+ aren’t a monolith. What I had to come to terms with was wanting to bring together a diverse set of voices and experiences, not just in terms of the life they led, skin color, or sexuality, but also what your relationship was to Watchmen. But I really wanted diversity… as long as everyone listened to me. I don’t think I realized that going in, but I came to realize it very fast.
Once it was pointed out to me, I realized that I’m going to have to build consensus around ideas, versus enforcing my will upon them. I shouldn’t be commended for that, but it was incredibly eye-opening. We had to reach unanimous decisions without anybody feeling like they were compromising their values. On a constant basis, the material was challenging.
How were you held accountable by the other writers in the room? Black people being murdered isn’t really a surprise to anyone — often it’s just used as a plot device. How did you center ethics in the artmaking?
A great question. When you’re talking about ethics, you always start at a place of intentionality. But I know that intentions can’t be used as a shield. The only way to take an ethical approach is spending a lot of time and energy trying to have these conversations and then you make a decision. Whether it was the right or wrong decision, I didn’t just go with my gut.
Like, [director] Stephen [Williams] is an African-American — well, Canadian man of Jamaican lineage. He spent a fair amount of time living in Canada and then another two decades in the United States. He is going to have a very different perspective on blackness than Christal Henry, a black woman sitting in the writer’s room as an ex-cop in Chicago. Her perspective on blackness is entirely different than Stephen’s.
At this point in my career I have to write about the stuff that’s really interesting to me and handle it as responsibly as I can. I have to, in collaboration with other people, acknowledge that we’re dealing with material that is not safe. You see what’s happening with Joker. There’s this division happening where it’s like, are the intentions of the filmmaker even relevant? Or is all that’s relevant the movie itself? All that exists is the movie. I could make the argument that it’s irresponsible to do a Joker movie and not talk about race. You could make that argument. Or you could say that Joker isn’t about race. Oh, it isn’t? It’s only about class? I mean, it seems to be significantly about race. But at the end of the day — and I don’t want to be reductive, we need to be responsible storytellers — it’s a movie. Shouldn’t we be making movies and television shows and books that create these sorts of conversations instead of making puffy nothingness that goes down easy?
The world that Moore built made us cringe. The bloody volatility of Cold War New York City was so visceral. Moore’s psychological study on the kind of person that would don masks — the neurotic, the patriots, the traumatized outcasts, and the psychotic bloodletters — made folks rethink power dynamics and how citizens empower unsteady leaders as “saviors.” My initial response when I saw you were moving in this direction was about balancing that sublime, scary realism with all the racial stuff that we’ve been talking about. When you’re working with racism, there’s going to be blowback, but it also means all this data for the ways people are processing real issues. Are you trying to be in those conversations?
It’s been a journey. I’ve learned lessons along the way and one of those lessons is that I’d much rather be in conversations like the one we’re in now. Even though you can report on anything I say, we’re in a dialogue. And if you can get into a dialogue where you can ask questions, present criticisms, and I can present responses; that’s cool.
I chose to do Watchmen. I don’t need to defend it but it’s my obligation to contextualize and explain it. I think it’s unacceptable for an artist to take on material like this and say, “It’s going to speak for itself.” That’s their prerogative, I respect other artists who do it, but I’m not wired that way. You say balancing and it’s really right. I envision myself holding two stacks of plates each in my outstretched arms and we’re putting plates on both sides to find the perfect balance, but in finding that balance, plates are fucking breaking, man. You can’t play this game and not break stuff. But I hope when plates break, it’s not irreparable. Talk to me in a few months and then we’ll have a conversation about whether it was worth it.