Police wearing masks and purposefully not identifying themselves during nationwide protests? Police brutality coming to a horrific head? Racist extremist groups attempting to exert their influence on the national discourse? These aren’t just issues that have struck America over the past few months, these are narrative themes plucked right out of Damon Lindelof’s “Watchmen,” an almost year-old mini-series that’s cultural relevance continues to flourish in the most heartbreaking of ways. One of the episodes of the HBO series that feels most poignant at this time is “This Extraordinary Being,” a chapter directed by Stephen Williams and written by Cord Jefferson and Lindelof. All three of whom have now earned Emmy nominations for their work on it.
“This Extraordinary Being” finds a contemporary cop and masked vigilante, Angela Abar [Regina King], dealing with an overdose of Nostalgia, a drug that has the ability to share memories of someone else with the person who takes it. Without knowing it, Abar has taken pills imprinted with the memories of her grandfather Will Reeves [played by Louis Gossett, Jr. in the “present” and Jovan Adepo in the “past”]. She discovers that not only was Reeves the world’s first masked hero, Hooded Justice, but a survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre who also fought against systemic racism as a cop and vigilante in late 1930’s New York.
For Williams, also an executive producer on “Watchmen,” it was another example of his impressive directorial skills which he’s demonstrated on numerous dramas such as “Lost,” “The Americans” and “Westworld.” “This Extraordinary Being,” however, led to his first Emmy nomination as a director. A subject that kicked off our interview earlier this month.
The Playlist: You’ve been in this business for over twenty years and earned your first Emmy and DGA nomination for “Watchmen.” Did that make any of this more special to you?
Stephen Williams: No, I mean, look, I think it’s important not to place too much stock in things like awards, but having said that, it is always immensely gratifying to have your work recognized by your peers. It’s, for me, almost always unexpected, but I’m humbled and grateful and feel immensely privileged and fortunate to have had the opportunity to not only work on a piece that is as resonant and important to me creatively and thematically as “Watchmen,” but then ultimately to have it recognized in the way that it has been by our peers is just deeply gratifying.
Overall the series had its own aesthetic and some individual episodes go in different creative directions, but “This Extraordinary Being” feels the most stand-alone. Is that how you approached it?
Yeah, I mean, I think that this episode is in many ways is stand-alone for any number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s essentially the origin story of the character that is only murkily identified in the original graphic novel that Alan Moore wrote. So, the mere fact that it was an origin story already set it apart. And then secondly, the content of the piece was an invitation to explore a subjective point of view of a character, of the Will Reeves character, and Angela Abar, once she has imbibed this kind of excess of the drug Nostalgia, which essentially delivers to her the curated memories of a series of events in [her grandfather’s life]. And so, given that that was what the landscape was of that episode, it kind of required a very specific and unique visual vocabulary in order to tell that subjective story in a way that was most impactful and emotionally arresting. And so that was, in many ways, the objective of that episode from a technical point of view.
When I spoke to Cord a number of months ago he talked about how the script noted that when Regina’s character appeared in the past because of Nostalgia she would interact as Will’s character. But from a composition and visual effects perspective how hard was that to pull off?
It was really challenging. Once I decided that the way in which I wanted to visualize this episode was through a series of long, fluid, unbroken takes, in a way that, for me, was hopefully going to be as evocative of the subjective mindscape of the Angela Abar character experiencing the effects of this Nostalgia truck. Once that decision was made, then it became quite clear how challenging pulling that off was going to be. But, fortunately, we had a fairly lengthy prep period courtesy of the auspices of the very, very supportive folks over at HBO. And I took full advantage of that by going to the locations with the stand-ins and with much of the crew and the key members of the crew. I shot a version of the episode basically just using an iPhone, edited the episode together, had a look at it and made some adjustments, and then went back to the locations and did that again. So by the time we actually got around to involving the entire crew and the cast, I had a pretty solid template for how I was going to approach staging all the scenes. And so thereafter, it was really just a kind of a matter of executing that plan and being as rigorous and as truthful to that approach as possible.
Despite this prep shoot, was there any scene, in particular, you were most concerned about shooting beforehand?
I would say that applies basically every aspect of the production. I mean, it’s one thing to conceive of shooting an entire story, telling an entire story through a series of singular takes, but quite another to actually block and stage those sequences in a way that does justice and honors the character journeys, as well as the narrative arc of the piece. So, every single day began with a very protracted, lengthy, blocking and staging of the scene and working out these issues that arose as that process was happening. It took quite a long time, on any given day, before we actually got our first shot off. So, it felt like every day was a version of Groundhog Day, of terror and nailbiting concern as to whether we were actually going to be able to achieve what we had imagined the episode should look and feel like.
The “past” look, the black and white look, how did you decide the rules for it? Because at times, it sort of shows the hints of color. Was that in the script?
I mean, that wasn’t in the script, but, again, I was really fortunate and blessed to be working with Damon and Cord on this episode. Damon, I’ve worked with for a long time and there’s a certain kind of base level of trust between us and he is hugely respective of the filmmakers. So, once we kicked it around and we made the decision to execute the bulk of the piece in black and white, both Damon and Cord were totally on board. It felt like the right decision because black and white felt like it was going to be the most sort of emotionally evocative pallet to tell the story that we were trying to tell. And then we decided to deploy very kind of judicious or selective incursions of scenes or vignettes, or elements of scenes in color to connote one effect or another really. Sometimes it was about the intrusion of traumatic events from Will Reeves’ memory that were forcing their way into the actual moments that he had curated and coated in the Nostalgia drug. And at other times, it was meant to reflect the kind of state of consciousness that Regina King’s character, Angela Abar, was swimming into and out of as she navigated the influence of the Nostalgia drug. So there was a reason for all of those things and, hopefully, taken together, they generated the appropriate emotional effect.
I think what’s so amazing and beautiful about the episode is that when visual effects need to be part of it, they don’t feel like they’re intruding. I believe Gregory Middleton was the DP, am I right?
I’m sure you shot it in color on a red or a digital camera, and then changed it to black and white, but how did that affect how he lit and what you guys were trying to do compared to other episodes in the production?
Greg is just an artist and a consummate collaborator. And so it was very tough for him, it was challenging for everybody. It was challenging for the actors, it was challenging for the crew, and it was certainly no less challenging for Greg because when you’re shooting roving camera wanders, like the ones that we choreographed in order to execute the scenes, it’s really, really hard to find somewhere to hide lights. And yet, we were also very, very specific about the tone and the lighting, and what emotional impact it was meant to support and help convey. I think I’m not speaking out of turn when I say that he, like all of us, found this a very sort of satisfying episode to work on.
So many of us in America were never taught about the Tulsa race attacks. And it was, I think, startling to people who thought were “liberal,” “progressive” people who didn’t know about it. But the series comes out and then five months later, we have these amazing social and Black Lives Matter protests sparked by George Floyd’s death all across the country and around the world sparked. I was rewatching this episode and I watched a number of others, and they just resonated in a different way. What are your thoughts are about “Watchmen” being in the cultural space at this time?
I mean, look, I think “Watchmen” speaks to concerns of the moment, in terms of the way in which race occupies such a central place in the unfolding and ongoing narrative of American history. It’s timely in that sense, but even if these most recent events had not transpired, the piece would still have been resonant and reflective of the entirety of this aspect of the American story. Race has been the central and defining characteristic of modern American history going all the way back to 1619. So, I feel like the concerns that “Watchmen” attempts to address, the notion of white supremacy and the notion of the centrality of race in our socio-cultural story, has always been present. It has acquired, because of recent events, perhaps a greater degree of urgency and timeliness, but long overdue, I think, has been the attention to this aspect of our lives. And insofar as “Watchmen” helps contribute to that debate and discussion and excavation of this part of our collective stories, then I feel like that’s a gratifying aspect of having been a part of this production.
One last question for you. Revisiting a beloved graphic novel with a new vision is a brave thing to do in a world where genre fans have numerous mechanisms to voice their praise or displeasure. Were you nervous about how the show overall would be perceived? Did you breathe a sigh of relief when it was received as well as it has been?
Look, I was very cognizant of the fact that, in many ways, just from a creative point of view, this is a high wire act across any number of vectors. First and foremost, protecting this hallowed piece of IP, this justifiably revered graphic novel that Alan Moore wrote so many years ago. And then, we’re adding to that level of difficulty, again, and examining a very volatile, but necessary exploration of the issue of race in American life. So, there was no scenario under which that was going to feel like a straightforward undertaking.
“Watchmen” is available on HBO and HBO Max.