Watchmen director breaks down that mind-blowing Doctor Manhattan episode
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Sunday’s episode of Watchmen, titled “A God Walks Into Abar.”
There’s a lot going on in HBO’s Watchmen. That’s been true all season, but things turned up a notch with tonight’s Doctor Manhattan-focused installment. Following the cliffhanger revelation last week that Cal Abar (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) was secretly the big blue superhero in disguise, this week’s episode explored how Angela Abar (Regina King) originally met with Doctor Manhattan, and how they came up with the plan to disguise him as an amnesiac human. To break down the twists and turns of “A God Walks Into Abar,” EW caught up with producer Nicole Kassell, who directed the episode as well as the first two of the season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The show has been teasing Doctor Manhattan’s arrival since the first episode, and certainly anyone going into a Watchmen TV show would expect to see him at some point. When you were approaching bringing this character into the show and directing his focus episode, what did you see as the biggest challenge?
NICOLE KASSELL: Oh, the whole thing. The whole putting Doctor Manhattan on screen, and making this choice. It was super exciting, both simultaneously being truthful to the source and truthful to our story of 2019. In the episode we have the Doctor Manhattan from the source. Before he inhabits Yahya’s body, it’s true Doctor Manhattan, so putting that character on screen was extremely daunting and exciting. But then once we’re firmly in the land of our alternate 2019 version, then it’s slightly different. There’s still the pressure of it being great, and performance anxiety, but there’s not the attachment that comes from putting truly the source on screen.
The most we see of the original Doctor Manhattan is in the bar with Angela. We don’t see his face full-front at all; the camera mostly focuses on the back of his head and his hands. What was the thinking behind that filming choice? Was it about separating him from the Cal version?
It was absolutely deliberate and scripted that we would not see his face until he became Cal. For me, that was important for two purposes. One was in depicting the original Doctor Manhattan, the one from the book. To not show him, to not say who this is, allows all the fans of the comic to never have to grapple with ‘that’s not how I see him.’ The adaptations of novels so often fail or disappoint fans of the source because you fall in love with the image of your mind’s eye, and no one can replicate that. By not showing his face, it protects those viewers who have that vision and can have it forever. More importantly to our storytelling and the script by Damon and Jeff Jensen, by not showing him, the punch of ‘wow’ when you see him become Yahya is just so extraordinary. Even having directed the episode, when I watch it and we get to that moment, I still go, ‘oh my god!’ I think first and foremost it’s brilliant storytelling, withholding to such an extent that transformation lands so enormously.
We start the episode with the original Doctor Manhattan, and then we see him as Cal in Yahya’s body, but then after he wakes up it’s kind of a mix of the two. Earlier in the episode Adrian Veidt, when he first sees him as Cal, almost accuses him of appropriation. So because that line is in the episode, I know that was something you guys were thinking about. What was your worry about it seeming like blackface or appropriation?
We definitely don’t want to be accused of either, but the thinking was, it was very important that Cal be Doctor Manhattan to spur a conversation of, ‘if you didn’t see that he might be Cal, what’s that say?’ There’s the idea of hiding in plain sight. It starts from story and theme. This series is tackling race head-on and so many things around it: Conscious/unconscious bias, conscious/unconscious racism. So it thematically ties right into all of those things.
The way we thought about it literally was that Doctor Manhattan had been in this form for 10 years, so when he comes out of it, the chip’s removed, and you see him awaken. That’s why Cal seems so disoriented, it’s Doctor Manhattan reemerging. It felt truthful to the process that he wouldn’t even be grappling with what his physical form was in that moment. That’s the suit he’s been wearing for 10 years, so he’s keeping it on. The blue comes because those are his powers. The chip removed his powers, not his physical form. Doctor Manhattan chose that body before the chip went in, and the choice of that body is on screen, and it’s critical that it’s Angela’s choice for him to take that form. And then the reason he stays in that form is because it’s not even a priority or a question for him. That’s the skin he’s wearing. It’s like, why is he naked in the book? Because he doesn’t give a s–t! He doesn’t care what his form is. That’s how the character justifies being Cal still. In a sense, it’s like a hangover or coming out of a coma. The blue and the eyes and all that are a result of his powers re-emerging. Whether to stay who this person is for weeks and days or however long he wants, that’s a choice he can make. But that’s not where our story is right now. He’s got bigger fish to fry.
Another interesting thing about this episode is that it’s the first time we see a conversation between two characters from the original Watchmen, when Veidt and Jon talk at Karnak. More than that, it’s the first time we see Veidt before his exile, where he’s behaving more like we’d expect. What was the pressure of staging both him and Jon in their closer-to-book versions?
It wasn’t pressure so much as total delight. We still had the gift of it being (let me do my math) 2009, so time has passed. It’s not quite putting the source on screen, but yes, it was super thrilling putting actual Karnak from the book on screen. I definitely made deliberate homage to some camera angles from the source, for when Doctor Manhattan is approaching it from the exterior. It was really fun to play on that. It was a really amazing couple days of working with these actors. They’re both phenomenal. They met for the first time the day before shooting, but the way in which they fully play the parts as if they’re equals, comrades, frenemies…it was extremely powerful and fun to show two old friends coming together. It was really exciting to show a reunion. Veidt’s at his lowest of lows, and Doctor Manhattan’s at his highest of highs: He’s in love, in the prime of a beautiful body, while Veidt is depressed and aging and suffering all the indignities of humanity. His ego’s been brutalized, and then the only person he could be inferior to walks into the room. The set-up is so fun, and the two actors did it so beautifully. I loved bringing in the actors and saying ‘you’ve been friends for 30 years,’ and they got it. They captured the essence of their characters and how they would respond to the other person in the room.
How did you get the walking-on-water effect? It’s a pretty important shot, Doctor Manhattan even tells Angela “you need to see me on the pool for later” and it plays into the overall God symbolism, so how did you pull it off?
Technically we had scaffolding holding up a thin layer of clear plexiglass, so you would see his feet interact with the water. Then with visual effects we removed what you could see of the scaffolding through the water.
I attended the Watchmen panel at this year’s New York Comic Con, and I remember you saying on stage that you would occasionally use panels from the comic as reference points for framing shots. We can see some of that in this episode, whether at Karnak or when Doctor Manhattan is killing Seventh Kavalry members in the same manner he killed the original Rorschach. But this episode echoes not just the images but the storytelling of the original comic, especially the Doctor Manhattan-focused chapters that span these different moments across time and space. That climaxes here in the scene when Jon is talking to Will and Angela at once, 10 years apart. How challenging was it to adapt that time-displaced storytelling for the screen?
That was definitely really challenging in terms of how to create the transitions so it felt like what he just said in one scene was literally being heard by the other actor in the next scene. First of all it was performance, and then really focusing on making sure that it felt like, when we cut, we would be cutting back to Will but instead it’s Angela in this point. Like with the other match cuts, I filmed it as if it was a continuous move to the other character. It was very concretely planned and designed that way.
That conversation reminded me of one of the key tenets of the Watchmen comic, which was imagining if superheroes actually existed in the real world and how their powers and tactics might be applied to real-life situations. Here in this episode you guys came up with another example of what superpowers could do in real life: How about connecting a broken family across generations?
Exactly. Isn’t that gorgeous?
Speaking of time-displaced storytelling, what parallels do you see between this episode and the flashback episode to Will’s life as Hooded Justice, directed by Stephen Williams?
Honestly I wasn’t comparing them. Six was always to me a stand-alone episode in terms of those long single takes. It’s interesting that I feel the connection more concretely as a viewer now, I feel the echoes. But I have to say it’s very unconscious, except that we had these guiding principles to the show as a whole. The scene that really struck me is in this episode when Angela kills all the Seventh Kavalry guys. When I finally saw episode 6, there was just an effect of seeing it as a viewer with this distance, I was like ‘oh my gosh.’ When she goes out and kills all those people, and it feels awful doing that and filming it even if they’re bad guys, I felt concretely the echo to where Will does that with the KKK guys. I know that was totally deliberate on Damon and Jeff’s part. Things hit at different parts. When you’re filming it you’re focused not just on the story, but preoccupied by how to do it. The big picture themes have been a real delight to watch at a distance, to see how thoroughly those are all arising. I know that’s what Damon and the writers are doing.