Damon Lindelof on 'Watchmen's Alt-World, Comic Characters & Weirdness

Emily Aslanian
Fall Preview HBO

Imagine it's the first half of the 20th century. People with combat skills, inspired by comic book heroes, don capes and step into the public eye, changing America forever. By the 1980s, these vigilantes are outlawed and forced into retirement or government gigs. And then someone starts murdering them.

That's the premise for the original Watchmen comics, an alt-history deconstruction of the crime-fighter genre that debuted in September 1986, printing 12 issues over 13 months. Damon Lindelof, the producer behind mind-boggling shows like Lost and The Leftovers, marks his TV return by bringing Watchmen into 2019 with a cast that includes Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, and many more.

Set in Tulsa, the series picks up more than 30 years after the comic's ending and explores what the world looks like now. We'll see a widely regulated America with strict laws on everything from personal tech to gun control. A cult of white supremacists calling themselves "the Seventh Cavalry" — and wearing ink-blot masks like the comic's antihero Rorschach — is attacking the police, who are still working alongside heroes. 

Confused already? Don't worry, that's Lindelof's goal; even the original's mega-fans won't know what's happening right away. "I want Watchmen to be accessible for people who didn't have an intimate familiarity with the comic. I figured I'm probably doing my job right if everybody is equally confused by the pilot," Lindelof says with a laugh.

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The 46-year-old breaks down his latest creation.  

How did you get into the Watchmen comics?

Damon Lindelof: I was 13 [when they first came out]. My dad handed me the first two issues and said, "You're not ready for this" and walked out of the room mysteriously. There couldn't have been a more provocative way to introduce me to it. 

(HBO)

What was it that you connected with?

I like mysteries, and traditionally, comic books don't really do mysteries. Batman, Superman, the X-Men — they fight bad guys. But Watchmen started off with a murder. That hooked me. Also, the level of sophistication to both the writing and the art. I felt like it was much smarter than I was, and I still feel that way. 

You've mentioned that Watchmen served as an inspiration for Lost. How so?

First, the idea of nonlinear storytelling. Then, in [the comics], there is Doctor Manhattan, who experiences time all at once. The idea of the island moving through time was hatched out of Watchmen. Also, the Lost episodic construct of [focusing on one character's story came] from the Watchmen model of each issue focusing on one character. 

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The series is set in the present day. Police wear masks to conceal their identities and smartphones don't exist. What else can you tease about the alt-world we'll see?

Robert Redford has been president for 27 years because they've abolished term limits. We thought that would be an interesting way of looking at America. One of the concerns about a liberal being president is that the government would overregulate. That is certainly one of the explanations for why there are no cellphones or personal computers.

The police also have very limited access to firearms. As the show goes on, we'll see other things that the Redford administration has imposed, some of which are probably good for society, and some not so good. 

(HBO)

The series also deals with sociological issues. Did you intend for the story to be so relevant to today?

Yes. The original is a lot about the state of anxiety surrounding the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. I felt in order for this to be [true to] Watchmen, we had to deal with something that was happening in our world and filter it through that alternate history. 

Which comic characters who appear in the show will surprise fans the most?

Adrian Veidt, otherwise known as Ozymandias — we're very cutesily just saying he's in the show. There's rampant speculation that Jeremy Irons may be portraying him. I can neither confirm nor deny that, but the internet is a sophisticated bunch, and I would say Jeremy's take on that character may or may not be revelatory.

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And we've confirmed that Jean Smart is playing Laurie Juspeczyk [an FBI agent in the TV version]. She's evolved into more of a cynic with a really mean humor streak that is totally great to watch. 

Viewers of Lost and The Leftovers know that your shows can get a little…weird. How weird does Watchmen get?

I think we need to warn people that — this is a spoiler alert to the original comics — the ending of the original Watchmen is that a giant alien squid is teleported into the middle of New York City, and it results in the deaths of 3 million people. [Ozymandias] does this to save the world from nuclear annihilation, and he is successful.

So, if I can be that weird [in what I write for the series], that's what I'm aspiring to. On a scale of 1 to 10, if giant alien squid is a 10, I'm going all the way for 10.

Watchmen, Series Premiere, Sunday, October 20, 9/8c, HBO