Back in 2004 director Nicole Kassell was enjoying one of those rare Hollywood Cinderella stories. Her first feature, the haunting and atmospheric The Woodsman, had not only snagged bona fide movie star Kevin Bacon in the lead, but was a genuine hit on the festival circuit, from Sundance to Cannes to Toronto. It was the kind of breakout moment that landed many of her male contemporaries billion-dollar action and comic book franchises. But that’s not what happened to Nicole Kassell.
Instead, Kassell had to wait seven years for her second feature, the Kate Hudson dramedy A Little Bit of Heaven, to hit theaters. Lambasted by critics and grossing a scant $15,000 in its tiny release, the movie landed Kassell in “Jail. Hardcore. Like deep, deep dark jail,” she told Vanity Fair in a recent phone call. “It’s through my work in television that I’ve kind of clawed my way out.”
As the executive producer and director of HBO’s Watchmen, Kassell is working for the second time with Damon Lindelof, after directing several episodes of his previous HBO series The Leftovers. Though she’s been working fairly steadily in television since 2011, Kassell said “when I did the first episode of The Leftovers I felt more like I was making a feature than I had in awhile.”
Television is commonly dominated by “the culture of the showrunner,” as Lindelof describes it. “Obviously I’ve benefited tremendously as a result of that shift which happened around the late ’90s.” But even as many people have talked and written about his TV shows as if they had sprung, fully formed, from his head, Lindelof himself is not interested in hogging all the credit. Talk to anyone who actually worked on Watchmen, and you’ll hear them mention Kassell—“Nicky”—in almost every creative decision made along the way.
And that’s been the case for other directors Lindelof’s worked with too, from Lost directors-producers Jack Bender and Stephen Williams to The Leftovers’ Mimi Leder, a woman who famously wound up in her own movie jail after directing 2000’s sentimental Pay It Forward. “I’m not being modest when I say Jack was running Lost with Carlton [Cuse] and I. Mimi was running Leftovers with me. Nicky was running Watchmen with me,” Lindelof said. After Leder directed the fifth episode of The Leftovers and Linedlof saw the dailies, he flew from L.A. to New York and begged her to stay. But Kassell has been Lindelof’s closest partner on Watchmen even earlier than most.
Lindelof superfans already know that Kassell’s calling card for Watchmen is one of the most talked-about episodes from the final season of The Leftovers. “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” follows Christopher Eccleston’s character, separated from the rest of the cast, on a sea voyage involving a lion sex cult (yes, really) and, possibly, God himself. It was an especially, delightfully bizarre hour in a bizarre season of television, and Kassell grounded all the madness in an emotionally pure performance from Eccelston that carried audiences all the way through to the episode’s stunning conclusion.
As soon as Kassell heard Lindelof was doing Watchmen next, she bought the beloved Alan Moore–Dave Gibbons graphic novel and put it on her bedside table. And there it stayed, unread, for a year. “I decided not to read the source material until I was onboard because I felt since I wasn’t a fangirl, that let me preserve my objectivity,” she said. “Knowing that [Lindelof] is a fan and that Watchmen is so in his DNA I wanted to not be beholden to it.”
As soon Kassell told Lindelof she was interested in working with him on the Watchmen pilot, he asked her if she would stay onboard and be his creative partner on this show: “It was clear it was important to him to go on that whole journey together from the beginning,” Kassell said. She spent a year and a half in Atlanta helping to oversee every step of production, setting the show’s visually striking tone in the first two episodes and sticking around to consult with visiting directors, weighing in on everything from production design to costume choices. By then, yes, she had read the book.
Kassell’s inspirations for her initial pitch—based off Lindelof scripts rather than the book—were Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 conspiracy classic The Conformist as well as prestige near-future sci-fi-like Children of Men and Blade Runner. (She also worked in some Rihanna.) “I felt like it was a visual equivalent of the song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ You have so many different musical genres in one piece that should not work but somehow the way it all comes together is an extraordinary song, one of the best of all time. I felt that’s what the pilot had the potential to do.”
But once Kassell had read the graphic novel, she developed a pet obsession with working visual cues from the panels of the comic. “What was really fun with each episode was studying the source for literal shot inspiration because, to me, that was a fun way to pay homage for the fans,” she said. “You know, finding frames and transitions that are echoes of something the book did and that only true fans would know. It was like: Here’s a little candy.” One subtle example: a bowl and whisk arranged to look like an owlish mask from the original book, which, much to Kassell’s delight, caught the eye of fans when it premiered in the trailer earlier this year.
“That’s not scripted,” Kassell said. “That’s us just creating. I was making the prop guy crazy because I was like, I need two red placemats. Being really meticulous. If it was an inch off or a millimeter off. I feel like my OCD was seriously unleashed.” Kassell’s knack for these delicate visual Easter eggs dazzled even the most die-hard Watchmen fans on set: “Our set dresser came running up to me one day. He had a frame from the book and he held it up to the monitor and he’s like, Is that on purpose? It was like, Yeah.”
According to Kassell and Lindelof, Watchmen was conceived as a response to the 2016 election and its political and cultural aftermath. The nature of that response is made much clearer by later episodes including a showstopper hour of television directed by Lindelof’s old Lost collaborator and Watchmen executive producer Stephen Williams.
Working on Watchmen in the current political climate, “I felt this other relief as an artist,” Kassell said, “Like everyone else, I was reeling since the election. What can I do? How can I respond? When I read this I was like, This is it. This is where I can put that energy.” There’s a palpable sense of relief in her voice as she talks about how the show is not only liberating for an artist Hollywood put on the shelf too soon, but for a human worn out from living in Trump’s America.
That energy has helped Kassell and Lindelof cocreate some of television’s most compelling, confounding, and dynamic episodes—and with Kassell “aching” to do another feature film, Watchmen should keep her career on an upward trajectory it deserved 15 years ago. In other words, Watchmen should be Kassell’s Get Out of Movie Jail card.
“You know, jail is jail,” she chuckled. “It’s nice to leave.”
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