First there was Lost. Then there was The Leftovers. For his next television act, Damon Lindelof dives headlong into another piece of rich mythology, one that boasts tremendous weight among the comic-book-reading crowd: Watchmen, created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, with only one of those names openly mentioned in connection with HBO's upcoming TV adaptation, debuting Oct. 20.
Lindelof and his sprawling cast (Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Louis Gossett Jr., Tim Blake Nelson and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) took the stage at New York Comic Con on Friday to introduce their vision to an audience for the first time — and potentially the final time, as Lindelof revealed the first season of the series was envisioned as a closed-ended story.
"We want to see how it's received by you guys," he said. "If the show comes out there and the conversation surrounding the show suggests you're hungry for more, we'll certainly take that into consideration. We want to deliver nine episodes that deliver a complete and total amazing story."
That revelation came late in the panel. Earlier, following the first ever wide screening of the series premiere, Lindelof admitted to some nervousness about unveiling his interpretation of the seminal graphic novel that inspired a long list of artists — Lindelof included. Nerves aside, his latest work was met with roaring applause, especially for series lead Regina King as Sister Night.
"Watchmen has an incredible emotional connection for me," said Lindelof, who was approached by HBO to adapt Moore and Gibbons' graphic novel three times before he said yes. "I got very jealous that they would do it without me, even if I said no. It would be nine o'clock on a Sunday night, I would see the HBO logo and wish I had something to do with it. I said no because I was scared. What was missing was the idea."
"I have such reverence for the original material," he continued. "The idea of doing that again was not something I wanted to do. I thought, Watchmen was written in the mid '80s, was about the mid '80s, and was very much of its time … I asked myself, what happened 30 years later? What happened to Adrian Veidt after he saved the world? What was this life like after an alien squid dropped on it? What if Robert Redford, who had run for president, won?"
Lindelof cracked the answers to those questions alongside a robust writers room, developing a nine-episode season of television that he warns will be controversial for some. With that said, Lindelof said he would have struggled to move forward without King leading the cast. The Academy Award-winning actress is at the forefront of the marketing material for Watchmen, playing Angela Abar, a police officer who boasts a masked identity: Sister Night. King says Lindelof sent her a direct copy of the pilot script, which even included an envelope hidden within the pages. It read: "Don't open this until you get to this page. Don't cheat!" The contents of the envelope: an artist rendering of King as Sister Night. If she wasn't already on board, she was all the way in at that point.
"It would have been awkward if you said no," Lindelof quipped.
"I've never seen this world," said King, who said she grew up idolizing comic book heroes such as Wonder Woman and Firestar. "I've never seen this woman before. She's so complex. You may have heard me before in interviews talking about complex roles, but she blew me out of the water. How could I not say yes?"
Jeremy Irons, who is playing a character HBO will only officially describe as "Probably Who You Think He is," says he was recruited into the Watchmen fold during a 90-minute lunch conversation with Lindelof.
"I ate and listened and understood about ten percent of what he was saying," Irons said. "He was talking about this graphic novel world, about which I knew nothing because I live in England and I am over 45, and somehow that whole world had passed me by. But he was introducing me to it. I was fascinated. At the end of the lunch, I thanked him for his time and left, and he gave me a bit of the script, which I read. It amused me hugely. I thought it was a very interesting character. Mainly what I thought was, that man I had lunch with has such energy and enthusiasm. I don't know what he's going to do or what he's going to make, but if he thinks I can be of some help? Then I'm aboard."
The identity of Irons' character remains a poorly kept secret; assuming "Probably Who You Think He Is" is indeed who you think he is, he's not the only character from the original Watchmen in the TV series. Also on board: Laurie Blake, aka the Silk Spectre, played in the HBO adaptation by Jean Smart. She makes her debut in the third episode of the series.
"She was drawn into the masked vigilante world at a very young age," said Smart. "She has a lot of resentment for that culture. I think part of her secretly misses it. I think she misses the excitement, being a celebrity. For a variety of reasons, she's joined the FBI and she's arresting masked vigilantes and throwing them behind bars. She has some issues."
Late in the panel, a special guest arrived: Dave Gibbons, Watchmen co-creator and artist, who first met Lindelof in 2018 at Comic-Con.
"What particularly attracted me was Damon wasn't thinking of this as a prequel or a sequel, but an extrapolation," he said. "What Alan and I did with Watchmen was ask, if superheroes really existed, what would they be like? It's a big and bold question. What Damon is answering here is, if that had happened back in 1986, what would the world be like now? That 30 years is a lot of time for a lot of unexpected things to happen. You end up a million miles away from the graphic novel but with extreme fidelity to it. There's nothing in here that contradicts the graphic novel."
"Those 12 issues are absolutely canon to us," said Lindelof. "Everything that happened in Watchmen precedes the show. If our version of Watchmen becomes a gateway for people to buy the graphic novel and read it? It's one of the greatest things ever written and illustrated. I would be happy for that."
As for the television series, Lindelof and his team have envisioned the first season — and beyond that? There may not be any more. At the least, Lindelof said he views the coming season as a complete story, not unlike the Watchmen graphic novel.
"One of the things that makes the original perfect is those 12 issues are designed with a beginning, middle and end in mind," he said. "They knew exactly what they were doing. We knew we had to do the same. We plotted these nine episodes with every mystery and question being resolved. I sometimes have a different sense of resolution than others, but we wanted it to feel immensely satisfying. We didn't want it to end with [a cliffhanger] for season two."
Watchmen debuts Oct. 20. Follow THR.com/Watchmen for more coverage.