Damon Lindelof Talks 'Watchmen,' Alienating Alan Moore and the Failure of Fan Service

The showrunner fielded questions about his new HBO drama, 'Watchmen,' at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.
Screengrab/HBO
HBO's 'Watchmen'

There were no shortage of questions for Damon Lindelof at a Wednesday afternoon panel for his upcoming HBO series Watchmen.

On hand at the Television Critics Association summer press tour to promote the new drama, which bows in October, the showrunner responded to queries about the show's relationship to the comic on which it's based, the message it's trying to convey and the involvement (or, rather, the lack thereof) of creator Alan Moore. The very first question lobbed at the writer-producer, who previously made The Leftovers for HBO, centered on his decision to make police the victims of white supremacy.

"Thanks for starting off with a softball," joked Lindelof, to laughs from the reporters and critics crammed into the Beverly Hilton ballroom. "In all seriousness, it's actually a relief to get this question first, because it's at the root of where this story began." He went on to explain that he'd read Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Case for Reparations about five years ago, and it was the first time he'd heard about Black Wall Street and the Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riots in 1921. Ashamed he'd never heard about it before, he bought a book called The Burning, in which he learned more about it. "That was the beginning of my education," he said.

As Lindelof started to consider what his adaption of Watchmen might look like, he thought a lot about just how political the original source material was and how much it delved into what was happening in American culture at the time. "What in 2019 is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff of the Russians in the United States?" he asked himself. "And it just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America." That's when he began infusing the idea into the Watchmen universe.

As for his decision to make an institution that's historically supported white supremacy in various forms be the very victim of those ideas, the perceived contradiction was not lost on him — and it was something his writers room was acutely aware of as they mapped out the story. But he noted that those concerns are likely to be addressed by the end of the nine-episode season. "If you're asking if police are presented in a heroic light, having just seen the first episode, I think the answer is almost certainly no," he said, noting that one of the things that makes Watchmen unique is that it's not interested in talking about who the heroes and villains are. "It is an examination of institutions and culture and politics and things that inform our society."

Watchmen, which stars Regina King, Jeremy Irons and Don Johnson, is intended to live in that complexity. "There are no easy answers. There are no grandiose solutions," said Lindelof. "In a traditional superhero movie, the bad guys are fighting aliens, and when they beat the aliens, the aliens go back to their planet and everybody wins. There's no defeating white supremacy. It's not going anywhere, so it felt like it was a pretty formidable foe." As far as taking on the beloved source material, Lindelof is the first to tell you he's not sure he's doing it justice. "I went through a very intensive period of terror of fucking it up," he said, "and I'm not entirely sure I'm out of that tunnel."

One of the ideas he clung to from the original Watchmen is the fact that it's not clear what is actual history and what is alt-history, as it all blends together in the semi-fictional world. And the world of the HBO drama is not one he expects audiences to recognize. "We're using alternate history, science fiction, popular fiction to Trojan Horse themes that are prevalent in the real world in a fictional one," he said. But the 2019 of the show won't look too different than our present day in terms of the population. Robert Redford is the president of the United States and has been since the early 1990s, because in the show term limits have been abolished. "One of the things we're exploring is, what would happen if a very well-intentioned white man, a liberal, was president for way too long?"

During his half-hour in front of the press, Lindelof also touched on the fact that Watchmen creator Alan Moore is opposed to adaptations of his work. "I don't think that I've made peace with it," he said, likening it to an ongoing wrestling match. Moore has apparently made it known that he doesn't want any affiliation with HBO's Watchmen, asking the network to not use his name in the marketing, which the showrunner fully respects. Lindelof made personal overtures to explain to Moore what he was trying to do with the material, and Moore made it clear that he wasn't interested. "As someone whose entire identity is based around a very complicated relationship with my dad, who I constantly need to prove myself to and never will, Alan Moore is now that surrogate," Lindelof joked.

Of course, it wouldn't be a panel with Lindelof if he didn't mention the ending of Lost. He brought it up in response to a question about how much he thinks writers should cater to fans. "When the fans rise up and they have a certain hive-mind approach and the media culture says that there’s an empirical belief that, ‘Oh, the Lost finale sucked,’ or we are putting together a petition to demand x, y, z. That’s not all fans, that’s some fans. What their proportion is to the overall fandom is anyone’s guess," he said. He acknowledged that he still struggles with the idea of "fan service" and knowing just how to thread that needle with impassioned viewers.

"My problem remains the same, which is to make something that pleases me and the people I'm making it with. That's all I can solve for," he said. "If I woke up every morning saying, 'I need to make creative decisions based on something that's going to make the fans happy,' I don't think that I could be successful."