A Candid Conversation With Father-Son TV Writers: Nick Cuse of 'Watchmen' and Carlton Cuse of 'Locke & Key'

Photographed by Damon Casarez
"When the right thing comes along for us to do together, we’ll know," says Nick Cuse (right) of someday co-writing with father Carlton. They were photographed May 12 in Sherman Oaks.

The son sits down with his dad — the prolific screenwriter and showrunner also behind 'Lost' and 'Tom Clancy’s Jack  Ryan' — to reflect on their craft, their mutual experience working with Damon Lindelof and how they’ve developed their bond over the years: "We're excited for the moment to write something together."

Damon Lindelof may be the obvious creative common denominator between ABC's Lost and HBO's Watchmen, but there's another bloodline pumping through the veins of those television masterworks: Carlton Cuse and son Nick Cuse, veterans of the heralded island drama and the recently launched (and allegedly concluded) comic book adaptation, respectively.

Just as Carlton Cuse mentored Lindelof in the late 1990s through Nash Bridges and the pair eventually joined forces as co-showrunners of Lost, starting in 2004, Lindelof has gone on to serve as a mentor of sorts to the younger Cuse, whose writing credits include some of the most exhilarating episodes of not just Watchmen but also of HBO's The Leftovers. The hour in which Justin Theroux's Kevin Garvey traipses through an ethereal world trying to thwart an assassination attempt? Tip the cap toward Nick Cuse, co-writer of that hour as well as the riveting season (and potentially) series finale of Watchmen.

The father and son sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about their careers as writers, their observations of each other's practice across the years, their mutual experience with Lindelof and a shared fascination with pulling teeth.

What are your first memories of your father as an artist, Nick?

NICK CUSE I feel like the earliest memory is not a specific one but just this image that was recurring from as long as I could remember, of my dad sitting at a keyboard, playing musical scores. He had a CD player and a beige Windows computer, and he'd be sitting there with the music playing, clacking on the keys and then sort of thinking to himself and talking under his breath out loud and then just typing again — and then stopping and then talking and typing. I was like, "I guess that's what my dad's job is."

CARLTON CUSE It was only about seven degrees from insanity.

NICK Yeah, but you can say that about writing in general. You're only ever seven degrees from insanity.

CARLTON I have to speak my dialogue out loud, to see if it has rhythm and if it makes sense and it actually flows. I probably do look like a crazy person from the outside.

Carlton, do you still listen to scores while you write?

CARLTON I do, yeah, but not at all phases in the process. I find writing to soundtracks to be incredibly evocative … less so when I'm rewriting, but definitely when I'm starting out and I'm exploring the idea of the movie. [The score] depends on the projects.

NICK I feel like you're always listening to an action movie thing …

CARLTON I try to fit to the genre. John Williams is clearly a master, but sometimes his stuff is so good and so ubiquitous that in some ways, I can't throw myself out of his movies to write my stuff.

NICK It's weird; I don't listen to any music when I write. I like it to be quiet. I'll listen to scores when I'm taking breaks from writing. I'll go walk around the block, listening to a score on Spotify, thinking about what I was doing, then sit back down again and start writing without the music. That's my new, improved, better, younger, faster, stronger version of the Carlton method.

CARLTON Exactly. "I'm not going to do what my dad does, I'll just improve upon it significantly!"

Watching your father type away, listening to music … when did you start emulating him? Were you writing as a kid?

NICK Definitely. I loved making stuff up from as early as I can remember. It started with Legos and Playmobil and action figures, where I would spend hours silently playing on the floor, even though what was happening in my mind was not that far off from what writing a movie or a story is. I was writing all of the time. I've found old stories that I've written as a kid. Early on, I thought it was fun and realized I could entertain people in this way, that it was something I had a knack for. Then it became me making videos, little narrative movies with my friends when I was 12, right when iMovie started to exist.

CARLTON All through his teenage years — mainly with his friends Max and Justin — Nick was making movies. I would drive him over, pick him up and get to hear snippets about their adventures. I remember one time picking him up and he'd clearly been swimming. He told me they were filming underwater in a swimming pool. They were always engaged in these crazy adventures, running around all over the place, making these little movies. It became apparent to me that Nick was not only having fun doing this but actually experimenting with the craft.

NICK I remember always showing stuff to my dad to get feedback, but I don't think we really talked too much about story until later on in life. That's a part of our relationship that bloomed when we were adults. There wasn't a lot of film school [when I was a kid], but he was always leading by example. You always want to do the opposite of what your dad says when you're a teenager; that's part of it. I used to think, "My dad makes procedural TV shows, and I make short films. I'm going to be Quentin Tarantino. We're doing very different things." But now it's like we're two dentists who love talking about teeth all day for hours and hours and hours, calling each other during the week to talk about his job and my job and compare the two.

CARLTON Wouldn't it be better if we were dentists?

NICK You would be a good dentist! (Laughs.) I wouldn't be a good one at all.

Carlton, do you have any memories of seeing your son on one of your sets for the first time?

CARLTON When my kids were teenagers, I was making Lost, and they would come on vacation to Hawaii and get to hang around on the set and go to all these beautiful places where we were filming. Nick was always really interested in what was going on there. It was a cool exposure for them. I remember sitting in video village and Nick asking a million questions. He had an intense, insatiable curiosity about the process and always had a question and another question behind that question.

NICK I was so lucky to see how [a show] gets made. For me, it just felt like a thing people's parents did as a job. I can only even conceive of how distant that might feel, to be someone who didn't have parents at their high school who were entertainment lawyers, studio executives and actors. That was a tremendous privilege on my part.

CARLTON I knew nothing about Hollywood before I came out here. I always loved movies. I spent a lot of my time in college [at Harvard] going to the Harvard Square Cinema and the Brattle Street Cinema, these two movie houses that showed art movies. The revelation moment for me was when the filmmakers of the movie Airplane! came to my college and screened the movie. I was like, "Oh my God, that's right … there are people who write and direct movies for a living." That was when the lightbulb went on for me. I thought I could come out to L.A. for a couple of years and try to be a writer — and if it didn't work out, I'd go to law school, or perhaps practice dentistry.

NICK Carlton Cuse, DDS! It has a great ring to it.

CARLTON I showed up in Hollywood cold and worked as an assistant to a studio head and didn't know anything about the world or the business. I had to learn it all on the fly. In some ways, I felt like I had this great teaching opportunity with Nick. He was a sponge, absorbing so much about what was going on, asking so many questions about the process.

Nick, do you consider The Leftovers your first real foray into television?

NICK One hundred percent. I worked as a TV executive's assistant before that, but on the first season of The Leftovers, I was a writers' assistant, which is basically like the court stenographer, sitting in the room and writing everything down. That whole year, that first year with Damon on season one of The Leftovers, was the most instructive period of my life.

Your first writing credit is "International Assassin" from season two, which you co-wrote with Damon and is considered by many to be the best episode of the series. Not a bad first at-bat!

NICK I got lucky. You need a good pitch. I knew I was going to get to co-write an episode toward the end of the season, and we knew Kevin Garvey was going to some place to get rid of this ghost who is haunting him. We started with this very traditional afterlife desert space where he sees his mother and himself as a young boy. One day we were breaking for the day and Damon took me aside and said, "Do you not want to write this episode? Because I can tell you hate it — and I hate it too." We went back to the drawing board the next day, and he was like, "What if Kevin wakes up in a hotel room and someone has a sniper rifle pointed at the president of the United States?" We were all laughing, but it was like a creative dam breaking. We were skating downhill the whole episode. It was just so fun from that point on. It's amazing that got to be my first, and it's still the thing I'm proudest of, for sure.

CARLTON My jaw was just hanging open at the audacity of that episode. As with all great storytelling, I was fully caught up in the narrative, and at the end, it hit me: "Damon and Nick wrote that thing together. That is amazing." One of the most incredible parts of my entire Hollywood experience is this circle of having mentored Damon as a writer and then having him mentor Nick as a writer. It's indescribable. I can't even articulate it. I well up inside with these feelings about it.

NICK You're the same [number of years] older than Damon as Damon is to me — 15 years.

The numbers are good!

CARLTON Damon is not only an incredible writer, but an incredible human being. I feel like the path we've traversed together across our lives and our careers has been made so special by this circle of shared experience, from me hiring Damon as a baby writer on Nash Bridges to our incredible collaboration on Lost to then giving Nick the opportunity to write on The Leftovers — and Nick earned his promotion. I promise you, it's not something Damon would give away to anybody. Seeing their relationship flourish and lead to collaborations on a couple of shows and movies … it just fills me with such joy and pride.

Lost explored several themes over the seasons, including the impact of fatherhood across generations. Carlton, how do you think being a father has impacted your career as a storyteller?

CARLTON Damon and I both had very complicated and difficult relationships with our dads. It was the emotional fodder of what we were exploring in the show. One of the larger things I vowed and wanted to do in my life was to not repeat that, to have a better relationship with my children than the one I had growing up with my own father. Nothing gives me more of a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment than my three kids. It's especially gratifying to see Nick, having decided to follow in my footsteps and become a writer, and to see how great a job he's done at that. There are definitely larger forces at work about fatherhood in terms of how I want to lead my life.

Looking past The Leftovers and Lost, you're both involved in television series based on widely loved comic books: Watchmen and Netflix's Locke & Key. What's the key to the adaptation process?

NICK I really don't think you can do a successful straight-up adaptation of a story that was in another medium — like, trying to directly transpose it. It's like a poem that was written in another language. It doesn't matter if the words are the same, it's never going to work the same way, and you'll never get to create something special. You have to be willing to break the thing you're adapting. It's very scary and hard. It's probably why Damon decided not to adapt anything from the original Watchmen [graphic novel].

CARLTON If you're not scaring yourself at least a little bit, you're not pushing yourself enough. In my own sick way, I relish the challenge of taking something on like Bates Motel. "You want a sequel to the movie Psycho, when all the previous attempts didn't work out?" The answer, for me, was yes. I love that challenge. For Locke & Key, it was a torturous journey to the screen. It was a situation where there were passionate fans ready to pounce if they didn't like it. But the fear and the adrenaline that arises in those situations is a critical part of the creative process.

Any questions for each other?

NICK I have one: What's the most fun and dialed-in part of the writing process for you?

CARLTON I liken being a showrunner to being a decathlete. You don't have to be the best at any one thing, but you have to be really, really good at 10 different things. Some days you're focusing on breaking stories and other days you're worrying about the budget and how to produce something on a schedule. But it's the one-on-one collaboration with a fellow writer — whether it was the creative conversations Damon and I had every morning at work on Lost or inventing story with Kerry Ehrin on Bates Motel or working hand-in-hand with Meredith Averill on Locke & Key — that one-on-one process gives me the greatest joy.

NICK When I was watching Watchmen, I was so impressed with the whole process, because I wasn't involved in the producerial stuff beyond when we finished writing. I remember seeing the end of an episode and thinking, "Oh my God." I think when I was a kid, I thought, "Oh, these [shows] are made by these singular geniuses, auteurs who do it themselves." And really, it's not that. Someone has an idea, someone else writes the script, you pass it to Regina King to do the scene, someone does incredible visual effects, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross write an incredible piece of music to it, someone directs it all perfectly …

CARLTON That's the great thing about television. It's a collaborative art form. The further I get in my career, the more focused I am on the alchemy, those revelatory moments where you see something that's just so much greater than you could have ever imagined.

Do you expect to work on discovering some of those alchemic moments on a project together someday?

CARLTON Very much so. It might be the thing I'm most excited about, for this journey to lead to that moment where we write something together.

NICK In the past year, we started talking about it in a more serious way. When the right thing comes along for us to do together, we'll know.

CARLTON We need to come up with a really good show about dentists …

NICK Hmm, they've already done the dentist who kills people …

CARLTON Maybe a show about dentists in the Star Wars universe?

NICK I feel like that's really unexplored territory. There are all sorts of teeth!

CARLTON "And that was the end of both their careers."

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.