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[This story contains spoilers for season one, episode two of HBO’s Watchmen, “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,” as well as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel on which the show is based.]
“That was definitely a highlight of the series.” When all is said and done, Watchmen viewers may agree with director Nicole Kassell’s take on one specific scene from the HBO drama’s second episode: the all-too-revealing stage play known as “The Watchmaker’s Son,” based on the life and times of the infamous Doctor Manhattan.
The scene comes toward the end of “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,” directed by Kassell and co-written by series creator Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse. In it, Jeremy Irons’ still-unnamed “Lord of the Manor” directs his servants Mr. Phillips (Tom Mison) and Ms. Crookshanks (Sara Vickers) in a play based on atomic scientist Jon Osterman’s transformation into an atomic demigod. It’s a scene ripped straight from the pages of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel, albeit with adjustments made for the play’s low-fi quality.
“I’ve never directed a play before, so I finally got to direct a play,” Kassell tells The Hollywood Reporter about bringing the scene to life, which was filmed very early on in production; all of the Wales-based “Lord of the Manor” sequences were written and filmed before the main Tulsa-set portion of the season commenced production in Atlanta.
“I had two days to shoot the whole thing,” she continues. “It was very tight. We storyboarded very meticulously. The set design… it was this beautiful old barn. We knew we wanted to pay homage to the comic book, but this was a world where everything had to be created from this location [of the manor], so it had to have a handmade feel. That’s why it’s a high school-caliber play.”
A high school-caliber play means high school-quality acting, as Kassell notes: “Everything, every scene, is approached by who these characters are and what’s true to them. Sara and Tom were playing characters who would not be good actors, but would take their work so seriously. It’s their goal in life, making [the Lord of the Manor] happy; it’s what they’re meant to do. And [the Lord] wants to hear his words performed perfectly. He wants to see ‘real tears, Crookshanks! Real tears!’ So it really came from who each character is. And then there are the two delicious reveals.”
Listen to the Series Regular: Watchmen podcast for a deeper dive into the HBO drama:
The second reveal is the one with more staggering implications for the television series’ story: Mr. Phillips and Ms. Crookshanks are but two among an untold number of duplicate versions of themselves; whether they are clones, robots or something else entirely remains unknown at this point, but there are enough of them that the Lord feels he can kill them mercilessly and painfully. As Kassell notes of the scene where Jeremy Irons kills his first Phillips by setting him on fire: “The whole scene is supposed to live in tribute to the comic — but it’s also dark and twisted. Tonally, it should be really funny.”
But it’s the reveal after the Mr. Phillips murder that draws immediate attention from those who are familiar with the Watchmen source material, and indeed even those who are not. While the actors’ performances are intentionally rocky, the general shape of Doctor Manhattan’s origin remains intact in “The Watchmaker’s Son,” specifically the character’s most iconic body part: his blue penis, featured frequently throughout the graphic novel as depicted by illustrator Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins, and now presented in full-frontal prominence in creator Damon Lindelof’s adaptation of the comics — at least in the form of one of the many Phillipses.
“It was hilarious to film, because we were actually filming that sequence in Wales, and I had two male camera operators who were a bit proper,” Kassell recalls. “I wanted to start on the feet, and then the body goes through the frame, and then when we get to his head, we go down with him. And they were like, ‘So you want us to start on the feet, and go down?’ And I was like, ‘No!’ So I had people blushing, but it’s exactly how I wanted it framed, because it’s [in celebration of the source material].”
For what it’s worth, THR spoke with Mr. Phillips himself, Tom Mison, as part of a longer piece (apologies) about his character’s reveal (apologies again), and the actor noted that he did not perform the nude scene: “I’m grateful to say my body double did that. He spent about four hours being raised and lowered, naked, completely painted blue.”
As Mison points out, a lot of effort went into creating the moment that plays as a love letter to longtime Watchmen fans — and as Lindelof tells it, there was never any doubt about including it in the television series.
“When it first broke that I was going to do Watchmen, the number of emails and texts I received from very close friends to casual acquaintances — all the Watchmen fans — all of them said, maybe 25 different communiques, all said: ‘Are we going to see a blue penis?'” says Lindelof. “That’s what they all said: ‘I just want to get this request in early. I want to see a blue penis.’ And I was like, ‘Of course! Yeah, of course! This is what I would be texting you, if I heard you were [making Watchmen].'”
As a testament to Lindelof’s experience, Kassell says: “My assistant director told a funny story about her kids picking up the book by accident and screaming, ‘Big blue penis!’ That’s what stands out to people. I was really thrilled that Damon embraced it.”
For Lindelof, presenting a nude Dr. Manhattan was never in doubt, but he still had a question: “Was there a way to do this with some degree of absurdity and comedy, while at the same time acknowledging the source material?” He found his answer in the form of “The Watchmaker’s Son,” which fits comfortably alongside the greater themes he’s hoping to explore in Watchmen.
“There’s this idea of appropriation, and there’s another idea about adaptation,” he says. “What if a character in the show was adapting Doctor Manhattan’s origin story to another medium? And what if that medium was the stage, and they have limited resources by which to do their stagecraft?”
And once again, we’re in high school territory, as Lindelof explains: “One of my favorite movies of all time is Rushmore. I would think about Max’s remake of Apocalypse Now. I felt like we had to take a slightly Wes Anderson take that tonally fits within our bandwidth, and that it shouldn’t be too well-written. By episode two, we’re not quite ready to tell you who Jeremy Irons is playing, except that he’s playing exactly who you think he’s playing — and while that person may be the smartest man on earth, it doesn’t mean he’s the best writer.”
As for Jeremy Irons, the man tasked with playing the aforementioned “mystery” character? When pushed by THR on the subject of “The Watchmaker’s Son,” the Oscar, Emmy and Tony-winning actor immediately breaks into a laugh and offers the final word on the matter: “I was pretty surprised, I have to tell you. But I was delighted, too. The bizarre is so entertaining.” Such is Watchmen.
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