Nicole Kassell knows good television. You can sense that when you tick through her résumé, a robust and impressive collection of titles: Westworld, The Americans, Better Call Saul. For the last decade, she’s worked hard directing episodes of these shows and busting down gender barriers for women in media. But it was her work on HBO’s The Leftovers that changed her career in a major way. It introduced her to showrunner Damon Lindelof, whom she’s now collaborating with on an adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal 1987 graphic novel Watchmen. Kassell directed the first two episodes of the show and also serves as executive producer, meaning she’s intimately involved in major creative decisions. Ahead of the pilot’s premiere on HBO, Kassell chatted with Nerdist about working on the show and what viewers can expect.
There was one scene from the pilot that we really wanted to discuss with Kassell, and it’s not the much-talked-about prologue or even that shocking ending. Rather, a unique action scene that felt unlike anything we’ve ever seen on TV—or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s a sequence that, as we learned during our conversation, is both a riveting set piece and a bit of a thesis statement for this new take on Watchmen.
Major spoilers for the pilot episode of Watchmen below
The pilot, titled “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” (which takes its name from the song “Pore Jud Is Daid” from the musical Oklahoma!) introduces us to a very different version of modern day Tulsa: police wear masks to protect their identities; racial power structures seem in reverse—most cops are black, and are hunted by a group known as the Seventh Kavalry, a white-supremacist terrorist organization who wear Rorschach masks, their philosophies inspired by said character.
Luckily, there’s a team of masked detectives led by Regina King’s Sister Night, a former cop, hoping to snuff the Seventh Kavalry out. In the pilot, Sister Night follows a breadcrumb trail and discovers a Kavalry compound where a massive shootout takes place. It’s a thrilling sequence set at night in a field, where cows are used as shields, and blood and bullets fall like rain.
“It was the weirdest sequence to read and to wrap our heads around,” said Kassell of the sequence. “It’s very funny and disturbing.”
But it’s not just there to be gross-out fodder or to shock audiences. Kassell explained that setting these cows in the middle of a violent shootout was a different way to show the “horrors of violence.”
“It was very important to me that the cows would not simply just die, but that there’d be suffering,” she said. “We’ve gotten so desensitized to seeing humans massacre. Making it innocent cows was a way to wake [the audience] up.”
Kassell said the scene was full of technical challenges, as you can probably imagine. Some of the cows were real (“Who knew that cows like to lie down and sleep at night?” she joked.) so keeping them awake and functional was difficult. “The real challenge was once the gunfire started. Describing it to the actors, and having to talk them through what would be happening. How the cows would be stampeding, or the bullets shredding a body.”
The Seventh Kavalry members end up escaping on a plane, so the mission is ultimately unsuccessful. But the moment isn’t just a one and done action set piece; Kassell explained that this whole sequence explains a lot about what this version of Watchmen will be.
“It’s kind of a pinnacle moment, this one scene taking all of the different tones throughout the episode, if not the season, and saying these are all going to live in the same space,” she said.
Violence. Oppression. The cost of innocent lives. This is Watchmen. We can’t wait to see where it goes next.
Featured Image: HBO