Watchmen

HBO’s limited series Watchmen reimagines the world of the classic 1987 DC Comics graphic novels created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Series creator Damon Lindelof – who has racked up a string of industry accolades including 10 Emmy® nominations and one win for his work on Lost – led the series, which premiered last October.

The story follows Detective Angela Abar (Regina King) as she investigates the reemergence of a white supremacist terrorist group inspired by the long-deceased moral absolutist Rorschach. The plot is set 34 years after the events of the original comics within the same alternate history timeline where masked vigilantes are treated as outlaws.

To edit the nine-episode series, Lindelof tapped long-time collaborator David Eisenberg along with editors Henk Van Eeghen, ACE,  and Anna Hauger. Eisenberg – who was nominated for a 2020 ACE Eddie Award for his work on the Watchmen pilot episode “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” – recently spoke with CinemaEditor about cutting the series’ wonderfully complex story.

CinemaEditor: How did you get involved with Watchmen?
David Eisenberg: I have a long relationship with Damon, dating back to Lost where I started out as a PA and then worked my way up to assistant. I’d stayed in touch with him and basically begged him to put me on The Leftovers. Our friendship has grown over the years, so when HBO signed off on this, I had become one of his guys, so that’s how it all ended up shaking out.

CE: It’s a complex story. What was the overall creative directive that was initially discussed with Damon?
DE: One thing we discussed early on was to not hold back. We have a unique opportunity to do something really fun but also send an important message. Damon and his writing team made the bold decision to tell this story about race in America housed in the strangeness of the Watchmen universe. It was a duty for all of us to get it right and be as respectful as possible. I remember reading the pilot and being overwhelmed with emotion reading the opening that sends us right into the middle of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. It was so raw and powerful and those feelings only increased when our director, Nicky Kassell’s, amazing footage was shot. That event happened 99 years ago this week and seems even more relevant than ever given the injustices we’re continuing to see right now.

So, for me as a white male, I questioned whether this was my story to tell, and honestly I don’t really think it is. But since  I have the privilege of cutting this I need to get it right. The best I could do was be as informed and as engaged as possible. Damon never gives strict demands on creative direction heading into something because he has tremendous trust of the people he’s put  in place to execute the story. Respect, thoughtfulness, consider all sides especially those different than yours … these were the types of creative directions we discussed the most.

CE: Could you describe your workflow?
DE: Editorial was based at Lantana in Santa Monica while production shot in Atlanta, but we never went there. The ARRI Alexa media was processed overnight, so we’d have everything early inthe morning. My assistant, Anthony McAfee, would come in and get everything ready, so I could hit the ground running first thing in the morning. There wasn’t much wasted time.

CE: How would you describe the editorial style that you were going for?DE: Given that there was source material in the comic and there was a [2009] movie, I generally stayed away from the movie, just because I felt like what we were doing was really different stylistically and tonally. But I looked to the comic a lot because the book was what we were building to. It was the same world as the comic and an extension of that as much as possible. I watched a lot of 1970s paranoia films, but I can’t say exactly how I used them as a reference – things like The Conversation or Three Days of the Condor. There was just something about those movies but nothing really specific. I think it was this notion of okay, here’s this problem we’re facing that’s right in front of our eyes but at the same time there’s something much bigger at play.

CE: You, Henk Van Eeghen and Anna Hauger previously worked on Lindelof’s The Leftovers together, how did you divvy up the work on Watchmen?
DE: Basically, each one of us would handle our own specific episodes. But it was very collaborative. We were always talking because this story was so serialized and there were a lot of elements to keep track of for the macro story. So, we were constantly showing each other stuff, and I credit Damon for being the genius that he is. He’s able to track all this stuff in his head and he really is the baseline to keep it all under control and under a unified vision. But Henk, Anna and I had to talk outside of the conversations we’d have with Damon to make sure everything was flowing together even though there were  some episodes that felt like they were pretty singular.

CE: How did the use of flashbacks impact the editing?
DE: We definitely love our flashbacks. It’s something we’ve always felt the power and creativity from in storytelling. Luckily for us in editorial, the scripts were so dialed in it didn’t require much restructuring. But something we did use a lot were these ‘flashes’ or ‘flash-cuts’ that were not scripted. Especially since our story delved so deep into ideas of memory and history these were a great way to visually show the audience what a character is thinking about without them having to verbalize it. For example, in episode 7, Angela is being treated by Lady Trieu and she’s still feeling the effects of taking her grandfather’s nostalgia as depicted in the incredible episode 6 story. She’s having these flashbacks of her time in Vietnam and at the same time being flooded with flashes of her grandfather’s experience. It was a great way to show her layered experience and gently guide the audience. We discussed this idea of the toxicity of nostalgia and, in some instances, this was a visual way of conveying that idea.

CE: Would you describe a favorite scene and how you
approached the edit?

DE: I loved so many. A few come to mind like the Tulsa riot and the Owlship in the pilot. Also, for pure lunacy, the courtroom scene that culminates in Adrian Veidt’s fart and pigs running around. But my favorite scene by far is between Angela and Will in the theatre in the finale. After the insanity of the millennium clock, Trieu, Keene and frozen squids we get this beautiful and quiet yet immensely powerful scene between two iconic actors. The scene does such a good job of wrapping up the two parallel journeys for Angela and Will and what an origin story truly means. It was pure poetry to end in the Dreamland theatre where our story began. Watching dailies of Regina King and Lou Gossett Jr. for this scene is one of my all-time best career experiences. Regina is one of those rare actors that never delivers a bad take. And Lou Gossett Jr. is an absolute legend. We probably spent more time crafting this scene than any other in the finale. Not because there were any problems but maybe because deep down we just never wanted to leave that theatre. I wanted to let the quiet moments shine and focus on pacing. Be on someone for an important line but also be on them when they’re listening because there’s a lot of power in seeing how someone is taking something in.

CE: Tell me about the role your assistant editors played.
DE: We had three assistants. My assistant [McAfee] has been with me for a long time and he is just an incredible asset for me. Yoni Reiss worked with Anna and Kevin Soares was Henk’s assistant. They were all phenomenal. I can’t say enough about the hard work that they all put in and what an integral part of the process they were, from dailies to doing sound work, and all the clerical things that go with an assistant job, but also being there as creative people to bounce ideas off of and try things.

CE: How did you work with the VFX department? Did you use previs in the rough cuts?
DE: Visual effects was definitely the biggest undertaking of this whole process. Erik Henry and Matt Robken and their entire team were absolutely amazing. In order to get the show done on time we had to lock certain sequences way further in advance than the normal chronological order of things. There were certain scenes that we shot early for the finale, not necessarily knowing what the finale would even look like. For some of the bigger sequences, we did have the luxury of previs that we used in our cuts. For example, things like in the pilot, the Owlship sequence, those were prevised pretty early. And then, sometimes we didn’t have previs just because of time constraints. But if we had it, then we used it. The whole VFX department was in our office, tracking the shot changes, so wewere able to talk them about the creative side of it too.

CE: Who were your additional key collaborators?
DE: Our post team was led by John Blair and Pam Fitzgerald and a long list of other amazing people who were integral in keeping the ship on course. I don’t want to leave out our brilliant sound team led by Brad North. Our mixers Chris Carpenter and Joe DeAngelis are as good as it gets, so they really elevated the sound of the show. And our music editor Sally Boldt, who worked closely with composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, was just phenomenal.

CE: Overall, is there anything that you want people to take away?
DE: Every show has its challenges and this one did too. But every person that worked on it poured their heart and soul in and I think all that was displayed on the screen. I have to say that Damon is a true leader and it really does start at the top. He sets the tone for everything. From the cast and crew in Atlanta to our writers and producers and post team in L.A., everyone deserves the utmost respect and credit. It’s hard to know how things are going to be received when they make their way into the world, but judging by the response, I think we did our jobs.

 

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