Photo: HBO's Mark Hill
Photo: HBO's Mark Hill

HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ mostly shot in Georgia - but not that castle

Originally posted Saturday, October 19, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

This is spoiler free. HBO has already released some basic plot points, which I will include. 

Georgia can cover a lot of territory as a place to shoot. It’s masqueraded as New York, Miami, the Ozarks, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles and New Orleans, to name a few.

But there are limits to what the state can provide - like a medieval castle. HBO’s sprawling, big-budget drama “Watchmen,” debuting Sunday amid largely positive reviews, features Oscar winner Jeremy Irons playing an eccentric wealthy man residing in a massive castle and riding around on a majestic white horse.

That castle is real, not CGI. And HBO had to travel to Wales to shoot it. “We looked everywhere in Georgia,” to no avail, said Nicole Kassell, executive producer and director of the first two episodes. “We did shoot interiors and nature landscapes in Georgia” for some of Irons’ scenes.  

The series, based on a successful 1980s comic book, is set in an alternative 2019 universe where the U.S. won the Vietnam War, superheroes have been marked as vigilantes and banned, Robert Redford has been president for more than 26 years and the Internet does not exist. And people still use beepers and answering machines. 

The cast is packed with well-known actors including Regina King, Jean Smart, Don Johnson and Louis Gossett Jr., who moved permanently to Atlanta last year. 

“Watchmen” is largely set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where masked white supremacists killed so many cops, the cops began donning masks themselves. The question is: who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy really?

HBO shot the pilot 16 months ago and the other eight episodes earlier this year. For Kassell, the show gave her a chance to work again with show creator Damon Lindelof, known for two other metaphysical dramas “Lost” and “The Leftovers.” 

“It’s important what he is saying and addressing,” said Kassell, who has also directed episodes of “Westworld,” “The Leftovers” and “The Americans.” “As a filmmaker, the canvas is massive. I knew it was going to be a huge physical challenge and a long, long shoot. I also knew that it’s very rare that content like this comes along with this cast and crew.” 

“Watchmen” - which went by the code name “Brooklyn” while shooting and features  flashbacks going back decades - shot all over the Georgia. Among its stops: Midtown and downtown Atlanta, Peachtree City, East Point (a trailer park scene), Jonesboro (for a dock scene set in the 1950s shot in March) and Decatur. (Iberian Pig restaurant in the square is readily seen in the trailer).

Interior shots were done largely at Atlanta Metro Studios in Union City. 

A Vietnamese street fair was set in Griffin in April since in “Watchmen,” Vietnam became the 51st state in the 1970s. 

There is an entire episode based in New York City in the 1930s shot largely in Macon in May. And the opening scene -re-enacting the 1921 Tulsa race riots when white supremacists ransacked a black neighborhood - was shot in Cedartown in Polk County. 

That scene was also the first one that “Watchmen” producers did.

“It was emotionally intense,” Kassell said. “It was a very profound way to start. Our first day of filming was the 97th anniversary of the event. We had a priest come to set to bring us together to pay honor to the victims of the massacre and be supportive of each other and set the tone.” 

Ultimately, she said Georgia was “a good fit for Oklahoma. The big difference is there is much more foliage and density of trees in Georgia. But this is an alternative universe. In this one, Tulsa has done better. It’s growing. When the squids fall on the overpass, the skyline has a lot more building than the real Tulsa.” 

She said given that this world is very much like our own yet not at all like our own means every reference, every visual cue, every sound means something.

“I wrote a book with rules of this universe,” Kassell said. “Everyone on the crew read it.”

For instance, oil is not the primary driver in this United States. A cup in the car is paper, not plastic, because plastics are not used as much as they are in real world 2019. The cars are largely electric and last a lot longer, meaning a greater variance in the age of vehicles on the road. “There’s a different approach toward consumerism,” she said.

Photo: CR: Mark Hill. Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen in "Watchmen."

The key protagonist in the early going is King’s Angela Abrah, a former cop about to open a bakery. Angela has a supportive husband and a son. But she is also a lot more than that, including her undercover persona Sister Night.

King - who won a best actress Oscar this year in “If Beale Street Could Talk” -  is able to embody this extremely complicated character with realistic discernment. “She’s got maturity and badassery and vulnerability,” Kassell said. “She can play every shade of anything.” 

Smart’s character’ Laurie Blake is an FBI agent who is equally complex with a close connection with the mysterious God-like figure Doctor Manhattan. “Jean is the older version of a main character from the source material,” Kassell said. “Jean is wickedly funny. She has a command of the comedy.” 

Photo: CR: Mark Hill Jean Smart as Laurie Blake on "Watchmen."

Ultimately, Kassell wants “Watchmen” to be not just entertaining but thought provoking.

“We grapple with issues in our culture today,” she said. “And we address issues of legacy and family and trauma.” 

On TV

“Watchmen,” debuting Sunday, October 20 at 9 p.m. on HBO

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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