Perhaps best underscoring the arc of director Nicole Kassell’s career are two DGA honors which serve as chronological bookends: a short film, Jaimie, which she did at NYU’s film program, garnering the Guild’s student female filmmaker prize in 1999; and earlier this year winning the marquee DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Series on the strength of her masterful effort on the “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” episode of Watchmen (HBO).
In-between those two kudos have been plenty of other highlights that reflect Kassell’s progression as an artist, including her feature filmmaking debut, The Woodsman, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, receiving a C.I.C.A.E. art house award at the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, the Jury Prize at the Deauville Film Festival, a Humanitas nomination, and The Satyajit Ray Award at the London Film Fest. And Kassell’s episodic TV exploits over the years span such shows as The Killing, The Americans, The Following, Claws, Vinyl and The Leftovers.
The latter entailed a fruitful collaboration across two episodes with series co-creator, writer and executive producer Damon Lindelof. “I was deeply saddened when the show ended,” recalled Kassell, noting that she enjoyed “a phenomenal experience” with Lindelof on the acclaimed series.
This prompted her to keep a watchful eye on what Lindelof was up to. “He is what drew me to Watchmen,” she affirmed. “I had not read graphic novels or comics but whatever he did next I wanted to be involved in. Some time passed. I knew he was working on the pilot. I reached out to let him know I’d love to be considered. When he told me what he was planning with the show, I felt deeply and personally connected. I felt passionately about the issues he was tackling both politically and personally--like race relations in America, and the personal story of a woman needing to discover who she is. The pilot script blew me away. My imagination was just ricocheting in every direction. I felt a personal connection to the material, its political importance. It was a story that I thought would leave people thinking and talking.”
Kassell’s DGA-winning turn on Watchmen’s first episode helped set the tone of the series, meshing present-day issues with superhero themes, highlighted by an impactful tour de force performance by Regina King.
Recently reclassified by HBO as a limited series, Watchmen is groundbreaking for its different looks and genres, evident in the “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” episode alone. Kassell also broke some new ground personally, agreeing for the first time to be an exec producer on a TV show. “As soon as I signed on to do the pilot, Damon asked if I would stay on for the series. I didn’t answer until toward the end of production on the pilot. I knew it was a huge task to take on. But the more invested I got in this, I knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime...I knew these screenplays were going to be extraordinary, By coming in as an executive producer, as a producing director specifically, it allowed me to have my DNA on the series.”
Asked if the producing experience whetted her appetite for more such duty, Kassell said it will all come down to a case-specific determination in terms of content, collaborators and the timing. But generally speaking, she likes being involved in helping to creatively shape a show.
Kassell added that Watchmen stretched her in terms of its sophisticated visual effects which were unlike anything she had done before. She now has a comfort level on the effects side after taking on and completing a steep learning curve for the show.
Kassell considers Watchmen among her prime career highlights with others including: “just getting The Woodsman made which put me on the map”; her first HBO show, The Leftovers, which she said felt akin to making the big league cut with the New York Yankees; and directing an episode of Martin Scorsese’s Vinyl. She recalled being in on a tone-setting meeting for Vinyl with Scorsese, Mick Jagger and EP Terence Winter. “It was a surreal moment getting to work with some of my heroes.”
Also memorable for Kassell was getting her first opportunity to direct a pilot. It was for the series Claws, which she praised for what it’s doing with “a diverse cast, a group of women mostly over 40,” exploring intergenerational relationships and paving new paths in terms of story and characters.
Speaking of putting women to work, Kassell has seen some progress on that front. “I used to have the feeling that if I blew it, I wasn’t just blowing it for myself but for other women, that somehow it could result in a greater hesitation to hire another woman for awhile. That has really shifted. If I happen to blow it now, it can hurt me but not the gender.”
Still she feels a profound sense of responsibility even at that. Kassell noted that on the days when she feels exhausted or a little down, she pushes herself because she’s reminded that her presence on a set can be inspiring for a young woman in the camera department or a young, aspiring production assistant. There’s a role model dynamic to her doing what she’s doing. And that fuels the awareness that her work is “bigger than just me.”