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Watchmen - The Secret Life Of Superheroes

Author: Scott Henderson
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

20 years in the making, Watchmen is finally nearly upon us. 3D’s Scott Henderson met director Zach Snyder and members of the cast to find out what it was like making the Citizen Kane of graphic novels…

“I think he did it man: he made the unfilmable novel,” declares Jeffrey Dean Morgan clasping his hands, smiling and leaning in conspiratorially. “That’s an amazing thing to say, the unfilmable novel, and everyone has been saying it for 20 years. I saw it and he did it.” The unfilmable graphic novel was, of course, Watchmen and the man who made it is Zach Snyder.

In September of 1986 DC Comics published the first of a 12-part series by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons to be released monthly. Watchmen was a huge critical and commercial success culminating in the series collected as part of one graphic novel, which Time magazine would eventually include in its list of 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present. For 20-odd years Watchmen has not only been seen as the Holy Grail of the comic book genre, but also its poisoned challis. This comic book story set in an alternate 1985 where Richard Tricky Dick Nixon is still President, featuring superheroes with no powers, a noir murder-mystery, an entire meta-fiction within; this comic book that takes on themes of human determinism, the loss of innocence, nihilism and apocalypse.

Some 18 years of Development Hell passed with Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass all attached to direct at various stages until in 2006 Zach Snyder received a phone call. “I got the first call from the studio,” begins Snyder recounting his memory of that fateful day, “they said ‘we’ve got this thing, Watchmen, would you be interested- We’ll send it over’. I was like ‘send it over, what do you mean-’ The guy says to me ‘well, we’ve got this script, it’s called Watchmen, I think it’s based on a graphic novel’. Really, you think it’s based on a graphic novel – that’s scary. These are the things you hear and think ‘man are we in trouble’.”

And while many agree that David Hayter’s script was an impressive attempt to translate the graphic novel there were certain elements that had to go, primarily his updating of the Cold War of 1985 to a war on terror. “It made the book irrelevant in some way,” Snyder says, “because what it did to me was it said, ok, the movie comes out in a year and who knows, America leaves Iraq and Iraq is its own country. Suddenly the film has no relevance.”

This was just the beginning of many battles the director would have to win to realise a film version that not only honoured, but that was true to the novel. Snyder though was lucky to be working with Warner Bros., the one major studio in Hollywood that seems willing to take a risk today, and producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin who had been working on Watchmen property since 1986. Of Gordon and Levin, Debbie Snyder (wife of Zach as well as production partner) says: “They are awesome, supportive and complete experts. They’ve been down the road so many times and have read the graphic novel probably more than anyone else out there.”

When Snyder signed on to the project 300 hadn’t even been released yet with his only other directing credit the Dawn of the Dead remake. Nevertheless Warner Bros. saw fit to authorise a $120 million budget, no A-list actors, a hard R rating for brutal violence, a two and half hour runtime and a comic book movie that was practically a ‘think piece’ as much as it was anything else. This kind of thing is so unheard of it’s practically insane.

“They absolutely have done an amazing work,” says Snyder of Warner. “I mean the movie is bizarre and challenging and violent and sexual. It’s right out there. I remember when we first screened my director’s cut of the movie with my editor, he looked at me and I looked at him and said ‘How are they going to release this movie- This is a crazy movie.’ I defy anyone to show me a movie with more male full frontal nudity in it, more real sexuality, pretty stunning violence and that’s just all the visual stuff let alone the intellectual challenges it presents too.”

One of the cast’s more recognisable names is Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Grey’s Anatomy) who plays Eddie Blake, AKA The Comedian, AKA a really nasty piece of work. The other ‘names’ donning masks for the movie are Jackie Earle Haley as the iconic Rorschach, Malin Akerman as Laurie Juspeczyk, AKA Silk Spectre II, Patrick Wilson as Daniel Dreiberg, AKA Nite Owl II and finally Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan. Sure you’ve heard of Crudup, but he spends nearly the entire movie looking like a naked, radioactive member of the blue man group, says Akerman, “Poor Billy, everyone just laughed in his face.”

Snyder, it seems, had to defend every inch of the graphic novel in order to maintain each of the characters integrities. If The Comedian wasn’t a complete bastard or Rorschach a psychopath the film would lose so many of its layers. “The Comedian is so super-important,” Snyder explains. “These are the kind of meetings you have. Again the studio has done an amazing job, but you can imagine the knee-jerk reactions where they are like: ‘listen, I’ve read the script, here’s a suggestion: if you cut out The Comedian’s funeral, Dr Manhattan on Mars and Rorschach talking to the psychiatrist you really streamline the film. That’s a way to really get the film [snaps his fingers] smoking along’.”

As it is, the famous comic book within the graphic novel Tales of the Black Freighter had to be omitted from the theatrical release (along with a few other small elements here and there) but will come out on DVD along with Hollis Mason’s Under the Hood account of the original Minutemen (as the Watchmen are known in the book) later in the year. And Snyder has said that his director’s cut is a further 20 plus minutes, taking a final all-up DVD runtime of three hours and 24 minutes.

“I don’t know anyone else who could have done it other than Zach,” says Morgan, buzzing on the caffeine that’s keeping him alive. “I’m still pinching myself and I was a part of that thing. And I’m The Comedian, come on… holy shit!”

Watchmen opens 5 March.