Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian in Watchmen
Years of warning that Watchmen, the headiest and most popular graphic novel of all time, was unfilmable didn't stop director 300 Zack Snyder from diving in head first with his own respectful yet wild vision. So how did he approach this multi-layered and subversive deconstruction of the superhero? He kept the essence of the alternate reality about a legion of twisted crime fighters trying to stop the world from nuclear annihilation, he retained plenty of sex and violence along with the predominantly purple color palette, and he layered on his own pop cultural references (including Taxi Driver, Dr. Strangelove, Apocalypse Now and "The Times They Are A-Changin'"). With the March 6 release date soon upon us, we spoke to Snyder about making Watchmen come alive on the big screen.
Fandango: What was the biggest challenge making Watchmen?
Zack Snyder: For me, design, the technical, the visual effects, the cinematography -- that's all one thing. But the hardest part… was the tone of the movie. I'm obsessed with tone. And I wanted to make a movie that was satirical and also serious at the same time. You want the movie to be self-reflexive but not let the viewer off the hook completely with…
Fandango: The minutia of details?
Snyder: No, if you feel like it's a complete satire, then the problems aren't real and they're all manufactured to make a cultural point and it doesn't matter. But if you can make it slightly self-reflexive where there's an idea [that's] not totally in my face, then it's trying to break through. We didn't do anything by mistake -- that's the thing that's interesting about Watchmen.
Fandango: Talk about storyboarding the entire movie.
Snyder: I boarded the whole movie over a five-month period starting on the first shot of the yellow car with the black Warner Bros. logo all the way to the last shot… and that was in a single long push. Actually, the movie version that is the storyboard is much longer than the script. That is the same process I did on 300 and Dawn of the Dead. And it's the same one that I've used making TV commercials for 15 years. You have the idea but when you actually draw it and actually visualize it, it becomes something else. But my point is only that what we intended for every aspect of the production was completely premeditated -- if it was murder, we'd all be in jail.
Fandango: How did the main title sequence come about? It's not in the graphic novel, yet it wonderfully compresses the alternate reality from 1939-1985 that sets up the movie.
Snyder: From the very beginning I wanted to do a cool title sequence for the movie and it was actually the thing that got me started drawing Watchmen because they were trying to figure out how much this movie was going to cost. I said it's really impossible to say until I start drawing the movie and a get a sense of what the movie is…So I literally went to the beginning of the movie and started drawing. It was funny because I had the music -- I was pretty positive that it was going to be Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Then it started to take shape for me as we really find out where we are in the world, and that's how that sequence came about, tracing the alternate history. I shot a bunch that we didn't use because it got too long, like The Comedian raising the flag on Iwo Jima by himself and Nixon being sworn in.
Fandango: With the theatrical cut running 161 minutes, how much more can we expect from the director's cut?
Snyder: The director's cut is around three hours and 10 minutes. There were some things we had to cut like Hollis' death [Night Owl from The Minutemen]. Actually, it was easy to take out without destroying the movie. Anything else, when we were at that point, was like a house of cards. And, of course, the funny thing is that when I was getting ready to shoot the movie, [the studio was] like, "We've looked at the script and we feel we've identified three areas where you can cut: The Comedian's funeral, Manhattan goes to Mars -- nothing happens there -- and you don't need to interrogate Rorschach -- you don't need to know anything about his back story. I said, "Look, if you cut out all those things, which you absolutely could do… I would wager a lot that this would just be a plot-driven movie… and this is not the movie I want to make."
The point of the movie is to go on all those tangents in a superhero movie and you either like that or you don't -- but it is what it is. Without that, you might as well as make X-Men or Fantastic Four.
Fandango: The whole point is to subvert the genre.
Snyder: Absolutely. And those were the most difficult sequences because they were the most abstract… it was intellectually and physically difficult and things that fall out of the usual storytelling rules.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of Animation World Network (www.awn.com)and VFXWorld (www.vfxworld.com). He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, USA Today, Wired, Variety, Editors Guild Magazine, Below the Line, and Premiere, among others.
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