As the press machine for Watchmen slowly began to start turning over, I was first in line to interview Debbie Snyder, Zack’s partner in production and in life. Her feature debut as a producer was on 300 which was made the company Debbie and Zack’s co-founded Cruel and Unusual Films (one suspect’s Zack came up with the name). In this interview Debbie reveals the plans for the director’s cut DVD to be released in July, the lawsuit that made us wonder if we’d ever see the film and Zack’s Watchmen mixtapes…
So the copy of the film I saw yesterday didn’t have credits – you guys really have been working right up to the last minute finish the film…
Yeah, you use all the time you can! The more you can steal for the visual effects, we just kept pushing it and pushing it.
How long have you been in top gear for then?
It’s been crazy. We finished shooting in February, and the other thing is we did three versions of the film. We have the version you saw which is two hours and 36 minutes; and Zack’s director’s cut which will be released on the DVD in July is three hours long; and we did the ultimate Watchmen which has the Black Freighter story that goes in and out with the newsstand stuff – that is three hours and 24 minutes I think. That’ll get released around Christmas time. I was like, wow, that’s an hour longer.
It’s almost a whole other movie!
It really is. We were trying to do it the most efficient and economically, we tried to finish them all at the same time, which lengthened our post-production a little bit.
When was the first time you read the book?
Zack was a fan but it was until Warner Bros, Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin came and said do you want to do Watchmen that Zack was like ‘oh, I don’t know’. I was not a comic book fan and he told me I really needed to read this. It really was at the beginning of our process when I started reading it and I got to the first Black Freighter bit and I was suddenly, just, woah. Zack told me to read it first skipping the Black Freighter bits, which is what I did, and then go back and read it all the way through. I think it took me two weeks to really digest what it was.
I started to do research and you start to realise all the annotated Watchmen that break down every frame, and which really intrigued me as a non-fanboy or fangirl. It’s very genre and there was question of how it’s going to appeal to a mass audience, I said I thought all the things that Watchmen does really makes it accessible only because, even if you’re not a fan of superheroes, there is so much more. There are these great characters that aren’t just black and white, it’s not like there is a bad guy and a good guy, there’s dimensions. It’s about real people with real problems and it asks bigger questions. For me this as not a big comic book fan, I didn’t think it would be possible in a comic. [The film] scared me because it was so big and it is the Holy Grail, but I also felt that there was so much more to it, it was so intriguing to me the more I learned about it.
How difficult a time have you had as a result of the lawsuit as a production company and a team just trying to put this film out there?
Listen, it’s been extremely difficult for Larry and Lloyd because really with out their tenacity, I mean if it wasn’t for them working so hard, and every time people said no and they got into production, they kept going and going. I mean it’s incredible that the movie has gotten made and it is all to their credit. But listen, no-one wants there to be a lawsuit and for us, because Zack and I weren’t really a part of that, we were in the middle of finishing the movie which, luckily for us, gave us something to focus on because we were still worried about how long it was and whether it was the best cut. So we had practical things to worry about and also not being lawyers, while I think in the back of our minds we were a little nervous, we just figured they would figure it out. It was in everybody’s best interest for the film to be released.
Lloyd Levin also published a very candid and emotional letter…
A very heartfelt letter…
Yeah, I think when he came out and said those things people realised at that point what a labour of love this movie was for himself and Larry Gordon… what were they like to work with?
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. In every way they were just perfect partners. Everyday there was knowledge that they could bring to it and they were supportive of Zack’s vision. We’ve had a really great relationship with them. Again, it’s their passion, 20 years is a long time to get something made. After a while you would just want to thrown in the towel and they just kept going.
There are so many things that make this film unique despite the fact that it is this long established product. How special is this film and how important are Warner Bros in this story considering that it’s gone out of it’s way to make this $100 million movie with no real established A-list actors, Zack as an up and coming director?
Extremely. They have been so supportive of us, even when we were making 300 I don’t think they fully understood that it wasn’t going to be another Troy or Alexander that we wanted to do something different and really transform that whole sword and sandles genre. Zack was very clear in his vision and even though they didn’t know exactly what is was going to be they supported him, and because of the success of this extremely violent film based on a graphic novel, that enabled us to move forward with Watchmen. Listen, it’s scary, it asks a lot of an audience Watchmen. It is violent and it is sexy and it is long because it has such a story to tell.
And it has intellectual depth…
And it has depth. I think Dark Knight set it up because it has changed the way we see things – it was a great stepping-stone for us. Absolutely it is unique for a studio to sit there and take a chance to do something bold. When you are in these uncharted territory it is really scary, there is a lot riding on it and a lot of money riding on it. Everyone’s inclination is to take the safe road, but I also think that audiences are becoming so sophisticated and they are so sick of things being regurgitated that if you want something new you are rewarded. Audiences are a lot smarter than a lot of Hollywood gives them credit for. I also feel that with everyone now having these huge plasma TVs at home you need to give people reason to go to the movies, an experience, because otherwise you can get you Blu-ray DVD and sit at home. The films that we make I think you want to see on a big screen.
What are you favourite memories coming of the back of making the film?
I think the first time we saw Dr Manhattan, because Zack didn’t want to just paint someone blue. We had this idea, what if we made Dr Manhattan a light source and we put [Billy Crudup] in a suit and put these tracking marks on him. It sounded like it could work… the first time we saw a test and Sony Image Works did Dr Manhattan, it was a shot of his head one of the animators had him talking we were just ‘oh my God, this could work’. It’s a moment when you realise you could pull of everything you’ve been talking about. That was a good day.
It a large ensemble cast, what were they all like to work with?
I think they were only ever all together when we took the photographs of the Minutemen and the Watchmen, which was actually at the beginning and we had Dave Gibbons there. That was a really special moment. We were really nervous because while Zack had talked to Dave a lot on the phone and Dave had drawn some concept work and the storyboards, you’re out there in Vancouver making choices and you’re aware Dave is coming, ‘is he going to like it’? There’s this nervous anticipation coupled with the fact that it was the first time we had everyone together and also the first time we had everyone in their superhero costumes, so that was exciting. We all breathed a sign of relief because Dave seemed happy.
How much time did you guys spent bashing out the decisions over the music because they are some amazing choices in there: Nat King Cole in the opening sequence, Bob Dylan in the opening credits and my favourite bit The Comedian’s funeral…
The Simon and Garfunkel… which I think is only the second time they’ve licensed that song, the first of course being The Graduate. The way Zack’s process works is that he draws every frame and when he is drawing he listens to music, that’s how he visually and sonically does that. We had a really good guide because there are a lot of references in the graphic novel to particular songs, to Bob Dylan and so whenever there was a reference we pulled the song and made a mixtape. Zack as he was drawing would get inspired by certain songs and put it on that mixtape. Actually before we started shooting when we were still working on development he hadn’t out a cd with I think 15 songs, of which 12 made it into the movie I think, of the songs that were either from the graphic novel or had inspired him as he was working on it and we gave it to all the departments to inspire them. It was kind of an interesting process with the music. Tyler Bates did the score and he had worked on Dawn Of The Dead and the 300.
Dr Manhattan’s theme was another element of the music I felt was pitch perfect…
We licensed Phillip Glass’s music for his origin story. We were playing around with it while we were working on the edit and there was something about it that was just visceral and we immediately wanted to see if we could get it because it was just perfect.
I’ve got the signal for last question so, given the themes of the film, would you rather live in a peaceful world predicated on a lie or in a world of honest good old fashioned violent humanity?
[laughs] God, well, that is the question isn’t it? Was Adrian right or was he wrong? Is he the villain or is he the hero, right? Which kind of world would I live in? God, that’s a hard one, I don’t know if I can answer that.
How do you think audiences will deal with that question? It’s still amazingly prescient…
It really is and it is one of the other things with the ending, when the studio first say it they were like, ‘you need to kill Adrian, he has to die in the end’. And there was a version of the script when we first started the movie where Adrian died and it was one of the things we changed. Zack said this isn’t Watchmen, if you don’t come out of that theatre and say was he right or was he wrong – and I want some people to think he was not the villain at all and other people to think ‘what, are you crazy’? That’s the question Watchmen asks, if you lose that you don’t have Watchmen. So it was interesting because that was a big struggle for us to maintain. The studio were like how is that going to make people feel, it’s going to make them uncomfortable. Absolutely, it should make uncomfortable. I think a lot of times Hollywood wants to tie everything up in a nice little bow and happy package. If it gets people talking that’s what you want, whether people like it or not. If it gets people to talk about it and analyse it then I think we’ve done our job. We’ll see what happens…
Interview by Scott Henderson (Feb 12, 2009)
Watchmen is released in Australia March 6, 2009
Check back in on Dark Habits for interview with director Zack Snyder.