For 20 years Watchmen has been lauded not only the Holy Grail of the comic book genre, but also its poisoned challis. This graphic novel set in an alternate 1985 where Tricky Dick is still President, heroes don’t have superpowers, and an entire meta-fiction can be woven into the fabric of a neo-noir murder-mystery. A comic book that takes on themes of human determinism, the loss of innocence, nihilism and apocalypse. They said it was unfilmmable.
Years of Development Hell passed by, seeing Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass all attached to direct at various stages until in 2006 Zack Snyder got the call that would send him on a three year journey to this point, sat in Sydney’s Intercontinental Hotel with a journalist also a long way from home.
When I met Zack he is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm on this first leg of the press tour. A one point in our interview he stands up and paces a little, gesticulating with his all of his arms and hands to convey some point how crazy all this is whilst talking a dozen words a second. It’s infectious and it is in this moment I can see how this Zack Snyder could have be entrusted to direct such a treasured property as Watchmen – it's not completely tangible, but it is absolutely apparent,,,
This is the first leg of the press trip then?
Yeah, these are our first interviews for the world. It’s good practice: you get all the crazy shit.
How are you feeling about the film now it’s completed?
It’s pretty exciting for me. Honestly, we’ve been working on it for three years so it’s good to have it come out.
Can you remember the first time you read the Watchmen?
It was in '88 was when the book was first novelised; I missed it as singles for whatever reason, my friends were all reading it. But Watchmen really had a big impression on me, it’s weird and interesting, I haven’t analysed it too carefully but it was one of the few things at the time that – I was in film school at the time – I didn’t think about making it into a movie. I was like it is its own thing and it can’t be a movie. So it was odd when the time came around it was me they called to say ‘hey, do you wanna make this into a movie’? Cos I’d thought about everything else, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, Sin City, everything that came out I was like ‘I can make that into a movie’! But Watchmen for whatever reason I was like ‘man, I can’t make that into a movie’.
How did it feel then that day when they turned round and asked if you wanted to come do that with them?
It was scary. I got the first call from the studio actually, 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’ [laughs hard]. 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’. The process was really about me trying to make them realise that it was based on a graphic novel and that it was something that was important to me.
That being said Warner Bros have done something special here in that you weren’t a name director at the time, the budget has been huge, R-rated, no A-listers in the cast…
Absolutely, 300 hadn’t come out yet, they didn’t know. They absolutely have done an amazing work; I mean the movie is bizarre and challenging and violent and sexual. It’s right out there. My editor and I would sit around and we’d be like… I remember when we first screened my director’s cut of the movie he looked at me and I looked at him and said ‘How are they going to release this movie? This is a crazy movie’. And I was just talking about distribution, this movie is going to play on like 5,000 screens in America. That is an assault on pop culture on an epic level. And a movie like this which I defy any 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. I really think they have done an amazing job of keeping the movie intact.
How difficult a balancing act has that been content-wise? Obviously there are massive political undertones, thematically themes of humanism, determinism, and science, all on top of the violence and so on – how hard was it to honour and stay true to these element of the novel?
I think that was the process of making the movie to be honest. In a lot of movies the process is making sure the performance are real… it’s interesting because I never really thought of it from that perspective, cos normally the job of the director is to make sure there is truth, reality in the moment. Maybe he is designing shots, maybe he is thinking about story, but you know the moment-to-moment job is ‘yeah, that was real’. I never had that job, my job was never like ‘yeah, that was real’ [Snyder gets up from his chair for water and start punctuating his insights with his hands] because the movie is symbolic a lot of the time. You are constantly measuring tone, I was constantly going ‘gosh, did that feel, inexplicably Watchmen’, which, you know, is crazy hard. The most things I felt was geared around that inexplicable quality the movie had to have.
And hitting all those notes, they had to so specific because the characters are so fleshed out in the book, and it seems to me like you have struck the right tone with Rorschach and The Comedian and Dr Manhattan. Obviously Rorschach drives the story and Comedian is really important to so many of the most significant themes, they all are really but The Comedian in particular...
The Comedian is so super-important. You know, 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 I would have: if you cut out The Comedian’s funeral, Dr Manhattan on Mars and Rorschach talking to psychiatrist you really streamline the film. That’s a way to really get the film [snaps his fingers] smoking along’. And I’m like, ‘well that’s a superhero movie, that’s a bad superhero movie that’s what that is’.
For me it was really important that The Comedian’s funeral we get that feeling he was all of their fathers in some way, he’s literally Laurie’s father but in the end he is all of their fathers. That idea of that influence he has over all of them, breaking down Dan, losing all of his idealism about what they are doing and basically planting in Adrian the seed of that the only way to win is to go all the way and also identifying with Manhattan that he has lost his connection to humanity.
Two of my favourite scenes, and it ties into what I wanted to ask you about the music choices, the opening scene with Nat King Cole, but especially the choice of Simon and Garfunkel’s 'Sounds of Silence' for the funeral, a song because of The Graduate that I always associate with the loss of innocence, American innocence specifically, and so bittersweet… it played to the whole contradictory nature of The Comedian…
Exactly. We had a great shot from the title sequence that I didn’t put in that I had to cut because it was just so long. One of them was Blake raising the flag on Iwo Jima by himself. It was just this awesome shot of him raising the flag and these two planes fly over him and I just thought it was interesting because it was the peak of his innocence. From there the atomic bomb drops on Hiroshima and I really tried to use that moment to begin the loss of innocence for American culture, and world culture by the way because that is the moment that you can mark in time where everything challenged. Adrian’s idea of killing hundreds of thousands to save millions is illustrated exactly in real life.
And it’s so interesting that this dystopian Captain America is the one who cracks…
You mean Blake? Absolutely, under that stress he becomes a monster. In some ways he goes through this naïve innocence to the complete opposite. He is completely broken and unimpressed with the world to the point of disdain.
To what extent do you think the Comedian is the sane one in this story then? While everyone else is completely insane he has a perfect understanding of it all…
That’s the argument that Rorschach makes at the end you know about who The Comedian is and I think it’s a strong argument. Look, Rorschach is insane, one of the lines I took out of the movie was the line, Debbie wanted me to take it out and I begrudgingly did, because I didn’t want people to think I was homophobic or anything because clearly I’m not, but the line where he says “possible homosexual, must investigate further” with regard to Adrian Veidt. And the reason I like the line is because right when you’re thinking you really like Rorschach and thinking he’s awesome, like ‘he’s my man’, suddenly he’s this homophobic psychopath. And you have to re-evaluate constantly how you feel. Those are the things the film does for me, right when you start to like a character or you start to think you understand them, they do something that makes you go ‘oh fuck, that’s right he’s a Nazi’.
Was that then the most controversial element of the book then that you had to translate for the film…
Well the attempted rape was a huge deal for the studio…
Which you guys have gone all the way with, I'm mean, that's a wow scene...
Yeah, all the way, it’s pretty hardcore. I just felt like if we were going to do it we had to go all the way and illustrate it. It doesn’t serve anyone, least of all the story, if you sugarcoat it. And also Blake killing the pregnant woman by the way was another huge deal. The studio were just like ‘what the fuck’? The problem is that moment is Manhattan’s, Blake could do that all day long, he’s going to walk out the door and kill someone else. But this moment is for Manhattan, Manhattan does nothing and that’s what is so interesting.
Well I just got my wrap up sign…
And I know I’m ranting, sorry.
It’s ok. So the book and the film are this fascinating examination of the human condition. How important do you this story is today? The book was written 25 years ago, and it’s still so relevant…
It’s incredibly relevant. When I first got the script it was updated to the war on terror, sending Manhattan to Iraq. ‘Are you kidding me’? I thought this is the lamest thing I ever read. It made the metaphor, it made the book irrelevant in some way 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.
And the book is supposed to be an alternate universe anyway…
Absolutely. I was like, don’t you think it is way more powerful then us trying a comment about me trying to make a comment about the war in Iraq? What the fuck do I know really? I’m not on a political TV show commentating about politics, I’m just trying to comment on the human experience, which the book does really well and allows those metaphors to then say ‘that makes me feel this way about the war in Iraq’. That’s much more powerful to me than my point of view on the war in Iraq – who gives a fuck? It’s me, what do I know.
The book is amazing well written. A reporter asked me, ‘now that Barack Obama has been elected President, do you feel like the movie is less relevant’? Wow, that’s really optimistic, it’s only been a couple of weeks. I mean I hope that’s true – it’d be awesome if the movie became obsolete because we were living and everyone was holding hands and singing songs at the end. Is that a post Veidt world or a pre-Veidt world?
That was one of those things I found very fascinating, the cyclical nature of the world, now the Russians are coming back and things are crazy – it never finishes. The book really points out, so we have Vietnam, we have Iraq, we have the Cold War with the Russians, we have the war on terror – there is no end. Just like in the end of the movie we see, “I know what Jon would say.” That line in the graphic novel is given to Manhattan, “Nothing ends, nothing ever ends.” But it is interesting coming out of Laurie’s mouth because it comes at the very end of the movie and because of the cyclical nature of things it’s not the very end. It’s closure but it’s not at all. Sorry, I didn’t mean to rant.
Watchmen is released in cinemas March 6, 2009.