"If the movie ends up being nothing more than a two and a half hour ad for the book, then that's cool. Right?" - Z. Snyder
The wait is nearly over. With Watchmen, Zack Snyder has adapted for film what some have called an inadaptable graphic novel. And in turn, he has created one of the most highly anticipated cinematic superhero outings of all time. After a lot of waiting, a couple of legal speed bumps, and a enormous amount of online buzz, Snyder's tour de force will finally see its way into theaters on March 6th. 2009. Never before has the geek community been so congealed into a mass of wanting. Created in 1986 by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the original twelve issue comic book series has grown into a legendary piece of literature worshipped by all. It is the only illustrated work to ever win the coveted Hugo Award, as well as the only graphic novel to appear on Time Magazine's 100 best English-language novels of the last 90 years. And its arrival at the local Cineplex has stirred up a considerable amount of interest, to say the least.
For far too many years, both the book's creators and its vast army of fans have thought Watchmen unfilmable. The tale reinvented the vigilante archetype, and it has been called a brilliant deconstruction of the superhero mythos. Set within an alternate reality version of 1985, the plot follows a group of superheroes that are investigating the mysterious death of one of their own. The United States is edging towards a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and these so-called "heroes" must deal with their own neurosis and failings. It is a unique property that has gone on to influence many other publications and films held within the same genre.
Late last year, we were invited to visit Zack Snyder's Vancouver based Watchmen set. Everyone in attendance had to agree. It was like taking a fieldtrip to some sort of fanboy Mecca. At every single turn, exhilarating gasps of awe would escape from our collective lips. It was a massive geek-out, and we were seeing a true culmination of cool coming together to form what could only be called a graphic novel on steroids. Yes, the vibe surrounding this future masterpiece was enough to vibrate the equator back an inch or two. A small tsunami formed within our group, and its swirl was all but encompassed by the actors awaiting our interview questions. As we crawled through the reconstructed New York set, we could hardly contain ourselves. Everywhere we turned, there was another piece of Watchmen history, resurrected from the pages of the book with affectionate detail. It was like an amusement park attraction. A living, breathing kaleidoscope of ink and paint that had suddenly sprang to life. It's a shame that every fan can't experience this level of intimacy with this particular project. A lot of tender loving care has gone into perfecting Watchmen for the screen.
Walking through the exterior of the New York City landscape, you couldn't help but notice Nite Owl's Owl Ship hanging from a crane above the riot scene. It had been built from cast iron and glass. At just the right angle, it looked as though it was actually hovering above the vast, brightly lit set. The entire thing is a practical effect, inside and out. A small metal stepladder led us into the cockpit. The Owl Chamber was intact, and there was even a coffee machine inside. In talking with director Zack Snyder, he made it clear that this was never intended to look like his last film 300. Every object needed to be tangible in this particular world. And it was exciting for his crew to bring the Owl Ship into actual existence.
Wrapped in a huge parka and sipping at a steaming cup of coffee, Snyder only had about ten minutes to chat with us about his film. There were a lot of moving parts that needed his immediate attention, but he had asked for a break on our behalf. Here is our interview:
How are you approaching this film? Especially as a director that wants to stay true to his own artistic impulses?
Zack Snyder: I think the graphic novel has its place in history. I think it's an awesome piece. We didn't know any other way to approach the book than respect it. And stay true to the bits that are iconic. You have to be careful what you take out, because it all means something. You'll end up with a Hollywood version of the book. In 300, there were no close-ups of anything. Because there wasn't anything to film. In this movie, there is way too much stuff to photograph. Whether it is a button or the Gunga Diner. You have to choose wisely. When I was drawing the storyboards, it didn't feel any different than the previous work I had done. Not until I started to put it all together. Suddenly I understood that we needed to get certain ideas across. With this, there are so many ideas. They all come from the culture and the environment. We have found ourselves using different tools. Because those items have different meaning. This means something to the world. Its not just fun. Sure, it's that, too. But it's about what the story says that is important.
Even Alan Moore himself didn't think this film lent itself to being adapted into a film. Would you disagree with that statement at this point?
What was the first big obstacle you had to jump over to make this movie happen?
Zack Snyder: I'm not sure. When I sat down to talk about it, I told them I didn't want to make it. Because it seemed like too much. It got to the point where they said, "If you don't do it, someone else will." That's when I decided I had to do it. After that decision came, I had to chip away at what was established before I got there. Everyone thought we had the movie. It was about the war on terror. It was 2007. I had an entirely different idea in mind. The challenge has been putting the book back into the movie as much as I can. I think we have gone a long way to get it back to that. Even with the dialogue, we have gone back to the book almost one hundred percent.
Do you think people will perceive this as just another comic book movie?
Zack Snyder: No. Part of the genius behind the book is that, in the last twenty years, the cinema audience has moved to where the comic book audience was. Where they have bankrupted their own way of telling stories. Maybe the Dark Knight or this came along, and people said, "Fuck it. Okay. You've been nice enough, long enough." I think that all of these comic book movies have informed the audience at large. They know the origin story, the myths, the super powers. My feeling is that I am going to, I hope, move audiences with this film the way they moved the comic book audiences with the graphic novel. I've said this before, but I don't know if it is true. If we made this right, it will make all other super hero movies harder to make. I really do believe that. You can't gloss over the "Why?" anymore.
Dan's brownstone was literally across the street from the "Creepy House". Its topography was exacting to the comic book. Made of busted red bricks, it smelled of apple pie. The kitchen and living room were decorated with Owl themed bric-a-brac. The house had been built out of real materials, and the floor was made of real tile. There was Owl spoon holders, and Owl saltshakers. A few old comic books were spread across the keyboard of an old computer circa 1985. Under Dan's thirteen-inch Zenith was a stack of videocassettes. For anyone interested, Nite Owl II had recently rented Cabaret, Robin Williams Live, Brian's Song, and an Adults Only video. On the fireplace mantel was a black and white photograph of the Minutemen. There was actual food in the refrigerator. It had been there for a while, and it was starting to stink. Apparently, Dan had been gone for a while at this point. This was as close to crawling into an actual comic book as we'd ever get.
Actor Patrick Wilson plays Dan Dreiberg, a retired superhero that utilizes Owl themed objects in bringing his Nite Owl II vigilante persona to life. Originally based on Ted Kord's version of DC Comics' Blue Beetle, the character visually suggests a backdoor Batman when in costume, and a middle-aged, impotent Clark Kent when out of those brown and yellow tights. The suit is the only thing that helps him "get it up." Apparently, it's better than Viagra. Taking a break from filming, Wilson was more than happy to talk with us. Here is our conversation:
You had to put on a little weight for this role. How much fun was it getting to eat whatever you wanted while the rest of the cast was undergoing intense preparations?
You are a lot younger than your character, right?
Patrick Wilson: I guess. I am thirty-four. I think he is in his forties. They never really say in the book.
How familiar were you with Watchmen when you came onto the project?
Patrick Wilson: When I got the script, I had heard of the graphic novel. I had not grown up a comic book guy. But I had heard of it. As with any script that is based on a comic book or graphic novel that I have looked at in the past few years, I called my comic nerd buddy. This is a guy I have known for twenty years, and he is the authority. He knows even the most mundane titles. So I called him and told him that I had the script for Watchmen. I ask, "What do you got on this?" His response was just, "...Oh, god!" This is a direct quote. He said, "If you are ever to do a comic book movie, this is the one to do!" Joking aside, I take that very seriously. While I didn't grow up in that world, I certainly understand it. And I understand his passion for it. I read the script first, prior to getting the graphic novel. I was like, "What is this?" I was fascinated by it, because it was so different from anything else I had ever read. Then I went and got the book, and I loved it. I didn't read it and think of Rorschach. I read it and thought of Dan. I think all of us have that connection with our characters. The characters that we play are our favorite characters. That's why it's good. You don't ever want the other guy's job. Seriously, I was blown away by Dan.
Can you discuss your costume?
Patrick Wilson: It has kept the spirit of the graphic novel. The cowl is a little different. It is much more Batman-esque. That is the point, I think. The color scheme has stayed the same. We are still in browns and yellows, and different shades there of. Some of it is bronze, I guess. It is a great look. We played with a lot of different goggles. I have been looking for those moments where I get to pull the cowl and goggles down. Just little moments that you don't see in the book too much. It has been fun discovering those little moments. It is the humanity in the suit. That's the thing. That's the show.
Do you have a lot of action in the film?
This is all taking place in a very real world. Does that help you create your character?
Patrick Wilson: It makes it easier to communicate with Dan. I knew from the script that it was going to be a very actor friendly film. You can find your performance in the details. You guys know, because you are fans of it. This view of New York is New York in the 80s. How can you not have it as a practical effect? When the graphic novel came out, it changed everything. So you have to remain true to that. You have to have the porn and the seediness of it.
Was it a conquincidence that Jackie was in this movie with you?
Patrick Wilson: I got so excited that he was on board. It was such a long process. We were just doing press when this started to happen. I called him from here, and I was just so excited that he was going to do it. I love Jackie.
Speaking of Mr. Haley, Rorschach himself came upon our little group. The lower half of his body was decked out in costume. Though, his signature mask was nowhere to be seen. He had a few moments before they needed him to take part in the electronics store riot. Wilson and Haley exchanged niceties before Patrick headed off for a much needed hot shower. One of the prop masters ran over and gave Jackie a one-of-a-kind Rum Runner shirt. It was pretty awesome.
Any fan of the Watchmen comic knows that Haley is playing Walter Kovacs. When he dons his clothe mask of constantly shifting ink blotches, he becomes Rorschach, a vigilante that continues to fight the good fight despite his outlaw status. He is the book's signature character, and a fan favorite. For a while, the producers thought of hiring a classically handsome leading man to play the part. But after an eight-minute audition tape arrived on their stoop, they knew there was only one man that could truly do justice to the role. And that man was Jackie Earl Haley, an actor just coming off an Academy Award nomination for his work in the film Little Children. Here is our conversation with Jackie:
How did you approach this character?
This is a very unique character. You get to make a statement about the vigilante archetype.
Jackie Earl Haley: It's like they say. It is the deconstruction of the comic book genre. It is really fascinating. Especially when you start talking about Bruce Wayne and Walter Kovacs. They are completely different, but they have some similarities. Bruce was able to assimilate into the real world. He found a little tweak, and was able to go there. For Rorschach, the vigilante life is all he's got. This is literally his life. He is the only one that didn't quit during the Keene Act. This is his life.
How difficult was it to bring Rorschach's voice to life?
Jackie Earl Haley: We worked on it quite a bit. We ended up with a voice that we'll all hear when we go see the movie.
How did the casting process on this film work? You sent in an audition tape, right?
Jackie Earl Haley: At first, it looked like they were going to go a different route with the casting. As I'm sure you are all aware. As they were examining those different avenues, it seemed as it might be going in that direction. But then my manager and my agent got wind that the casting might be shifting a little bit. So we didn't wait. We made a tape and sent it in. Rather then waiting for them to come to us. I didn't want a hiccup to get in the way. I thought it was better to get a tape in there. So they had it if they wanted it, rather than having to wait for it. I basically went through the script, and I picked out a couple of different things. From that I made an eight-minute tape.
In the graphic novel, we don't know that Walter is Rorschach for the first part of the story. Is it going to be harder to hide you in the film before the mask comes off? How is that going to be handled?
Jackie Earl Haley: I'm not sure. That is a question for Zack. We are working on all of that. The process still has to be edited. I don't know how recognizable I am to the general public. In terms of my face, they might not know who I am. There will be a small percentage of fans that know me. The book readers that have already read the script have pointed something out. You can put anybody in this part, because I am holding the sign. He holds the sign, so it doesn't matter.
Can you talk about acting with a mask over your face for a great deal of the time?
Do you interpret Walter and Rorschach differently?
Jackie Earl Haley: Just a little. Mostly, no. To me, there is no Walter. There really isn't. Even looking at him as a third party. When I look at the IMDB page, I see that they have me playing Walter/Rorschach. And that drives me insane. They should just have me playing Rorschach. Right? I'm a different person. I am a third person looking in. And I did notice that a little piece of you gets vested in the character, no matter what that character is. I know that from meeting Dave Gibbons and going to dinner with him. I was so giddy, I felt like a little piece of me was going off to meet one of my creators. That little vested piece of me that is vested in Rorschach felt like he was visiting one of his parents. I was like, "Wow!" How cool is it to sit and chat with this guy who one day, between him and Alan, were staring at a blank piece of paper and said, "Let's do this." ?
Did you talk with him about the character?
Jackie Earl Haley: Yeah. We talked at length.
One of the comics has a psychologist talking with Walter. The theme of that session was, "If you look into the abyss, the abyss starts to look back at you." Do you find that living with a character this dark is hard?
Jackie Earl Haley: In little pieces it is. I'm pretty good at walking away from it. When I played Ron McGorvey, it was so daunting on a personal level. When they said wrap, it was hard to walk away from that guy. When they say wrap on this, it is a lot easier for me to walk away. But every once in a while, there is something that comes out a little too Rorschachian. And I realize it. And I'm like, "Whoa, that is not me." One time we were working out, and it came from my voice. I sounded like him. It just came out in Rorschach's voice. I didn't mean to do that.
Is Rorschach a sane man in an insane world? Or is he an insane man living in a sane world?
Are you prepared for the level of scrutiny that comes with playing a character like this? When fans talk about Watchmen, they talk about Rorschach the most.
Jackie Earl Haley: I think they are going to talk about all of the characters. I think they are going to focus on us all. I don't know how to answer this question. I have the greatest amount of passion for this project. I feel lucky and fortunate to be Zack's choice for Rorschach. All I can do is study the book, study the character, become vested in him, and do my all to let his psyche seep into mine. I have to understand him and sympathize with his actions on some level. All I can do is go for it. At every moment, I am trying to be accountable to this story. I want to do the best work I can. It is such a beloved work. And I want to honor that.
Afterwards, we made our way to The War Room. This was a sanctioned area where all of the conceptual artwork had been wrapped around four long walls. Looking at each piece in sequence certainly gave a distinct feel for the film. And the costumes are immaculate. Apparently, the shooting date had to be pushed back to get the costumes just right. Michael Wilkinson, the man in charge of bringing each hero's look to the screen, explained the process, "When you do a super hero costume, there is all sorts of research you must do. It is a hugely complicated procedure. Not only do you have to take in all the material from the graphic novel, and study the very detailed personal history behind each persona, you have to technically make these costumes work for both the actor and the technically challenging stunt sequences that they have to get through. Usually, films have a lot of time to develop these costumes. And they only have one hero. We had six, and we see them through many decades. We see them develop from the early days, in the 30s and the 40s, right up until 1985. It was a huge challenge."
Malin Ackerman, the actress behind the only female hero in this group, talked about the subtleties of her latex bodysuit. In the film she plays Laurie Juspeczyk (aka The Silk Spectre), and her costume demands a certain sexiness that only skintight rubber can provide, "Let me tell you a little bit about Latex. It takes on the temperature of whatever environment you are in. We were shooting in a warehouse, and when it's this cold, it feels like an icebox in there. They're ready to roll, and you take off your jacket. And it feels like you are standing outside naked. It is not fun. But once you get into doing these fight sequences, its great. I am the one laughing all the way home. Because Patrick is dripping with sweat. Their costumes are really hot. It's also not comfortable because you feel like you are wearing an elastic band around your body. Because the latex is really tight. But you get through it. And it looks good."
What was your introduction to the Watchmen?
Malin Ackerman: I didn't know about the Watchmen. I read the script, and had no idea that it was based on such a popular graphic novel. I only found out after my agent told me. The script was phenomenal. I loved it, and I loved the character. I thought it was a cool concept. It wasn't until after I got the part that I got the novel and I read it. I read the novel and went to Comic Con in the same week. And I was blown away. I mean, "Ahhh!" It is amazing. At that point, I started to feel the pressure. It is an amazing novel. It is an amazing script. And then it has this huge fan base. And a great cast. I don't want to disappoint them or the novel. That was my introduction to the novel. The casting is amazing. Everyone looks like their character. It is incredible. It blows my mind. When people told me that Carla Gugino was going to be playing my mother, I thought, "She's so young! She can't be my mother." But when she came out, and we did that scene together, she looks like she is sixty-seven years old. Nobody could stop staring. She really looked like she was sixty-seven. It was scary. She wasn't very excited about that. She was jumping for joy when she got out of that make-up. It is pretty crazy. There was all this stuff mixed in. She's too young, we don't look alike. I knew there was going to be wigs and make-up, but its not until you are in those things when you go, "Wow! This is magic." It is really, really cool.
What sort of special work out program did you have to endure?
Malin Ackerman: We started prepping for this way back in August. I was sent a personal trainer. The first time I worked out, I almost threw up and peed my pants. It was so hard. I have never worked out so hard in my life. Sorry for the graphic explanation, but that's what it felt like. The reason for it is to get into this feeling of being able to take over the world. We had to feel like super heroes. There is a difference when you go to the gym. You feel like you can take on anything. There was that aspect. Once we got out here, we started our fight training. It was definitely something else. At first it was hard and very frustrating. These stunt guys are amazing. They show you how to do a stunt, and it looks incredible. Then you see yourself doing it in a mirror, and you look like a ballerina. You get really frustrated. You think that you'll never be able to do it. We worked to get it as close as possible. So we aren't using the stunt guys as much.
Are the fighting styles different for each character?
Malin Ackerman: Very Different. That is why they have this team of martial artists. We are all learning something different. Everyone gets their own style. For Laurie, there have been a lot of backhands and elbows, and twists. There have been a lot of punches and kicks. I can do anything at this point. Bring it on.
How has it been working with Billy Crudup and his suit?
Watchmen Set Visit Image #12Malin Ackerman: The first day it was really hard not to giggle. Here he was in this white leotard and Christmas lights. And he has these spots all over his face. After awhile, you get used to it. Billy, who is so sweet, bless his soul, is a little shorter than Dr. Manhattan would really be. So he is always on an apple box. We have to stack them as he walks. It's interesting, because your eye line has to be up. I was curious how it was going to look, since he is this blue light. But they have done an amazing job.
What about the part where Jon and Laurie have a three-or-four way?
Malin Ackerman: Yeah. We did that. That was interesting. We had one of Billy's stand-ins in a costume. He was very sweet. There were only two of them in bed with me. I wasn't completely undressed, and it was all right. It was done very graphically. There was a shot of his hand holding my leg. And a shot of my hand grabbing the sheets. It isn't full on. It is just the beginning of a sex scene. It works out really well. And it looks really cool. I think it is amazing. Its three crazy men in blue light suits in bed with me. "All right, let's all get in bed!"
Are you ready to become a geek goddess?
Malin Ackerman: I think I can handle it. I say, "Bring it on!" I've never been that before, so I'm looking forward to it. I am really exciting about the action figures. I hope they do that so I can show my grandchildren. It is pretty cool. This whole experience has been out of control. Its really one of those pinch yourself moments. This whole experience has been incredible to be a part of. It really, really has.
Her words couldn't be truer. Visiting the set of Zack Snyder's Watchmen was truly a once in a lifetime experience. And it was one of the coolest practical landscapes we've ever gotten to walk through. The film promises to be something quite special. And I know you can't wait to see it. Watchmen opens March 6th, 2009. Buy your tickets now!