Below is a reprint of my experiences on the set of Watchmen in October 2007. It’s re-presented to give you a little bit of context for my interviews with the cast and director Zack Snyder, published now for the first time. If this isn’t enough Watchmen coverage for you – good. I’m hitting the film’s junket this week. You’ll have plenty to read about the amazing film version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece between now and March 6th!

Interview with Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl II)
Interview with Matthew Goode (Ozymandias)
Interview with Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian)
Interview with Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach)
Interview with Zack Snyder

I
was crouched down in a jail cell and just five feet away from Nite Owl
and the Silk Spectre were smashing the shit out of rioting inmates.
They made their way down the prison corridor, punching, kicking and
flipping any prisoners stupid enough to get in their path.

Behind the camera, Zack Snyder was smiling. So was I.

I
had snuck away from the rest of the group to get a personal view of the
action. We were in an old factory in Vancouver that had been turned
into the prison where the vigilante Rorschach has been taken by the
police; old, until recently retired crime fighting friends Nite Owl and
the Spectre were breaking him out as the entire prison population was
rising up, trying to get their hands on the guy who had put many of
them behind bars in the first place.

If you’ve read the Watchmen
comic you know the sequence well. While Nite Owl (real name: Dan
Dreiberg, played by Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (real name: Laurie
Juspeczyk, played by Malin Ackerman) are fighting their way through the
riot, Rorschach (real name: I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read the
book, played by Jackie Earle Haley) is in his prison cell, being
confronted by the Big Figure, a midget crime boss and Rorschach’s
one-time arch-enemy. Rorschach doesn’t really need the help.

Before
watching the dynamic duo, in full costume, battling their way through
the thugs, I had been upstairs at Rorschach’s cell, watching an
unbelievably pumped Haley (during our interview with him he couldn’t
stop talking about his workout routine and his diet) ignoring the
taunts of the Figure, played by Seinfeld
vet Danny Woodburn. Things were about to get bloody in that cell.
Wandering around the other prison cells on the second level, I was
impressed by the incredible level of detail; there were magazines,
comics and newspapers that had been shredded into confetti being thrown
by angry inmates – all of it was period, coming from 1985 or earlier.
And there were no superhero comics, since that genre doesn’t exist in
the Watchmen universe. There were a bunch of copies of Rom: Spaceknight,
though. These are details that you will never see on a movie screen.
Even on set I had to really get down into the debris to make sure that
issue of Playboy was from 1984 (I was doing research, dammit!). But
it’s those details that will mark Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore and
Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece.

I
was on the set of the film at the end of last year, in the chilly late
fall. Usually when I visit a set it’s a tightly guided tour – many
things are kept off-limits from the press, as if we’re going to go home
and write about every moment in the movie. Watchmen was different; our
level of access was just slightly below unfettered. We didn’t get a
copy of the script, and nobody would answer our questions about the end
of the movie (although I saw the storyboards!), but otherwise this
production was an open book. We toured all of the sets, including the
impressive outdoor recreation of about three blocks of New York City in
the 80s, we stood inside the still-under-construction Owlship, Nite
Owl’s version of the Batwing, we watched animatics of Dr. Manhattan,
sixty feet tall, walking through the rice paddies of Vietnam and making
Charlie blow up from the inside (scored to Flight of the Valkyries,
perhaps a touch too on the nose for my taste. Let’s hope that’s changed
in the final version). I had lunch in Dr. Manhattan’s huge science
fiction lab. I watched Patrick Wilson have his Nite Owl mask attached
and saw the way that his demeanor changed between wearing street
clothes and being in his big, rubber superhero suit. I watched another
reporter mack on Malin Ackerman at craft services, not recognizing her
with her Silk Spectre wig on. I stood inside the Gunga Diner and passed
under the Rumrunner sign. I held Rorschach’s grappling gun in my hand
(it has heft) and I saw the Comedian’s famous smiley face button.

But
again, it’s all about the detail. The production has a ‘war room,’ a
huge conference room lined with concept art and storyboards. At one end
of the room is a timeline, where real world history and Watchmen world
history are overlapped. Understanding the history of this world, and
where and how it differs from ours, is vital, and producer Debbie
Snyder explained to us that this would really come into play during the
opening credits sequence, which will walk viewers through this parallel
world. I imagine that the opening credits is where we’ll see the Warhol
painting of the original Nite Owl – think of his famous Marilyn Monroe
painting and you have it down pat. “It was really important to Zack to reference pop culture as much as possible,” Debbie said. “But all the layers, the multi-layering, that’s so rich in the graphic novel, to get at that was really important.”

That multi-layering is visible everywhere in the war room. The thematic elements that Moore worked into his script are here. It would
be easy for Snyder and company to ignore all that stuff and to just try
to make an exciting conspiracy movie with superheroes, but they
understand what the real appeal of Watchmen is, and they’re trying to
stick with it. I visited the set of 300
and a phenomenon I saw there is here as well – there are copies of the
graphic novel everywhere. When you have a question on this set, you go
to the graphic novel first and then the script.

Of
course this is a movie, not a graphic novel, so some things have to be
changed. But Snyder makes each change with care, and says there’s one
question driving each and every change: ‘What’s the why of it?’

‘If you filmed everything, it’s a five hour movie,’ said Zack. ‘There’s
nothing wrong with that – I’d love a five hour movie. It’s just not
practical. The movie’s job is not to replace the book. That’s the most
important thing. I hope people see the movie and go, ‘Gosh, I have to
buy Watchmen the graphic novel.”


I’ve
been on a lot of film adaptations at this point, and plenty of
adaptations that have big fan followings. Every time you go to a set
like that, everyone makes a big show out of their reverence for the
material, and it always sounds sort of fakey. There were some actors on
the set of Watchmen, though, who had the tones of the converted when
talking about the graphic novel. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who I didn’t know
before the set visit, but after just sitting around a table with him
for fifteen minutes revealed himself to be the perfect casting for The
Comedian) talked about how he had read the book twenty times since
getting the role. ‘You guys know,’ he said.
‘Every time you read it you see something different. There’s something
new in there that catches your eye. It’s an amazing piece of work.’


I
won’t lie and tell you that every member of the cast and the crew gave
off that slightly worshipping vibe that Morgan had, but more often than
not you’d run into people who got it. Who understood why this is
special, why this isn’t just another suits and special effects movie.
That there was something bigger here.

Before Zack Snyder, Paul Greengrass was set to direct Watchmen.
I read the script that he had and saw some of the designs he was
working on; Greengrass’ vision was a modern world, and the opening
moments would smack you in the face with just how different things are
by starting with a shot of the Twin Towers, still standing. Snyder has
decided to go period, setting the film in the 1985 of the graphic
novel, a decision I’ve wrestled with in my head. What’s the point, I’ve
wondered. Where’s the relevance?

Snyder
insists the relevance remains. If you’re spoilerphobic, you may want to
avoid the rest of this paragraph, by the way. The argument against the
relevance of Watchmen
is that we’ve seen our own world’s version of that squid attack on New
York, and we know that while a tragedy like that may bring the world
together, it’s for a limited amount of time. It’s easy to piss that
peace away. Exactly, Snyder counters. ‘I think that’s part of the awesome thing from the book – you have the book saying that a catastrophic
event brings people together, but at the very, very end you have it
teetering on the razor’s edge. It could easily come apart. I think
that’s super relevant. Dr. Manhattan says, ‘Nothing ever ends.’ Alan
Moore couldn’t have known [how the post-9/11 world would have gone] but
I think he assumed that was the nature of man. And it turns out he was
right.’


That
ending has been part of what keeps fans awake at night in terror (okay,
spoilerphobes should sit out this paragraph as well). Would a major
motion picture go through with an ending where millions of New Yorkers
are killed? And even if they did, would they go with the ending that
Moore wrote, where the ‘bad guy’ gets away with it? ‘I’ve read every draft,’ says Snyder.
‘In every draft there’s been… I don’t know if they’re happy endings,
but they’re more traditional endings. The bad guy gets it. [But I
think] you have to keep him alive – and not in a sequel way. Look at
the end of Superman Returns, Lex Luthor is on an island. I would have liked him to die!’


Sure, Snyder says, there was some resistance from the studio (resistance obviously tempered by 300‘s huge success), but he was able to talk them into seeing it his way. ‘When
we got down to actually talking about what was their issue [with the
ending] we all came down to the fact that you don’t gain anything by
changing that part of it. It’s a movie you should leave going ‘Let’s
talk about this.’ You should debate it, hopefully. Not ‘Oh this was
awesome, let’s go get dinner.”


After
watching the live action version of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre fighting
I went behind the camera to see what Snyder had captured. The playback
started, and the action looked bone-crunching (as it should – I’m
pretty sure there was some serious contact being made with the stunt
people’s faces, and they were also slamming themselves damn hard into
the concrete floor). As the Nite Owl on the screen started to do a
kick, the speed suddenly changed – it became very slow and then as
contact was made ramped up to accentuate the moment of impact. That was
familiar – Snyder was keeping his style from 300.
Walking through the sets and talking to everyone, I had wondered what
the heck the movie would look like, but now the question was answered –
this is a Zack Snyder film. The themes, the story, the characters, they
all come from the original, but Zack is putting his stamp on this one
as well.

That made me happy. I’m not sure that I’m completely sold on that Snyder style being used in this film, but I’m happy that he’s making
it his own movie. There’s a danger when a filmmaker sticks too close to
the source material, and it’s that the adaptation has no life of its
own. It can become a soulless shuffle through story points and
character beats, which may be gratifying for the hardcore who only want
to see what they recognize on screen, but as a movie on its own it’s
lacking. I think I’d be more concerned about the Snyder speed ramp if
the film had also been changed to include more action scenes – the
original graphic novel is not action-packed – but besides fleshing out
a fight scene here or there (the prison riot fight is a panel or two in
the comic), Snyder hasn’t padded the story with punch ups and chases.

Looking back at the stuff I wrote last summer I kind of have to smile. There are a lot of assumptions I made that didn’t hold up, primarily about the speed ramping, which is barely even used in the finished film. But Snyder and his team really impressed me, and I’m glad that I was on board with this adaptation early. I can’t wait to talk to you guys about it.