Unwaveringly true to the heart of darkness at its source, a blockbuster shot in the Lower Mainland arrives on-screen
LOS ANGELES—The ads for Watchmen say the film is “from the visionary director of 300”. In fact, the film is not only directed by 300’s Zack Snyder, it is quite possible that the movie version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s iconic graphic novel would never have been made if 300 had not been one of the biggest hits of the new millennium.
Filmmakers have been trying to turn the novel—which is actually a collection of 12 DC comic books—into a movie for more than two decades. Warner Bros. became involved with it a few years ago but only became serious about making it after Snyder’s film about vengeful Spartans made almost half a billion dollars worldwide.
“This movie would not have been made had Zack not committed to it,” says veteran producer Lawrence Gordon in an L.A. hotel room. “The success of 300 had a lot to do with this movie finally getting made. He hit at the right time and he was the right director.”
The film Snyder has made is set in 1985 with Richard Nixon (Vancouver actor Robert Wisden) working on his fifth term as U.S. president. He’s still fighting the Cold War and assuming that a showdown between the Russian and American military will lead to nuclear disaster. The only man capable of saving the planet, nuclear physicist turned superhero Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), is being asked to help solve other problems. Meanwhile, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), one of the members of a disbanded group of superheroes that Manhattan once belonged to, believes that the murder of one of the former members of the group, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is a signal that someone is out to eliminate all costumed crime fighters. The film opens on Friday (March 6).
Although 300 and Watchmen are both based on graphic novels, Snyder approached the making of the two films differently. 300 was filmed in an abandoned Montreal shipyard that had been converted to sound stages. It had green screens lining the walls, with the actors working in the middle. Then the visual-effects people worked with Snyder to create a film that cost $65 million. Watchmen, which was mostly shot in the Lower Mainland, is a combination of sets and visual effects, with the film’s production costs estimated to be more than $120 million. A lot of that cost came with the building of more than 200 sets, including a back lot built to play New York City.
In January of this year, Alex McDowell, the film’s production designer, told the Georgia Straight on a sound stage at Burnaby’s Canadian Motion Picture Park that it was a surprise to him that Snyder was given the budget to build so many sets.
“I was briefed about it to the extent that we looked at shooting everything on sets rather than doing CGI at all. So I knew that it wasn’t going to be a 300-style green-screen film. But I am still surprised at how many sets we are building. We are building two or three a day.”
Warner’s investment in the film probably looked a lot better when its more conventional superhero movie, The Dark Knight, became one of the biggest hits of all time. Snyder says that it proved to the studio and anyone else who might have been concerned about Watchmen that a movie with darker themes and a less comical approach to the superhero genre could succeed.
“The Dark Knight helped this hugely. It had a serious filmmaker and serious actors and it was a serious movie that was taken seriously by pop culture and by the intelligentsia who were discussing the movie. In some ways, it is the pinnacle of what is possible in a superhero movie, and it is interesting that we come on the heels of that. So we can say, ”˜Now that you have really taken this genre seriously and you have really seen it taken to high art without a smile or a wink, let’s look at what the mythology is about and look at why did The Dark Knight make a billion dollars all over the world.’ I think it was the first successful superhero film that asked us to accept the fact that people can walk around dressed like that in the real world.”
Watch the trailer for Watchmen.
Not everyone is happy that Watchmen made it to the big screen. Moore, who wrote the graphic novel, asked that his name be taken off the credit list because of bad experiences on previous productions, including another Warner venture based on a Moore graphic novel, 2005’s V for Vendetta. As a result, Gibbons, who did the artwork for the novel is listed as the film’s sole “cocreator”. Gibbons says that it doesn’t feel right to have Moore’s name struck from the credits.
“It feels wrong, to be honest with you,” he says in the hotel room. “I am really sorry that he had a bad experience with Hollywood because I think that Hollywood has done right by him. Everyone I know who has anything to do with the movie wants to do right by Alan and by me, and they certainly used all their powers to make it something that he would be happy with. It seems strange to see my name alone up there, because it looks unbalanced, and you ask yourself, ”˜Who is the other cocreator of it?’ The best thing is that more people are aware of Watchmen and will buy the graphic novel and will read Alan’s work in the way that it was meant to be experienced. They will, hopefully, read other work by him and will become aware that it was not just me who created these characters.”
Although Moore may not be particularly delighted with movie studios, Snyder was relieved that Warner Bros. gave him the freedom to stay true to the film’s source. He admits that while it wasn’t the movie they had originally expected, his determination to be faithful to the graphic novel won out.
“The studio has been awesome with me in terms of letting me make this movie,” he says, also in L.A. “The script I was originally handed for Watchmen was PG-13 and it was going to be set in today’s world and be about the war on terror and ”˜Dr. Manhattan goes to Iraq’ rather than Vietnam, and there were a lot of ”˜cool’ lines. In other words, it was just another superhero movie. I don’t think that’s true now. I think the studio realized halfway through the process that this was not the version of Watchmen they thought it would be, that it would not be ”˜a good romp.’ I did not want to fuck it up by trying to make a PG-13 movie that was commercial or cool or what everyone would consider to be exactly like what an audience would want. I said, ”˜You probably picked the wrong guy if you don’t want it to be like the graphic novel,’ and they said, ”˜Okay, let’s go all the way.’ “
Snyder does recognize what a rare opportunity he had. “I was fortunate because you don’t want to go to the boardroom and actually have to say, ”˜Let’s come up with a different kind of movie, one that is R-rated and is sexy and weird and violent. People are going to love it.’ This kind of thing only happens by accident. It has to be a perfect storm where you have the success of 300 and a director who knows the source material and actors who read the book and say, ”˜It’s got to be like this.’ That is impossible to design in the marketplace. This way it doesn’t have the stink of a preconceived pop-culture phenomenon. Of course, if the fans [of the novel] wanted a real franchiseable movie, then I fucked up.”