Zack Snyder Watchmen Interview

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline sat down with Zack Snyder to talk about his new film, Watchmen, directed from a screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse! Based on the critically acclaimed graphic novel created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colourist John Higgins, the film stars Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson.

A complex, multi-layered mystery adventure, "Watchmen" is set in an alternate 1985 America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and the Doomsday Clock--which charts the USA's tension with the Soviet Union--moves closer to midnight. When one of his former colleagues is murdered, the outlawed but no less determined masked vigilante Rorschach (Haley) sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion--a disbanded group of retired superheroes, only one of whom has true powers--Rorschach glimpses a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future. Their mission is to watch over humanity...but who is watching the Watchmen?

Zack Snyder is the acclaimed director and co-writer of the blockbuster action drama "300." The film, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and starring Gerard Butler and Lena Headey, was a worldwide hit in 2007, and earned Snyder praise for his groundbreaking blend of live action and computer-generated imagery.

Snyder made his feature film directorial debut with the 2004 horror thriller "Dawn of the Dead," which topped the box office its opening weekend in 2004. The film brought him widespread acclaim from critics and audiences, who praised his inspired re-imagining of George Romero's cult classic. "Dawn of the Dead" was also nominated for the prestigious Camera d'Or Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

Together with his wife and producing partner, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder formed Cruel and Unusual Films, of which he is co-president. The production company recently signed a two-year overall production deal with Warner Bros. Pictures. In addition to the upcoming adaptation of "Watchmen," Cruel and Unusual Films' projects include the drama "The Last Photograph," to be directed by Sergei Bodro; the fantasy-adventure "Sucker Punch," co-written by Snyder; and the animated film "The Guardians of Ga'Hoole." The company is also developing a feature film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's classic "The Illustrated Man," which Snyder will direct, and also produce alongside Denise Di Novi, Deborah Snyder and Frank Darabont in collaboration with Di Novi Pictures. Other films in development to be produced by Cruel and Unusual Films include the zombie film "Army of the Dead" and the apocalyptic thriller "Cobalt 60." Continuing his dedication to groundbreaking film, Snyder provided the original stories for "Sucker Punch," "Army of the Dead" and "The Last Photograph."

Zack Snyder has done an amazing job bringing the Watchmen graphic novel to the big screen and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his exciting new movie:

Q: What did Lee Iacocca ever do to you?

ZACK SNYDER: Nothing, nothing. Alex (Tse) wrote the Lee Iacocca bit. We just loved it.

Q: That was a stamp that you guys got to put on the Watchmen story. Was that fun to try to figure out where you could take it?

ZACK SNYDER: It was. I feel like all that stuff ended up being – because you can’t, you could but we didn’t just shoot the first panel and the second panel and then finish with the last panels 6 hours later – we had to pull stuff up and that stuff ends up bridging all those things. We needed Ozy to tell his story. You need to understand the context of his place in the industrialized world. But then, on the other hand, an attempted assassination needed to be perpetrated on him. I tend to not have a lot of sympathy for his advice to Anders (??) when it comes to something like that. So it just seemed fitting that they would come into harm’s way.

Q: How do honor the original source material while also updating it for a 21st century audience?

ZACK SNYDER: For me, that happens more visually in the design than it does in the [story] … When I got the original script, it had been updated and the studio had asked me to make the movie take place now, with the war on terror and Iraq, like Dr. Manhattan goes to Iraq. I felt like those ideas were difficult because I’d have to make a comment then on the war on terror and I just didn’t feel like that was anything anyone wanted to hear and rightly so. So then, when it came to visualizing the 1985 version, there was no way to avoid [the fact] that people had cinematic reference for superheroes now.

When the graphic novel came out, the cinematic reference that people had was a lot…there weren’t that many superhero movies and they weren’t the movie. Culturally, it was the action films really at that time. It wasn’t all the Mann (??) movies. We didn’t have all those then. And so, for me, my hope was to have the movie in some ways do what the book did to me and what the book did to a lot of people who read it not knowing what it was and just thinking it’s a comic book I’m going to see. These are characters I’m not totally familiar with but they’re going to go on the same types of adventures that I’m used to. That was the feeling I got that I expected from the book. And then, as you get into it, you realize that it’s something else.

I just wanted to make sure that the icons of the book weren’t going to …  Say, for instance, if you had remained in a design sense exactly as they’re drawn, if for instance you put Night Owl in a spandex outfit as opposed to a modern latex foam suit. Nowhere in the graphic novel do they say that they are bad at being…they’re not blundering superheroes. They’re still superheroes. The problem is psychologically and in a pop culture sense they’ve been ousted or denied. The whole thing, as far as pop culture goes, becomes a joke. You know, you put Night Owl in a spandex outfit with some sort of hard fabric cowl, then they’re not real superheroes in the iconographic sense. Someone who is unfamiliar with the graphic novel would go to the movie and just go, “This isn’t what a superhero looks like to me. These guys look like they just came from a costume party.” Where I wanted the experience to be is that in the advertising and in the movie context they think, “Wow, this is okay. This is a movie about superheroes.” It could be X-Men, but not. It has some of the qualities that those movies had. So their entrance into the experience is one of a sort of commonality or cultural iconography that they’re aware of.

Q: Is it safe to say there are one or more other iterations beyond the theatrical version of Watchmen that we saw?

ZACK SNYDER: There are. We’re hoping at the time of release of the DVD in July that they release the director’s cut which is 3 hours long and that in Fall, they’re going to do the Black Freighter cut. You know, we shot all the ins and outs of the Black Freighter which is basically the comic book within the comic book and we shot all of those so the final result of that is like a 3 hours and 25 minute version of the movie which is everything. You know, it’s the kitchen sink version or the kitchen sink cut which is also cool. It’s like a whole other experience.

It’s really three different movies in a lot of ways. I think the theatrical version, though radically strange in its own way, fits IMAX so there’s that. And then, I think the director’s cut which is almost exactly 3 hours is pretty much most of the stuff we’ve shot, 99 per cent of what we shot, which I like by the way. And then, I think the Black Freighter is just fetishistic and crazy in a great way. It kind of goes in varying degrees. My personal feeling is the director’s cut is slightly uncompromising. It’s more violent if you can imagine. It’s slightly more sexy, it’s more Manhattan nudity, it’s just more of everything, it’s a little bit more, a little harder experience to watch or better depending on your taste level, like what you like.

Q: Were there any particularly painful cuts that you had to make?

ZACK SNYDER: Yeah, I think the hardest cut was Hollis’ death because it’s one of my favorite scenes. That was the cut that actually got me to the time for the theatrical version, to get it in the 30s, you know, 2 hours and 30-minutes-ish. That was the big cut that got me there. It was a hard cut for me because there are 3 or 4 Hollis scenes in the director’s cut, small scenes, but now in the theatrical version there’s just the opening sequence with Dan.

Q: Will the Black Freighter cut have the news vendor?

ZACK SNYDER: Yeah. We shot all the ins and outs for the news vendor and him talking to the kid and the kid coming and going.

Q: Watchmen kind of set the bar for comic books at the time and made it almost difficult to continue to do traditional comic books. What do you think this film is going to do to the comic book film?

ZACK SNYDER: It’s my hope in some ways that it just shines a little bit of a light on it. It was interesting that we had Dark Knight last year which was a great movie, a serious movie, a heart attack serious movie, and then we have Watchmen which I consider slightly satirical and always self aware. To me, if you use a movie like a superhero movie to talk about mass culture and what’s happening with design and trends and politics and things of that nature, you can make a movie that exposes the franchise machine a little bit. But, on the other hand, pop culture is pretty fickle so you know, it comes and goes.

Q: How difficult was it to strike that balance between satire, caricature and then the sort of horrific violence and darker underbelly that’s part of the film?

ZACK SNYDER: That’s the funnest part but it’s the hardest part for me. It’s the movie for me. The thing that intrigues me the most about movies is that aspect of it. You know, that weird, sort of semi-satirical, but not letting the audience completely off the hook and I think that’s in some ways what all those things do. Part of the reason why I wanted the movie to be violent was because I wanted…as opposed to superhero violence in movies which is really sort of benign and kind of without consequence. You see Spiderman and he’s supposedly killable, I guess, but he tends to be able to bounce back from a lot of hardships and even the guys that he fights tend to not really die or get really hurt. They get their clothes ripped and maybe some blood comes out of their nose. I wanted the movie to be uncomfortably violent because of what their job is. The job of a superhero is to subdue or be judge, jury and executioner to some violent act or stop a crime in progress, make a moral judgment about that. So I just felt it was important to make that statement strongly.

Q: Alan Moore usually disowns any movie version of his work. Do you anticipate he’ll like the movie or will he even see it and do you care?

ZACK SNYDER: I’m a fan of his work so that part is slightly upsetting. I mean, Alan was off the movie when I got involved. He had already sworn it off and said “I don’t want anything to do with it.” Though I will say that before he had said he didn’t want anything to do with Watchmen, there had been versions of the script that he had liked, that he’s commented on, versions that I thought are nothing like the movie we made in the sense that I feel like the movie that we made is much closer to the book than the versions of the script he liked. I doubt he’ll ever see the movie. My only hope is that it just generates interest in Watchmen as a book and a work of literature and that either people have read the book and they’re like, “Gosh, I’ve got to see what the movie’s like” or they see the movie and they’re like, “Man, I wonder if there’s more in the book.” That’s what I hope.

Q: Can you talk about the musical choices you made to set the tone of the film?

ZACK SNYDER: Yeah. I do feel like there’s a really strong link between music and tone, especially since my favorite part of any movie is the tone of the movie. Sort of the air that it breathes is sometimes more important to me than any other thing in the movie and I like that in movies in general. A lot of the music is referenced in the graphic novel and also the music that is referenced in the graphic novel also set a tone for me of what other music to include. So, the other choices were really based on just songs that I felt produced in myself sort of a visceral response to it intellectually and also emotionally. Those songs were on my iPod when I was drawing the movie too so it wasn’t like I kind of reverse-engineered a lot of that. I painstakingly went through all my music libraries and went and researched and talked and created this sort of playlist of music. It’s longer actually than what’s in the movie. And then I used that music to draw and then by the end I had kind of …it was hard for me to get those songs out of the movie actually. I don’t know how I could have…you know what I mean? They were embedded into the material in some weird way, like Times They Are A-Changin’…

Q: …and the Philip Glass music too.

ZACK SNYDER: Yeah, the Philip Glass stuff is awesome. That was another example of us just going… I had this idea of this Philip Glass feeling from the music and that sort of Manhattan time weirdness and just couldn’t get rid of it. It was like there was no other way.

Q: How did you get Bob Dylan to sign on to that?

ZACK SNYDER: Bob had to approve it because we had to remix that song. I guess Bob is a Watchmen fan because he knew about the book and he knew how his music had been referenced in the book and so when I said that we needed all the stems from Times They Are A-Changin’ because we were going to make it a 6-minute song out of a 3-minute song, he was happy to do it. He gave us the stems and then we had to remix the song and we had to let him hear it and then he signed off. Although whether or not he endorses it 100 percent, I don’t know. He did sign off on it though.

Q: Apart from the graphic novel, what were your cinematic influences? There was almost an Oliver Stone quality to the storytelling in a way.

ZACK SNYDER: Interesting. I think it’s kind of hard to not have some sort of an Oliver Stone vibe from the movie only because he’s made movies about all the eras that are touched in the movie, you know, so there’s that. Filmmakers that inspired me, though I wouldn’t say there’s a direct reference, I’m a big Paul Verhoeven fan so I love Robocop. It’s one of my favorite movies and the tone of Robocop to me is more similar to Watchmen than say JFK, for instance, because it’s that sort of using a genre or a kind of iconology to say something else. That’s kind of what I feel he does a lot. But also there’s Taxi Driver in there and there’s Dr. Strangelove clearly. Deer Hunter. There’s Apocalypse Now. (laughs) You know, I have a list somewhere. I should go look that up.
In the same way that the comic book references the comic book genre. I’ve talked to Dave about it and I’d say, “We’re going to do the war room like Strangelove” and he goes, “Well we wanted the war room to be like Strangelove.” And I’d say, “I’m going to do a shot where Rorschach is walking and we’re going to try and do a shot kind of like Taxi Driver.” “We loved Taxi Driver.” You know it’s not like I was inventing stuff. Everything I thought I was thinking of was stuff that came from the material anyway. You can’t help that.

Q: Was it different working on a movie like this vs. something like 300 where you’re adapting the work of a genius in a genre? Was your approach different beyond just the need to stay true to Miller or Moore?

ZACK SNYDER: I guess so. It’s like those two, Frank Miller and Alan Moore, it’s funny because I remember after I made 300, a lot of people would ask me about my politics. Like, “Clearly George Bush paid for this movie.” I’m like, “Okay. That’s awesome.” It was pretty intense. I got some pretty intense…“You’re a fascist!” I’m like, “Really? Okay. That’s cool, I guess.” If you take the movie that seriously, that’s pretty awesome. But if you look at Watchmen, I would say Watchmen has almost the exact opposite politics to 300, nearly. So really I’m interested in sort of…you know, I think as any filmmaker is if they’re adapting any novel to find the voice of the author like No Country for Old Men or whatever movie. If you’re making the Cormac McCarthy movie, you have an obligation to try and get that in the movie, right? In the case of Cormac, for instance, it’s about the story but it’s also about the way that he tells it. That’s why it’s good.

A story is only as good as the way it’s told and I think that’s the obligation that you have to someone like Alan, to Alan or Frank. Those two guys, there’s something about the way that they…by the way, I would say that about George Romero as well. To get at sort of the why of a point of view is fun for me. I find that really exciting and interesting because a movie should never be divorced from…like you should not ever buy a book – although I think this happens in Hollywood all the time – and then like, “Okay, we’ve bought Moby Dick. It’s pretty good. It’s about a whale. It seems interesting. It’s a little bit long. We need to shorten it for one. There’s like some language in it that makes no sense. We’ve got to get that out and then maybe we’ll be able to... There’s a good story I think in there.” I mean, that’s the way that it is.

When we made Watchmen, the difficult part is… The things that are good and bad about the movie, depending on who you are, are the exact…how strong a point of view the movie has. I guess in the sense of like style and everything, it’s like the performance is the design of the movie, the vocabulary that they speak with all comes from a single place and so some people like that and some people don’t, but it’s about trying to keep that graphic novel feeling in the movie.

“Watchmen” opens in theaters on March 6th.

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