Forget what you know about the world. It’s 1986. America has won the Vietnam war. Nixon has been elected for a third time as US president. The world has a superhero with limitless power over space and time. Costumed vigilantes have been part of society for the last 50 years.
Forget what you know about superheroes comics. It’s 1986. Crazy/genius Brit writer Alan Moore writes Watchmen, an earth-shattering graphic novel which turns the entire genre inside out. Set in the cold shadow of nuclear war, its sophisticated storytelling, gripping intellectually heft, brutal realism and unforgettable characters almost immediately stamp it as the greatest comic-book ever written.
Forget what you know about superhero movies. It’s 1986. Producer Lawrence Gordon buys the film rights to Watchmen for 20th Century Fox. Twenty years, six studios and four directors later, no one has been able to adap Moore’s seemingly unfilmable masterpiece.
Until now… It’s 2009. 300 writer/director Zack Synder’s Watchmen hits cinemas in March. It promises to be like nothing you’ve ever seen. “In my movie, the bad guy wants world peace, Superman doesn’t care about people and Batman can’t get it up,” he tells Total Film with a grin, as we investigate his movie’s fractured, fascinating journey to the screen.
WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?
Three years on, screenwriter Sam Hamm would script Tim Burton’s Batman and help ignite the comic-book movie genre. But in 1986, Hamm was tearing his hair out. It was his job to crunch Moore’s 338-page novel into a 128-page script. He was… struggling.
Moore’s nuclear epic was violent as hell: rape, murder, torture. It feature numerous characters, each with intricate backstories. It was packed with complex storytelling devices: flashbacks, narrations, stories-within-stories. It jumped from the ’40 to the ’80s, from New York to Mars. It ended on a twist too shocking to imagine on screen.
Ruthlessly subverting the superhero genre, Watchmen imagines what the world would be like if costumed heroes had really existed since the ’40s. The Watchmen are a group of bizarre, damaged, retired human beings. They’re out of shape, they have no powers, they’re psychologically scarred and they’ve been outlawed by the government. But when someone starts mysteriously starts killing them off, The Watchmen are pulled back into action to discover a terrible conspiracy.
By the time Jack Nicholson’s Joker was laughing all the way to the bank, Hamm’s Watchmen script was still sitting on a shelf. 20th Century Fox lost patience, allowing producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver take the project at Warner Bros. They quickly signed up as director Terry Gilliam, who hadn’t made a film since The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen.
Watchmen was a go, but Gilliam didn’t like Hamm’s script. As he began pulling it apart with Brazil co-writer Charles McKeown, casting rumours started to boil. Robin Williams as Rorschach, the twisted detective with an ink-blot mask. Jamie Lee Curtis as Silk Spectre, the lone female in the Watchmen. Gary Busey as The Comedian, whose death pulls the pin on the story. Heartthrobs Richard Gere and Kevin Costner were both in the frame to play downtrodden hero Nite Owl.
Joel Silver wanted to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger, now a box-office megastar after Terminator 2, as the omnipotent Dr Manhattan. But Silver could only raise $25 million dollars, half of which would go on covering the Big Oak’s salary. He needed a budget three times that size. Meanwhile, Gilliam was rewriting his script. Again and again and again. “We trimmed it down so much just to keep it down to two, two-and-a-quarter hours,” he tells Total Film. “And I just felt we’d lost so much detail that it was becoming a regular comic book instead of the War And Peace of comic books.” Before he finally threw the towel in, Gilliam asked Moore how he would film it. “I had to tell him that, frankly, I didn’t think it was filmable,” said Moore. “It was designed to show off the things that comics could do that cinema and literature couldn’t.”
That was Moore on a good day. The kind of day that would never come around again. From Hell, Moore’s staggering dissection of the Jack The Ripper mythology, had taken him nearly 10 years to complete. Rarely venturing from his Northampton home, he said nothing when it became a shonky Hollywood thriller starring Johnny Depp. But then Hollywood’s horrific adap of his adventure The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen dragged the bearded shaman of the comic-book world kicking and screaming into an equally horrific legal process. Moore was furious, claiming he’d have suffered less if he’d “sodomised and murdered a busload of children after giving them heroin.” His lifelong hatred of Hollywood had begun. “Perhaps it’s been cursed from afar, from England,” he later smiled ruefully, as years passed with any sign of a Watchmen movie.
LOVE THE HAYTER
One month after terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Centre, producer Gordon finally found a replacement for Gilliam. Having successfully inked a blockbusting ensemble superhero blockbuster for Bryan Singer, X-Men screenwriter David Hayter began work on writing and directing Watchmen for Universal. “Watchmen was considered too dark, too complex, too ‘smart’,” said Hayter. “But the world has changed. I think that the new global climate has finally caught up with the vision that Alan Moore had in 1986. It is the perfect time to make this movie.”
It took Hayter fully two years to complete his script. But Universal producer Lloyd Levin was thrilled, calling it “a great adaptation that absolutely celebrates the book”. Even Moore admitted Hayter’s script was “as close as he could imagine anyone getting to Watchmen.” Then the Watchmen producers left Universal and tried taking the project to the independent studio where they’d made Hellboy. The deal fell apart. Another year had passed.
Most people had given up on ever seeing a Watchmen movie. That included the novel’s artist Dave Gibbons. “It was most likely to happen when Batman was a big success, but then that window was lost,” he said. “In a way I’m glad, because it wouldn’t have been up to the book.” But right then, Requiem For A Dream whiz-kid Darren Aronofsky was cutting a deal with Paramount Pictures to direct Hayter’s script. This was big news for anyone watching the Watchmen: not only was Aronofsky a dark, dazzling visual stylist with a feeling for characters, but he’d also worked on an adap of Batman: Year One with comic-book author Frank Miller.
Just one problem. There was one person who wasn’t watching the Watchmen: Aronofsky. “The whole game for me was to make The Fountain,” he admitted later. “That’s all I wanted to do. I was on Watchmen for a week. David Hayter wrote a fucking amazing script. I mean, he really caught it. But I was literally on it for a week. They said, ‘Are you interested? I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then they said, ‘Let’s hire a production designer.’ And this was literally when Hugh Jackman had just come on and The Fountain was going. So I was like, ‘Guys, I’m about to shoot The Fountain. You know, we can hire a designer but I’m going to be shooting this movie while that’s happening.’ Then they quickly put Paul Greengrass on it…”
THE GRASS IS GREENER
Once again, Watchmen got a new director and a new release date of 2006. Unlike Aronofsky, Greengrass wasn’t messing around. “I am convinced I can make the film, because I understood from personal experience the milieu that gave rise to Watchmen,” said the director of Bloody Sunday and two Bourne thrillers. “I understood a lot of the references that Alan Moore used. It’s an incredibly bold kind of allusive, allegorical, dense, rich story.”
For the first time ever, Watchmen became to take shape. Concept art was drawn up, including designs of Dr Manhattan, a role Greengrass had pegged for Joaquin Phoenix. Simon Pegg spoke to the producers about playing Rorschach. Daniel Craig, Jude Law and Sigourney Weaver also stepped into the frame. “I read the script that Paul Greengrass got going and it was very good because it’s back to the original book,” reveals Gilliam, who spoke to Greengrass at the time. His plan, says Gilliam, was to shoot Watchmen’s long scenes of dialogue with pace and urgency. “He was going to do it with fast-cutting, like The Bourne Supremacy, where you give the illusion of something happening,” remembers Gilliam. “And I said, ‘Come on, you can’t do it with fast-cutting. Watchmen isn’t like that.’ I keep saying it should be a mini-series for television. You can do the effects cheaper, you can spend five hours doing it and really build the characters like they should be done. I said, ‘This is going to cost a fortune and who’s going to give you the money to make it as dark as it should be?'”
Gilliam was right. After pushing for a budget cut to force Watchmen to start shooting, Paramount dumped the film on the backburner – just as 20th Century Fox had 10 years earlier. “The film’s going and then all of a sudden it’s cancelled,” said an exasperated Greengrass as he left to board United 93. “I didn’t really enjoy it, I must be honest. It was slightly surreal because Watchmen felt very good.”
That same year, four things happened. Watchmen appeared on Time Magazine’s list of the All-Time 100 Novels. Alan Moore’s earlier dystopian masterpiece V For Vendetta was stylishly adapted by the Wachowski Brothers, drawing bile from its author (Moore: “It’s imbecilic”) and some praise from critics (Rolling Stone: “But who gives a damn?”). Producers Gordon and Levin wearily took Watchmen back to Warner Bros, the studio who produced Vendetta. And a 39-year-old former music-vid director called Zack Snyder began shooting a violent comic-book actioner called 300.
Charging blood-drunk into cinemas last year, Synder’s abs-and-stabs battle royale smashed the box-office record for the biggest March opening weekend and set an IMAX record that would only be broken by The Dark Knight. And there was something strange one of its trailers… A flash-cut of a man wearing a trenchcoat and an ink-blotted mask. Snyder’s wife and producer bet him $100 that no one would discover his Rorschach test. She lost.
Sitting with Total Film in the edit bay of his LA office – the walls are draped with 300 posters -Snyder recalls how the studio wanted him to sign an Ocean’s Eleven cast. Snyder refused. Even when Tom Cruise called up. “I went over to Tom’s house and we just kind of rapped about it. He’s a cool guy, but we really didn’t go much further than that,” says Snyder. “The problem with the Ocean’s Eleven plan is I don’t think any of these guys are going to defer their salary. And we made an insanely ambitious film, even for the exorbitant cost of the movie. Because don’t forget the movie had a lot of the costs already on it when I got it. Because of all the other versions of the movie they’ve tried. That money doesn’t go away. ‘Oh, we didn’t make it! Oh, great! We’re back to zero!’ It doesn’t work like that. I get it and I’m llike, ‘What? I gotta pay all these other guys?'” How much? “I won’t say. But it was enough. I could make another movie.”
He had just delivered a spectacular box-office hit that was R-rated, had no stars and didn’t cost $200 million. He was going to do it again.
Showing us one of five bulging hand-drawn storyboard books, Snyder reveals how he started storyboarding the movie, frame by frame. The opening scene is virtually identical to one of clips he’s just screened for us – a brutal murder of one of the Watchmen by a masked mystery man. The rest of the footage is sensational: stylish, moving, violent and gripping. A face-crushing prison break. An opening montage that rolls through 40 years scored to Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’. Dr Manhattan bursting into agonised existence, eviscerating criminals, then retreating to the loneliness of Mars.
Forget kryptonite. Forget adamantium endoskeletons. Forget radioactive spiders. Just as the original novel did, Snyder’s epic vision aims to change the way you watch comic-book movies forever. “It’s pretty violent and pretty sexual,” says Snyder, who used Taxi Driver and Se7en as visual reference points. “It’s my attempt to make a superhero movie with consequence. These guys are having compound fractures. The bad guys die. The rape scene is really uncomfortable… It’s rough, not to mention the fact that they’re in these super nostalgic, pretty naive costumes. That really, to me, is a loss of innocence. And it’s all about that.”
Is the studio happy? “Happy? They’re not happy at all,” he admits. “When I first started working on it, it was absolutely supposed to be PG-13. And the studio was like, ‘Aaaaah, how am I supposed to feel about The Comedian? Is he a good guy? Because he’s shooting a pregnant woman in this scene and raping this woman in that scene… What? You have him killing frickin’ Kennedy in the title sequence!'” If probably didn’t help that Warner Bros were then hit with a copyright lawsuit from 20th Century Fox. Snyder laughs. “The Dark Knight helped, but it’s still… well, cutting it down would make them happy.”
Cue a wrestling match over the scissors: Snyder’s first cut of the film was three hours long. The studio want 115 minutes. So far he’s snipped a 155-minute theatrical version, a 190-minute director’s cut and a 220-minute Extended Edition. There’s also an Animatrix-style animated meta-comic Tales Of The Black Freighter, voiced by Gerard Butler. Snyder expects his final Watchmen DVD will run three hours and 25 minutes.
That’s the director’s secret to filming the unfilmable. Don’t take things out. Leave them in. “The Comedian’s funeral, Dr Manhattan on Mars, Rorschach with the psychiatrist… You could imagine they would say, ‘You don’t need that. Take that out.’ But that’s why I wanted to make the movie. Are there things in the graphic novel that are unfilmable? Absolutely. Because it’s a whole different thing. It is not my intent to replace the graphic novel. The thing that’s interesting about the movie is that when you hear Billy Crudup’s Mr Manhattan talking, there’s a sadness to him. Maybe that’s what the movie does, if it does anything. Maybe when you read the graphic novel the next time, it’s maybe a little bit more emotional.”
Just don’t tell that to Alan Moore. Just as he’d done for Vendetta, Moore had his name wiped off the film and gave his share of the money to Gibbons. His only words for Snyder and Hollywood? “I’m never going to watch this fucking thing.”
Publication: Total Film.