Saturday, February 28, 2009

WONDERCON 2009—Watchmen

"Saturday afternoon at the movies" takes on a distinct slant when you're in the Esplanade Ballroom of San Francisco's Moscone Center, where WonderCon hosts its annual Hollywood blockbuster preview extravaganza. This year a capacity audience of 5,000 fans hooted and hollered at their first in-depth glimpses of Watchmen, Knowing, Astro Boy, Pandorum, Alien Trespass, Star Trek, 9, Up, and Terminator Salvation.

Scheduled to open nationwide Friday, March 6, Zack Snyder's long-awaited, long-debated
Watchmen seems like the best place for me to begin coverage, even though said coverage might prove superfluous since Joseph Perez already taped the ComicCon Watchmen panel and offered it up to Twitch. There have likewise been several entries at Twitch regarding the legal battle over distribution rights, which a search on the site will readily access.

As the official synopsis states it: "A complex, multi-layered mystery adventure, the film 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—is set at five minutes to midnight. When one of his former colleagues is murdered, the washed-up but no less determined masked vigilante Rorschach 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 ragtag 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?"

Snyder's film is, of course, based upon the graphic novel Watchmen created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins and originally published by DC Comics as a 12-comic book series between 1986 and 1987, before subsequently being collected into a trade paperback. It is the only graphic novel to win the prestigious Hugo Award or to be named among Time magazine's "100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present."

Geoff Boucher of the L.A. Times blog Hero Complex expertly moderated a panel comprised of Watchmen creator Dave Gibbons, director Zack Snyder, and the film's core group of "masks", including Malin Akerman (as Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Silk Spectre 2); Billy Crudup (as Jon Osterman, aka Dr. Manhattan); Jeffrey Dean Morgan (as Edward Blake, aka the Comedian); Oscar® nominee Jackie Earle Haley (as Walter Kovacs, aka Rorschach); and Patrick Wilson (as Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl 2).

Boucher's description of Snyder as "affable" proved more than apt. Snyder's enthusiasm about the film's release was contagious. He's psyched to monitor how the film will be received. Straightaway, he made certain creative decisions to insure the film's strength. Though Tom Cruise had initially expressed interest in the project ("and when Tom Cruise calls you, you have to go"), that dissipated when Cruise became involved in Valkyrie. Besides, Snyder wanted actors not movie stars. His first true casting choice was Patrick Wilson.

The snafus holding up production and the film's theatrical release have been well-documented, not the least of which was the studio's complaint about the film's length. Currently clocking in at approximately 162 minutes—which involved cutting key scenes to satisfy the studio—Snyder promised that the DVD director's cut will be the original 3 hours and 10 minutes. The studios were also concerned about the amount of violence in the film and Dr. Manhattan's "blue nudity", necessitating compromises that Snyder made specifically for the film's theatrical release. Come the DVD, however, Snyder promised that no one would be cheated of their full quota of faux violence and blue nudity.

Snyder then showed a clip of the film's opening sequence of the murder of Edward Blake (in apartment 300, no less)—with its inclusive back story montage set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin' "—and boasted that his son Eli, one of six children, played the Young Rorschach, following suit of Eli's portrayal of the young Leonidas in Snyder's 300. In fact, Snyder quipped, if he ever does Watchmen Babies, he'll cast all his kids in it.

Asked if there would ever be a sequel to Watchmen, Snyder responded with a weary grin that he would have nothing to do with it if there was. He'd just flown in from Europe where he was repeatedly asked that question by about 40 reporters a day and—though he wouldn't discount the powers-that-be in creating such a sequel—the surprising concept still strikes him as impossible; it would be like writing a sequel to Moby Dick. To the studio's credit, they let Snyder make Watchmen like he wanted; but, suspiciously, they had conceived it as a franchise and initially when they pitched it at Snyder it was a PG-13 treatment with a completely different ending than the graphic novel. They had Dan Dreiberg killing off one of the characters by remote controlling the Owl Ship and crashing it into him. "What is this?" Snyder protested, "This is crazy." The studios backed off and let Snyder adhere more faithfully to the Moore/Gibbons story.

With regard to the stunning opening montage, Snyder admitted he shot even more footage that he couldn't include because Dylan's song was already too long. Some of that edited footage included Blake single-handedly raising the flag at Iwo Jima and Nixon's inauguration. Again, some of that iteration will undoubtedly show up as DVD/Blu-Ray extras. The shoot lasted approximately 104-106 days ("who's counting?"), which was relatively grueling, but some of the first stuff they shot was for the title sequence. Another of the first things they shot was the Christmas scene with Billy Crudup and Janey Slater, even though that was admittedly a strange scene to shoot first. But Billy was a trouper. Dr. Manhattan was "abstract enough" without having to step right into the middle of his characterization. "Oh yeah," Snyder directed Crudup, "it's Christmas, 1967, you're giving your girlfriend Dr. Manhattan-shaped earrings and she's worried that you're too much like a god, so, go ahead!"

Regarding Watchmen's story within a story—the pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter featured in issues three, five, eight, nine, ten, and eleven—Snyder was approached about doing something else in conjunction with Watchmen's premiere. Snyder thought it was the perfect opportunity to "trick" those interested into producing Tales of the Black Freighter as an animated film. So around the time Watchmen comes out, there will be a DVD that has "an under-the-hood mock documentary" as well as the animated film of Tales of the Black Freighter (with Gerard Butler as voice talent). Further, an ultimate version of Watchmen—scheduled for a Fall release—will have the whole movie intercut with Tales of the Black Freighter as it is in the graphic novel.

Addressing Dave Gibbons, Boucher stated he couldn't imagine what it would be like for him to see his graphic novel converted to the screen. "Are you getting adjusted to it yet or is it still jolting every time you see it?" Gibbons affirmed the experience was "still completely surreal." When he read Moore's script, he would stop and imagine a movie in his head from which he would draw what he had imagined. Zack's film is the movie Gibbons saw in his head.

Asked where he found the voice for Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley joked he was scrounging around in a dumpster behind his house and there it was. Seriously, however, when he read the graphic novel, that was the voice he heard in his head. There was something about how the speech bubbles were drawn that engendered that. He used that voice on his audition tape for Zack and—though they tried some other things—they returned to Haley's original conception. For a while before every shot he had to scream his voice out to make it appropriately raspy and hoarse.

Boucher asked Malin Akerman about her costume; whether she found strength in wearing it? "I don't ordinarily wear latex or extremely high heels when I fight," Akerman offered, quipping as an aside, "which is constantly … on the streets." The heels proved the hugest challenge. And though the costume was not comfortable, she had to admit it looked fierce. One audience member—ironically costumed as Gotham's Caped Crusader—praised the film's costumes but wondered if the inspiration for Ozymandias's costume wasn't Batman and Robin, what with all the nipple action going on? Snyder responded, "The truth is we worked on a lot of different outfits for Ozy. Ozy was the hardest out there because Dave drew him in gold leotards with a purple tunic and—though that is awesome—you gotta be a helluva native to pull that off." Though they butched him up "just a teeney bit", the nipples kept the spirit.

Being primarily a fine comedic actress, Akerman was asked if it was difficult to prove herself in a serious role? "I was scared shitless," Akerman admitted. "I'm just so glad that Zack had faith in me." Laurie was definitely a woman who was finding herself and figuring out her life, finding true love, experiences all humans have in life. "The only hard part was learning how to fight."

Billy Crudup's challenge was to appear less human as the film wore on. "No problem there," Crudup asserted and added that—more than anything—Dr. Manhattan was distracted. "So I spent a lot of my time thinking about other things like walking on the surface of the sun."

Boucher was curious how difficult it was for Jeffrey Dean Morgan to play such an unsympathetic character such as Edward Blake. "I didn't dislike the guy," Morgan admitted, "who I certainly should dislike. I sympathized with him in a way. And in talking to Zack before and during shooting, what I found to be fascinating and important was to make Blake somehow human in the midst of killing, raping, and pillaging throughout the world." On a related line of questioning, a woman in the audience asked if there was any scene in the movie he looked forward to shooting or dreaded shooting? "I loved the rape scene," Morgan smiled. "I certainly couldn't get to that fast enough. [You're probably thinking,] 'He seemed so nice on Grey's Anatomy.' " Suddenly suspecting he was being taken seriously, Morgan assured us he was being sarcastic. Another audience member asked if he would ever do a role where he didn't die? "I'm not entirely sure," he grinned. "This whole death thing's been pretty good to me."

Noting that Patrick Wilson's character was probably the one that audiences most identified with and through whose eyes the story was seen, Boucher wondered if Wilson felt that way himself? Wilson replied that—if he could put everyone else down—his character had the most heart. The audience pulls for Dan the whole time, whether it's to get his damn suit back on, or to get it up. "It doesn't really get any more basic than that. That's what's so cool about Dan: his identity through his suit and what that means to him in every aspect." Rarely does an actor get a character so fully developed. "And any question that you ever had was informed by the words and the pictures. I've never done a comic book picture before; but—when you have such dynamic drawings like Dave had and the words that Alan had written and then the script [co-written by David Hayter and Alex Tse] which was an amalgamation of that—it's the most inspiring template you can have to create a character because any question you have is answered in the graphic novel. We all felt that we had to do what they wrote and the characters took care of themselves."

One aspiring filmmaker expressed amazement at the last few years of Zack Snyder's career—coming up through Dawn of the Dead, through 300, to Watchmen—and wondered if Snyder had any advice on how he could break into the business? "This is going to sound a little bit dorky," Snyder cautioned, "but, I think it's true. If you're going to make a movie or you want to make a movie, I always say that you just have to do it your way. That's the way to do it. If you find a piece of material that you like or you write something that you like, and people are like, 'Well, you need to shoot this so that it looks like Blade Runner…', you need to find what your point of view is." Snyder's favorite movies are those that—when he watches them—he's watching them from the perspective of the filmmaker. "You can make a movie in a board room and it feels like some homogenized thing; but, do it the way you think."

Audiences will soon enough get to see exactly how Snyder thinks Watchmen was to be filmed. Twitch teammate Mack has already offered
four great YouTube clips to drool over and Rodney Perkins has dissected the first 22 minutes.

Cross-published on

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