Watchmen's Watchman - Director Zack Snyder Talks
You might have heard … there is this little movie called Watchmen that comes out Friday, March 6th, based on this little 1980's comic book series by some guys named Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.If those facts have somehow managed to escape your attention, despite the magazine covers, the Superbowl and Academy Awards commercials, and the Internet practically giving itself over to news and discussion of the film, well, we'd like you to meet the man in perhaps the hottest seat ever among comic book and genre enthusiasts - Watchmen director Zack Snyder. Snyder, who burst onto the scene and banked a ton of geek credibility in 2006 by turning the genuinely relatively obscure graphic novel 300 into a surprise box office smash, is the very visible figure whose career may live or die according to how the film is ultimately received.
We recently spoke to the director about his journey from a teenage Heavy Metal and Teenage Mutant Turtles fan to the man in charge of bringing the Holy Bible of comic books to cinematic life… [for Newsarama's first review of the film, click on the link] Newsarama: So Zack, you must be eating, sleeping and breathing Watchmen at this point… Zack Snyder: Yeah you could say that! NRAMA: How close are you to any kind of final cut, there are all sorts of rumors going around that its 2:45, its 2:30, you got a couple months I guess. Its running time is like 2:38 now. [editor's note: Actual Wide Release runtime is now listed at 2hours 33 minutes] NRAMA: Obligatory comic book question – did you grow up at all reading comics? ZS: Yes, of course I did. NRAMA: What were your favorites? ZS: The only title I really collected to this day is the original TMNT (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). NRAMA: The Eastman and Laird black and white series from Mirage? ZS: Exactly. All that stuff, what’s the guy's name they always fought? NRAMA: Shredder. ZS: Right, I loved him! As I’ve told the story, I was a Heavy Metal fan (magazine, not music style). My mom got me a subscription to Heavy Metal when I was really young, not really knowing it was adult oriented, so I would read it and not let her know what was in it. I’m sure if she saw some of the stuff that was in it, she would have been freaked out and appalled. She would just see the covers and say, “Oh Zach loves this stuff, this is perfect.” So it was hard for me to go to normal comics because I was a little bit broken and spoiled—when are they going to start &#@!ing or killing each other! So that kind took me out of comics for a little while. It’s weird, TMNT was the one that kinda hooked me, you know? I guess at the time in high school, I was into renaissance artists and all that. And then a few years later, Dark Knight and Watchmen were really when I got back into comics — not heavily, but they were the ones that got me to believe again if you will. I think that’s a common story. But it’s mine as well. NRAMA: How old were you when you were reading Heavy Metal and the Turtles? ZS: I was in high school, so I guess Heavy Metal from about 14, maybe even before that, 13 to the present. Turtles were 17-18. I’ve dabbled ever since with everything a little, all the Frank (Miller) stuff, all the Alan Moore stuff. Mostly you know, it’s an art thing. I do like art, so that’s why Heavy Metal was so influencing. I’m more like an art fan more than anything else. NRAMA: If you were 17 or 18 when you read Watchmen the first time, was it something you hadn’t touched or seen for twenty years when the film popped up on your radar? ZS: Yes and no. I guess I did have it on my shelf and I must have glanced at it a couple times during the 90’s. It’s funny because when the studio called, they didn’t know what a fan I was. They said, “We’ve got this film called Watchmen that we got from Paramount. We thought you might be interested in it. It’s based on a comic book.” and I’m like, I’m aware of the comic. You know, to them it’s a script. It comes over like any other script. They don’t know it’s like this amazing thing! It’s just odd when you realize your experiences with pop culture are far different than the people working at the studio were. They’re, “Oh yeah it’s based on a comic book written by this Moore guy blah blah blah,” and I’m like “Yeah, I know. …It’s just funny. NRAMA: You didn’t get to work with Alan Moore – but you did get to work with Dave Gibbons – what was it like to work with him? ZS: He’s an amazing man, super kind, and super generous with his time. And with whatever I’ve asked him, he’s said “Ok whatever you need.” He wants the film to be as awesome as anyone. He’s pretty happy with what we’ve done with the movie. He’s the main guy I go to, to ask whether or not it’s Watchmen or not…it’s a thing, hard to explain but it’s definitely a thing. NRAMA: Did he bring ideas to the table that you wouldn’t have thought of from your own interpretations of the graphic novel? ZS: Stuff I had said I wanted to do, he was the good litmus test to see whether or not I was nuts. All I can hope is that a whole new generation of people is exposed to the material. That’s really ultimately what I want the experience to be. They’ve (DC Comics) also started selling a ton of additional copies from when the first trailer came out. NRAMA: I think Alan Moore would be happy with that response. I talked to a bunch of the cast, and their stories are similar, where although you had a great script, you always had a copy of the graphic novel by your side. ZS: That’s absolutely true. I think for me that’s how I aimed for a similar kind of style (between film and comic). I’d compare the script to the book and think, “Does that makes sense here – I’d say that to myself all the time. There’s a reason why this thing is a classic. I’d look at a scene in the novel and think, it’s not a mistake. It didn’t happen for no reason. There are ideas and images and stories that are there for the ages. I’ve interpreted the source material to make the film, sure, but that’s the movie. To understand what Alan wrote and how Dave interpreted the story in pictures, you need to read the book. NRAMA: But for film adaptations like Stephen King novels, the director’s usually not breaking down a scene by going through the novel page by page. Maybe for small parts here and there, but not like this, correct? Was this weird for you? In this case it’s almost like comics have literally come to Hollywood. ZS: Yeah it's harder, because with comic books, there haven’t been many graphic novels that have been directly made into a movie. Hollywood tends to treat them like they do any other novel or adaptation. They tend to take characters, like Superman, or Spider-Man and create an amalgamation of origin stories or adventures or heroes that appear in the comics’ pages, but not necessarily staying 100 percent true to one individual’s interpretation of the character — except maybe Chris Nolan in the case of Batman. I have no problem with that. I think that’s cool. But in other cases when we have a work of literature we are trying to turn into a movie, filmmakers tend to think you have to change things to make them better or more accessible. I think any book that’s been turn into a movie, like Da Vinci Code or No Country for Old Men, there’s vast changes that get made. But our movie has a lot less changes than those movies from the original books. Certainly less than Twilight, (which was fairly controversial for similar reasons). NRAMA: I guess that’s my point, this could very well be one of the most faithful translations of a literary work ever. There are some other very close ones, like the Harry Potter books. ZS: The Harry Potter books are very close. Harry Potter fans are looking for a particular thing – they are looking for adaptations that are Harry Potter-esque. I think they’ve (the studios) learned that the more of the books they put in there, the more similar experience the fans have that’s as close to it as reading the book. NRAMA: Hopefully Hollywood and the studios will see that taking less from the source material is not necessarily a good thing. What is it about the story that grabbed you and thousands of others to be so passionate about it? ZS: I guess for me it’s the fact that Alan Moore’s really taken it all the way with these characters. It’s not a casual connection to them. He’s taken them all the way to the end. When I started working on this and really started to pull the story apart, this work that I thought I knew, you come to find out that you barely understand it. They (the studio) are like, it’s Watchmen — you know — the graphic novel. And you are like of course it is, I know Watchmen. Then you actually look at it and really start to think about it, and see it’s its own thing. But it speaks to our world and everyone’s own experiences so completely. I think that’s why it works so well in the time it depicts and still rings true for most. For me Watchmen has stood the test of time, Watchmen is real, it keeps the characters real, I don’t know exactly why that is. What Moore doesn’t do is say, they aren’t bad superheroes. What he says is they’re people, that’s the difference — the people part of it, the psychological exterior to them. Your father might be the man you despise most in the world, you believe he raped your mother and you apply that out. Is that a necessary thing? Yes it is. It’s such a necessary thing, literally a series of life-changing events, not symbolically. And I think when you read it you don’t expect it to go all the way, because comics usually don’t. I think the surprise of it psychologically and physically is unbelievably real. Dan can’t get an erection unless he’s in his suit, and he can’t have sex until he rescues people from a tenement fire immediately. If that’s not adult I don’t know what is. NRAMA: Perhaps that’s why a ton of comics have attempted to do similar things in the last 15 years and never succeeded on the same level as this story. ZS: But again, it’s the first time you see that — ultimately the first time you see this movie, it might be an audience who doesn’t know it’s going to be a different experience than, lets say the Fantastic Four. This is rated R, a pretty hard R as a matter of fact. NRAMA: The cast members that I’ve spoken to are the most excited actors to see the final cut that I’ve ever interviewed. Most have read the graphic novel 30 or 40 times and are bursting at the seams to see what you’ve done and to see how everybody interacts on screen. ZS: I think that’s cool; I hope that Watchmen brings that kind of experience for the regular moviegoer. NRAMA: Was your experience at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con different for this film than for the event you did for 300? ZS: When we did 300, I didn’t feel like the audience cared as much. Pop culture wasn’t aware of 300. It was a small event that kinda came along a couple weeks before the movie came out and hit them in the knees. I think Watchmen is much more like this sort of bubbly experience that everyone’s waiting to start to bubble down to pop culture-kind-of-cool, I hope it’s cool. NRAMA: What’s the one question about making this film that someone hasn’t asked you yet? ZS: The question I haven’t really gotten is the difference between 300 and Watchmen. They both couldn’t be more different. From the actual filmmaking, the politics, the actor experiences, all those things. If you look at the difference between what Frank does and what Alan does, it’s pretty amazing — two unbelievably great talents, who tell stories in different ways. But the movie events, both those movies are made by the same guy, and I’m proud of those works. I’m privileged to have this awesome experience — to be the son of those two fathers in the comic world. And that’s a cool place to be. Marc Patten is a writer and marketer of all things pop-culture, living in the greater New York City area of Southern Connecticut. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.