When the Watchmen film was first announced, one of the main questions was what parts of Alan Moore’s monumental story would make it to film, and what would be left untold. It seemed pretty obvious to fans that two elements of the original story that would suffer the deepest cuts would be “Tales of the Black Freighter” and “Under the Hood,” the theoretical comic and autobiography that Moore interwove into the main story.
Then again, main director Zack Snyder had a different idea. He would treat them as independent projects. For “Freighter” he would hire an outside animation studio. For “Hood,” he went to longtime colleague Eric Mattheis.
“Most of the things I do are behind-the-scenes and DVD extras stuff,” says Mattheis. “I also do documentaries. Now I had worked with Zack on 300. He was happy with the work I had done. Obviously, there were a lot of things they couldn’t include from the graphic novel. So they asked me if I would be interested in doing what they called ancillary content. It was something that was very important to them. They had already started working on ‘Black Freighter.’ They wanted to apply a similar level of production and attention to ‘Under the Hood.’
“Now an idea that was sort of being kicked around was that a memoir like that would be heavily covered in The Watchmen’s world. There would be news specials and TV shows on it. So we could use the format of a TV show, a hybrid between Charlie Rose and 60 Minutes, as a vehicle for it. That’s where Hans came in with his prose.”
Hans Rodionoff is a self-confessed comic book geek, particularly when it came to Watchmen. He had been quietly building a rep working for the likes of Clive Barker as well as scripting such films as Lost Boys 2 and others.
“I got a call from some executive at Warner Premier,” Rodionoff recalls. “He asked me if I wanted to a complimentary movie to Watchmen. Of course, that was like a clarion call that rarely comes for a guy like me. So I flipped out and said yes before he even finished the question.
“From there, I was told that I had to go up to Vancouver because Zack felt I had to see the assets that I would have to use, sort of get my feet into the world of it. I toured the War Room, which was essential to making ‘Under the Hood.’ In that room there was so much stuff they had created, so many time periods going on; the War Room was the best place to get the fool history of the Watchmen and the Minute Men. To see how much depth and care was put into the making of the film was really inspiring.
“So I went home and wrote the treatment, knowing full well the eyes reading it really knew their stuff. So I knew I better deliver my A game. So what I handed them was this two-page synopsis posing that what we were looking at was a retrospective of a news program called ‘The Culpepper Report.’ From there we could do a pre-Keane Act/post-Keane Act view of the Watchmen and how different times effected different people. I also wanted to make it all feel like part of the world itself, another prop.
“I was really afraid the Warner executives were not going to get it,” Rodionoff admits. “They were going to read it and ask if I was out of my mind.”
“What you have to remember is Zack really is a giant fan of the novel,” Mattheis immediately adds, “so to him the treatment worked out really well. Being he was one of the first wave of executives, that insured the treatment didn’t fall apart.”
After scripting, it was then time for Mattheis to work his magic. A true test of his skill is that he claims he didn’t use a single shot Snyder made for the main film.
“All of it was new footage. It’s all unique,” says Mattheis. “Yes, there’s some stock footage in there, like film from the 50s of the HUAC trials.”
“Eric and I have talked about this, but what was so great about each and every actor is they put so much time and themselves into it,” says Rodionoff. “They really immersed themselves. In the feature film you can see that with Jackie Earle Haley or Jeffrey Dean Morgan. With our film, we were given a lot of actors who didn’t do that much in the main feature film, but they did just as much, if not more, as the other people. I know Steve McHattie put a lot of research into it. He really understood Hollis Mason before he walked on the set.”
In fact, one thing both Mattheis and Rodionoff swear to is “Under the Hood” would be no where near as good as it is if it wasn’t for the performance of Steve McHattie, who played Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl.
“Steve is great to work with,” says Mattheis. “I worked with him briefly in 300. He was really gracious about doing this. Actually, shooting his sequences were the most important ones to the film. They were also some of the most logistically challenging because of his schedule. Yet when he came in, he got it, understood his role in it, and was totally behind it and the way we were approaching it. I think you see that in his performance. He’s like Eastwood. He’s a very powerful guy, even if he’s much older. You are always left with the feeling you don’t want to mess with him.
“I think part of that is just due to Zack. Everybody is really intense in a Zack Snyder shoot. There are top line actors throughout the entire cast. Even the guys who put the garbage down on a street scene take their job seriously. Everyone working on the project has a deep understanding of how their job fits into the whole.”
As for the results? Both Mattheis and Rodionoff admit they are pleased with the final outcome. They are even willing to take on a bridge full of trolls if that is the case.
“I don’t really care because I’m really proud of the work,” says Rodionoff. “I’m also so thankful to being involved in. So I’m happy to expect that kind of scrutiny and know I’m going to get it.”
“I know there will be certain things that I’ll get called out on,” adds Mattheis. “When you make a film like this, you know that walking in. Still, when you’re a guy like me, who does mostly behind the scenes stuff, I think I’ll enjoy it.”
As for both men’s future? Mattheis is hard at work on the extra content for the inevitable Watchmen DVD. As for Rodionoff? He’s making the next big step up.
“I’m going to make my directorial debut,” he said. “I’m working on a film that is based on a graphic novel, oddly enough published through Vertigo, called Mnemovore. For purposes of the production, we’re going to call it Black Out. It’s a project I developed with Guillermo Del Toro. I just found my lead and am getting ready to go into pre-production with the guys who did all the special effects on Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy. We’re thinking that we’ll shoot this summer in New Zealand, so we can also capitalize on Guillermo being there.”