Comic fans everywhere have been anticipating a film version of Watchmen for years. North by Northwestern caught up with Zack Snyder, the man who tackled the “unfilmable film,” for a conference call. The director, who also lists 300 and Dawn of the Dead on his résumé, talked about superhero stories, Watchmen’s ensemble cast, and his unflinching approach to filming brutality.
What made you decide to take on such a difficult project?
The biggest thing was that when they first called me, I was very aware of this motion picture and I just felt like there was no way that I could do it, that I’d be able to figure it out. But after reading the script that the studio had, I felt like if I didn’t do it they were going to do it without me and they were going to do it like a sequel-able PG-13 movie set during the war on terror instead of 1985, and Manhattan goes to Iraq instead of Vietnam and the bad-guy ending is sort of exactly like you would imagine in a superhero movie. That was something that I felt that I couldn’t let happen that way. The material is so dense and awesome that […] the problem is once you make that leap for the movie you’re pretty much in for a three-year freak-out. And also, I just love it, so that’s why I did it.
With the success of The Dark Knight and with Heath Ledger winning the Oscar, do you think superhero movies have a chance at the Oscars?
Look, it’s all about this culture accepting that this is our mythology, you know? I think that’s the biggest turn that our culture has to make. I think it’s pretty obvious that this is our mythology, but the intelligentsia kind of fights that a little bit. As a people, it’s difficult to accept that the way our stories are told is by comics. It’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow, and people will fight it kicking and screaming … I don’t think that there’s anything nonintellectual about superheroes; I think it is what you make of it, but I think that people perceive that the danger is that we’re dumbing ourselves down by making superheroes our high art. That’s the deception. I don’t believe that’s true — I believe that superheroes have the ability to be as intellectually stimulating as anything.
In the novel, the fictional cast members were really kind of an “ensemble.” Your cast, too, is really kind of an ensemble cast of young actors. Were there any difficulties in bringing this cast to the screen?
I think the most difficult character to realize is Dr. Manhattan, for a bunch of reasons, but I think in some ways for me he’s one of the most rewarding. I’m a big fan of the graphic novel, but when I read the graphic novel getting ready to make the film, I thought about Dr. Manhattan in the sense of a character that renders pure philosophy at every turn, in the sense of a character who is interesting to hear talk but emotionally exists outside of the scope of the rest of the characters. The thing that I thought was cool about what Billy [Crudup] did, the thing I discovered along the way…is that Dr. Manhattan is a super-emotional character. He’s a dark and sad god, and I think that that’s what really came across in Billy’s rendering of the character. There’s this deep sadness that I thought was really interesting. It reinvented Manhattan for me.
Do you think that Billy’s detachment from Hollywood helped [the film retain focus]?
Absolutely, I think that that’s the cool thing. All my actors are fantastic, but they don’t play the Hollywood game and I think it makes the movie more interesting because you don’t go into the movie and think “Oh, there’s Billy dressed as Dr. Manhattan.” They are their characters, and I think that that’s what makes it really interesting.
When does your adaptation stop being about just shooting a comic book and transform into its own movie?
Well to me one of the most obvious things that a movie does that a comic book cannot do is…for instance, Manhattan [in the end of the movie], when I read it in the graphic novel, [he] was so overwhelmed with philosophy that it didn’t strike me as emotional. And for me it’s an emotional scene, so when I see that go down [on film] I think, wow, that’s emotional — these characters coming to this conclusion. It’s a supplemental experience to the graphic novel; it doesn’t replace them but merely enhances the experience.
What, in such a faithful adaptation, makes this a “Zack Snyder movie”?
I don’t know, I think the whole story itself, once it moves through the prism of the filmmaker…like the way I work, I sit and call the shots, and they exist in a slightly different format. For instance, Dave drew his drawings as vertical, and the movie will be mostly horizontal, so we have to recompose everything. It’s a pretty big deal. Just going back to that process alone, realigning the shots … that right there is like your hand is now on it, and the whole movie is going through you and coming back out. That process for me is really personal.
Watchmen was called the “unfilmable film,” and your first draft was three hours long. So with all you’ve had to go through, what [helped you persevere]?
My main thrust was to keep it from becoming a superhero movie. Because in the studio’s mind, that’s a safe and cool idea, to make it as formulaic a superhero movie as you can. And I really felt like if that happened, there’d be nothing left of the original source material. So for me, anyway, it was pretty important to not let that happen.
How did you deal with the Black Freighter [the comic book "inside" the comic book]?
Because of the fans, my idea was to decide how I was going to get that in the movie. It’s not intuitive to get any of that stuff in. And what I ended up with was basically taking as much as I could from either Under the Hood or any of the supplemental texts and working them conceptually into the body of the film. And what we created was an animated version of that comic strip, and for blu-ray and DVD we’ve combined them into a single motion picture. So there’s a three-hour and 30-minute version of the movie with the Black Freighter cut in.
How do you think a fan of 300 will react to the kind of violence in the film?
Part of the reason why the violence in the movie is so extreme is that, for me, I wanted the idea of a superhero movie to be broken down at every level. As viewers, we are all used to this PG-13, homogenized violence that’s been put in a clean wrapper. The idea with the violence in Watchmen was to smash that concept as hard as I could — the idea that violence has no consequences, and that when they run into conflict there’s no danger. In 300 I think we kind of created an operatic version of violence… so I’m not sure how people will react to it, but that’s my intention.