Watchmen Interview: Director Zack Snyder

Not quite three years ago, director Zack Snyder turned a beloved comic book miniseries, Frank Miller's 300, into a hyper-stylized bloodbath of a movie that, in many ways, transformed the way motion pictures will be made. His reward for that was being put in the captain's chair of the big-screen adaptation of what most critics agree is the greatest graphic novel ever written and, in some literary circles, one of the greatest books of any kind ever written -- Watchmen! Fans called the sprawling and epic superhero deconstruction unadaptable, but after what Snyder pulled off with 300, most seemed willing enough to give him the benefit of the doubt. Over the next two years, Snyder's devotion to creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' masterpiece became apparent in the press images and trailers that were released, building up a frenzy of anticipation that, except for Star Trek, is unparalleled in 2009. In this, my final interview with the cast and filmmakers behind the Watchmen movie, I talked with Snyder about what the graphic novel means to him and the challenge of translating his experience with the characters to the big screen.

Cole Haddon: Let's start with an easy question. When did you first discover the Watchmen graphic novel?

Zack Snyder: I read the graphic novel in 1988. I knew about it when it first came out, but I missed the first three issues, and I was kind of lazy in my comic book reading and so was like, "I'm not going to go search those down now." When it came out as a graphic novel, I decided to read it. I wasn't ready for it, though. I expected it to be a comic book. I liked Alan Moore and thought it was cool that he had some new superheroes I could check out. And when I read it, the impression I got about halfway through was, "What the f**k is going on here? These superheroes are crazy." And the feeling I got reading it the first time is what stuck with me and was the tone I wanted for the movie. That's why, after the [movie's] credit sequence, you know you're in for something out there. What other superhero movie has Bob Dylan music in it? It should be Rancid, Coldplay, anything -- just not that. So that was what I had in my brain.

CH: How were you first approached about the possibility of helming the movie adaptation?

ZS: [The studio] sent me the script. It came with the note, "We think it's based on a graphic novel, but the script is really interesting." I was like, "Wow. Um, okay. I guess I'll check it out."

CH: With the release date almost here, how are you feeling about how audiences are going to react to the movie's complex themes and ideas?

ZS: I've been nervous about it, but ... Hmm. You know, when I directed Dawn of the Dead, my biggest fear was that people wouldn't get the movie. I was like, "You know, I tried to make this cult movie by a studio, to make this self-reflexive movie that understands its genre -- a love letter to George Romero." I figured there would be a big chunk of people who'd see it and go, "Oh, it's a zombie movie. Whatever." Or, worst of all, not even notice we cared; just see it as a B-movie and write it off. Then when we made 300, we were pretty sure we were making this boutique-y movie that some fanboys would go to, that it would be this fun Frank Miller romp. So I was, of course, surprised by the response to that movie. When we got around to Watchmen, I think we kind of looked at it in the same way. Like, "Look, I'm not going to f**k it up to try and make a movie that's commercial, or cool, or exactly what everyone [at the studio level] would assume an audience would like."

I feel like that's what we did, and, as far as how mainstream audiences will feel about it, I have no idea. I was pretty sure that's how it would be with 300. We talked about how there was no way a mass audience would go for these half-naked guys running around in these, like, leather bikinis, giving them a history lesson. It just wasn't going to work. So I don't know; I kind of feel the same way about Watchmen in the sense that I just hope, as much as possible, people get the irony of the movie and get what the movie's trying to do, the deconstructionist aspect of it, tearing down of superhero mythology and re-understanding. And also understand how it's plugged into pop culture right now, in that the superhero movie is the movie. [The genre] can be satirized in an intelligent way, not in a, you know, Meet the Spartans style.

What do superheroes mean? Why do we love the characters? It goes to the violence, the sexuality of it, going as far as it can go in both directions. To say that, you know, we're used to violence without consequences, it's fine, nobody gets hurt, everyone gets back up, it's PG-13. I find that's really irresponsible. The script I was first handed for Watchmen, the studio was like, "It's going to be PG-13, it's going to be updated [from 1985 and the Cold War] to the War on Terror, Dr. Manhattan goes to Iraq instead of Vietnam, no Manhattan on Mars, no Comedian's death, no Rorschach being interrogated -- just a superhero movie. Just a real franchise-able superhero movie." And I think, in some ways, I f**ked up that aspect of Watchmen, but, on the other, I think the movie has a better chance the way it is. It might not create a revolution [but maybe it could].

CH: Do you think the success of The Dark Knight helped Watchmen?

ZS: I think it helped Watchmen hugely. I think that it's an interesting counterpoint to Watchmen, in fact -- serious filmmaker, serious actors, serious movie taken seriously by pop culture, critics, intelligently discussing what it means. In some ways, it's the pinnacle of what's possible in a superhero movie. What's interesting is that Watchmen comes on the heels of that. It blows all that up again. It says, "Now that you've taken it super seriously, now that you've elevated it to, like, high art, it's time to examine it again -- without a smile, without the wink -- what the f**k this mythology is all about. Why are these our movies? Why did this movie make, like, a billion dollars around the world? Why do you accept it that the Batman can walk around in a real world and fight guys who dress up like the Joker?"

CH: Talk about the casting. Your choices really paid off on the screen.

ZS: It was an ensemble, of course, but I cast everyone one by one. I cast Patrick [Wilson as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II] first, because everything about him is very Dan-ish to me. Also, there's a stylized aspect to the movie, and he was able to get with that and not buck that. It's a difficult thing to get everyone into that style. It's not like vérité. You can't just say every word exactly as you feel it. You've got to get with the style of the movie, and that's a difficult thing for a lot of actors. Billy [Crudup's] an amazing actor, but I tricked him. Only after he was hired [to play the CGI-enhanced Dr. Manhattan] did he realize I was going to make him wear pajamas with lights all over them [for the whole shoot]. Jackie [Earle Haley, who played Rorschach] actually sent me a DVD he prepared of a scene from the movie. It was amazing, and I want to put it on the DVD but he won't let me.

CH: After seeing Jackie play Rorschach, I can't imagine anyone else in the role.

ZS: You see him, and you can't even think of who else could do it. It's hard. I'm not even going to tell you who else wanted to do [the part], but super tall guys, like guys who are 6 foot 3 inches. I was like, "You're going to be taller than Nite Owl? That doesn't make any sense."

CH: What about Jeffrey Dean Morgan as homicidal vigilante the Comedian? It couldn't have been the easiest role to play.

ZS: The thing with the Comedian is he had to be a man's man. It's a difficult role because he's got to be a little bit charming. Sadly -- and scarily! -- when we do our little polls [about the movie], people are like, "I like the Comedian the best! Or I like Rorschach the best! These are my favorite characters!" And I'm like, "What is wrong with you? The Comedian is a baaad man."

But wait, there's more! In case you missed the rest of our Watchmen interviews, check out these conversations with co-creator/artist Dave Gibbons and stars Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.