SANTA MONICA, California — Forget Spider-Man, Batman, Superman and all the other caped crusaders. In the world of comic books, if those popular titles are "The Da Vinci Code," then Alan Moore's 1986 graphic novel "Watchmen" is the Bible.
Stopping by the MTV News studio this week, fast-rising director Zack Snyder ("300") was eager to address the die-hard fans and doubters who worry that he will ruin their sacred text. "I'm a fan," he promised. "So I want it to be as good as anybody. I don't wanna screw it up."
Next week, Snyder's "300" will once again remind us of the magic that can be achieved with the visual tales of "Sin City" scribe Frank Miller (see " '300' Sneak Peek Reveals An Aggressive Movie That Doesn't Follow Rules"). With "Watchmen," Snyder will take on the hallowed text of Moore, an equally acclaimed writer whose previous experiences with Hollywood resulted in such mediocre fare as "From Hell" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (see "DC Comics' Superhero-Redefining 'Watchmen' To Hit The Big Screen").
"[In] so many comic books, everything [has an] exaggerated, forced perspective to make it look cooler. Frank's just saying, 'This is how I see it,' " Snyder explained. "The thing with Alan is that people have not given his books the same respect that Frank got from that initial experience with Robert [Rodriguez on 'Sin City']. That is the missing ingredient. Alan's stories, in their own way, are sophisticated; they speak to political things and pop culture and a whole bunch of real issues we all confront. ... Those parts of Alan's books are what studios aren't really comfortable with."
Snyder has never met Moore, the notoriously reclusive author who has famously soured on Hollywood and said he doesn't want a "Watchmen" movie ever made(see "Alan Moore: The Last Angry Man"). Still, Snyder hopes to arrange a meeting soon so he can explain that the script he's calling "closer to 'Dr. Strangelove' than 'Fantastic Four' " will embrace exactly what studios have feared in the past.
"With 'Watchmen,' there's no reason not to [embrace it]," insisted the director, who launched his career with a similarly controversial remake of "Dawn of the Dead." "The audience is ready for it. Who's not sick of Hollywood's version of a superhero?
"People always ask me, 'What's "Watchman" about?,' " said Snyder, who revealed that his film will be "a super-long movie" and contain the "Black Freighter" secondary story line as well. "I go, 'Well in my superhero movie, the bad guy wants world peace, Superman doesn't really give a sh-- about humanity, and Batman can't get it up.' "
"Watchmen" offers the deeply philosophical tale of a "Justice League"-like group dealing with its own irrelevance. Telling an alternative history of the United States that has Richard Nixon in his fifth term and on the verge of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the book takes off when the now-outlawed heroes begin getting murdered, and the all-powerful Dr. Manhattan faces a God-like decision of whether humanity is worth saving.
"We're doing a little research right now," Snyder said of preliminary special effects for the blue, naked, Silver Surfer-like antihero. "I want him to look like he does in the book, rendering him in a really sophisticated way but a real way. You have to believe it. ... Right now, I'm in an exploratory phase, saying, 'OK, I like that,' and then seeing how much it costs."
Speaking of the morose, wannabe-watchmaker, Snyder revealed the one Dr. Manhattan scene that will definitely appear intact from book to screen. "I just love the image of Dr. Manhattan walking through the jungles of Vietnam, 200 feet tall, with Huey [helicopters] all around him, basically vaporizing the jungle." The flashback, which comes when Nixon uses America's ultimate weapon to end Vietnam in a mere three months, is only one panel in the graphic novel — but Snyder plans to expand it substantially.
One of the only problems with all this, Snyder shrugged, is that the same dumb studio questions that sank flicks like "Daredevil" and "Catwoman" have already reared their ugly heads. "The first thing I did when I got 'Watchmen' was push it back to 1985. They wanted to update it and make it about the war on terror. I just said, 'That's not cool,' " he grinned. "I'd say, 'I love Nixon, I love [then-Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger. I want them in my movie.' ... The studio would immediately say, 'Why do you want Richard Nixon in a superhero movie?'
"They'll ask me questions like, 'What are Dr. Manhattan's weaknesses?,' " he said incredulously. "I'm like, 'He used to be a man. ... He's God! His only weakness is that he was a man, and that still haunts him.' ... They're like, 'Should the Comedian be so bad all the time?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, he should!' "
With "300" garnering enormous buzz, and "Watchmen" being made by the same studio, Snyder said such questions are increasingly dwindling, and his autonomy is growing. "I promise it's going to be all actors," Snyder said defiantly, revealing that Manhattan, Nixon, Kissinger and others will not be CGI. "I like makeup. I don't want it to be this slick, glossy studio movie where everything's perfect.
"I [now can] say, 'That'll be cool where Rorschach handcuffs the child molester to the wood-burning stove and gives him a hacksaw," Snyder said of another scene that will be in his movie, featuring the masked character who is arguably the most heroic — and most mentally deranged — of the group.
"It's gonna be this summer," Snyder said of when the cameras will begin rolling. "The studio really wants to make it, and I've got — I can't say right now which actors — but I've got actors interested. ... If an actor doesn't know 'Watchmen,' it takes me an hour or so to get them to drink the Kool-Aid and realize it's not a summer tent-pole superhero movie. It's not 'X-Men.' ... When 'Watchmen' came out, your basic comic book collector had maxed out on comic book heroes. Here comes 'Watchmen,' you buy it and boom! Your brains get blown out of your head."
Surveying the current landscape of slick, virtuous heroes, Snyder said the timing couldn't be better for his down-on-their-luck do-gooders. "That's the same thing that's gonna happen to your average moviegoer when they say, 'Oh, cool, "Watchmen." What's that? A superhero movie? I'll go check it out.' ... When Nixon sends the super-being to Vietnam, and he's walking through the jungle ... you'll know you're in another kind of movie."
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