Fans of 'Watchmen' have long argued that the graphic novel could not be adapted as a feature film, but would be better served in another form, the most common suggestion being a cable mini-series. Last week filmmaker Zack Snyder proved them wrong, delivering a movie that, by the measure of most fans, captures the essence of the graphic novel.
Still, there's only so much that can be done in a 2 hour, 45 minute film. Not wanting to do a disservice to the book, the producers of the film planned from the start to adapt elements of the book separately from the feature film. The comic-within-a-comic 'Tales of the Black Freighter' has spawned a short animated film while the textual back matter of the comic series has been adapted as 'Under the Hood'. Both of these films are due out on DVD and Blu-Ray next week.
Mania.com spoke exclusively with Eric Matthies and Hans Rodionoff, the director and screenwriter respectively of the live-action 'Under the Hood' movie.
For Matthies, the project came as a natural progression after working with producers Zack Snyder, Debbie Snyder and Wes Coller on DVD and EPK materials for '300'.
"We had started talking about 'Watchmen' pretty much as soon as '300' ended, we knew we were going to be doing more than just the usual DVD content and EPK and web stuff. It was exciting," Matthies said. "At one point I actually thought that 'Black Freighter' was going to be live action and I had this whole, crazy notion that we were going to be doing these two, live-action things. Thankfully it didn't work out that way because it was enough to just pull off 'Under the Hood.'"
Fans of the graphic novel know that each issue or chapter of 'Watchmen' was filled out with 4 pages of extra material. Sometimes it was excerpts from Hollis Mason's autobiography. Other issues included news clippings from the world of the book. Another included an essay written by Dan Dreiberg. For Matthies, each of these provide a rich basis for segments of a movie, but he knew he need a writer to somehow tie them together into a narrative.
It was then that Matt Bierman at Warner Premier introduced him to Rodionoff. Bierman had worked with the writer on the best-selling DVD 'Lost Boys: The Tribe' and noticed something interesting in the comic book prequel to that movie that Rodionoff wrote for Wildstorm Comics.
"At some point in the story the Frog Brothers' comic store gets burned down and somebody makes a comment about what a tragedy that was, and Edgar Frog says, 'yeah, there was full run of mint-condition Watchmen, which is the real tragedy,'" Rodionoff told us. "It was just a thing I threw in there because I've been such a Watchmen fan for so long."
Soon they came up with a framework for the 'Under the Hood' movie. The story would unfold as an episode of a fictitious talk show called "The Culpeper Minute" (a nod to the historic Culpeper Militia, one of the early groups of minutemen from America's history).
"I knew that Zack and Debbie and Wes, and Larry Gordon and everybody who would read the pitch for the move would be trying to figure out if I knew my Watchmen," Rodionoff said. So he crafted a unique pitch document that reflected the complex narrative devices of the graphic novel.
"So much of Watchmen has to do with time lines and how different time periods relate to each other. So imagine some kid with a notebook who was given the horrible assignment of cataloging all the episodes of 'The Culpeper Minute' from the last 30 years, and then sort of boiling them down to two pages of synopsis. So that's what the pitch document was: it was a report that was written in present day, talking about this specific episode of the show that that aired in 1985 in which they revisited an earlier episode of 'The Culpeper Minute' from 1976."
The result is a 40 minute movie that spans the history of the Watchmen world, from the appearance of Hooded Justice to events just prior to those seen in the movie. The film sees several of the actors from the feature revisiting their roles, but focuses on two in particular.
"The two people that were obviously the most important are Hollis Mason [played by Stephen McHattie ] and Sally Jupiter [played by Carla Gugino]. Once we knew that we had them could start building around it," Rodionoff said.
As the script evolved and characters were added, Matthies would approach the actors they wanted. While not everyone was able to appear, they were able to McHattie and Gugino to anchor the film.
"We went out to everybody who would have made sense to participate, but in the end it really made more sense to go towards the secondary people and give a little bit more," Matthies said. "Bernard and Big Figure and Malcolm Long and Schexnayder, who barely appears in the film. It was exciting to be able to pursue their perspectives and give them some room.
"They're all such great character actors. They all really relished the opportunity to take Hans' script and the support material Zack had given them and really run with it. Everybody was immersed in the graphic novel and there were constant discussions that were going on, on and off set, the whole time we were in production."
One character who also stands out in 'Under the Hood' is Matt Frewer's Moloch. The former villain shares his view that rebels such as himself rise to the level of the authority they're opposing, and provides the chilling insight that, with Dr. Manhattan on the scene, there would also come an equally powerful being to counter him. To us, that seemed like a foreshadowing of "the Squid", that famous faux villain that appears in the book but not in the film.
"He is hinting at something that could be the squid, but if you think about it it also works as Dr. Manhattan himself," Rodionoff said. "I thought that was kind of neat. What Moloch says in that segment could work for both the comic or the movie."
"He's also talking about Adrian, is sort of my takeaway of it," Matthies said. "That's the beauty of Watchmen. It's crafted in such a way as you can interpret it for yourself.
"Some people say Black Freighter is a parallel to Adrian's story. Some people say it's parallel Rorschach's story. Some people think it's both. Some people don't see it that way at all."
Both the director and writer agree that Watchmen, the film and the graphic novel, rewards attention. Segments of the film are layered with background bits in the same way that panels of the comic have hidden information embedded in them. That was something they wanted to capture in 'Under the Hood' as well.
"I think that's something that was important to Zack and Debbie and Wes, as we jumped into this project, was to try and build in as much foreshadowing and potential exploration of double meanings or easter eggs as we could, without being over the top with it," Matthies said.
One that jumped out at us, watching the movie, happens as Hollis describes the comic books that inspired his costumed adventuring. Although he doesn't name the book, the cover to an early "Blue Beetle" comic crosses the screen, a sly reference to the Charlton Comics characters that Alan Moore used as a starting point for the graphic novel.
"In the the graphic novel the characters that Hollis references are more like The Shadow and Doc Savage," Rodionoff said, "but I think it was more interesting to lead back to the Charlton characters. Nine out of ten people don't really know that the Watchmen are kind of based on those characters, but for the people that do, that's a fun little nod. And hopefully the rest look a little deeper and wonder 'why is the Blue Beetle in there?'"
Pains were taken to ensure that 'The Culpeper Minute' felt like an authentic TV relic from 1985, and all the clips from earlier eras also rang true.
"We did a ton of research across the board. My file, just on 'Under the Hood' and researching New York in those time periods...was one of the fun things about the whole process," Matthies told us. "There was a moment where we were considering who actually was the mayor of New York at that time and could we get a look-alike to play him.
"It ultimately came down to what worked for Zack and what didn't."
Matthies and Rodionoff reviewed talk shows from the period as a guide.
"We were fortunate in our casting, to find Ted Friend to play Larry Culpeper. He actually was a newscaster in the 80s," Matthies said of the Walter Cronkite-esque talk show host who interviews Hollis Mason and Sally Jupiter throughout the episode.
Of course, it was not only important to be authentic to the time period, but the book as well.
"Zack didn't give me a lot of marching orders, but when I was leaving Vancouver I asked him if he had any last thoughts for me to keep in mind," Rodionoff told us. "He said, 'Just be faithful. When in doubt, go back to the graphic novel and you won't have any problems.'"
That faithfulness and authenticity are all in service to the emerging trend of providing fans an immersive experience that extends beyond the feature film. Films like Watchmen and The Dark Knight now begin telling their story on the web with viral websites and alternate reality games that invite fans to enter their worlds. And now with 'Black Freighter' and 'Under the Hood' the story unfolds in another direction on DVD.
"I think this phenomenon has been growing since the Matrix trilogy. When we did those films the Wachowskis and Joel Silver gave us free reign to explore beyond the typical 'making-of' material," Matthies told us of his experience on that franchise, almost 10 years ago. "That freedom resulted in documentaries about Artificial Intelligence & Robotics, Religion & Philosophy; explorations of the themes within the plot, as well as other content that revealed behind-the-scenes action from set."
"As filmmakers recognize the possibilities of harnessing what we can do for them, not just in terms of DVD extras and promotional packages but in generating content that can further the themes and nuances of the films, perhaps we will see more of these type of productions," Matthies said.
Rodionoff, who's written two comic book series as prequels to his movies, echoes the sentiment. He became hooked on the idea of getting immersed in the world of a film when a friend dropped an unmarked VHS tape containing 'The Blair Witch Project' in his mailbox, months ahead of the movie's hype and release. Caught of guard, Rodionoff could almost completely buy into the premise of the film, that he was watching some found footage of a terrible, but real event.
"Movies are really going this way, and that they're becoming more than just movies. It's great to find ways to let the audience immerse in the world, especially when you have a world that's as rich as Watchmen," Rodionoff said. "I hope for more. I think people want and expect that, and we kind of owe it to people to broaden the experience a bit."
For now, fans who enjoyed Watchmen can re-enter the world of the film through 'Tales of the Black Freighter' and 'Under the Hood', arriving together on DVD and Blu-Ray March 24th.