Zack Snyder only has three films to his credit, but they have all made an impact. His reinterpretation of Dawn of the Dead was hailed as a smart companion to the George A. Romero original, and the unexpected success of 300 gave him the freedom to pursue any project he wanted. His choice was Watchmen, a movie which defined the term "development hell" and which threatened to take forms much different than the beloved graphic novel on which it was based. Snyder returned the adaptation to its roots--not only bringing an "unfilmable movie" in on a timely schedule, but doing so in a manner which closely mirrored the original work. He spoke about his efforts to Mania.com during the press junket for the film.
Question: How do you stay loyal to the source material while still updating it for a 21st-century audience?
Zack Snyder: For me, that happens more in the design than in the changes. When I got the script, it had all been updated. The studio asked me to make the movie set now, with the war on terror and Dr. Manhattan going to Iraq, and all that. Those ideas were difficult not just because they diverge from the book, but because I then have to make a comment about the war on terror, and frankly, I didn't think that was anything anybody wanted to hear. But when it came to visualizing the 1985 version, people now have cinematic references for superhero movies that they didn't when the book first came out. There weren't that many superhero movies, and culturally it wasn't as prominent. Action movies were the big watchword. My hope is for the movie to do for people what the book did for me and for everyone who read it without knowing what it was about going in. To do that, I needed to make sure that the icons of the book still resonated. For instance, if you had remained exactly the way the characters were drawn from a design sense--if you put Nite Owl in spandex instead of a modern latex/foam suit--it would have looked unduly silly. They're not blundering superheroes in the book; they're still superheroes. But if you put them in spandex, it becomes a joke. People wouldn't look at them as "real" superheroes, they'd look like they just came from a costume party. I wanted people to see this as a movie about superheroes: matching the qualities that have come to be expected from the Batman movies and the X-Men movies about what superheroes are supposed to look like.
Q: Is it safe to say that we saw the theatrical iteration of Watchmen and that there are other versions waiting in the wings?
ZS: We're hoping that the DVD release in July will include a director's cut, which is three hours long. [The theatrical release runs about two hours and forty minutes.] Then in the fall, they're going to do a "Black Freighter" cut. We shot all the ins and outs of the Black Freighter section, with the newspaper vendor and the guy on the stoop reading the comic book, as well as the animated story of the Black Freighter itself. The final result of that would be a three-hour-and-thirty-minute version which would be everything. The kitchen sink version. The director's cut is slightly more uncompromising than the theatrical cut. A little harder. More Manhattan nudity and the like.
Q: Were there any particularly painful cuts to get the movie down to theatrical length?
ZS: The biggest one was Hollis Mason's death, which was one of my favorite scenes. That was the cut that actually got me to the time that we needed. It was a hard cut for me because it involved three or four more scenes with Hollis. Right now there's just the opening scene with Dan. Those scenes should be back in the director's cut, knock wood.
Q: Was it tough to strike that balance between satire and the harder, darker elements in Watchmen?
ZS: That was the hardest part for me, but also the most enjoyable part. It *is* the movie for me. That weird semi-satirical stuff that still doesn't let the audience off the hook. Part of the reason why I wanted the movie to be violent was to get away from the violence in other superhero movies, which tends to be sort of benign and without consequence. People don't get really hurt, and even when they die, it's very passive. I wanted Watchmen to be uncomfortably violent, because that's what their job is. Their job as a superhero is to be judge, jury and executioner, to stop a crime in progress, to make a moral judgment about that. I just felt that it was important to make a strong statement about what that entailed.
Q: Is there any hope that Alan Moore will see the movie? Are you concerned about what he thinks?
ZS: I'm a fan of his work, so it's a little upsetting. Alan had already sworn off the movie when I got involved, though before he said he wanted nothing to do with Watchmen, there were versions of the script that he liked. He's commented on versions that I didn't think were as close to the book as the version we ended up making. I doubt he'll ever see the movie, but I hope it generates interest in Watchmen as a work of literature.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the musical choices of the film?
ZS: I believe there's a really strong link between music and tone. That's my favorite part of any movie: the tone. The air it breathes. A lot of the music we used was referenced in the graphic novel, and those songs helped set a tone that led to the other songs we included. Those other choices produced the same sort of visceral response in me when we were making the movie. They were on my iPod when I was drawing the storyboards, we kind of reverse engineered a lot of that. They were embedded in the material by the time it was all said and done. Dr. Manhattan contemplating his past to Philip Glass, or the Bob Dylan song in the opening. Dylan had to approve that because we needed to remix it. I guess he's a Watchmen fan because he knew about the book and he knew his work was referenced in it. When I said that we needed all the stems from "The Times They Are A-Changin'" because we were going to make a six-minute song from a three-minute song, he was happy to do it.
Q: What were your cinematic influences beyond the graphic novel?
ZS: It's hard to not get some kind of an Oliver Stone vibe from the movie because he's made films about all the eras we touched on. Also, while I wouldn't say it's a direct reference, I'm a big Paul Verhoeven fan. The tone of Robocop to me, is more similar to Watchmen than, say, JFK. It uses the iconography of a given genre to say something else. And of course, there's Taxi Driver in there and Dr. Strangelove and Apocalypse Now. I think it references them the same way the comic book references the comic book genre. I was talking to Dave [Gibbons] about it, and he noted all those references. It all comes from the source material, so we weren't really inventing anything.
'Watchmen' opens in theaters everywhere today. Visit WatchmenMovie.com for trailers and details.