In addition to screenwriting, David Hayter has done a lot of work as a voice-over actor: most notably in the Metal Gear series of video games and as Captain America in a number of Marvel cartoons. His comic geek standing has been further burnished by his screenwriter credits on the first two X-Men movies. He and co-writer Alex Tse helped bring the long and arduous journey of the Watchmen movie to a satisfying conclusion. The two sat down in an exclusive interview with Mania to discuss their work on the monumental project and the challenges they faced along the way.
SPOILER ALERT: While few surprises from the movie itself are given away, certain comments were made with the assumption that the reader has read the graphic novel. If you haven't you may wish to do so before reading the article.
Question: People associated with this production have constantly stressed the loyalty to the source material--and I think it shows--but there are still differences. There's excisions, there's streamlining, and there are a few points where the details change slightly. How did you approach the necessity of change?
David Hayter: As much as I want the movie to feel like the experience of reading the book, the movie should always give you something different. It should allow you to see other facets of the diamond of this story, to put it in Dr. Manhattan's terms. I think that, to see Zack [Snyder]'s and Alex [McDowell]'s opening credits sequence, to see The McLaughlin Group and the young Pat Buchanan… these are all things that are true to Alan [Moore]'s vision, but new. Stuff that even fans of the comic book will get that they never expected. And I think that's okay.
I'm the one who committed heresy by shifting the ending, though only slightly. The ending of the book is so graphic and bloody and just shows piles and piles of bodies strewn around Times Square. I signed my first contract for Watchmen on September 10, 2001. I'm a hard-core comic book fan and I try to be a pretty edgy screenwriter, but even I didn't want to see all those bodies strewn around New York. I initially came up with an ending that involved Adrian bringing down the power of the sun--focused solar energy--so that you'd have the same body count, but the people would be blown into Hiroshima shadows on the walls. You could get an idea of the scope of the destruction in a sort of filmic way.
Then along the way, there came an issue--and this has always been an issue among the fans in terms of discussion--about the inclusion of the inter-dimensional space squid at the end. It's tied into the story beautifully, and I'm in no way questioning Alan's brilliance, but it does present a new supernatural element at the very end of the story that's difficult to set up in a movie with so much material to put forward. So it eventually became a question of getting to the same place--a devastating attack and an outside force that compels the world to band together--in a way which is more intrinsically set up by the story. I think and I hope that the situation we established still forces the world to act exactly the way it did in the book and that the characters' various choices are set off by that event in the same way as in the book. It may seem like heresy to change anything in Watchmen, but that was a change I feel comfortable with. I'll stand by it, and if it engenders heated discussion, even better.
Q: Who came up with The McLaughlin Group material and Lee Iacocca?
Alex Tse: I definitely did The McLaughlin Group. It might have been Zack that did Iacocca. You work on so many drafts that you forget what you wrote… especially because we kept so much of Alan's stuff. And rightfully so. It belongs there. When Zack came on, we set it in 1985, and I just tried to do my best Alan Moore impression. There was some stuff that got cut out just for time reasons: I had a scene with Adrian talking to the head of the UN, and I actually used the head of the UN at the time [Javier Pérez de Cuéllar was Secretary-General of the UN in 1985]. There was another scene, that no one would get, where Adrian was talking to Pinochet, the dictator of Chile. I didn't have a list, but there were scenes which led to the incorporation of some nice Easter Eggish figures from that period.
Q: How complex was the script, in terms of visual description? Did you need to include all of the detail from the book or did that come out later?
DH: Well, at first, I was hoping to direct it, so I figured I'd be able to put a lot more into the design of it that I was subsequently able to get into the script. What I really tried to do was make sure that--everywhere that Alan would write a line of dialogue and Dave [Gibbons]'s visuals would reflect it--those elements were in the script. For example, there's the line, "I just don't know how our lives got so tangled up," and then you see Jon's tie being knotted. It goes like that throughout the book: the words and the images playing off of each other. I would just do that for each line--though I couldn't possibly get everything that's in the design of the book. It's incredible.
AT: In my experience, once you start working with a director, they pretty much know what they want to do. Once you know what they know and you're on the same wavelength, you can write it more simply. When the studio starts getting on you about page length, you just say, "He knows, I know, and he'll go explain it to the production designers, so let's save ourselves a few lines."
DH: I was in the tougher position. I never knew if the film was going to get taken away from me, or if the script was going to go to another director without my explanations. So I tried to fit in as much as I could to illustrate how it all worked. That also made it difficult for the studios to deal with that draft.
Q: Do you guys have any other superhero ambitions?
DH: I'd like to fly. Do you think Mania could help me out on that?
Q: I'll talk to my editors.
DH: Seriously, I actually have a few big titles that I'm in discussions on. I can't say anything about them because they're all top secret. But I do have some titles that I have a little pull on right now that, if I were to say them, you would melt into a puddle of fanboy glee. As far as personal ambitions go, if it could be possible to wrest Daredevil away from Fox and do the Frank Miller Daredevils as they were written, that might even top Watchmen in terms of my pure fanboy excitement. But I doubt that will happen.
AT: There's a lot of stuff I like. I love Preacher, I love Lucifer, but I think they're doing both of those already.
Q: What about pie-in-the-sky stuff? An ideal comic project that you could work on?
AT: Oh come on man! Dark Knight Returns! Ask Zack about it. He has a relationship with Frank Miller, he's done R-rated stuff for Warners. Get on his ass about that. That would rock!