When director Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons “Watchmen” landed in theaters in March of 2009, over 20 years of speculation, fan hopes and behind the scenes drama came to an end. The crown jewel of the superhero genre made it to the big screen in a recognizable fashion, filtered through Snyder’s highly stylized sense of directing which included a hyper-real twist on 1986 and extensive use of slow motion photography and manipulation.
However, as many comic fans know, Snyder’s pitch for “Watchmen” was far from the first potential film version of that seminal comics work. Beginning with Terry Gilliam, plenty of filmmakers and studios tried their hands through the years at getting an adaptation off the ground, but what many may not know is just how close the pitch just before Snyder’s version came to being a reality.
In 2005, director Paul Greengrass picked up the torch for a “Watchmen” movie shortly after breaking into the mainstream movie arena with “The Bourne Supremacy,” and the filmmaker had ambitious plans for Night Owl, Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan and the rest which would have differed severely from what Snyder finally put on screen. This comes from production designer Dominic Watkins, who followed Greengrass from “Bourne” to 20th Century Fox’s planned production of the comic book classic.
“I’d heard of [the comic], but I wasn’t really that familiar with it,” Watkins told CBR News. “It was kind of new territory for me. Paul certainly knew of the stories of Alan Moore, and it was interesting because at that point in terms of Hollywood movies, he’d only done ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ so he was much more of a rookie.” The designer noted that their version of the comic would have been a more modern take, matching the sober tone of the times six years ago. “I thought it was interesting because I thought we could do something very interesting in his style that hadn’t been done before. The Nolan Batman hadn’t been done at that point, so everything was still kind of very stylized.
“At that time, I thought it was very poignant because it was written under the backdrop of Reaganism and all that in America and the Cold War being in full effect. I thought that the political climate from Bush was escalated to a similar point, with us on the brink of something quite catastrophic, so I thought making a version of ‘Watchmen’ that was more contemporary and applying it to the decade of the ’00s was a good idea and was a lot more relevant than it turned out to be. I think the difference between Zack Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’ and ours would’ve been night and day. He pretty much made the movie page-to-page from the graphic novel. Ours was definitely going to be based on the graphic novel and all the characters would’ve been drawn on that, but we’d have updated it somewhat.”
As for how their “Watchmen” would have faired, Watkins admitted a new version of the story would have been a tougher sell in some circles. “I think from the point of comic book enthusiasts, we might have pissed off some people, but even some of the real purists were pissed off that Snyder’s wasn’t close enough to the original. I just thought it wasn’t anything original, and ours was going to be an original take on it while trying to do as much justice to the graphic novel as possible.
“It would’ve been done a little bit documentary-style, with a little news reporting mixed in. I feel like that would’ve been really interesting to see it as real-feeling as possible. Obviously, Doctor Manhattan was always going to be the biggest challenge to that. When there’s a 50-foot blue man, it’s hard to cinematically make it feel real. I felt they actually did a good job with that in Snyder’s.”
To help illustrate the differences, Watkins opened up his own personal collection of pre-production art he’d worked on over the course of his and Greengrass’ development process. “We basically put together a production book, and when Paramount closed it down to send it to Warner Bros., Greengrass was attached to it. He then decided to do ‘United 93’ and was supposed to ‘Watchmen’ right after, but moved on to the third ‘Bourne’ movie, which was a big disappointment to me because I felt we had something much more original here,” he explained of how the final product got away from them.
“Anyway, this production book was page-by-page, set-to-set what we were going to be shooting. We were that
close to shooting. We were still in pre-pre-production, but I think we were about a week away from breaking ground at Pinewood [Studios] and building a back lot based on the West Side of Manhattan. It was kind of a conglomerate of downtown in the teens, between 5th and 6th Ave and a couple of other areas mixed in. I think we were going to build square blocks, so I was quite surprised they pulled the plug on it because at that point I’d imagine they spent at least two or three million just to get everything up and running. The visual effects team were doing tests on Doctor Manhattan and various other things, but that’s Hollywood.”
Creating a realistic version of a superhero world involved compressing elements of the story down to their most logical pieces. “I think the biggest challenge was Doctor Manhattan, but even things like the Owl Ship were hard to consider,” Watkins told CBR. “Ours was similar to Snyder’s, [but] much more kind of fucked up. Ours felt like it had been moth-balled for a lot longer, and we just wanted to try and figure out what fuel was in it. But we definitely felt that Doctor Manhattan was the one to figure out what the fuel was for it -Â some kind of nuclear fusion along the lines of nuclear submarines. We tried to think through every element and go, ‘If this was a real thing, then where does it come from? How did it get there?'”
Building became a concern for Doctor Manhattan as well as Watkins looked to find a way for his Mars construct to make sense in a rational world. “The take on Manhattan was rather challenging, and what I looked at for that was a photo book I found in a book store. So the inspiration for the world he built on Mars and where it came from, instead of being a big glass palace, it was something that dealt with the most minuscule particles imaginable. These photographs I found were of magnified tiny particles and the photographs of the cosmos and the similarities between them. When he’s creating it, the notion was that he’d start with these atoms and neutrons and combine them. They’d look very much like living atoms, but they’d combine into this vast cosmos that he’s creating and pulling in his hand. That was something where I felt we had something quite original and unique.”
Even after he left the project, Watkins still sees some of his influence, or at least some shared ideas, in the “Watchmen” that made it on screen, particularly in the world of New York the movie was set in. “One of the things they did kind of lift from the stuff I was doing was for Night Owl’s apartment that went down into a basement. My thought was that if you lived in New York, how would you have this hidden workshop space with the Owl Ship down there? You’d have to be closest to a subterranean world and also have something that looked like a normal apartment, so my solution was to have him in this split-level Brownstone, and that in turn led to underneath Manhattan where there are a lot of other tunnels besides the subway system going back to pre-Victorian and late 18th Century times. He’s taken one of these spaces and found a disused chamber. That’s where the Owl Ship was built and stored, which in turn led to other tunnels which came out on the West Side by the piers. Back when I lived there, there were a bunch of piers that were really run down. Fom under one of those, he came. I’m still pretty happy with that.”
As for Watkins’ future, he explained that even though he missed the opportunity to complete his work on “Watchmen,” the production designer is happy to take on a variety of projects that aren’t limited to one genre -Â comic book or otherwise. In fact, early this summer, he passed on a gig near and dear to comics readers. “Recently, I met on that movie Marvel is going to make: ‘The Avengers.’ One of the turn-offs on that one was that, while everyone knows it was going to be a vast, huge movie, there was no script. Not being able to draw from a script from the get-go and having to commit to a movie without a script -Â well, I’ve done it before and don’t want to have to do it again. It turns out to be a different beast then you thought it would be when you got involved. I’d say ‘Watchmen’ was a great learning experience, and I found it quite inspirational. I was very disappointed when we didn’t make the movie and didn’t get to do what we’d worked hard on for months.”
Up next in the theaters from Watkins is the remake of the ’80s cult classic “Red Dawn” with director Dan Bradley, whom he met on the “Bourne” films. “This time it’s about the Chinese, and they invade basically to occupy America so they can get their money back. It was a neat premise for it and should be kind of interesting.”