It was the early 1980s. I was 13 or 14. During a high school English class, my teacher Mr. Crawford spent one week on comics and sequential art. While I read some kids’ stuff when I was younger, this was really my first exposure to comics. After that week was up, I wanted — no, needed more.
My first couple of purchases were those featuring characters I remembered from the “Superfriends” cartoons I watched in my even younger days; Superman, Green Lantern, superheroes like them. As I grew bolder in my comics browsing, I inevitably discovered “Watchmen,” which had just begun its original run.
When I finished the final issue of “Watchmen,” I talked with friends about how cool it would be to see a “Watchmen” movie; to see these characters come to life. More than any other book I read as a kid, that was the one I wanted to see realized on the silver screen. Of course, as we know now, that wasn’t going to happen for a very long time. Many directors and producers tried to get “Watchmen” off the ground, but all sorts of problems — budgets, scripts, directors moving on to different projects, etc. — kept that fanboy dream from becoming a reality.
Then something happened – Zack Snyder.
After the overwhelming success of the feature film adaptation of Frank Miller’s “300,” Snyder was in a unique position in Hollywood. The movie exceeded all expectations – both in content and at the box office – and when Snyder was offered the chance to direct “Watchmen” — he turned it down. At first! But after some thought, the filmmaker realized he should do it, thinking that at least if he tackled “Watchmen,” it would be an attempt to be faithful to the source material, something that couldn’t be said for many of the failed productions.
In December of 2007, I received an e-mail from a publicist at Warner Bros., inviting CBR to visit the Vancouver set of “Watchmen.” I normally hand set visits off to one of my staffers, but this one was different. This was “Watchmen.” This was the comics adaptation I wanted to see made above any other. After so many false starts and shelved scripts, I needed proof myself that “Watchmen” was happening.
Along with a group of about ten reporters, my first stop was to the Vancouver production offices to meet with “Watchmen’ Executive Producer Deborah Snyder. We entered the war room – a conference room with a long table and chairs in the middle, with “Watchmen” production artwork, panels from the comics and pieces of script papering every wall. Concept art was posted side-by-side with Dave Gibbons’ comic artwork.; real world headlines and pictures were interspersed with images from the McLaughlin Group, which served as inspiration for one of the scenes in the film. There was also production art for the Mars set, costume sketches for the entire cast, a Warhol-esque Nite Owl portrait, images of the Owl Ship, and illustrations of the Veidt Enterprises tower in New York City. Also displayed were steampunk inspired designs for Doctor Manhattan’s lab at the Rockefeller Military Research Center; a Vargas inspired bus stop-sized Sally Jupiter poster that would hang in Blake’s apartment; an image of Sally Jupiter on the side of a 1940s era military bomber; and a photo of a nuclear blast.
I could go on for pages describing the artwork and pictures plastering these walls, but as luck would have it you’ll have that same access – much of what was hanging on those walls can be seen in the “Art of Watchmen.” Needless to say, it was at this point I realized the attention to detail was beyond even my high expectations.
Ms. Snyder began by discussing the filmmakers’ approach to the costumes worn by the Minutemen and the main “Watchmen” cast. “For the Minutemen, it was important that we made them look like they were built and made at home. They had to look hand made,” Snyder explained. “But when it came to the Watchmen group, [Zack Snyder] felt there had been so many superhero films that audiences have seen since this graphic novel came out and the one thing he didn’t want to do was to make these costumes exactly like they’ve been depicted before, because people would just see it as the movie with bad superhero costumes. It’s almost like a fetish, these costumes have become. But he still wanted to maintain that balance between what was drawn and what modern audiences would expect. So, they’re slightly modernized and the materials are slightly more modern than what is drawn, but we felt it struck a nice balance.”
Snyder went on to talk about the casting of the film, noting that during pre-production, when they began making their list of possible actors, that one of their major strategies was to not cast any big name actors that could potentially take the audience out of the movie. “We opted for a cast that was filled with really solid actors,” Synder explained. “And with the arcs these characters go through and the problems they have to face, that makes this film very different from anything else we’ve seen, so we needed to make sure our actors had that range and ability.”
Another casting challenge concerned iconic figures from 1985 and finding the right actors to play them, whether Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger or Andy Warhol. “We cast from all through Canada and sometimes we went to Vegas for impersonators,” said Snyder. ” That was kind of the hardest part – finding someone who looked like a Nixon, but could also pull off the acting.”
Snyder discussed the alternate 1985 as put forth in “Watchmen,” where a being like Doctor Manhattan exists.”When you have someone like him living amongst us, you have to ask questions about what it does to Politics, Religion and Culture,” Snyder explained. “In order to catch the viewer up, especially those who haven’t read the graphic novel, Zack designed this treatment where in the opening of the film it takes you through their history, starting with the Minutemen and then with the Watchmen coming together, but it also puts our masked heroes into historical pieces.
“A lot of these superhero films have been about fake worlds and fake situations. Anytime where we can remind the viewer that this is more reality based, that’s our goal. For instance, we have the JFK assassination and, well, I won’t tell you what happens, but you find out who the shooter is!
“We did an Andy Warhol thing where he’s doing a Nite Owl painting. We did a whole thing with Ted Koppel. We have Norman Rockwell doing war bonds paintings with Sally. We have a lunar landing with the first man walking on the moon while Doctor Manhattan is taking the photo. Stuff like that.”
Snyder noted that Zack Snyder produced the film’s storyboards himself. The production had employed a professional storyboard artist, but Mr. Snyder found himself referring back to his own drawings and decided that instead of the extra time and money it would take to task the storyboard artist to make changes, he would handle that chore himself. “While they’re maybe not as pretty, they were giving us more of the information we needed,” said Deborah Snyder.
For a number of reasons, the “Watchmen” production opted to build sets versus filming on location. For one thing, Ms. Snyder explained, New York City just doesn’t look like it did in 1985. Zack Snyder wanted a gritty “Taxi Driver” aesthetic for his New York City. They rebuilt actual locations, working from reference, but tailoring them for the story’s specific needs.
“We really feel like our 1985 has even more graphitti,” laughed Snyder. “This is a world on the brink of Nuclear War and when that happens, we felt like people are less likely to paint their house or repair a broken window. So we knew the grittiness of the city had to be heightened.”
Certainly, the “Watchmen” team could have availed themselves of one of the many New York City sets located on the various Los Angeles studio backlots, but the production felt they were too generic and would ultimately be more expensive to dress up to their specifications. “New York City has really wide intersections and everything on the backlots are really skinny,” explained Snyder. “One section we have is a huge, wide intersection for the riot, which we also redressed for a Times Square scene, which we couldn’t have really done with existing lots in Los Angeles.” As such, the “Watchmen” team built their own NYC backlot in Vancouver, which afforded them greater accuracy in recreating images from the graphic novel.
Discussion turned to the designs and illustrations of Archimedes, the famous Owl Ship of “Watchmen.” “The Owl Ship is one of my favorite things!” exclaimed Snyder. “It’s 4.5 tons! It’s practical inside and out. It’s fully dressed inside, including the coffee maker, but we had to take a lot of the guts out because of the weight requirements in order to suspend it when we were working on the riot sequence. It’s either hung or on a motion base, which is a little safer when we have to put our actors inside it.”
Next up was a wall covered with designs of Adrian Veidt and his possessions, including a massive V-shaped skyscraper in Manhattan. “This is Adrian’s world – it was important for us to establish Adrian as having means, being the smartest man in the world and creating his empire,” explained Snyder. “Obviously he has this love for Eqgyptian antiquities, but we didn’t want it to come off looking like something out of Las Vegas. When we designed his space, we felt if he were going to have any kind of Egyptian art, he’d have the real thing. Also, it was important for us to have stuff like ‘Nostalgia by Veidt’ in there, as well as his own line of sneakers and an airline. He’s got a whole bunch of things in his world that clearly establishes his influence and power. And of course there’s Bubastis – he’s all computer generated.”
As one might expect, one of the biggest challenges the “Watchmen” production team faced was the creation of Doctor Manhattan, played in the film by Billy Crudup. “One of the things Zack said was he felt Doctor Manhattan needed to be CG because he just didn’t see a guy in a suit working, but at the same time he wanted to make sure he got Billy’s performance,” said Ms. Snyder. “What we ended up doing was creating this light suit. Billy’s wearing this suit that has hundreds of blue lights and tracking marks on it, so we’re doing performance capture as well, but when he walks into a scene he is lit up, and when he touches Laurie’s face, it’s lighting her. He’s also lighting the scene and sometimes he’s the only light source in the scene. It was something we felt that if we just added that in post it would be a lot of work and I don’t think we’d ever really get it right. It’s the reflections in a TV monitor or on a metallic lamp. That’s really important.
“Now, we have him in a light suit, but we also have his face exposed – it’s the only thing that’s not lit up, with lots of tracking marks on his face and two witness cameras recording his performance. In the end, we will put Billy’s face on top of this CG body.”
Naturally, the discussion moved to the very naked Doctor Manhattan featured in the graphic novel and whether the version we’d be seeing in “Watchmen” would be a Rated-R or NC-17 Doctor. “There’s been a lot of talk about that,” laughed Snyder. “It’s so funny, I got an e-mail from the studio that said, ‘Have we ever decided where we ended up with Doctor Manhattan’s package?’ I wrote back, ‘Well, it’s blue!’ One thing I know was important to Zack was that we see Manhattan starts out in a suit and he sheds that clothing throughout his life.”
Deborah Snyder noted that “Watchmen” artist Dave Gibbons produced some concept work for Mr. Snyder, specifically on Doctor Manhattan, and when Gibbons visited the set the previous week ,it was the first time he saw any of the Doctor Manhattan tests. “I was so nervous about that visit, but he was really pleased,” she said. “He said he felt we really captured the style of Doctor Manhattan.”
The discussion next turned to the look of Rorschach’s mask. “Zack wanted it to move, but he didn’t want it to feel like a digital effect,” explained Snyder. “And he wanted it to look like it was ink bleeding through fabric and look like a real Rorschach test. So we put tracking marks on the mask, cut out his eyes so [actor Jack Earle Haley] could see and we can also get his expressions, then we made a book of all the expressions in Dave’s work as a starting point. So we took that, coupled with what Jackie’s face was doing and we came up with certain patterns that you see throughout the book that will be shown throughout the film.”
In Chapter 7 of “Watchmen,” readers see Rorshach led to a disgusting and dilapidated home in Brooklyn, on the trail of a missing girl. On the War Room wall in Vancouver were photos of an incredibly creepy house that served as inspiration for the set they would build for this classic sequence, complete with two dogs sitting on the front lawn. “When I say it was creepy, well, I went in there and I swear to god I couldn’t breathe. It was so gross,” Snyder said of the location. “There was stuff all over the floor. Unfortunately, when the environmental people came in they said there was no way we could shoot in here – there was too much disease and there was no way to clean the place up. We loved the look of it, though, so we recreated exactly what it looked like! It was some great inspiration.”
We were also shown exterior and interior designs for the Gunga Diner, ads for Promethean Cab Company, and concept art for the riot scenes. Again, the attention to detail was complete. “We’re hoping the film has a lot of buried Easter eggs you might not find upon first glance. Some are directly from the graphic novel, while others have our signature,” said Snyder.
Following the presentation of production artwork, we began our visit to the set proper with one of the many “Watchmen” sound stages. As we walked inside, it quickly became apparent we were witnessing the construction of Karnak, Adrian Veidt’s massive Antarctic compound. It looked as though they had just begun construction a day or two before, as massive foam structures were being erected and carved to transform the Vancouver sound stage into an Egyptian palace, complete with carvings of Rameses massive columns.
“This is our biggest build,” said Ms. Snyder. “It will take three stages to house it. The main room takes up one whole stage, then there’s the control room and corridors, which will be on other stages. The exterior will be green screen.”
We later found ourselves inside Dan Dreiberg’s basement, an old subway station that’s better known as the Owl Chamber. The set was straight out of the “Watchmen” comics; dark and dirty, and housing a partially constructed plywood Owl Ship. The subway tube that serves as an exit and entrance even showed evidence of impact – clearly Dan had some problems getting the Owl Ship out of the chamber.
We left the Owl Chamber and went to Dreiberg’s apartment. To the untrained eye, it was just a 1980s era brownstone. But upon closer examination, we discovered details seen in the comics, including an Owl Calendar beside a desk with a circa 1980 IBM computer, plus the famous picture of the Minutemen sitting atop a beautiful fireplace mantle. As I walked through the apartment set, I felt as though I was walking through a museum home that had been preserved for posterity.
We left the apartment and made our way out into the cold to check out a completed Owl Ship, looking exactly as it did in the original “Watchmen” graphic novel. It was startling to behold, and while I kept my cool, another reporter behind me couldn’t help but utter a “Holy Shit.”
As Snyder noted earlier, the ship wasn’t fully dressed as it was being suspended for some in-progress shots, but it was still impressive. Made of fiberglass, the ship had a very worn feeling and the tech looked appropriate for the era. Snyder noted Dave Gibbons’ reaction to the Owl Ship, “I think for him it was a really surreal experience coming through and seeing this. I just hope he saw that all this was happening with love and respect.”
It was then time to visit the Gunga Diner, which looked like it does in the comic books. The attention to detail was amazing, down to the accepted credit cards sticker in the front window indicating they accepted Visa and “MasterCharge,” the precursor to today’s MasterCard, as well as an old school Pepsi logo. Snyder noted it wasn’t a paid product placement – the production asked Coca Cola if they could use their logo, but the company declined the offer, while Pepsi jumped at the opportunity to be featured in “Watchmen.”
We moved through the diner and went outside for a longer trip through 1980s Manhattan. The set was about a city block in size, with large green screens at the far end of each direction. Easter eggs could be seen everywhere. There was a second floor window sign that said “New Frontiersman – Integrity in Journalism… subscribe today!” Down the street, cast and crew were going through riot rehearsal in front of J&K Television Service, an ’80s style mom-and-pop television storefront. Also on display was the Utopia Theater, an art deco building with the marquee reading “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” Nearby was an ad for Nostalgia by Veidt, a small comic shop called Treasure Island, including a poster for “The Black Freighter” comic book. The image featured an old school DC Comics bullet logo with a headline that read, “Classic Pirate Thrills.” This was the first new “Watchmen” artwork created by Dave Gibbons in many years.
As we strolled down the streets, I honestly found it difficult to take in everything. We saw Moloch’s apartment, a dingy, dingy place. There was Edgar & Sons’ pawn shop with guitars in the window and another ad for the Promethean Cab Company. Pioneer Publishing was above one storefront. Posters for “African Famine Relief” adorned one wall, which also had a bill posted for the magazine “Nova Express” featuring Nixon on the cover with the headline, “How Sick Is Dick?”
As we moved down the street, to the corner of Charlton and W 39th st., we saw a series of NYC brownstones, one of which served as the exterior for Dreiberg’s apartment.
As you travel directly across the street from the brownstones were a number of Vietnam sets, including the infamous Saigon bar where the Comedian kills the pregnant prostitute. We saw a number of military photos on the wall above a 1970s era jukebox. Tables and chairs were strewn around the room, some with backgammon sets. In one corner was a stripper pole, across from a very aged bar.
After we finished up our whirlwind tour of Saigon, it was back to NYC to watch a brief scene filmed between Malin Ackerman, who plays Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II, and Patrick Wilson, who plays Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl. It was an outdoor scene of a conversation that followed their dinner meeting, as depicted in Chapter 1 of “Watchmen.” Ackerman sat in a cab while Wilson stood outside on the sidewalk, holding an umbrella. Director Zack Snyder sat in a chair with the familiar bloody smiley face on the back, readied the set and called for the rain. As the rain began to pour down, Snyder said aloud, “Why would we do this [make it rain]? It’s FREEZING!”
As Ackerman spoke with Wilson and the rain “poured” down, it really did feel like we were back in the ’80s. Extras walked back and forth behind Wilson, adorned in period fashions, one even sporting very “cool” crimped hair.
Once the shot finished, Deborah Snyder led us to the aforementioned home of the child kidnapper, and she wasn’t joking when she said it was a nasty place. The set was a torture chamber, with knives strewn around a room that was in total disrepair and filled with trash.
We exited to find ourselves in an alleyway where a key fight sequence would take place. But in this alleyway we also found an homage to Batman: a large Batman poster hung on one wall, and it definitely looked like Crime Alley, where Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed.
Later, we were back down to the first intersection, Amsterdam and 117th, and the television storefront, where it was time to watch the riot scene take place, pyrotechnics and all. The extras assembled in front of the storefront, a number of them carrying picket signs with phrases like “Badges Not Masks” scrawled on them. Crew members sprayed the extras with water and fire retardants. Indeed, safety was crucial and it took a while to set the scene up — large explosions require multiple cameras rolling. One pulled out from the window into the street, with other cameras in key positions around the riot.
Finally, it was time for the riot scene to be filmed. Zack Snyder yelled “Action!” and the picketers began their rioting. We saw lots of fist pumping and moving around, yet not a single word was uttered – it was the quietest riot I’ve ever seen. The camera in front of the store began close in and focused on one of the televisions, pulling back through the crowd to reveal the size of the riot. Suddenly, another figure came into the scene, throwing a Molotov cocktail into the storefront. A spectacular explosion shot out from the store. We could feel the intense heat even though we were standing safely out of range of the blast. Crew members rushed in to make sure all those rioters were okay, which they were.
As we wrapped the set visit Deborah Snyder said she understood the huge responsibility of bringing “a formerly cursed project to the big screen” and what it means to longtime fans of “Watchmen.” Snyder was asked if the production had any contact with writer Alan Moore, who has famously sworn off all involvement with any Hollywood production of his works. Synder explained that Dave Gibbons and DC Comics made it clear to the production that Moore’s wishes were that he not be involved, and that they definitely wanted to respect his position. “One day our hope would be is that maybe it’s a rainy night, maybe the DVD is sitting there and he pops it in and after watching it thinks, ‘Well, you know, it doesn’t suck too bad.’ That would be great!”