SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for "Watchmen," in theaters now.
"Watchmen" director Zack Snyder says his pre-show jitters are consistent with that of his previous films. "Dawn of the Dead," "300" and "Watchmen," all three Snyder movies opened in March and entered the market in uncertain situations. All three films also feature esoteric topics not usually conducive to a late-winter/early-spring hit. The director talked with CBR News recently about the similarities in each release, his relationship with Warner Bros., and the plan to release a longer version of the film somewhere down the road.
"When I made 'Dawn of the Dead,' my greatest fear was that people wouldn't get the movie," Snyder told CBR. "I thought, y'know what? I tried to make a cult movie at a studio and make this self-reflexive movie that sort of understands its genre; sort of a love letter to George Romero. There was a good chance people would see this and [dismiss it]. Or, worst of all, not even notice that we care."
That film was a success and is now looked upon as one of the better horror movies of the last decade.
"When we made '300,' we were pretty sure we were making a boutiquey movie that some fanboys would go to and it would be a fun Frank Miller romp," Snyder revealed. "I was surprised by the response to that movie."
Indeed, Snyder's retelling of Miller's graphic novel about the 300 Spartans became a legitimate cultural phenomenon, spawning a catchphrase and serious debate about the films possibly pro-war leanings.
Snyder approached "Watchmen" in the same manner as his previous work. "When we set out to make 'Watchmen,' really, we kind of looked at it the same way we looked at the other movies," he said. "In the sense that, ['Watchmen'] is what it is. Here's the material; I love the material. I'm not going to fuck it up to try to make a movie that is commercial or cool or what everyone would consider exactly what an audience would like or want. I feel like that's what we did."
Will that translate into a widespread reception? "As far as whether mainstream audiences are going to feel about, I have no idea," Snyder answered.
The director does admit he expected "300" to have limited appeal. "There's no way a mass audience is going to go for this movie; there's these half-naked guys running around in leather bikinis giving me a history lesson. It's just not going to work," Snyder recalled. The director would like "Watchmen" to defy his expectations like "300" did. "I hope as much as possible that people get the irony of the movie and get what the movie is trying to do," he explained. "The Deconstructionst aspect of the movie, it's sort of the tear down of superhero mythology and re-understanding it, how it plugs into pop culture right now. The superhero movie is The Movie right now. It can be satirized in an intelligent way; not in the 'Meet the Spartans' style."
To Snyder, the superhero genre too heavily relies on certain tropes and conditions. "We're used to violence without consequence, no one gets hurt, everyone gets up and PG-13's it down the street; which I find simply irresponsible," he said as an example. To Snyder, a superhero film can and should do more with its violence. As opposed to a comedic satire, 'Watchmen" asks, "What does it mean?" Snyder elaborated, "It's constantly reminded you of the thing that you like about superhero movies. It's constantly asking why you like those things."
When Snyder first came on board to the direct the film, the script was very much in that standard superhero movie shape. "The script I was handed, the studio said this is PG-13. It was updated to the War on Terror. Dr. Manhattan goes to Iraq instead of Vietnam. Adrian gets killed by Dan in the end. The Owlship crushes him and [Dan] has some kind of cool tagline. No Manhattan on Mars. No Comedian's funeral. No Rorschach being interrogated."
The elements that remained shouted to Snyder, "It's like a superhero movie." In that state, "Watchmen" was a real franchise-able superhero movie. The director believes he failed at that studio mandate. "I think in some ways I fucked that up a little bit; the whole commercial aspect of 'Watchmen.'"
Snyder praises Warner Bros. for allowing him to take the property in a more legitimate direction. "The studio has been awesome to me as far as letting me make this picture," he said. "I think they realized halfway through the project that there was not a version of 'Watchmen' I could have made that was just going be a movie they could franchise. That was just not going to happen. But when they realized that, they were just like, 'Okay, go all the way.'
Though he was able to retain much of the book's content, the "Watchmen" film is abridged for its theatrical release. Snyder has extensive plans to reveal more of the story in its home video form. The film will appear as an extended cut DVD around July, and an "ultimate" edition will appear at Christmas, integrating the concurrently produced "Tales of the Black Freighter" animated feature into the final film. While this plan allows for more units of "Watchmen" product to ship in lieu of a franchise of sequels, Snyder has a more philosophical take on the scheme. "I think [the studio] also likes this idea, the '300'-y idea, that it is a unique product in the marketplace saturated by the same old thing. That adds value. And a unique product on this scale is a difficult thing to conceive of. In the marketplace, it doesn't have the stink on it of a preconceived pop culture phenomenon."
This understanding made it possible for Snyder to agree to a shorter theatrical film than he intended. "I was able to use the DVD format and they said, 'We'll finish all the shots for you. We're not going to chintz you on the Director's Cut.' And that kind of relationship says, well, let me see if I can give you a cut that works that fits on IMAX," Snyder explained.
While the director says he is proud of the theatrical version of the film, there is one aspect of the story he could not fit into it. "I had to cut Hollis's death. That's a big deal to me," Snyder revealed. "There's other stuff I left off that's on the director's cut, but Hollis's death was the big thing for me."
"Watchmen" is in cinemas now.