Depending on your point of view, David Hayter and Alex Tse had the most enviable or least desirable screenwriting task of the superhero movie era: adapting "Watchmen," the classic DC Comics graphic novel by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons. How does one take this massive wealth of story and nuance into the dreaded form of a theatrical film? How does a screenwriter preserve what makes the source material appealing against the onslaught of notes and extra-cinematic decisions that tend to make cape movies look more or less the same?
CBR News talked with the screenwriters about the almost decade-long challenge to bring "Watchmen" to the screen, some of the compromises involved, and even a brief word about the book's writer, Alan Moore.
For David Hayter, known in some video game circles as the voice of Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, the project began in 2000. "Well, the unsatisfying answer is: it's not terribly difficult [to adapt the book]," he told CBR. "The story is so good and so well constructed. It's really just twelve comic books, it's not 'Lord of the Rings,' which, y'know, that will never be adapted properly into a film!" he laughed. "If you can adapt 'The Lord of the Rings' into twelve hours, you can adapt 'Watchmen' into two and half."
Hayter's adaptation began with simple transcription. "I just copied it all out verbatim," he recalled. "[I] gave all the characters their dialogue and put in simple action sequences. My first draft was a hundred and seventy-eight pages. Now that's too long for a movie script, but not crazy long."
He also made the most obvious screenwriting choice anyone presented with "Watchmen" would make. "I had cut 'Tales from the Black Freighter,'" Hayter confirmed. "I knew that would put us over three hours and I was never going to get that past the studio." At the time, "Watchmen" was in development at Universal.
Hayter's next draft featured no wholesale removal of sequences. "I said, okay, let's edit and tweak and cut it down without losing any of the scenes and see where I get," he recalled. The resulting draft was a studio-friendly 135 pages. "If you go buy the common wisdom of a minute of screen time per page, that's two hours and fourteen minutes. That's about where a 'Watchmen' movie should be as far as I was concerned and, in fact, it was a little shorter."
The difficult part for the "Watchmen" screenwriter is protecting that material from the studios. The tendency at the studios is to make projects like "Watchmen" safer thematically. With a hundred million-plus dollars on the line, development executives look to surer bets or reshaping projects into proven successful formulas. "I worked at four different studios and was just met with the same notes, the same desire to turn it into something else, to develop it and tear it to pieces," Hayter said. "Protecting it from that sort of assault is difficult."
By the time Hayter stepped away from the project in 2005, "Watchmen" had landed at Warner Bros., and the script saw the events of the graphic novel taking place in post-9/11 America. Early on, Hayter attempted to preserve the period setting. "I want young people to understand that when I was fifteen, we were under the impression that the Russians could launch their missiles and we would have half an hour's notice before the end of the world," he explained. Following the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, the Cold War aspect felt much less resonant to him. "It was very difficult even to justify it to myself. To talk about issues that were not primary on people's minds at that point. Fortunately, we have enough distance now that I think looking back on the Cold War is important and viable again."
"And there are a lot of common themes," Alex Tse told CBR. Tse came onboard in 2005 after Hayter, with his primary responsibility being the return of the story to its original period. "The main thing I did was reset it in 1985, which is what [director] Zack [Snyder] wanted. Which, after '300,' he certainly had the leverage to do."
Tse began his work prior to the success of "300" in 2006, and worked from Hayter's later drafts. "My first version was still in the present day and there was a lot of discussion about what we were losing [by keeping it] there," Tse remembered. "We talked about different people, iconic people, who could've been President. It could've been Regan. The discussion even led toward Arnold Schwarzenegger. "[He] could have bee President, but [Zack] was very much drawn to Nixon because he is such an iconic character and if it was set in the present day, Nixon would be 109 or some ridiculous thing. Then there was losing the Cold War aspects of it, because there's something important there."
Tse and Snyder considered a compromise. "What if we set in modern day, but it was still the Cold War?" he said of one draft. "The existence of Dr. Manhattan just ramped this dissention in the world. The Soviets were so afraid of him, that it isolated them even more and they created more nuclear weapons."
Following the success of "300," these concessions disappeared.
One compromise that Snyder, Tse, Hayter and the studio could agree with was beefing up the action scenes in the film. "The thing about this movie that's different from a lot of the 'comic book movies' is that there isn't really any action set pieces," Tse explained. "There's plenty of action in it, but a [studio executive] might read it and kind of miss it. The Comedian is burning someone with a flame thrower. That's kind of an action, but that's not like the car chase scene in 'Dark Knight,' which is the impulse of a studio to want those kinds of scenes. Set pieces which we didn't have."
The Comedian's murder and the Rorschach prison break appear with great intensity in the final film. "[Those scenes] can satisfy a studio and its something cool for the audience to see and it does not in any way compromise the graphic novel," Tse said.
"It is a sequence," Hayter said of the prison break. "You don't see a lot of it in the comic book because you see it frame by frame. In a movie, you have to follow it through and see a lot more action."
Tse continued, "I think in instances like that, or when Dan and Laurie get jumped by the gang, you're just expanding the beats so [the studio] can justify spending a hundred and thirty million dollars on this movie."
Hayter recalled an early interaction with "Watchmen" writer Alan Moore. This was sometime before the legal proceedings regarding "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and the incident during "V for Vendetta's" publicity which led to Moore swearing off anything to do with Hollywood for good. "The first draft I sent to Alan Moore, he read it and said, 'Oh, David, I think it's very well done and its very close to the book, I really appreciate that. I don't remember as much action being in the story before.'"
Asked how he could possibly have a civil conversation with Alan Moore, Hayter replied, "He doesn't like movies, but he does like writers."