HOLLYWOOD – An ownership dispute between 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros nearly meant doomsday for the release of the $120 million graphic novel adaptation “Watchmen.” But an 11th hour agreement means audiences will be able to watch “Watchmen” come March 6.
“Part of me thought it would be really cool if the movie got shelved for all time, because that would just make it cooler,” says director Zack Snyder. “Only 20 or 30 people had seen the movie (when Fox filed suit), and I thought that those people could go on a lecture tour and describe it.”
Snyder is kidding, of course. The filmmaker is as eager as anyone to see “Watchmen” released, especially after investing more than three years of his life making a film once said to be unfilmable.
“Watchmen” is the brainchild of writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons. It first appeared as a 12-issue DC Comics series from 1986 to 1987, then was republished as the now legendary graphic novel. The plot centers on a group of outlawed costumed crime-fighters who reconnect after one of them is found murdered. These are not superheroes in the traditional sense. Only one has superpowers – the blue-hued Dr. Manhattan, a government physicist whose genetic makeup was altered in a nuclear lab accident. That mishap left him with the ability to transform matter and teleport himself and other objects.
Snyder got started on “Watchmen” while still in production on “300,” also based on a comic book. The innovative style of “300″ made the young filmmaker a Hollywood darling and Warner Bros gave him free rein to make “Watchmen” his way. They even allowed him to make an R-rated movie, though a PG-13 rating may have been more profitable.
“The studio has been super supportive of me, even after I basically hijacked their giant, cool franchise superhero movie and turned it into a weird art movie,” he says.
A fan of “Watchmen,” Snyder vowed to be true to the source material. That was no easy feat.
“We never designed Watchmen’ to be a movie,” says Gibbons. “We didn’t even think Watchmen’ was going to become a graphic novel. We did a 12-issue comic book series and then thought, that’s it. It’s going to go in the back issue bins and that’s the last we’ll hear of it.”
Not so. “Watchmen” has had an ever-growing following, and Snyder knew he couldn’t screw it up. Some characters and subplots had to go, and the film’s ending is a departure from the one in the book. But Gibbons says he’s fine with the changes and actually likes the new ending.
“What happens is an integral part of the whole story, and so I’m very happy with it and I think it works fine,” he says. (The Hollywood-averse Moore, who disavows all filmed versions of his work, won’t discuss the “Watchmen” movie.)
“Watchmen,” though set in 1985, works as metaphor for today’s government-instigated “War on Terror” paranoia. “It’s the most political of the three movies I’ve made,” acknowledges Snyder, whose first feature was the 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead.”
“Watchmen” is set in an alternate America where Richard Nixon is in his fifth term, superheroes who have lost the support of the public have been outlawed and the country is locked in a potentially catastrophic nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a fellow who assassinates President Kennedy, shoots his pregnant girlfriend in the head and attempts to rape the women he loves. And he’s one of the good guys. “When I first read the script, I thought this guy, he’s horrible – he’s completely amoral and nihilistic,” Morgan says. “But every time I read it after that, I’d go – and maybe it’s because I’m playing the guy – but I like this guy and I’m almost sympathetic towards him.”
The Comedian, as Morgan’s character is known, isn’t the only morally ambiguous masked character. Jackie Earle Haley plays the vigilante Rorschach, who is the only member of the so-called Masks still dispensing justice to criminals in the Big Apple.
Part detective, part psychopath, he initiates the re-formation of the crime-fighting gang after the Comedian is found dead on the sidewalk below his smashed apartment window.
Haley, a one-time child star who staged a remarkable comeback in 2006 with his Oscar-nominated supporting role in “Little Children,” says he wanted to work with Snyder after seeing “300.” The idea of performing the character behind an ever-changing inkblot mask was initially daunting, though.
“When you’re an actor, your face is your main conveyance,” he says. But he also found the mask incredibly motivating. “Acting is kind of an internal process anyway, so I just went there and hoped the external would take care of itself.”
For Billy Crudup, whose Dr. Manhattan is slowly losing his humanity, the challenges were more technical. Outfitted in a motion-capture suit, he had to rely much more on his imagination than he usually does. “I also had to shut out the other actors who insisted on laughing at me,” he quips.
He was outfitted in a white bodysuit with dozens of tiny lights and dots on his face so his movements could be captured by computer and added in post-production.
“He looked like a walking Christmas tree,” giggles co-star Malin Akerman, who plays his girlfriend, Laurie, a.k.a. Silk Spectre II. For her, wearing stiletto boots and a latex costume was a bit trickier than she expected during two months of training in Vancouver.
“You train in sweats and running shoes and then you put this costume on and you go, I have to start all over again, because I can’t even bend my elbows,’ ” she recalls. “If I were a superhero, I’d wear sweats and a T-shirt and maybe a belt to fashion it up.”
For Patrick Wilson, getting the chance to play the caped and cowled crime-fighter Nite Owl was close to living out a childhood fantasy. “I remember calling my buddy and saying, I look like Batman,’ ” he says.
“Watchmen” served as a reunion for Wilson and his “Little Children” co-star Haley. Only this time, they had more scenes together. Wilson recalls a moment when they were filming a scene in their costumes and joked that they were doing “some very weird sequel” to their previous movie.
Co-creator Gibbons says it’s unlikely that his fellow Briton Moore will see the movie but notes that its marketing is so ubiquitous that it’s unlikely Moore will be able to avoid it.
“Even in the backwoods of England, where I come from, it’s inescapable,” he says. “So I guess he won’t be able to escape it completely.”