One by one they come. Fists raised. Teeth gnashed. A pipe, or other crude weapon, drawn. And one by one they fall. Flesh smacking against the concrete floor with the sound like a whip crack. These poor bastards in their prison-issue attire don’t stand a chance. Not against the Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and not against the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), two costumed vigilantes sprung from Alan Moore’s graphic novel, Watchmen, now in action before our eyes. They’ve leapt into a hellstorm of raging inmates in an effort to spring disturbed colleague Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) from prison. The Owl’s moves are precise. He’s a helluva fighter moving with determination down a row of cells. Spectre is matching his defense blow-for-blow, bringing down her enemies with fluidity. And she’s lookin’ goddamn sexy while she does it, too.
A camera, mounted on a dolly track set up in the cells, follows the Owl’s progression from the side. This is where ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! is tucked away, roughly fifteen feet from camera “A” which offers director Zack Snyder a head-on view of the scene: The Nite Owl, in the foreground, sweeping, kicking, gut-punching his attackers. Silk Spectre further in the background, a willowy yellow and black figure, kickin’ ass. Snyder calls for a, “Cut!” and we head on over to a monitor to see how the take plays out on screen. It’s a vicious ballet until, suddenly, the video switches over to previously lensed footage of an inmate, hands bound to cell bars, losing both of his arms to a circular electric saw! From on the other side of the wall, where Snyder is positioned, we hear him laugh. This is no mistake. He’s purposely showing us this.
“Dan [the Night Owl] and Laurie [Silk Spectre] fight their way through the prison a little bit, so there’s more fighting than what’s in the graphic novel,” Snyder tells us with a smile. “I blew it out a little bit.”
Fans of the Moore property will be happy to know that this slight deviation is a rarity in Snyder’s long-awaited adaptation. Much like his work on 300, Snyder – with screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse – is exhaustively making an effort to remain as truthful as possible to this Hugo Award-winning story which has endured years of development hell. “A lot of the dialogue is [dead-on] to the book,” says Snyder. “Whenever we can we go, ‘You know what? Just say [what’s in the comic], why not?’ we will. It’s funny, when you read the graphic novel, it’s heart attack serious in some ways but it’s got a quality to it.”
Set in an “alternate” 1985, Watchmen is a dense tapestry of murder, retired superheroes and Cold War tensions that begins with the killing of a “hero” known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The aforementioned Rorschach investigates his death and uncovers a plot to wipe out Comedian’s colleagues including the Nite Owl, the Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and more. The Watchmen, as they’re called, are real people haunted by real problems – one of the many qualities of Moore’s story which critics and fans embraced when the 12-part series was released in 1986.
“When people read the graphic novel, where comic book audiences were with comic book heroes then is where movie audiences are now,” Snyder posits. “My parents now know Fantastic Four, X-Men, Superman, Batman – it’s in their language, it’s in pop culture’s language. In the same way the graphic novel deconstructed [the superhero genre], this has to deconstruct things in a cinematic way, too.”
Today, we’re up in Vancouver embracing the late-October chill and visiting the set of this Warner Bros. film. The production is stationed in an old paper mill where production designer Alex McDowell (Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride, Minority Report) has built the interior prison set and Dr. Manhattan’s lab. “It’s a challenge,” Snyder notes, sitting before a blood-splattered jail cell that will be Rorschach’s for an upcoming shot. “It’s super-hard, but it’s fun. McDowell has done an amazing job. The prison, when you take a walk down there… it’s crazy. The reactor room, Manhattan’s residence, that stuff is crazy cool. He’s done such a good job. It’s just fun to film. I don’t see it as a liability. It’s almost a combination of the two ideas because Alex has done anything we can think of, I don’t feel limited by it. On the other hand, it’s not like a location shoot where you’re like, ‘Here it is, film it.'”
Watchmen, Snyder assures us, will be an R-rated venture. One, he says, that the studio is paying very close attention to in terms of running time. “I honestly don’t know how long this movie will be. It feels long, the script is long, I shoot long. And I add things.” Also of concern: The tone. “I assure them, for whatever it is worth, Watchmen is a movie that comments on pop culture. There are very few movies that are pop culture self-aware. This is one of them. I hope, anyway, there’s a coolness to that that’s transcendent. It’s for people who like superhero movies, certainly. But because it intellectualizes it, [the studio thinks] ‘Great, I don’t want to be snoozing the whole time.’ That’s what they’re most nervous about: ‘Is it a movie for nobody?'”
With that query, we set out to interview Haley, Wilson and Morgan and take a tour of Watchmen‘s myriad sets that displace us from the paper mill to a constructed New York City block, circa ’85, where we’ll walk through the Gunga Diner and check out the construction of the Owl Ship.