Director Zack Snyder On Set Interview – WATCHMEN

     February 16, 2009

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

What you’re about to read is an interview that took place on the set of “Watchmen” back in October of 2007. Back before an animated “Tales of the Black Freighter” had been announced. Back before any footage had been shown to the public. Back when filming had only recently begun and the costumes had just arrived on set. Basically, the interview you’re about to read is a fascinating journey back in time…back to when the success of the movie was still up in the air, and when fanboys and fangirls were still unsure if Zack Snyder was the man to direct Alan Moore’s brilliant graphic novel.

I had just walked onto the jail set with a few other online journalists and almost immediately we were standing next to Zack Snyder asking him questions. No sitting around and waiting, just an immediate how-you-doing and we started letting the questions fly.

But the thing to know is we didn’t realize at first this was going to be our interview. It started out as just Zack talking with us and all of us thinking we’d get more time later. However, we all quickly realized this was our Zack Snyder interview and then the questions got a lot deeper.

And with that, here’s Zack.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio. Here’s the link for *part 1* and *here’s part 2*. As you read below you’ll see there is a break…

Before the interview started we had been talking about Jackie Earle Haley and how he looked much different than what we all expected. His arms looked almost fake with how big they were. After some talking, my recorder went on…

Zack Snyder: We’ve worked on, he’s been doing an amazing job, really amazing job. I’m really happy with it, with what he’s doing. See this part he goes into the toilet bowl, smashes it up, water comes out, Jackie jumps up, figure runs away. He has his line about never disposed this sewage in the toilet before, or whatever he says. . . “Hello, Daniel. Live… blah blah blah,”

It’s like a script utility belt.

Zack Snyder: Little bit. Oh yeah, “Never disposes sewage with a toilet before…obvious really, that’s that. Two nothing, your move,” you know, that’s the very…

So that’s an exact quote from the book. How much of the script makes it into. . .

Zack: A lot of the dialogue is, whenever we can, we go “Just say that.” Why not? Sometimes it’s hard because there’s. . . I mean, it’s funny, because you think about how serious, when you read the graphic novels, it’s like heart attack-serious in some ways, and then you get like Danny being Big Figure saying, you know, “Hurry up, Williams! I want to smell this guy cooking!” You know, it’s got a quality to it that’s. . . ‘cause you don’t imagine when you read it, when you see it in a movie.

For one thing what works on a comic page works differently when it’s coming out of your mouth.

Zack: Yeah.

So is this the first time having media on the set?

Zack: It is, you guys are the first, so it’s good.

How long have you been shooting for?

Zack: Month…month?

Zack’s wife and Watchmen producer Debbie Snyder says: We started September 17.

Zack: Yeah, feels like a year, but…

Debbie Snyder: I think on Monday or Tuesday we’re a third of the way thru

Zack: Basically we tried to…we did the Adrian assassination, where he almost gets killed by Roy Chess. We did that scene.

I was going to ask as a filmmaker, though, is it good to be able to take a break in the middle of this and be able to regroup and see where you are?

Zack: Yeah, I mean, when we did “300,” we had the same hiatus, Christmas, which was nice. Because your brain is just jello, and you’re like “I dunno where I am.” It’s kinda fun. So what else can I tell you guys?

Where were you in your life when the book first came out, when you were first exposed to the book?

Zack: I guess I was probably in my first year of college. Really.

When you caught it as a mini series not the graphic novel?

Zack: I didn’t read it as a mini series, I read it as a graphic novel, so I was aware of it but it was one of those…I was too, sort of like…I dunno what, geeked out with The Dark Knight Returns.

“Watchmen” and “Dark Knight” came out the same year.

Zack: Yeah, exactly.

And shortly after “The Killing Joke” and…

Zack: Yeah.

So I guess I was going to ask you…

Jackie Earle Haley walks up to us: Wow! People!

How are you doing today sir?

Jackie Earle Haley: Good. How are you sir?

I’m doing excellent. You can talk freely about Zach, he likes it when you tell the brutal truth.

Well if I could talk freely I would, but he rules with an iron fist man.

Zack: That’s me, I’m mean. Get these fucking heaters out of here!

What are you all doing here?

Zack: They’re journalists!

Jackie Earle Haley: Aaaahhhhh, welcome, welcome. Ah, now I see all the red lights, okay. Wow, look at all the pretty lights.

Zack: It’s mesmerizing. What happens is you start looking at the lights and you start saying stuff you’re no supposed to.

Jackie Earle Haley: Especially this one like this, some special hypnosis journalism class that he took, I feel like I’m in the Andromeda Strain all of a sudden.

In the script for the movie, are there any scenes that you added for the film?

Zack: Is there anything that I added?

Like any action sequences that were not in the comic, were there any important narrative scenes that you felt needed to be put in?

Zack: I don’t know if there is anything that we added. I mean like for instance, Dan and Laurie fight their way through the prison a little bit, so there’s a little bit more fighting in the prison then there is in the graphic novel. There’s a panel where they’re fighting, you know? I kinda blew it out a little bit.

We were wondering if there anyone sits around and just reads “Beneath the Hood?”

Zack: I’m not going to say that there’s that, but there is some interesting things…we’re doing something interesting with that. Not necessarily for the movie, but we can talk about that later but because a lot of the material that’s in the sort of supplemental text that’s without, was really important to me and I wanted…we tried to lay it in as richly as we could throughout the whole thing just like we made a poster for “Swingers from Suburbia,” and you know, other things like that. And it’s always, that’s stuff’s always around ‘cause it’s so cool.

I guess we have to ask about the DVD, what are…

Zack: Yeah, I don’t even know exactly what’s going to be on the DVD.

Are those kinda Extra things?

Zack: Absolutely, we’re trying to plan for all that kinda stuff.

Are you guys thinking of trying to do anything web related? You know, webisode type stuff that would help the spread of the “Watchmen” universe?

SNYDER: We are, in that, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say exactly what that is, but there’s going to be a fair amount of…there will hopefully be a fair amount of…

Debbie Snyder: Well I think the important thing though is because they are working on it and in development, is that they are going to give us the money to do the Black Freighter. And we can incorporate that into the DVDs.

Zack: I fought hard.

Debbie Snyder: It wasn’t really a fight, but it was definitely a campaign, to do.

Did you get your Gerard?

Debbie Snyder: We don’t know, it’s a very new development, we haven’t figured out specifically how we’re going to do it, just agreed to the concept.

Zack: Yeah I don’t know if it’s going to be anime or what the hell, how we’re going to do it.

It’s going to be up to the production here.

Zack: It will be a thing that’s done supplementally and I don’t know…

…if it’s live action or post or whatever.

Zack: Yes, I don’t know if it’s that, I still don’t know, other then they said “Yeah! That sounds good.”

So can I ask….how has the studio changed with you based on the success of “300?” Has it been easier to….

Zack: You know, I don’t know, I think that they were super cool with me with “300,” I’ve gotta say. They didn’t like it at all as far as . . . it’s an uncomfortable film to make. When you see the dailies for “300,” it’s uncomfortable. You’re paying for it, you go “What are we doing? This is ridiculous! Those guys are naked, there’s no background. This is the worst movie ever!” And so they let me just keep going. I guess they kinda didn’t have a choice, but still I felt like they just said, “You know what, we’re going to trust you to make it cool.” And I feel like they think that it did turn out cool.

Debbie Snyder: Insisting that it be rated R…I think without the success of “300.”

Zack: It wouldn’t have been R, that’s for sure. There would be no way, cause they just don’t, they’re like “An R rated super hero movie, who would go to it?”

With “300” you had the blue screen and that sort of gave you the freedom, and with “Dawn of the Dead” you were shooting a mall setting. This, you’re creating a whole world from scratch in a lot of ways. How is that sort of different for you as a filmmaker, to be coming in with this universe that you are creating?

Zack: It’s a challenge certainly, it’s hard, but it’s really super fun. Alex has done an amazing job with Al, the production designer, I mean, it’s awesome. We took this prison, when you take a walk down there it’s crazy. And just every bit of it, the Reactor Room and Manhattan’s Residence—that stuff is crazy cool, and he did such a good job. And 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. But on the other hand, it’s not like a location shoot where you can go “Okay, here it is: film it.”

Does having it be period make it more difficult?

Zack: What makes it more difficult, just, we always have to be conscious of it. I mean now we’re deep in the 85 of it. I mean we’ve pretty much embraced it. I mean there are going to be some airships and stuff like that. A little bit of airship action, you know a Gunga-Diner ship that looks like a big frickin’ elephant.

For 85 are you going to have, are we going to hear pop songs?

Zack: Oh yeah. Absolutely, I think there’s going to be, you know, some Boy George or whatever.

Songs suggested in the book as well?

Zack: Oh yes, absolutely, songs suggested in the book, tons of that. We did a lot of research development.

With the film being rated R and having such a dark tone, are you aware this is going to open up your career to a whole new different audience, more adult-oriented audience? I mean this is a movie I would suggest my parents go see almost.

Zack: Yeah.

I mean this is a super hero film for an older generation. I mean are you almost thinking about, like, Oscar in some regards? I mean. . .

Zack: That’s hilarious.

No seriously. . . .

Zack: I…no. I mean I don’t know who this Oscar-character is but…

Are you shooting digitally or on film?

Zack: Shooting on film. There’s a lot of high speed, ‘cause it’s me still, so there’s a little bit of…and I still think that’s the way to go, for me anyway. I mean, we go a DI and all that, I just…it’s a movie.

Debbie Snyder: We do like digital projection.

Zack: We do like digital projection. We like shooting on film, finishing digitally, and projection digitally. That’s what I like best. It’s still a movie. It’s not someone’s camcorder and it got projected. That’s mean, I know.

Are you looking to, is this one of the films that will end up on an IMAX screen?

Zack: Well, I know the IMAX guys want it, badly. So it will be interesting. Might be too long for IMAX, I dunno.

What is the length?

Zack: We don’t even know yet, how long it is. Honestly I don’t know how long it is.

Is Warner Bros. saying to you “Please keep it under…?”

Zack: Oh, yes, of course, please make it a movie that’s showable in theaters. But honestly I don’t know, but it feels long right now. The script’s long, and I shoot it long, and I add things, so it’s…

What is the page count? We’re talking numbers, 120-plus?

Zack: Yeah, it’s around there.

Have you sensed any hesitation on Warner Bros. part? Because it’s, like, an R rated, period, superhero movie, how are we going to sell this thing to the general public?

Zack: I assure them that for whatever it’s worth, “Watchmen” is a movie that, for whatever reason, though it comments on pop culture, there are very few movies that are pop-culture-self-aware, and this is one of them, and so I think that it’s, I hope anyway, that there is a coolness to that I hope is transcended. It’s not just for people who like superhero movies, certainly, although if you took everybody who likes superhero movies and put them in a room, the room would be pretty frickin’ huge. So that’s not a big problem. But because it’s sort of intellectualizes it a little bit, they get scared of that more then anything, “Oh great, everybody is going to be snoozing the whole time! While everyone is like, ‘Sad! My mother hates me!'” So I think that’s what they’re most nervous of: is it going to be a movie for nobody? Is it going to be emotional so action geeks don’t like it or is it going to be to action-y so people who like character don’t…I feel like it’s a super delicate…

But there have been some films that paved the way for that, “Batman Begins” kinda paved the way for that, “Superman Returns”…

Zack: “Batman Begins” is barely an action movie!

At Comic-Con you were talking about a fan who had made, like, a flash version of the entire story. Having seen that what did it teach you about what you have to keep in and take out?

Zack: What I had seen was basically this guy had prepared this, it was like the first ten pages, and what I learned from it was it was super-interesting to watch, first of all, to watch it takes five hours, it clocked out to five and a half hours if you do the whole book that way. But it was super-riveting to me, anyway, I was just floored by how cool it was, it totally works. So what I learned I guess is, the movie is not going to be that long, but you can shoot it that way. And it works.

Well how tough is it to condense, I mean, this is something people may or may not be familiar with, I mean origin stories, how important is that?

Zack: Origin stories are really important to me. I just like that sort of stuff and I feel like it makes a lot of sense to the guys, who they are. If you don’t have that stuff, it’s kind of a one dimensional version of it.

Debbie Snyder: Jackie’s worked so hard.

I was gonna say, I almost thought his muscles were fake for a second.

Zack: He’s cut anyway though, you seem him like…

Debbie Snyder: Since he got read he started training in hope…he’s just been so committed.

Zach we were talking about Warner Bros. reactions and stuff like that. What has Warner Bros. reactions been to the ending? Because I know some of the original times they’ve tried to do this movie, they’ve had happy endings, I assume you’re keeping the ending as-is.

Zack: Yeah, I have an ending, you mean as far as Adrian goes and all that?


Zack: I won’t say exactly what it is, because it’s still a movie and I think it should be a little bit of a secret, even though there’s a graphic novel. Yeah it’s difficult because that’s one of those things that you imagine, I’ve read every draft, and in every draft, I don’t even know if it’s a happy ending in what is traditional I mean, in like the more tradition, like “this is what happened to the bad guy” sort of thing.

Yeah, like the bad-guy-gets-it sort of thing.

Zack: And not in a sequel way, you’ll keep him alive for that reason, which is a fine line. I look at the end of “Superman” and you’re like “Oh, Lex Luthor’s on an island. This is ridiculous.” I would have liked him to die, that would have been cool.

We then shut off our recorders as Zack either walked away or was filming something…it’s been a year and a half….I don’t remember exact reason…but we started back up talking about the ending again….

Zack: It’s funny because when we actually got down to actually talking about what was their issue I think we all kind of agreed that you don’t gain anything by changing that part of it in some ways. I mean it’s a movie you should leave going, “Let’s talk about this. I think Adrian’s right.” And someone going, “No wait, are you crazy?” That’s the kinda movie is, hopefully. And not a “Oh, that was awesome! Let’s go get dinner.”

You haven’t reverted back to the Sam Hamm draft, were they save the world and then get transported into the real world?

Zack: And then Rorschach has, ah, where the dogs are his sidekicks? We have dead dogs in a box somewhere.

Are you at all concerned about the ending? As far as it’s relevant? As far as post-9/11, we are sort of seeing that a catastrophic disaster brings people together but it doesn’t necessarily pull them together.

Zack: I think that’s part of the awesome thing that you have in the book, because the book says, “Yeah, catastrophic even brings everyone together.” And then you have, like, the very, very end of the book says that’s just frickin’ teetering on a razor’s edge and it’s easy to come apart. I think that’s super relevant.

Dr. Manhattan says as much, “Nothing ever ends.”

Zack: Yeah, nothing ever ends.

But sorta for different reasons, that’s sort of a random. . .

Zack: Yeah, but I think Alan Moore couldn’t have known that, so I think he was assuming that was the nature of man, and it turns out he’s right. I think that that’s kind of the fun of it. And by the way you can’t…it’s funny because one of the things we…you only kind of see, the post, the reconstructed-New York, it’s kind of a short section, you know, in the movie, but it was important to me to have a lot of Veidt stuff around in the post construction-New York. Like he’s sort of as prosperous as ever, you know, in that world.

He’s saved the world and making a dime off it.

Zack: Yeah, and honestly I don’t think he wants to. I honestly think he’s helping, but it’s funny, ‘cause he’s…fight developments and all that stuff that’s at the very end, doing reconstruction on the trains and airships and everything.

Is the film going to follow the structure of the comic?

Zack: It follows the structure very closely. When we flip through it and trying to find out where we are it’s pretty easy to do. It’s super close I think. I mean there are some…I’m not going to say exactly what the changes are, but there are some changes we had to do just to make it into a movie. But we try as hard as we can to make it. If we do that, what’s the “why” of it?

I was going to say, we asked about adding stuff, was there fat that needed to be trimmed?

Zack: It’s not even that, it’s not fat. It’s just, like I say, if we filmed everything, it’s a five-hour movie. I’m not saying that’s wrong, there is nothing wrong with a five-hour movie, it just not practical. And like I say, the movie’s job is not to replace the book, and that’s the most important thing. I would hope that people see the movie and go, “Gos,h I gotta go get a ‘Watchmen’ book, it’s awesome, I gotta go buy that.” It’s really just more of that. If someone hard seen the movie and not read the graphic novel, I still want them to be able to read the graphic novel and still be like, “Wow! It’s thicker then that even! It’s deeper and denser then the movie.”

Structurally, with the graphic novel, Alan Moore possibly uses juxtaposition in every page, dialogue juxtaposed over different scenes. Do you do that kinda thing to? Every scene transition is juxtaposition.

Zack: Yeah, where the dialogue runs over to the next seen, yeah.

And it’s sort of commenting on the next scene, you’re doing that too?

Zack: Yeah. As much as we can.

I was going to ask if you’re shooting with the intention of putting certain extra scene, I know I’m sorry about the DVD, but are you thinking that way?

Zack: Well we’re over-shoot…It’s fat as hell. So there will definitely be stuff in the DVD, whether it’s good or not, I dunno. But it will definitely be…

So you almost definitely consider, like, an extended “Watchmen.”

Zack: It’s for sure, there’s no way that’s not going to happen. And it will probably have like Black Freighter, and extended…it will be like some extended, ridiculous version of the movie that’s just…

And a cool package.

Zack: Yeah, you crack open Manhattan’s chest.

One of the things about the graphic novel is that is treads so much on the mythology, not only just the mythology of comic books, but how difficult is it to balance the strike between the realism that comic book adaptations have tried to bring in terms of making movies, and also the fact that essentially it’s a graphic novel is commenting on ridiculous the costumes are, and how they are, there is sort of…

Zack: Yeah that’s kinda what I was getting at before when I was saying that when you forget that…It’s like the Laurie/Manhattan love scene with the two Manhattans. You forget when you read it in the graphic novel you’re like oh, that’s just real…heart attack-serious. And we shot it that way, too. But when you actually watch it, it’s a movie, it’s a different feeling. Not that it’s funny or anything, you’re just like “Wow, it’s very stylized.” It’s a stylized world, no matter how hard we really try to make it. You have Manhattan walking around, it’s become something else. It’s different with “Dark Knight,” I think, and with the Batman because they…it’s my feeling in those movies that they almost drank their own Kool-aid a little bit. I’m a huge fan of the movies, but as far as, like, “We’re fucking serious doing it like that, cause you know, it’s The Batman!”

Well I guess more specifically. . .

Zack: You become self-aware instantly, I just said this was Batman.

When you watch a lot of horror movie it’s like there is no horror or slasher movie in the world of the movie. Is this a world where comic books exist and—

Zack: Exactly the way they exist in the graphic novel. Comic books don’t exist because there’s real super heroes. What is the comic book story called? Fantasy Island or something like that? It’s all pirate comics, it’s that.

They talk about Action Man, and stuff like that too.

Zack: I mean there is…we couldn’t get Superman #1. We couldn’t get the rights to use images from Superman #1 in the movie.

DC’s over there.

Zack: They can’t get them either. Anyway, so, but I want to make a comment about that particular, at least that Golden Age, right? I think we have Batman, do we have…I dunno, you’ll have to look for it in the movie. Because there is a scene where Hollis, there is a quick flash of Hollis in the title sequence where he’s on his first day on the street, and I wanted to do a shot were you had that and posters for Superman #1 in the alley and he’s sort of peeled back. Because comics, in Under the Hood, that what the thing that made him go, like, “I want to do that.” And so I feel like that’s important to reference sort-of Golden Age heroes, I dunno, Shadow or whatever. Because they’re so, they influenced this so much and so I think it’s our intention, and based on the images that we created so far, and we are working on, there’s a lot of comment on Golden Age. It kinda gets you to this. Also I think a lot of young moviegoers don’t even realize that this wasn’t just an invention of the 80s, that Batman just didn’t show up. Tim Burton just didn’t go “Hey, Batman would be cool.”

I was going to ask can you talk a little bit about the cast and working with some of the actors?

Zack: They’ve been awesome, they’ve been amazing. You know Billy’s been amazing cause you know, Manhattan is hard. It’s hard to do. It seems like it would be easy but it’s hard to do.

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