Zack Snyder and Dave Gibbons talk WATCHMEN Black Freighter and Motion Comic DVDs

     March 1, 2009

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

As most of you are well aware, Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” is opening this Friday. With the abundance of articles I’ve posted here on Collider, I’m not even going to pretend you haven’t heard of it or aren’t familiar with the Alan Moore graphic novel. I’m just going in full steam ahead and trusting that you’re cool enough to be on board.

So while you all know about the movie, I’m pretty sure at least a few of you aren’t familiar with the DVDs Warner Home Video is getting ready to release in conjunction with the movie.

First is the “Watchmen” Motion Comic and the other is “Tales of the Black Freighter” with “Under the Hood” as a bonus feature. The motion comic is literally the graphic novel with some slight animation and voice over work. Check out Dellamorte’s review here.

“The Black Freighter”/”Under the Hood” DVD is a whole other story. That DVD is a must own title if you’re a “Watchmen” fan as it animates the entire Black Freighter story with Gerard Butler as the voice of the sailor struggling to get back home to his family before they’re killed by the brutal undead pirates of the Black Freighter. Also, the “Under the Hood” stuff was filmed when they were making the movie and it has all the actors in character talking like they would for a real TV special. While I haven’t seen the footage yet, after hearing Zack talk about it, I can’t wait to finally check it out.

Anyway, at the recent press junket for “Watchmen” I got to speak with Snyder and “Watchmen” illustrator Dave Gibbons about their involvement in both DVDs as well as all the merchandising and even the “Watchmen” video game, “Watchmen: The End Is Nigh” which will hit XBLA and PC on Wednesday and PSN on Thursday.

It’s a really interesting conversation and it’s one worth reading or listening to (*click here* for the audio).

And with that…enjoy the interview. Links to all my other “Watchmen” coverage is at the bottom of the article.

So I’m just going to jump in. How involved were either of you or both of you in these straight to DVD ventures?

SNYDER: “The Black Freighter” was…we were pretty involved in “The Black Freighter”. Eric basically spearheaded the Under the Hood mock-documentary. Have you seen that?

No, we haven’t seen it yet.

SNYDER: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Because he was doing the EPK’s and all the behind the scene stuff and so he put together this proposal that we could do “Under the Hood” as…it’s basically a TV show that’s called the “Culpepper Minute” which is a complete, like, magazine show…started in the 70’s I guess apparently and when the book came out—the original book “Under the Hood” first came out—they did a story on it and this is supposedly a follow up story to the original story to a “Where are they now?” kind of thing. And so they interview all the cast in character that they can. I think The Comedian’s like “Get that fucking camera out of my face!” You know where they find him outside of his apartment building. So it’s pretty cool.

Can you talk about making these more than just straight to video spin-offs and actually authentically “Watchmen”?

SNYDER: Well, I mean the way…especially that piece is because they have access to all the cast. All the cast basically had done a ton of researcher because they had to ad-lib the dialogue because it’s interview. Carla, you know, did an amazing job because they have the original interview of her….I forgot what year the book was released, in ’72 or something like that?

GIBBONS: Yeah, yeah.

SNYDER: So they have that interview with her so she’s in her sort of the early 70’s look. And she had just done all her researcher so she had it so she could kind of talk about the rape allegation or like the whole…it’s pretty interesting. And then Stephen McHattie, of course, they interview him like they’re in the Gunga Diner and doing the interview. That’s where the interviews take place. And I just feel like after so much work that these actors have put into researching their roles, they were actually able to pay off that research with like these ad-lib experiences which is cool. It’s cool for me to see actually because being sort of separate from that. You know they would say we’d be shooting a scene and they’d say can we have Carla because we’re going to do an interview for “Under the Hood”. And I’d say okay. I don’t know what they’re doing. I mean I talked to Eric about it so it wasn’t like crazy but it was really interesting. And they also shot all this historical footage like they’d take Hooded Justice and they’d get a [inaudible] and they’d go down some alley and like you know with some vintage cops and they’d shoot some like some hand-held scratchy footage of him like arresting someone or making love to someone…no we didn’t see that. [laughs] It’s possible! But when it came to “The Black Freighter” it was much different deal because “The Black Freighter” started off because there was this idea that they were going to do this parallel content. That they were going to release a time release because it’s huge marketing, right? We have this giant marketing machine and Warner Premier is like “Look, it would be awesome if we could release some supplemental material at time of release because it’s great to take advantage of that marketing.” So it seemed to me I was like oh, I’ve got to say I’ve got slight ulterior motives because I knew there was no way the studio was ever going to fund a “Black Freighter” movie to be included just for the DVD or whatever. It just didn’t seem possible. But Warner Premier of course came to the rescue of that sort of conceptually for me and I don’t want to say it was a subversive act by me or that I did anything that nobody…the dark motives. Although, slightly dark because I knew that that was a way for me to cheat them into giving me my “Black Freighter” movie that I could edit. And then we got some money from Warren Premier so I could shoot the ins and outs, you know, because we had to add a couple of days to the schedule so I could actually get all Bernie’s stuff shot so that I would end up with a way to get the “Black Freighter” into the movie and still have sort of the Bernie story make sense at the end, too.

So the Bernie stuff is not in this release; that’s in the extended?

SNYDER: No, it’s just for the extended. It’s not even really in the director’s cut either. It’s actually just for the “Black Freighter” version.

How was it with your time because it seems like there’s so many projects going on at the same time? There’s “Watchmen”, “The Black Freighter” and then…

SNYDER: It was hard to do. I mean, Alex wrote the script and then I worked on it a bit and it wasn’t terribly difficult to write the script it’s just slightly modified from the original “Black Freighter” story but just because it’s another thing where they’re just missing elements so we had to fill it in a little bit to make it go all the way. And then you know, we hired an animation director and Real Effects did the movie but we worked really pretty closely with him. I think that because a lot more involved than I thought it was going to be, you know, just working on the actual animated film.

GIBBONS: I have to say that all of this is pretty much news to me but it’s really good to hear. There are the same elements attached to the movie as there were in the comic book because not everybody used to read the text features in the back but if you do it really enriches the experience of reading the comic book and from Zack saying that’s going to be the case with this. And I’ve only seen the trailer of the “Black Freighter” stuff and it’s not in the kind of EC horror comic style that I did but it does look scary. It does look terrifying, which it should be.

SNYDER: It is scary.

GIBBONS: So I’m really forward to seeing it as much as you guys.

Dave, from what you’ve seen so far are you pleased with the tone and the sweep of it?

GIBBONS: Of the “Black Freighter” stuff? As I say it’s only the short trailer but again I notice a few of my panel compositions have crept in there and I do like the kind of gaudy horror of it all and they seemed to capture that.

SNYDER: And also the idea of doing just like cell animation for this was kind of an interesting thing. We had to do it in Korea because that’s where they do cell animation now. It’s so difficult to do here. It was really interesting. I think originally someone said oh we should go and find a 3D studio because that’s the kind of animation there is now. And we’re like, “Yeah, that doesn’t really make sense.” It should look a little bit like a Saturday morning cartoon a tiny bit. It’s almost like “Don’t make it too modern.” That’s the aesthetic sort of problem that we face. Can’t make it too modern or it would not make sense.

I wonder how much Dave Gibbons and how much Joe Orlando is there in the final animation do you think?

SNYDER: I think there’s a lot to be honest because I think that…I mean look the truth is they had to redraw everything but I think the compositions and sort of the tone definitely—the design—is all from the book.

Dave, you know the joke of the Black Freighter is that it’s a world of super heroes. They own Superhero comics but it’s still all one kind of comic. Everybody reads pirate comics all the time and that’s sort of 20 years later we sort of have that same thing in the world still. It’s still all superhero comics. So from your position why do you think the comic market is so still obsessed with the superhero?

GIBBONS: God, I suppose it’s because it’s something that’s very well suited to comic books. I mean, the recent superheroes have brightly colored costumes and capes is because in the early days of color printing they could only print those crude red, yellow and blues, so that’s why Superman is red, yellow and blue. And then they have capes so that suggests motion as they move. It’s like speed lines. And I guess you can tell any kind of story with a superhero and you can ramp it up and make it epic. I really wish there was more of a variety of comics. When I was growing up reading British comics, we didn’t really have superheroes. If they had people with strange powers, they were always kind of supernatural creepy powers rather than muscle powers. I mean, we used to have sports comics and war comics and pirate comics and everything like that. It’s really strange that America, and even after Alan and I and Frank Miller tried to point out the flaws with superheroes, they still seem to be very popular. I love a good superhero comic myself, but I like other kinds of comics as well.

SNYDER: It seems like they love them even more now. It’s like oh look they’re broken. Oh, that’s terrible.

GIBBONS: And I suppose in a way the Gods are coming down to earth a bit. Whereas they were always up there now we can perhaps identify with their problems a bit more.

The complete motion comic release is 6-1/2 hours long. Does that mean the movie could have been twice as long?

SNYDER: If we shot it panel for panel that’s what it would have probably been. 6-1/2 hours. And that’s not taking in account dramatic pauses by actors doing dialogue or whatever, you know, which they tend to do. So I think that at least 6-1/2 hours long.

Does this motion comic version have the original ending from the book or…?

SNYDER: No, no it’s exactly the book. It’s just a book.

GIBBONS: And that does have nearly every line and nearly every scene and that does come in at around about 6 hours, perhaps a bit less, so that is the actual running time of a literal translation of “Watchmen”, yeah.

What’s your guys take on this motion comic? I’m just curious when you heard about it, what was your thing?

SNYDER: You know, they came and pitched to me first and they showed me this thing and they said okay look…what was that guy’s name? I forget the guy’s name. Anyway he came and pitched it to us at my office and I said “That’s cool.” He had taken like months off work and just made this thing, you know. He’s like “Look I made this thing, I quit my job and I love ‘Watchmen’!” [laughs] I guess you do! “Yeah, my kids are starving!” [laughs] So I don’t know. We felt like it could be cool. I mean look, for me it was, I just felt it was an opportunity to sort of…it’s like middle ground. It’s not a comic book but it’s not a movie. It’s like a way in this sort of iPod-obsessed world to get people to be able to sit on an airplane or wherever they are and put on their headphones and that’s why I didn’t want…originally he said “Do voices for each character. We’ll do sound effects. You know make it more like a movie.” And that I wasn’t into. I kind of felt like for me…and then I’ll let you talk about it because [Gibbons] actually had a big influence on it as well. I think, anyway. It was to try to push it back more toward being like the comic and less like a movie. I felt like went it tried to be a movie it fell kind of short and weird, you know what I mean? It just felt like a bad animation, which is what we didn’t want it to be.

GIBBONS: Well, when I was first shown it and Paul Ebbits at DC showed it to me to see what I thought about it and my first reaction was—this is to paraphrase a famous quotation about women in politics actually—it’s that it’s not whether it’s done well or badly it’s just the fact that is was done at all like a dog riding a bike, you know singular. Not how well the dog rides the bike, if I’m not being too abstruse. So I thought well I don’t think we really need this. And I said to Paul “If I really don’t like it is it likely to get made anyway?” And he said “Probably.” So I said well okay then so I ran away to think about it and I showed what I had to friends of mine in the comic business, animation, computer games, and they felt like me “Ummm, it’s not really necessary and it’s done quite well, it could be done a bit better.” It’s um-ing and ah-ing. I showed it to my teen-age stepdaughters and they went crazy. They said, “This is great! This is fantastic! Can we see some more of it?” So I realized then that it would get to an audience that wasn’t me and wasn’t my friends in the business but it was an audience that a grownup has access on iPods and visual delivery stuff that moved. So I kind of changed my mind about it really just on their enthusiasm and certainly I was involved in it as a consultant so I kind of went through the script with them and they showed me the animatic and the rough animation and in the end I think it’s turned out really well. It’s a strange job to do because actually the better they do their job the less you notice their job. It’s a tremendous feat of cutting all the foregrounds out and extending the backgrounds and resizing it. But on a iPod it looks brilliant and the reason why I think is because the panels are kind of exactly the same size as in the comic book. So it’s like isolating a panel and watching it move. Yeah, and it kind of works as an audio but with just one voice. It must have been a funny day in the audio booth the day he made love to himself, you know? That aside…

SNYDER: That’s what it is to be an actor.

GIBBONS: and I do think it’s a prototype and possibly a new form of entertainment. I can see there is something kind of almost struggling to be born or…


GIBBONS: or trying to find something there in the fog.

SNYDER: You can’t make a book on tape of a comic book. You can’t do it. It would just make no sense. Someone would have to describe the panel. It would like be crazy.

Have you followed how many people have downloaded it first on iTunes?

SNYDER: I don’t know. I think it’s doing really well actually.

Dave, has it made you want to do maybe something original in that format to try to kind of …?

GIBBONS: Well, it is interesting because what I’m all about is telling stories in pictures and of course with home computers nowadays it’s quite easy to draw it so that you’ve already got the foreground separate from the background. For instance, you can have it in print but then you’ve got all the elements and assets you need to animate. And I think if you did that with that in mind from the beginning you could do something quite interesting, so when the circus is over I might have a think about that.

SNYDER: Pull our stakes up and get out of town.

Did DC give you an idea that that’s a direction that they might be looking at?

GIBBONS: I think they’re very interested in it. I mean they’ve got such huge vaults full of comic strip material. I do know that they’re doing—and I think this is public knowledge, if not then I’ve completely blown it—they’re going to do “Mad Love”, which is that fantastic Bruce Tim drawn thing which is in kind of an animated style anyway which I reckon will transfer very well. And they’re also doing a “Batman: Black & White” story that I did, which again, I’m just really interested to see what happens. I don’t think we’re going to get it right immediately, but I think there’s something there that’s worth playing with.

Zack, in the ultimate edition when the “Black Freighter” is put back in how’s it going to be integrated? Because in the comic it isn’t just always showing panels, it’s narration from the book over scenes.

SNYDER: Well, yeah as I….it does that a little bit. Not as much as I would have liked to be honest, but because we have most of the book-ended by the Bernies it ends to be a little bit more…I mean I feel like it does kind of flow and go in and out in kind of a nice way and we did a lot of these things where…when the kid’s looking at the comic book we do these things where we drive into a frame and then it starts to animate. So there’s cool stuff like that, but yeah it didn’t quite as much as I wanted to like the…you hear Rorschach’s voice over a picture from the “Black Freighter” or hearing Jerry talking over the…you know…it does it a little bit but I think it could have been a little bit more. But it’s just one of those things that when you’re designing the movie and you’re kind of sneaking this thing into it, it’s a little bit difficult to engineer these scenes for the film that can kind of do both. One is going to compromise the other in some way.

How much of this is narration with Bernie and how much of it is the relationship with the newsstand kid?

SNYDER: It’s mostly that. It’s he and the newsstand kid I’d say more than anything. That’s kind of…you know the Top-Knots are there knocking around, getting mad and they don’t like that he’s reading the comic book. And we did little bits like where even though it’s maybe not in the comic book where Hollis Mason is buying a magazine. Just trying to bring characters sort of from the outside world sort of pass through the newsstand to make it feel like a community of characters and also kind of interesting and fun that they get this…that an audience would get an opportunity to kind of expand the world and feel like it’s living and breathing even more than just a straight linear movie would do. Because when I think you’re in the movie we really don’t have a lot of time to fuck around. It’s pretty much you gotta stay on point and you gotta keep going because time is so critical and so it’s kind of fun to have the “Black Freighter” version where it is pretty luxurious kind of.

Will we see 100% of what’s on the DVD in the ultimate edition or will it be a truncated version that gets squeezed into the movie?

SNYDER: I’m sorry?

Will everything we see on the DVD of the “Black Freighter” will that…?

SNYDER: Oh no, yeah. That’s all in.

It’s all in?

SNYDER: It’s all in.

How involved were you in the creative of the video game?

SNYDER: The video game was kind of fits and starts a little bit. They came to me and showed me and showed me oh look here’s our script for the video game. And I looked at it and I was like “Really?” This feels like a Saturday morning cartoon like they just were on like a mission, you know? It was Rorschach and Nite Owl and they just did something. They found some little references. But you know it’s just not…it just misses the point a little bit doesn’t it? If we’re going to do this we should try to think of something a little bit, I don’t know, something a little darker. I remember long, long ago because we never…we had talked….even and you know and they just didn’t get it together but it was like long, long ago we were talking about oh is there a video game possibility? And I said well, you guys have 2-1/2 years-3 years you can make a real game. And I go, the problem is no one’s going to…are you guys prepared to make a game where you’re The Comedian and you go and kill some political leader. Are you able to…like is that going to be cool…I mean are you guys…you, Warner Brothers, willing to make that game? And they’re like “Arrrhh…” And I said well, unless that’s the game….if you can make a game that subverts like the video game world totally in the storyline then maybe you can make an interesting game. And they just hemmed and hawed and I said okay, otherwise I really don’t have a lot of time for the game. Then they came back and they were like we’re doing a game. It was kind of like that motion comic.

GIBBONS: It will be done anyway.

SNYDER: I said okay I’ll try to help you guys make it go. And in the end I think they came around and said okay, we’ll tell us what would be cool then? So we tried to create a cool script. I think the game is kind of fun but to me the game is the…it was done in Amsterdam I think by this pretty cool group and they’ve done a pretty good job with “The Sims” and kind of you know the world feels pretty interesting and kind of fun. I played a little bit of it but I haven’t played the whole thing, so I don’t know, it seems interesting.

GIBBONS: There is a president to it actually because back when the comic came out, Mayfair Games did a role-playing module that actually Alan was very, very involved in. And this video game is kind of the same setting as that. It’s before the bad things happened and Nite Owl and Rorschach are still a team, so there is a president for it. I’ve only been kind of marginally involved in it with the sort of cut scenes, but it’s an interesting thing to see. And I mean, as with state-of-the-art video games today the graphics are absolutely fantastic, you know?

Well Dave, sort of a quick follow-up to that, what is your take on the entire merchandising of “Watchmen” based on the movie at this point? I know that journalists, I don’t know if there’s anything on sale, journalists got Dr. Manhattan condoms. I’m sort of curious what your take is on the merchandising? Is it a risk of it being too much? All the products?

SNYDER: I don’t think condoms would be, but that’s just me.

GIBBONS: I mean I think in the real world there is merchandising. I think people want merchandising. Nearly everything I’ve seen is of a very good quality or like the condom, it’s very witty, you know which makes me smile. There’s one thing I’m not quite in love with and that’s the Halloween costumes which probably I’d rather have a trash can liner and a Sharpie to make mine. It probably would be better. Anyway but that’s my only criticism, but the figures and the replicas are just…I mean I told DC I want 2 of everything and I’m off to Ikea when I get back and buying a couple of glass display cases and I’m going to enjoy them.

SNYDER: Yeah, where were we? When we were at the Apple store doing the Apple store thing was the first time I’ve actually seen the…a kid came up to me with Rorschach in the box and I said “Wow, that’s cool.”

GIBBONS: Nice, very nice.

SNYDER: Can I have that?

GIBBONS: Ask for 2 of everything.

Want more “Watchmen” coverage:

Collider Goes to the Set of WATCHMEN and has a Geekgasm

Director Zack Snyder On Set Interview – WATCHMEN

Jeffrey Dean Morgan On Set Interview – WATCHMEN

Patrick Wilson On Set Interview – WATCHMEN

Matthew Goode On Set Interview – WATCHMEN

Jackie Earle Haley On Set Interview – WATCHMEN

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