Moriarty Sees A Half-Hour Of WATCHMEN In Hollywood!
Published at: Oct. 2, 2008, 9:56 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
You’d never know there was a lawsuit a-brewin’ out there right now based on the exuberant confidence displayed by Warner Bros. today in a presentation that they repeated twice at The Lot in Hollywood. Whatever Fox is doing, Warner doesn’t seem even slightly deterred from their marketing plan. They held an event almost just like this a few years ago for 300, and today, that same exact mood was in the air, that same sure smile on the face of every one of the Warner publicity team members. They feel like they’ve got something genuinely special coming in the form of Zack Snyder’s WATCHMEN.
And, holy shit, are they right.
Gregory Noveck [not Paul Levitz as I mistakenly wrote orginally -- "M"] was the first person up in front of the journalists assembled in the small upstairs screening room. As editor of DC Comics, he’s got good reason to be excited to see this film come together the way it has. Right now, they’re selling approximately 10 million copies of WATCHMEN a day (I may be underestimating that a bit) thanks to the trailer debut and the building hype on the film, and if the movie delivers completely, expect for that to get even bigger. He spoke a bit about the impact the book has had on comic publishing in general, and then handed over the floor to Zack Snyder.
Every time I talk to Snyder, I’m struck by how unassuming he seems to be. If you just met this guy and chatted with him, you’d never guess that he was one of the most sought-after filmmakers in Hollywood at the moment. I love how he always acknowledges the role that his wife and producer Deborah has in his work. Husband/wife teams can be a volatile mix, but when they work, I think they can also be incredibly formidable, and that’s how the Snyders appear. No arrogance at all... just this sense of focus and calm as they make their way through what should be an impossible task. Snyder talked about how long the film was in development and how it had been called “unfilmable”, and how the thing that really helped him was that there was no time to second guess himself once he took the job. He basically had to step in and get to work, and as a result, he never had time to get overwhelmed by the size of the job.
That’s the thing... you can crack any adaptation if you’re willing to put in the time and the manpower and if you have the right collaborators. Two of those collaborators were at the event yesterday with Snyder, and they certainly seem like the right guys for the job. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson is the one doing the most subversive and interesting visual work on the film, I think, with designs that take the last ten years of superhero movies and duck press them into something that alternates between cool and preposterous, just as the original designs by Dave Gibbons did. And Alex McDowell is, simply put, one of the best production designers working right now. He’s worked on films like Burton’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, THE TERMINAL (that airport set, no matter what you thought of the film, was amazing), MINORITY REPORT and FIGHT CLUB. With WATCHMEN, he had one of the largest jobs of this type that anyone’s ever had, and I think he rose to the challenge admirably. After all, he’s not just designing 1985 in the film... he had to create a credible alternate history that spanned over 20 years, and he had to make it feel lived-in and possible, fantastic but also grounded in reality. No easy trick.
I visited the Vancouver sets in December last year, and I’ve seen the same clips packages and trailers that everyone else has so far, but until Snyder finished his introduction and took his seat, I hadn’t seen a full scene play out, so I was still curious how the film would actually feel when all those elements were put together. The first thing we saw was the opening 12 minutes of the movie, and if that had been the only thing that they showed us, I would still be ranting and raving, because this film plants its flag early.
The company logos are shown in start black-on-yellow, without sound, one right after another. Then we pull back from that yellow to reveal a smiley-face pin affixed to the bathrobe of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), smoking a cigar as he watches TV at home alone. Just these opening few moments will be sensory overload for viewers, especially on repeat viewings. There is so much information about the world and these characters packed into the edges of the frame, details on the walls or things mentioned on TV. This is a film that is perfect for the BluRay age, where you can go back and step through each scene, taking it all in.
I love the talk show that Blake watches a few minutes of, where Pat Buchanan and others debate the state of the world. It perfectly captures the period, and it does a nice job of setting up the way nuclear tensions are on the rise as other countries rattle their sabers in response to the existence of Dr. Manhattan. Blake listens to as much of it as he can stomach, then starts flipping around trying to find something that’s not about the news. He finds a perfume ad (eerily accurate to the era) and stops to watch, enjoying Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” as he does, and that’s when there’s a knock on the door.
When Blake answers it, all hell breaks loose as a disguised assassin steps in. Blake doesn’t seem terribly surprised. He makes a move for his gun, which rests on the coffee table, and a fight for his life kicks in. It’s a beautifully staged bit of action that only gradually reveals just how strong the two combatants are. Snyder uses his slow-motion/fast-motion effect really well here, emphasizing particular beats of the brutality in a way that suggests the static image of a comic book, but without anything as overt as Ang Lee’s comic book paneling. It’s like Snyder found the equivalent film vocabulary, and the result is like reading the original WATCHMEN while on acid... it’s the book, absolutely, but suddenly crawling to life and spilling over the edges of the page. As someone who’s been a fan of this book for 20 years now (jeeeez, I’m an old man), I found it almost disquieting to suddenly see it realized so completely onscreen.
At the end of the fight, Blake’s hurled through his picture window and falls to his death, and as that smiley face button lands on the concrete beside him, in a widening pool of blood, Snyder pushes in on it and the opening title sequence kicks in.
What’s your favorite opening title sequence of all time? Is it the glimpse inside the world of John Doe that kicks off SE7EN? Is it one of the beautiful stark graphic design trips by Saul Bass? Maybe one of the surreal titties-and-gun montages from a James Bond film? Whatever the case, get ready to add a title to that list, because the six minute opening title assault that kicks off WATCHMEN is one for the ages, a fascinating mini-movie that takes us through the whole history of this America-that-could-have-been.
Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are A-Changin’” proves to be the perfect song to underscore the passage of this world from innocent exuberance to broken-hearted cynicism, and Snyder stages each of these pivotal events as a slow-motion tableau. I love the stuff from the ‘40s with the original Night Owl and a young Sally Jupiter. Jesus, Carla Gugino’s first appearance in the outfit is like the ultimate pin-up fantasy, with her in this tiny yellow outfit and a pair of tiny panties. I love the original-era costumes, the way they all look like they’re made of wool or vintage materials, not a hint of body armor in sight. As the years fly by, things get darker and stranger, and there are some truly shocking images included. Keep your eyes open for Abe Zapruder standing on Dealey Plaza, totally missing the most important part of the shot that made him famous. Some of the effects in this sequence weren’t done, but it doesn’t matter. Snyder seems determined to make this a stunningly beautiful experience as well as a dramatically powerful one, and these six minutes manage to encapsulate both of those desires. It hits hard, but it’s almost like this dream, especially when you see images like Dr. Manhattan shaking hands with JFK. I really can’t believe a major studio is making this film and letting Snyder push it as far as he is.
The next sequence we saw is one of my favorite passages from the book, and I was very curious to see if they could even approach the poetry of it onscreen. It’s when Dr. Manhattan goes to Mars to consider everything that’s happened to him, and he ends up flashing back through the moments of his life before and after the accident that changed him into the most powerful being on the planet. In the comic, it was some of the most sophisticated writing I’d ever encountered in comic form when it was first published. For Dr. Manhattan, time and matter are inconsequential things, and emotions are a mystery. He sifts through his own memory like someone with a handful of sand, and it’s amazing just how right Snyder gets it. From the odd, single sound effect when Manhattan arrives on Mars to the palpable chemistry between John Osterman (Billy Crudup) and fellow physicist Janey Slater (the stunning Laura Mennell) to the horror of the accident itself and the almost-human guilt that Manhattan feels at the way he may or may not have caused cancer in all of his friends and lovers in last few decades... it’s all there. It’s all right.
I loved the way the entire sequence was temp-tracked to Philip Glass’s KOYAANISQATSI score. In particular, it’s the slower, elegiac movement from the score, and it was one of the most haunting re-uses of film music I’ve seen. I don’t think it’ll make the final cut, but it’s powerfully effective right now, especially once we finally cut back to Mars to find Manhattan building himself a palace of crystal and clockwork. Snyder says that he’s working with Tyler Bates on the score now and that they’ve been listening to a lot of ‘80s stuff like MANHUNTER and TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA and BLADE RUNNER to try and find a period-appropriate way to handle the music. I love that idea, and I hope they watch a lot of MIAMI VICE while they’re putting the score together. You can’t go wrong with Tangerine Dream or Vangelis, damn it. You just can’t.
The final major sequence picks up just after Dan (Patrick Wilson) and Laurie (Malin Akerman) have finally made love onboard the Owl Ship. Energized by an earlier attempt to help rescue people from a building fire, the two of them are looking for something else they can do, some other way to recapture that rush of heroism. It’s Dan who suggests that they suit up and go break Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) out of prison. Once they’re geared up as Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II respectively, they pilot the Owl Ship into the prison yard, where a full-scale riot is already underway. This is perfect, as it allows them to slip in fairly unmolested. Once they’re inside, they tear into the assembled prisoners with a sense of abandon and, yes, pleasure. Why would someone opt to be a superhero? For these moments, when you get to rain holy hell down on the deserving, punching and kicking and breaking bones without any guilt at all. Snyder makes it so sensual, and Akerman and Wilson both play it as people who are getting a near-sexual rush from what they’re doing. In my opinion, there’s no major Hollywood filmmaker working today who gets fight choreography and photography as innately as Snyder does, and this film takes all of that to the next level. These fights look like they hurt. Towards the end of the sequence, they find Rorschach, who has already reclaimed his outfit, and they tell him they need to go. He takes a quick moment to settle his business with Big Figure (Danny Woodburn) before he joins them, and it’s a very dark funny moment, with Snyder making excellent use of a swinging door to help build dread.
After a few more quick images from the entire film, including a tantalizing glimpse at some major spoiler material from the end of the film, the presentation was over and we were ushered outside for a reception where they had costumes on display, props under glass, and that oh-so-portable Owl Ship set up so you could peek inside, just like they did at Comic Con. I had a chance to talk to both Wilkinson and McDowell for a bit, and they both struck me as preposterously sharp and creative, the sort of people you would have to have on your team to pull off a film of this scale. Wilkinson talked a bit about his upcoming work on TRON 2, and I asked McDowell if production designers ever get excited about working at a specific soundstage, the way musicians always dream of playing certain venues. “Certainly,” he said. “The 007 stage, some of the stages at Universal like the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA stage or Stage 12. I love backlots, and getting to transform them is one of the real joys of the job.” We talked about everything from his work on CORPSE BRIDE to the way FIGHT CLUB has managed to gradually build in reputation after its initial box-office failure.
I also spent a good chunk of time chatting with Snyder, and more than anything, he seems pleased. The film’s running 2 hours and 43 minutes right now without closing credits, and he doesn’t feel like he’s really had to sacrifice anything to get it to that length. At most, a director’s extended cut might add 20 minutes or so to that time, and the BLACK FREIGHTER material might add in another half-hour at most. The theatrical version might not be the last cut of WATCHMEN we see, but it’s certainly not a compromised edit in any way.
In fact, if there’s one word I’d use for what we saw yesterday, it would be “uncompromised,” and that is a rare thing to be able to say. I’ve written a lot about the various permutations of WATCHMEN in my time here at AICN. I remember sitting in Lloyd Levin’s living room in London, paging through books of production art and casting ideas for the Paul Greengrass version, convinced that was as close as anyone would be able to get to making the film work onscreen. I championed the Hayter drafts over the years because I could sense the genuine passion to get the heart of the material right. But never in all that time did I dare hope that we would get a movie as accurate in every way as the one that will hit theaters next March.
Who watches the Watchmen? Me, goddammit, as soon as they’ll let me, and many, many, many times after that.