Moriarty Takes A Look At Where Paul Greengrass Is With The Development Of WATCHMEN!!
Published at: Nov. 15, 2008, 4:53 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
So, as I recently wrote in AICN Story #20,000, I went to London to visit the set of THE CORPSE BRIDE. Warner Bros. flew me over and put me up, and they were incredibly cool about doing so. While I was there, though, there was one other thing that I knew I needed to do. I’ve been writing about the current incarnation of the film adaptation of WATCHMEN for some time now. It’s been a long and tortured journey from page to screen for this particular Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons classic, and for good reason. It’s the Holy Grail of comic book movies if you do it right. It’s the story that comments on all other stories with such grace and wit that everyone else who ever attempts to deal with superhero tropes as a way of commenting on the genre or the medium at large must simply understand... WATCHMEN did it first. And WATCHMEN will always be better.
There have been so many false starts on this film, so many times that it’s come close or a director’s made confident sounds only to get shut down. I really did think Darren Aronofsky was going to make this film. I may be the only one who thought it was a done deal, evidently, but there was a period of about six months where I would have bet money on it. And, of course, I would have lost. Paramount decided that they needed to make WATCHMEN urgently. They needed to fill a 2006 summer release date. They were determined to get the film into production on a certain timetable and told Aronofsky to get moving. It wasn’t just a green light... it was a checkered flag, a pace car, and a packed NASCAR stadium cheering at the top of their lungs. Only problem was, Aronofsky had also just gotten a greenlight to direct THE FOUNTAIN, his dream project. So as much as he wanted to make WATCHMEN, he wanted to make something else more at that particular moment, and since Paramount couldn’t wait for him, they told Lloyd Levin and Larry Gordon to find another filmmaker. Immediately.
Which they did. In fact, they found a pretty great director for the job in the form of Paul Greengrass. His BLOODY SUNDAY is a powerhouse, sober and adult and political as hell. Even BOURNE SUPREMACY, which is a fairly standard, if admirably stripped-down, spy thriller if you’re just talking about the script. Greengrass gave the film a pulse, though, and then shot it full of adrenaline. It’s an action film with integrity, a rarity these days. The prospect of him taking WATCHMEN and treating it like a political thriller rather than a comic book movie was instantly intriguing. As Paramount got closer and closer to making the film, even going so far as to confidently, open an official website that has a pretty thriving message board community up and running now, it seemed like the film was finally going to become a reality. The David Hayter script is, as I’ve said before, a minor miracle, a faithful adaptation that is smart and well-built and entirely true to the spirit of Moore’s work, if not the letter. I’ve raved about it at length before, and I’d be happy to do so again. But I’m not alone. It seems that everyone who’s read a draft or reviewed it online has been impressed with what they’ve seen, sometimes almost grudgingly admitting that there’s something special going on here, a chance that this might be a great film.
So when the recent executive shuffle at Paramount took place and Brad Grey took over from Sherry Lansing and Donald DeLine, things changed. That’s not to cast the studio as the bad guys of the story, since they’re not. Brad Grey has a job to do... a truly difficult job. He has to turn Paramount around. Paramount’s been an “almost” for the last five or ten years, a studio that had their biggest hits making Ashley Judd/Morgan Freeman thrill-free thrillers and romantic comedy blah blah and STAR TREK films on occasion. They weren’t a terrible studio, by any means, and Scott Rudin certainly classed the joint up to a large degree with the films he produced for them, but overall, there was some sense of missed potential, of a studio that was waiting for some sort of creative focus. If Brad Grey wants to, he can embrace that missed potential, treat it all as opportunity, and turn Paramount into a talent magnet hit machine. He’s got the relationships. And he’s got the right projects in the pipeline, as long as he pulls the trigger.
WATCHMEN is not, despite all the death knells that have been sounded in the press and online, dead. They’re in a difficult position right now with Greengrass, because when he signed on, the film was described to him as a greenlight, a go picture. Now, because of circumstance, he finds himself in the position of having to pitch the studio the movie all over again. And, look... it’s inevitable. Whenever there’s a major leadership switch at a studio, everything’s going to be scrutinized. No one wants to inherit an unworkable slate of films. WATCHMEN is an expensive film, and Paramount has to make sure that the expensive films they make are worth that expense right now. I personally really liked LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. I thought it paid great tribute to the books by Dan Handler. However, that film cost a fucking bundle, and it hasn’t been the cash cow that Jim Carrey was expected to deliver. I know WATCHMEN isn’t as family friendly as SPIDER-MAN or FANTASTIC FOUR... it’s not THE INCREDIBLES, a feel-good superhero film. But it would be a disastrous mistake to dismiss WATCHMEN as an uncommercial film. Year after year, the book is the number-one catalog title in the entire comic book industry, and with good reason. It’s a story that resonates just as much now as it did when originally published. The timing’s great on a whole different level, too. Audiences have finally reached a certain saturation point with the superhero film. It’s no longer necessary for someone to be an expert on comic books to understand the genre archetypes. If you’ve seen the SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN films and THE HULK and DAREDEVIL, then by now, there are certain ideas and character types and storytelling conventions that are starting to become second-nature to the viewer. Finally, the mainstream is savvy enough to understand WATCHMEN as a story, and also as a commentary on the genre itself.
When I left the Three Mills Studios, I went back to Blake’s, the amazing little hotel where I was staying. I traded a few e-mails with Lloyd Levin just before arriving in London, so when I got back to my room, I found a comple of messages waiting for me from Lloyd’s assistant asking me if I could extend my stay by 24 hours so I could meet with Paul Greengrass. I was desperate to say yes, but I had work obligations and a pregnant wife waiting in LA, so I had to say no. She went back to check to see what could be done, and called quickly to ask me if I could meet Lloyd at his home in Notting Hill in about an hour.
When I stepped out of the cab in front of Lloyd’s house, he was just arriving as well. We headed inside, and right away, we started talking about the rumors that were just starting to break about Paramount pulling the plug on the film. I was getting daily e-mails from people saying, “Oh, yeah, WATCHMEN is dead. Completely.” I watched Lloyd go through this same process on HELLBOY with several false starts an a shift from one studio to another, and what impresses me about him is how unflappably determined he is. Faith has got to be one of the greatest qualities that any producer can have... faith that you’ve got the right script, faith that you’ve got the right director, and most of all, faith that you’re actually going to get your film made.
What I saw when I sat down with Lloyd in London was a production that is ready to go, a team that’s got a battle plan to make a great movie in place. They believe they are going to get the film made. Right now, everyone on the WATCHMEN team is getting ready to make their case to Paramount. They’re working on alternate budgets based on shooting in London, in Los Angeles, or in Montreal. David Hayter’s just finishing up his latest polish of the script, and the dude’s been eating, breathing, and dreaming WATCHMEN for the last few years at this point. He’s been talking to Alan Moore on occasion (when he can get Alan to stop praying to the Snake God or publishing consistently brilliant comic literature for five minutes) to pick his brain, and at this point, Hayter knows the characters as well as Moore. I think what will make a real impression on Paramount, though, are the visual materials that already exist for the film. I was certainly impressed by everything I saw. As Lloyd and I were talking, Dominic Watkins showed up. He’s the production designer on the film, which will be the biggest thing he’s ever worked on. You’ve seen his work in BAD BOYS 2 and THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, but nothing he’s done so far hints at the scale of what he’s got planned for this film. He struck me as fiercely intelligent, a guy with a strong sense of how to convey his ideas and also how to satisfy a director’s vision. We sat down and he opened up a huge portfolio filled with photos and paintings, all the material he’s prepared so far, which basically led me set-by-set through the entire film. For someone who read WATCHMEN for the first time 18 years ago, it’s surreal to finally see some of these things realized, if only as preliminary designs so far.
Watkins, having already worked with Greengrass once before, knows that the director wants reality. He has to believe that a space could exist. He’s looking for a recognizable physical world that will ground the film, no matter how fantastic the events or the characters. The Comedian’s building and the inside of his apartment, for example, don’t stand out because they’re over-the-top or wildly stylish. Precisely the opposite, in fact. They look like they’d be exactly what you’d expect to see in any major American city. Same thing with Hollis Mason’s garage or Dan’s apartment. Watkins uses lots of actual location photo references to drop each of the settings into the proper context. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m officially sick and tired of dark and gothic and Tim Burton-y and hyperreal. THE CROW and BLADE RUNNER are visually striking, I agree, but I don’t need yet another imitation. I’m all for people expanding the visual vocabulary of what we get from superhero films, and WATCHMEN looks more like a contemporary drama than you’d expect. Dan’s “secret lair” is a nice example of that. His apartment is a walk-down beneath a brownstone, specifically chosen because of the access it gave him to an abandoned section of subway tunnels. He punched out a few walls covertly and then adapted the space to his own needs. It looks practical, like something that would not require a millionaire to bankroll it.
Of course, Dan’s Owl Ship pushes things a little further, but by keeping everything else so firmly rooted in mundanity, it makes something like the Owl Ship stand out. It reintroduces a sense of wonder to the world. Same thing with Dr. Manhattan... but we’ll get to him in a few minutes.
Watkins seems to have made his most radical visual departures from the source material with some of the sets related to Adrian Veidt. Evidently, Greengrass pushed him to concentrate on function and to create spaces that don’t feel like the summer house for a James Bond villain. As a result, Karnak (Veidt’s Antarctic retreat for those of you not familiar with the material) feel more like a military installation than like an Egyptian monument. It’s built to last, built so that Viedt will be able to survive there while the world goes to hell according to plan. It threw me a little at first, but it fits into the world that Greengrass is constructing.
Mars remains one of the most unusual and spectacular locations in the story, and Watkins is working to create a different Mars than we’re used to in SF films. The vision they have for it for this film is striking, truly otherworldly. As we were looking at the production design material, David Hayter showed up to join the conversation. My first interaction with him was after I reviewed the screenplay online, when he wrote me to say, “I’m not sure how you got the script, I’m pretty sure I’m pissed off about it, but at least you enjoyed it.” Here’s a guy who’s been abused mightily at the hands on fanboy press over the years, but I have to say, my first impression is that he’s a guy who really wants to make ungodly cool movies that kick your ass up and down the street. He’s driven, intense about it. And just talking about WATCHMEN with him, you can see how defensive he is about the material now. He feels protective, almost rabidly so. Watkins had to take off, but Hayter stayed as Lloyd cued up some material he had on DVD to show me more of the visual approach, this time involving the FX tests and pre-viz work they’ve done so far.
The pre-viz of the opening of the film was interesting, a real tweak on the expectations of a general audience. We start in close on the face of Eddie Blake as he appears to soar through the glass-and-steel canyons of a city. For a moment, you’ll believe a man can fly... until he races past the camera and smacks into the cement hard enough to turn him into a Jackson Pollack painting. It’s a great way of immediately setting the audience on edge as you subvert superhero imagery, and it also sets the film’s central mystery up in one simple shot that ends with the iconic yellow smiley face button lying in the gutter, spattered in blood. I also saw a pre-viz for the sequence where the Owl Ship leaves Dan’s underground workshop and goes out on a trip around the city at night. The Owl Ship in the film is smaller than the one in the comic, more of a personal transport, and it makes much more sense that this vehicle could operate in a city like New York without being detected each and every time it goes out. I like the redesign of the Owl Ship quite a bit, too, since it ties Dan’s mask, the Ship, and the anatomy of a real owl together in a very canny way. Again... this looks like something that would actually exist, and not like the rubber or leather body armor we’re used to in these films.
In fact, special mention has to be made of the work that Kym Barrett has done so far. She’d only been working on the film for a brief period of time when I saw the art at Lloyd’s place, but already, it was obvious that she was working very hard to preserve the feel of the book while also adapting certain things to the real world. What I really like is how they’re not making the decision to make sure that everyone looks “cool.” Half of what makes Dan so great as the Night Owl is how he looks fairly ridiculous and knows it. The same goes for Laurie as the Silk Spectre. Can you imagine walking around in one of these costumes and trying to have people take you seriously as a crimefighter? The movie acknowledges all of that with the designs. It was interesting to see the faces that Barrett had included on the actors in her artwork, since she’s working from the wish lists of the producers. I don’t think anyone will be terribly shocked by the notion of Brad Pitt as Adrian Viedt/Ozymandius. I doubt he’ll play the role in the film, but it makes perfect sense to use him as the “type” that the producers are looking for. In some of the other cases, they used actors they are actually talking to, and I have to tread lightly here. Until these people are signed and confirmed, saying something too early could blow it, and I’d hate to screw up this cast. The choice for the Comedian is a great one, and anyone who has seen any of Lloyd’s other recent films as a producer might be able to guess who the hell they’re going to cast. And if you pay attention to the signs, you might get some idea about who could end up playing Dan. There’s an Oscar-winning actress who wants to play Laurie, and I hope the studio realizes that she'd be worth however many millions of dollars they'd have to pay her, baby.
And then there’s Dr. Manhattan. One of the key questions that everyone asks when discussing the possibility of turning this into a film is “How are they going to handle Dr. Manhattan?” Well, I’ve seen about ten minutes of FX tests that were done to answer that very question, and I am confident that he will work on film. Basically, they painted an actor with luminescent paint, then shot him using specific lights and filmstock. The result is a live effect, not something that has to be done later with a computer. There’s a sort of crawling blue energy that seems to be a part of his skin that is just fascinating, and it allows them to shoot him as part of the scene interacting with the other actors instead of having to drop him in as a CGI element later.
Rorshach is the other character that people spend a lot of time and energy trying to imagine right now, and I wish they’d had a test of the mask so I could see it. I can tell you that they plan to make the mask a constantly shifting pattern that reflects Rorshach’s changing moods, and that there is talk of casting a complete unknown so that it’s effective when he blends into scenes as a homeless person without the mask on. If he’s a big star, how well do you think he’s going to blend? If he’s someone the audience doesn’t know, then it’ll pack a bigger punch once they realize how many times they’ve already seen him after the big unmasking halfway through. I don’t think they’ve pinned down the exact approach they’ll use yet, but they’re definitely trying to find the one that best serves the material.
I ended up going to dinner with Lloyd and Hayter, and we talked about all the options available to them. The only option that never came up was not making the film. It’s strange to see that fandom is divided between people scared that they won’t make the film and people scared that they’ll make it, but they’ll make it wrong. There’s no way you can please some people who have internalized the book and who are going to nitpick each and every choice, but I honestly feel that if this film goes forward with the creative elements that are in place at the moment, this will be THE GODFATHER of comic films. I think it will be taken seriously by critics and audiences alike because of the smart, adult way they’re handling the material, and I think it will challenge the notions of how comics have to be adapted. I think that if you let go of that ungodly annoying “It has to be 12 hours because it was 12 issues” attitude and judge it when you actually see how they’ve handled it, you’ll be delighted. I’ve met people who were making something simply because they smelled money in the venture, and that’s not this group of people. When Lloyd and Paul Greengrass and the others come to LA, I’m going to try to sit down with them again. They’re going to make their best pitch to Paramount, and then it’s up to the studio to either make the film or cut them loose. If they do let the property go, then I hope another studio (anyone besides Fox, where I feel the material would be savagely raped and murdered in Tom Rothman’s office for the sheer bloodsport of it) swoops in and picks it up immediately. I’ve waited too long to see this film, and they’re too close to getting it right.
Right now, if you feel passionately about seeing Greengrass get his day in court, make yourself heard on the TalkBacks. The other day, I was talking with a different director who is working on an upcoming comic book film, and he was venting about how frustrated he is with the casting process. Every name he likes, every adventurous choice, the studio shoots down saying, “Oh, no, you’ll get killed on the Internet.” They’re making these fairly enormous creative decisions out of fear that fans are going to get vocal and pissy about things. That works the other way, too. The reason I wrote this piece is to say, in the most long-winded way possible, that I’ll buy a ticket to see WATCHMEN if Paramount makes it. And I’ll buy the DVD. And I’ll take friends to see it. And I’ll buy whatever merchandise they make. I believe in this film, and I’m making noise about it. Now you guys can do the same in the space below. And in the coming weeks, we’ll have some idea about what’s going to happen. Will it move forward? Will it change studios?
Will we ever watch the WATCHMEN? Good god, I hope so.
I’ll be back later today with my EARTHBOY JACOBUS review and a look at that little independent film George Lucas is releasing next week. Until then...