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'Watchmen': A chat with director Zack Snyder

The filmmaker talks about what it was like to follow up ”300” with an adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic comic — and spills some details along the way

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Armando Gallo/Retna

In 2006, director Zack Snyder went to a comic-book convention in San Diego to preview his new movie 300, based on Frank Miller’s graphic story. He walked away with a storm of buzz that helped propel his sword-and-CG opus to blockbuster box office the following spring — and transformed himself into a Hollywood power player.

Next week, Snyder will return to Comic-Con, hoping for a similar response to his follow-up: Watchmen, adapted from the acclaimed 1986 comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, a brainy, byzantine, and brilliant skewering of superhero archetypes, and a reality-based reassembly of the entire genre. It’s a hallowed cult-pop artifact that many had deemed unfilmable, but Snyder may have proven them wrong. In the following interview, he tells us about his uniquely geeky roots and why he thinks mainstream culture is ready for Watchmen‘s twisted take on superheroes.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First 300, now Watchmen — have you always been a comics fan?
ZACK SNYDER:
I came to comic books through my mother. I loved fantasy art — I love Frank Frazetta [the famed illustrator known for adult-oriented, sword-and-sorcery, and sci-fi imagery]. I went to boarding school. You weren’t allowed too many posters up, and everything I set up was slightly inappropriate. Frazetta’s naked girls, ripped up guys — the kids were like, ”What the hell?!” They had their Boy George posters up, I had crazy Frazetta. My mother saw I was into this comic called Heavy Metal magazine, so she got me a subscription. You could call it ”high-brow” comics, but to me, that comic book was just pretty sexy! I had a buddy who tried getting me into ”normal” comic books, but I was all like, ”No one is having sex or killing each other. This isn’t really doing it for me.” I was a little broken, that way. So when Watchmen came along, I was, ”This is more my scene.”

Your mom sounds pretty cool.
She’s just a little bit on the edge. She always did inappropriate stuff when we were kids, like teaching us how to toilet-paper the neighbor’s house or lighting fireworks. She was a gifted painter and amazing photographer. Just a free spirit. I bought a movie camera and started making movies when I was 11. It was a really cheap camera and it wasn’t really working for me, so she bought me the best camera she could find. Awesome camera. I had it forever. My mom always encouraged me, it was never weird. She’d look at Heavy Metal and go ”Woo-hoo!”

Watchmen was published in comic-book form in 1986 — but you discovered the story in its graphic novel a few years later when you were in college, right?
I had seen it in the store when it first came out as a comic, but I never got the first issue, and I couldn’t get into it at the middle; I felt like I missed it a little bit.

NEXT PAGE: ”Watchmen…almost superimposes its heroes on your world, which then changes how you view your world through its prism. That’s the genius of this book.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you finally read it, what did you think?
ZACK SNYDER:
Watchmen is like the music you feel is written just for you. ”That’s my song, no one else gets that but me.” That’s why the fan base is so rabid, because they feel personal about it. The difference between Watchmen and a normal comic book is this: With Batman’s Gotham City, you are transported to another world where that superhero makes sense; Watchmen comes at it in a different way, it almost superimposes its heroes on your world, which then changes how you view your world through its prism. That’s the genius of this book. That’s what we try and do in the movie. The movie is a challenge — sort of like the book is a challenge — to your icons, your morality, how you perceive pop culture, how you perceive mythology, and for that matter, how you perceive God. It was absolutely genius that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did all of that in the context of a superhero story. That was a revolution for a lot of people. You sit down to read something that’s ”just a comic book,” and then you’re, like, ”Holy s—, my mind got blown!”

Several filmmakers have tried to turn Watchmen into a movie and failed. One issue Hollywood has always had with the material is that it requires an intimate familiarity with the superhero genre in order to fully appreciate it. Does the fact that Watchmen is finally being made into a movie indicate something has changed in the culture?
The average movie audience has seen — well, I can’t even count the amount of superhero movies. Fantastic Four, X-Men, Superman, Spider-Man. The Marvel universe has gone nuts; we’re going to have a fricking Captain America movie if we’re not careful. Thor, too! We’re on our second Hulk movie. And Iron Man — $300 million domestic box office on a second tier superhero! And not to demean Iron Man — my point is that we all know about superheroes now. I can ask my mother, ”Mom, when the Hulk isn’t the Hulk, who is he?” ”Bruce Banner. Why? What a weird question.” I could ask her, ”What happened to Bruce Wayne’s parents?” ”They were killed at an opera.” You’re getting to that saturation level where superhero movies, it’s hard for them to figure out what more to do.

Well, one new point of difference is make them more grim and gritty, like Hancock or The Dark Knight, which seems to also work in Watchmen‘s favor —
Everyone says that about [Christopher Nolan’s] Batman Begins. ”Batman’s dark.” I’m like, okay, ”No, Batman’s cool.” He gets to go to a Tibetan monastery and be trained by ninjas. Okay? I want to do that. But he doesn’t, like, get raped in prison. That could happen in my movie. If you want to talk about dark, that’s how that would go. I believe that pop culture is just, like, so ready for Watchmen. We tried so hard to ride that wave between satire and reality, and all the things that make you still care about the character, but you don’t miss the commentary about them. Nite-Owl is Batman. The guy has a fricking cave under his house! No doubt a fanboy will look at the movie and not get it. ”He looks just like Batman!” Precisely. When people saw our version of the Ozymandias costume on the Internet, some were like, ”It’s like a Joel Schumacher Batman movie! The costume has nipples! That’s crazy!” And I’m like, ”Yeah, but that’s the point!” With their comic, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were saying, ”Superheroes are kinda funky, aren’t they?” We build upon that with a movie that acknowledges that superhero movies have affected pop culture.

NEXT PAGE: ”Everyone wants it shorter…. But there’s going to be a point where I’m going to be, ‘Look guys, I can’t cut that. It’s not Watchmen anymore.’ You can’t make it into something else, you really can’t. It’s not Fantastic Four, it’s got to be hard R, it’s got to challenge everyone’s ideas.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your current cut of the film is about three hours long. I’m guessing it’s going to have be shorter.
ZACK SNYDER:
Everyone wants it shorter, and I’m trying to help them. Warner Bros., they’re my partners, and I want to give them a movie that they feel like they can get behind. But there’s going to be a point where I’m going to be, ”Look guys, I can’t cut that. It’s not Watchmen anymore.” You can’t make it into something else, you really can’t. It’s not Fantastic Four, it’s got to be hard R, it’s got to challenge everyone’s ideas. When they say, ”You should be less sexy and less violent,” I say, ”But that’s Watchmen.”

About the violence: You have a scene in your movie where Dr. Manhattan incinerates a bad guy — and your camera dotes of the bloody, chunky aftermath. That’s pretty intense for a superhero movie.
That’s Superman gone bad. If Superman grabbed your arm and pulled really hard, he’d pull your arm out of your socket. That’s the thing you don’t see in a Superman movie. But in Watchmen, what you get is, like, ”I’m a Superman, and I really want to help mankind — but I just tore this guy in half by accident. People call me a ‘superhero,’ but I don’t even know what that means. I just blew this guy to bits! That’s heroic?”

Alan Moore has disavowed any film version of Watchmen. Did you try and reach out to him at all?
That bridge had been burned before we got involved. Maybe it’s a good thing — he probably would have talked me out of it. Alan’s a genius, and his book is a genius. If my movie is an advertisement for the book, great. If it’s anything else, then I f—ed up. I hope people see the movie and go, ”I gotta read that book,” because the ideas are crazy. ”Can those ideas possibly be in that book?” Yeah — and a jillion other ones that I couldn’t even get near.

Are you nervous about going to Comic-Con this year and appearing before all the fans who hold the comic as sacred?
I’m nervous but really excited. I feel like there has never been a movie more custom-made for that crowd. Not at this scale. Comic-Con fans have become the gatekeepers of pop culture. You test these movies there. So I’m going to go down there and say, ”Hey, what do you guys think?” If they’re going to go, ”What the f— is this?” that’s fine! That’s part of the process. A genre fan, a comic-book movie fan, is worth 20 normal fans. They blog, talk, buy. For them, a movie is a life experience. The special piece that I’ve cut for Comic-Con, it’s designed to let them know that I care about this book. I hope that amidst all of the hyped-up superhero movies that are down there — and I’m sure there are good movies amongst them — Watchmen will be seen for what it is: pure, completely unspoiled, certainly the lesser of all the evils.