Zack Snyder is a director who doesn't fit the stereotype. A gentle voice, buff figure and laid back attitude hardly seems suited to the man behind the zombie-fueled fun of "Dawn of the Dead" or the movie that took leather codpieces and rippled abs out of the S&M club scene and into many an alpha male's heart - "300".
Snyder though, like all geeks at heart, is driven by pure passion and a belief in the material. Here in Sydney, Australia for two weeks to get ready for the upcoming CG animated fantasy film "Guardians of Ga'Hoole", Snyder spent a few hours yesterday afternoon both talking about and presenting footage from the project that's been dominating not only his but many a fanboy's dreams for the past few months - "Watchmen". Already presented in Los Angeles and New York earlier in the month, the half-hour preview consisted of three separate segments with material ranging from the extraordinary to the interesting - there's no doubt the ambitious film promises a very loyal adaptation of Alan Moore's definitive graphic novel.
For those unfamiliar with the property, the comic is set in an alternate 1985 America in which costumed superheroes (only one of which has real superpowers) are part of the fabric of everyday society and the US-Soviet Cold War is closer than ever to an all-out nuclear armageddon. When one of his former colleagues named The Comedian is murdered, the washed-up vigilante Rorschach sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion, he glimpses a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future.
In regards to the footage, the highlight is the opening credits montage which sets up an alternate version of history from the 1940's through the 1970's in which superheroes were around - all set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing". Scenes included Dr. Manhattan shaking JFK's hand, the Comedian being JFK's assassin on the grassy knoll, Ozymandias outside Studio 54 with David Bowie & the Village People, Kruschev and Castro watching American fighter planes soaring over Moscow, Andy Warhol & Truman Capote looking at a Nite-Owl themed painting, and a lesbian version of that famous sailor-nurse post-WW2 kiss photo.
Another impressive sequence explored the origin of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a scientist in 1959 who becomes a blue God-like creature who helps America win Vietnam. Some bits weren't so effective - the opening Comedian attack scene and more notably a later jailbreak scene were shown and were fun action moments but seem a little frivolous. Similarly some of the line deliveries felt a little stiff. Nevertheless this was rough footage and further post-production tweaking can make all the difference in the world when it comes to these very minor haggles.
Sitting alone in a bar with Snyder for twenty minutes after the presentation, the director seemed a little tired but in good spirits when we chatted, especially due to the fact that the movie is near completion. "The film's pretty much done in my book. There's still some visual effects shots which I'm reviewing... there's probably close to 2000 effects shots in the film" he says. There's also mixing, telecining and coloring to go - plus he's finishing up the 'Black Freighter' version for the Director's Cut DVD release which will incorporate that 'comic within the comic' sub-story from the graphic novel.
While there's been glimpses of footage in San Diego, at these presentations, and during the Scream Awards earlier this month - there's only been one official trailer so far. The second however is on its way, attached to "Quantum of Solace" in theaters next Friday. Snyder says "I just saw the final version of it this morning... it's a little bit more story, a teeny bit more like a full trailer. This is much more like 'someone's picking off costume heroes'. You'll get a sense of the characters plight you know, 'we were supposed to make the world a better place... what happened to the American Dream'." Some elements have had to be changed for the trailer, most notably Dr. Manhattan's exposed genitals have had to be 'defocused' to be granted approval by the MPAA. He also confirms a third trailer will hit early in the new year.
He's been having great fun choosing the period-specific soundtrack which will incorporate a lot of the songs listed in the graphic novel as well as some others. "That part is super fun, I love the exercise of having to go through the book and find songs from pop culture that fits scenes" he says. One song that gets a brief inclusion is 1984's '99 Luftballons' by Nena which he had to justify to one clueless onlooker - "someone said to me like 'I don't get why you put that song in the movie', and I said 'you know that song's about these red balloons getting away and causing nuclear war' and they're like 'Oh...huh'."
Other songs in the film includes more Dylan numbers like Desolation Row and All Along the Watchtower, Simon & Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence, Nat King Cole's Unforgettable, and at least one number by Nina Simone. He thinks after the movie opens the soundtrack inclusions and exclusions will be among the more debated topics. Even he had to pass on some songs he hoped to add - "It's not so much that I didn't want to put them in, it's just that they weren't practical".
Much like the Dr. Manhattan origin scene is an extended montage of the character's back story with a voice over, the Comedian's funeral is the same and take place about an hour into the film. "We go with everyone - you go with Dan to the riots, Adrian to crimebusters headquarters, the Comedian in Vietnam with Manhattan, you know" he says. Snyder's son, who played the young Leonidas in the early scenes of "300", also cameos as a young Rorschach.
Of course much of the online fan buzz lately has been about a test screening that took place a few weeks ago in Portland. Having gone through two test screenings for "300", the process is one Snyder admits he still finds "nerve-wracking", especially considering his track record - "We had the best test scores in the history of Warner Bros. with '300' and I kept telling them look the movie is not like 300, don't think that it is - it's not going to be the same experience. Some people are going to go 'what the f**k is this' and I go that's ok. That's the thing that you fight... The one thing that was cool was that anyone who had read the graphic novel who was at the screening rated the film 'excellent', for me I'm like 'I'm done'."
What's the final runtime? "I'm hoping 2 hours 42 minutes, with credits." That theatrical version however is just one of three versions of the film planned for the eventual DVD & Blu-ray release. There's also a three hour director's cut of the film with "the scenes all fleshed out", and the 'Black Freighter' version which will combine that Director's Cut with the 'Black Freighter' short film that will clock in at three-and-a-half hours. How the Black Freighter version will be incorporated and packaged is still undecided - "For me 'Black Freighter' needs its own box, it's packaged with like cool props from the movie and supplemental material. It's like this big thing you put on your shelf and go 'that's f**king Black Freighter' you know."
The two action scenes shown in the footage he says are among the very few action sequences in the film. The Comedian fight, originally just three panels in the comic, was extended in the film for character reasons - "I wanted to show what he's capable of...he doesn't really even touch his attacker once, but you see that if he was against a normal guy he could beat the crap out of him". His favorite scene is the intercutting of Dr. Manhattan's interview and Nite-Owl's brutal alley fight which he's made very intense and graphic - "the point is to show consequence - the first punch the guy gets a compound fracture of the arm, blood sprays and you go 'woooh this is not a comic book movie'."
* SPOILERS FOR GRAPHIC NOVEL/MOVIE AHEAD *
A few online fanboys have been disappointed by reports from the test screening of the changed ending. Specifically a key moment in the graphic novel revolves around the disastrous repercussions of a 'giant alien squid' being teleported into New York City, an event that is changed in the movie (there's still a disaster but no squid). Snyder says "The fans, god love 'em, they're all up in arms about the squid. What they should be up in arms about are things like shooting the pregnant woman, 'God is real and he's American', whether THAT's in the movie. That's my point of view, maybe I'm crazy." He does admit that the ending scenes with the main characters remain, as does the 'moral imperative' of the comic's ending.
What about talk he did some 'squid' stuff in pre-production? "Well... I don't want to say yes or no (laughs). The squid was not in the movie when I got the script, the squid was never in any draft that I saw. My point is only that there was this elegant solution to the squid problem that I kind of embraced. I'm a fan of the thing as much as anyone, I was saying what are we going to do about this before I even read the script." Was that solution multiple atomic explosions as some have said? "I won't say exactly but... Dr. Manhattan has a certain energy signature, it's clearly his thing...so you know." He also shot down reports of multiple endings - they only filmed the one.
* SPOILERS END *
After this presentation, Snyder and co. are going on tour with the footage - Seoul, Tokyo, Paris and London. Those Asian markets he admits he's not too sure how the film will perform - "I don't know how this footage is going to go over in Japan or Korea, there's a lot of fanboys there and they'll get it but I just don't know how the movie will play...in Japan they didn't like 'Dark Knight' so I don't know what to give 'em." From the looks of what's he done however, he's going to give not just the fans but hopefully those audiences ready for deeper and more challenging fare in their comic book movies something they won't forget soon.