VANCOUVER, British Columbia — It is the most beloved graphic novel ever written and arguably the most anticipated film of 2009. It tackles philosophy, theology, superhero mythology and pirates with equal aplomb and was named by Time magazine as one of the greatest English-language novels ever written.
Hollywood has attempted to capture the complexities of "Watchmen" numerous times over the past three decades, only to be left at each turn declaring it unfilmable.
When MTV News visited the set of director Zack Snyder's epic flick last December, we were quite literally dropped into Alan Moore's beloved comic book (walking past Bernard's newsstand, the Gunga Diner and the Institute for Extraspatial Studies as if they were your local Starbucks). During a scene set in 1977, legendary den of inequity Studio 54 was hosting a party with attendees such as David Bowie, Mick Jagger, the Village People and a certain celebrity superhero by the name Ozymandias.
So what was "Match Point" star Matthew Goode doing standing outdoors in the middle of the night, clad in tights, surrounded by several hundred barely clothed extras and being snapped by fake paparazzi? "I honestly don't know," Goode laughed. "I think I'm just getting out of a car and [giving a] thumbs-up."
"Studio 54 is not in the comic book, but to me, 'Watchmen' is about pop culture devouring itself," said Snyder, the endlessly energetic director who ran around on this particular evening repositioning coke-addled partygoers and the Village People's shivering, shirtless Indian Chief imposter as if he were a kid with the world's biggest toy box — all in the name of a brief shot that will appear in the film's opening credits. "In our alternate reality, we incorporate the world of reality and the world of the Watchmen and mesh 'em together. It's a quick little vignette, but you'll see what it does in the movie."
The motto on set seemed to have gone from "Who Watches the Watchmen?" to "Zack Does!," as everyone simply had to trust the vision of the man who once swore to Warner Bros. that no-name, practically naked actors and green screen sets would make "300" a hit. In the months since he wrapped, the filmmaker's love for his source material seems to have once again paid off, if the film's eye-popping advance posters, trailers and footage are any indication.
"I play the character of Dan Dreiberg, who's also known as the Nite Owl — well, Nite Owl II, actually," "Lakeview Terrace" actor Patrick Wilson grinned, holding up a comic to profess his own fidelity to the source story of heroes who find themselves outlawed by the U.S. government and hunted by an unknown assassin. "It's the pinnacle of all graphic novels. ... I was blown away by it. And to see our script being so faithful to the graphic novel is a real testament to all the writers, really. And to Zack keeping a real focus on this story and wanting to tell this story, which is very hard. ... I'm a fan of all the other comic book movies, but to see how real and human these characters are, and the real problems that they have, is interesting to play."
As we took a walk down the street from Studio 54, we found ourselves transcending space and time, much like the clock-obsessed Jon Osterman. Down the street was the early '70s seedy Vietnam bar where the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan from "Grey's Anatomy") will get his face slashed by a pregnant woman wielding a grudge and a broken beer bottle. Around another corner was Ozymandias' Antarctic lair — quite possibly the largest set this reporter has ever set foot on. A few blocks away was the cemetery where Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and the others would soon gather for the Comedian's burial.
"I'm playing Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, who is one of the richest men in the world and one of the smartest men in the world," Goode explained. "He has this double life. Everyone in America thinks that they really know him, and he was one of the first Watchmen — well, apart from Hollis [Stephen McHattie as Nite Owl I] — to admit that he was one of the masked heroes. But he's very morally ambiguous. He's got his fingers in a lot of pies, a bit like Donald Trump. But I'd say it's all meant to be a business mirage, you know, to take people's minds off of what he's actually, really doing — which is the darker part of my character."
From Veidt's business efforts to Nite Owl's impotence to the sexual assault of Silk Spectre I (Carla Gugino) and Dr. Manhattan's general ennui toward the human race, all the Watchmen seem to harbor darkness in their pasts. In short: This ain't no "Fantastic Four" flick.
"I love 'The Incredibles.' It's like one of my favorite movies, and 'Heroes' is a great show, and yes, [Zachary Quinto's Sylar] has a watch fixation," Snyder said, insisting that the dozens of movies and TV shows that have ripped off "Watchmen" since its 1986 publication won't make his film seem any less revolutionary than the comic was 22 years ago. "But these metaphors are about nuclear war and morality, policing people and dealing with what I would consider much more human — real human — problems."
Such complexity and ambition were all the more obvious as we witnessed another scene that will be a mere blip in the movie. Shooting the aftermath of a burning building before actually setting fire to it, Snyder directed largely improvised, news-style interviews with extras for a scene in which Dreiberg, Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) are forced into action to save some civilians.
Reporter: We heard rumors that these people were actually saved from this fire by some kind of Owl Ship — can you confirm that?
Policeman: Well, when I did arrive, there was a ship in the air. These people said they were dropped down from the ship.
Reporter: Did you get a good look at the ship?
Policeman: Uh, no. I just saw the taillights as it was going up into the sky.
Reporter: Could you tell what kind of propulsion system, or ...
Policeman: It's hard to tell. It's not like anything I've ever seen.
After Snyder yelled "Cut!," he dismissed the gang. "Nice," he said. "That's enough of that. Let's go do Manhattan. Perfectly done, guys." He then sprinted off to film a scene set decades earlier, in which Crudup will blow up a bunch of gangsters foolishly pulling tommy-guns against his nuclear-powered superman.
"Thank you," Snyder said to the extras as he ran off, perhaps also referring to us as we say goodbye until we encounter his characters once again in the theater March 6. "We'll see you in the fire!"
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