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Alex McDowell Talks Watchmen

Back in January 2008, we were lucky enough to visit the Watchmen movie set in Vancouver where we spoke to production designer Alex McDowell.

The following is the complete interview that we had with Alex that day.

You didn’t have much to go on, did you?

Alex McDowell: No. Very little. [everyone chuckles] Very thin material, from beginning to end.

With working with Zack, do you find that he likes to be kind of, obviously going through all this you see that there’s a lot of, “Here’s the comic and here’s what we want to do.” Do you find it easier or harder to have to go with that? Like, this is the page, this is what I have to get out there.

AM: Well, I prefer it actually. I’ve been lucky to have worked with a bunch of directors who have very strong vision anyway. And I’ve always found that puts you in a place of collaboration and when you add to that the graphic novel it’s kind of like another layer of collaboration. It doesn’t feel like constraint to me in any way. Because that’s kind of the design task on the most basic level: how to translate a graphic novel as complex and with all of the history and everything else, into a different medium at all. That’s the design challenge already. So to be able to know that the material that you’re basing it on is rich and deep, then to have a director who supports the idea of honoring the material and really looking, digging deep into it and really kind of enjoying that process. I think we’ve enjoyed it as much as Zack has enjoyed doing that, having those drivers rather than those limitations.

What was the thing you couldn’t wait to sink your teeth into? There’s so much!

AM: Yeah. It really is an interesting film because there’s not one big set. It doesn’t feel like Karnak’s the big set. We designed Karnack in April last year. There are technical issues for that as a big set but the small things from the jail to Moloch’s apartment, those are really fun and they all have such a kind of vital narrative role that doesn’t feel like any of these sets are just transitions from one big set piece to another. They all have this functional iconic metaphoric place in the story. The creepy house was really fun. They’ve all been really good. The challenge has been how many of the there are and how you kind of have to give them all equal importance.

Are you surprised at how many sets there? With 300 for instance, so much of it was done on screen and here we are, so many sets, as you say, more than you can imagine yourself. Were you surprised at that? Did you think that there might be a lot more that would just be done just in backdrop?

AM: No. I knew from the beginning that we were going to do a largely in camera movie. That was [discussed in] the first conversations, to the extent that early on we looked at shooting in NY as a physical practical location so I knew this wasn’t going to be a 300 kind of green screen thing. However I’m still surprised as to how many sets there are. We’re still building like two or three sets a day. They’re little, tiny set pieces. But just the news casting components in the story involves twenty-four permutations of news desks. It comes from the density of material. If you look at the full arc of the work, our construction team has probably had the equivalent of a big movies worth of scenery to build but there’s so much detail in all of it. And the back lot, building the city became the really… Actually to answer your question, that was in the end, the most exciting kind of technical challenge. Because you just don’t get to build a back lot, hardly ever. To actually be able to do that from the ground up and to be able to build the components of a city that absolutely fit the story and you’re not compromised either by an existing location or by the Warner’s back lot where you’d have to convert half a dozen sets from TV shows into something that you wanted it to look like.

Speaking of not having to build, how much do you fear for your job as more films become Sin City and 300 where they ain’t going to need you? You know what I mean? Are you concerned?

AM: Not at all, no. They need me more than they ever have needed a designer before. I’m more involved in the CGI sets that I am in the live action sets.

In what way?

AM: Well, if you look at the glass palace for example, that’s a very complex set. It’s no less complicated for us to design that set as it is...well it’s a lot more complex to design that set than Carnac. But we’re designing every piece of it. So I think there’s a kind of misconception that the production designer’s job resides in the real…

Sets?

AM: …and the camera stuff, exactly. And in my view, the production designer’s job is the arc of the film. It’s the complete look of a film. And when we go into any film we’re not sure how it’s going to get broken down. When I did Charlie and the Chocolate factory it wasn’t clear what sets would be real and what sets would be… We didn’t know if the chocolate river was going to have chocolate in it or blue paint. So no, I think it’s all one task. I think the complexity of filmmaking now is so much more dialed up because there are so many more options, really. We’re using more and more 3D tool sets… We’re embedded in a kind of virtual production space from the very beginning so you’ve got to be very savvy now about what was once the domain of the visual effects supervisor. It’s now equally the art departments. My art department’s almost eighty percent digital. Right now we’re designing all the exterior Karnak and all of the approach to Karnak and if you see that kind of grayish illustration in the middle of all those Karnak ones there with a full view… [points to a production design of Karnak on the "war room" wall] That’s 100% digital. We’re designing that.

When you’re leafing through the graphic novel and planning your sets, was there any artwork from Gibbons of a location that you looked at and said, Gee I hope when we’re building this, it really should look exactly like that. Gibbons got it exactly right; I don’t want to change a thing.

AM: Oh, I think a lot. I hope the Owl Chamber has the essence of Gibbons, for example. I think the back lot was a real, or the city I should say, to get the Gunga Diner in the right relationship to Moloch’s. I mean, we had Moloch’s built to the extent that there’s a dip in the sidewalk, to have the water in the right relationship for the reflection of the Rumrunner and getting all those things like that. We paid a lot of attention to the iconic images in the graphic novels. We tweaked things, of course. One of the big things is how do you translate the line from a graphic novel into the reality of film.

The thing we talked about first, Zack and I, was that, you know we’re not trying to make a stylized film in a way. Because the content of the graphic novel is really about what happens in the real world when superheroes occupy it. What’s the effect of the real world and what is the reality of the relationships between these people, vigilantes or superheroes. So if we were to remove the audience from the idea that these people occupy the real world we would be undermining the story in a really fundamental way. The trick was not to change what they’d given us in any way but to remain true to the intent. Whereas in Dave’s line in the context of graphic novels is a realistic line. But in the context of reality it’s a highly stylized line.

What we did is we took the idea of say, Taxi Driver and that kind of a film which is in its self kind of a stylized movie but it’s a gritty, real world setting. And then we added the layers of color mostly to stylize. And we took the idea, when Dave Gibbons came to the set we talked about this some: that they took the primary colors of graphic novels at the time of comic books and twisted it into a secondary color palette. And we really ran with that. I don’t know how much that’s evident in these sets now but in the back lot and Moloch’s, etc. we have bright purples and yellows and greens and a big palette of secondary colors to help add the level of stylization or connection back to the original material.

Did you finish any show just before starting on this or do you have anything lined up for when this is wrapped?

AM: Yes and yes. I actually finished Bee Movie before. Talk about movies that designers don’t need to get into. I spent nearly two years in animation which was a good educational experience. And I think I’m going back into animation, actually, because there’s so much to be learned right now in digital film making, as it were, rather than…it’s hard to call something animation or not animation. There’s a huge amount of animation in this movie but it’s called a live action movie.

You were talking about the color scheme here, the purples and what not. I remember years ago Warren Beatty did Dick Tracy, it seemed to be their marching orders on that was a color pallet of about four colors. I’m wondering did you avoid looking at movies like that as a reference? Or conversely, was that the sort of thing you were going for?

AM: Well, I’d say we did avoid looking at that because again, that spoke to a highly stylized way of making a film. Because they took the CMYK kind of print colors and it was a very interesting idea for something that was really about Comic Books and Dick Tracy. We looked more at the pop cultural classics of the period. We looked at Apocalypse Now or Taxi Driver, Man Who Fell to Earth, Dr. Strangelove, lots of Kubrick. It’s the sort of stuff that informed Dave Gibbons, I think when they were mixing up their kind of parallel universe. I kind of hope the film comes across as a realistic film more than a super… I think it’s kind of the anti-superhero movie in a way. It’s kind of undermining everything that the audience has come to expect in that genre.

What did [Dave] Gibbons say to you? Were you here when he was here?

AM: Yeah. Yeah. He seemed very happy. He came to look at the time when the back lot was in full swing. So, we walked through there and it was fun because in a way he’s fresher to it than we are by far because he hasn’t really embedded himself in it for twenty years. He was, I think, enjoying the fact that there were just a wealth of references of things that had triggered him in the first place. Like, we talked about color a lot. We talked about the kind of sources in New York because they were mixing it up. Like having a fast food Indian chain in NY is a British joke because Indian food is British food. Didn’t exist in NY at all when they were there. So they were just kind of loading their own British things into that. We were just talking about that kind of thing. And I guess that was mostly it. He seemed to enjoy the trip…

Trip down memory lane for him?

AM: Yeah, he’s a good guy.

There was a lot of things in the graphic novel for the alternate 1985, like the big round electric cars, the smoking pipe hats and the spark hydrants. I didn’t really see any of that. Was there a decision made to just sort of leave that out?

AM: A little bit and the reason was this: I think when they wrote it in 1985, they needed some clues to let the audience know that this wasn’t reality; this wasn’t the time that they knew. It was contemporary to the time when they were writing it. Sao for the audience not to have something that would take them into the parallel world would have been tough, I think. For us, twenty years later, those look like sci-fi devices. We kind of wanted to do the opposite.

In a way, the twenty year distance is doing that for us before we start by making the decision to make a period movie as it were. It’s weird to think of ‘85 as a period movie, but that’s really what we were doing. You’re allowing the audience to look at ’85 thorough some distance and to a lot of this audience ‘85 is very remote. And it’s actually more interesting to try and almost have the audience doubt. What if this world is real? Did Nixon go to fourth term? Did America win the Vietnam War? There’s some interesting stuff out on the web you might like to see.

You’re distorting historical knowledge.

AM: Exactly. I saw a crazy thing on YouTube the other day where an Australian journalist interviewed fifty people. Who won the Vietnam War and where Iraq and that kind of thing… People are a little confused about history, I think, at the moment in America. So it’s a good opportunity to really get everyone to question what’s really going on which is why I think this film is so timely. It parallels what’s happening in today’s politics so accurately and its satire is so spot on. I think it’s very good that they waited this long. Apart from the fact that Zack is the ideal director to make it, I think that it’s a really good thing to have that distance. A lot of the pop cultural stuff, to be able to use, say the music from Apocalypse Now as an overlay to the Vietnam sequence for The Comedian has a completely different resonance that it would have done if they’d made it in 1986.

There were a lot of hidden smiley faces throughout the Gibbons work so are you guys having fun planting those little Easter eggs around the set?

AM: There’s a lot of Easter eggs that we’re planting. We’ve done, less probably with the smiley face. On Mars it’s there and attached to the Comedian, obviously. But there’s a lot of stuff that we’ve done in the graphics. We’ve probably spent more time with the news Easter eggs, all of the headlines that are just going by, blowing by in the gutter or on posters in the background, probably more specifically building this constant relation to or connection to Veidt, always. There are real underlying Veidt clues throughout where you kind of keep getting more and more aware of his pervasive hold on the consumer culture. But that is part of what, I think if this film works it will be because you have to see it ten times to really get all of that layering.

Buy your tickets now! [chuckling]

AM: Exactly. Because everyone says this film couldn’t be made, the graphic novel couldn’t be made. Too dense, too long. But it doesn’t seem so much to do with its length. In fact the writer said that he had just done a straight breakdown of the narrative line, pulled out just the text, what he would have done for any script from source material and it came out at a two and a half hour movie. It wasn’t actually that it was so long. But really that it’s so deep. That’s the thing film should be capable of. You just have to think of allowing it to exist on many levels and I think you can’t avoid it with this. You’ve got to have all of these threads going on and in the connectivity of the threads, these threads just add more and more layers to that.

2.19.09 Source: WatchmenComicMovie.com

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