During the recent press junket for Watchmen we had a chance to speak to Watchmen movie screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse.
The following is the complete interview that we had with David and Alex that day.
I think the first big question is how the heck do you sit down and adapt an Alan Moore work as dense as Watchmen? Where do you begin?
David Hayter: Here’s what I did, this is always the question, and how do you adapt something so dense, so complex? Well, the unsatisfying answer is it is not terribly difficult. The story is so good and so well constructed and it is really twelve comic books, it’s not the Lord of the Rings which you know will never be adapted properly to a film
I’m kidding. If you can adapt Lord of the Rings into twelve hours you can adapt Watchmen into two and a half, and I discovered that by the process. What had been done before is how can we take the essence of Watchmen and turn it into something and put it up on screen, well you can’t. Watchmen are not only the characters but it’s the story, it’s the details, it’s the dialog, it’s everything.
So, on my first pass I copied it all out verbatim, it’s amazing what they pay me for this, but I copied it all out verbatim into a final draft. I gave all the characters their dialog, put in simple action sequences. My first draft was 178 pages. That’s to long for a movie script but not crazy long; it just needs to be edited. So, I had cut “Tales of the Black Freighter” from the beginning because I knew that it would put us over 3 hours and I was never going to get that past the studios. But, apart from that on my second pass I said ok let’s edit, tweak and cut it down without losing any of the scenes and see where I get.
The next pass was 134 pages which if you go by the common wisdom of a minute of screen time per page that’s 2 hours and 14 minutes and that’s about where the Watchmen movie should be as far as I was concerned. In fact, it was a little shorter than I thought it would be. So, the adaptation was not difficult. You so rarely get a story so intrinsically amazing and perfectly constructed as this to work on.
What is difficult is then taking it to four different studios and just being met with the same notes, the same desire to sort of turn it into something else, to develop it and tear it to pieces. Protecting it from that sort of assault is difficult.
That first draft that you wrote, was the squid in it? Was it cut from the first draft? And who came up with the new ending?
DH: Well, I did. The Squid — I don’t think was in it because I first started pitching this in 2000; some journalist reminded me that apparently I signed my first contract with Universal on September 10, 2001. So, that was a difficult time to end a movie with scenes of bloody torn apart bodies just littering Times Square. Not only for the studios sake but in empathy with the rest of America and the World, I thought that I just don’t know if I want to end a 100 million plus movie that way
From the beginning my initial ending was that Adrian was using accelerated solar power to be able to direct beams, there’s a whole thing about him being the “Son of God” and comparing himself to Alexander and that what was what he was using. Eventually, since we had taken out the Squid, which is a difficult thing to spring on an audience at the end. You have to understand that it takes a lot of set up to explain why an inter-dimensional space squid is just popping into the middle of Times Square at the end of your movie. It’s a lot of set up; it’s a lot of time we didn’t have.
So, the goal was can we find something already woven into the story, that is an element of power that can be used as a weapon of mass destruction, and bring us to the same story elements that make the ending so amazing in the book. So, eventually that became Dr. Manhattan.
So Alex did you sort of massage that ending from the solar beams to the Dr. Manhattan intervene?
Alex Tse: No
That was in your script David?
DH: That wasn’t in my first script. That came together at Paramount about 2004 or so is when that became the ending, and then I was working with Paul Greengrass, he was the director and we were living in London and doing that particular version of the movie and Paul said a great thing about it he said “You know what this ending does is [make it like] if Dr. Manhattan never existed, if he had never been brought into existence; then Adrian would be the most powerful man in the world. But once Dr. Manhattan comes along everybody is the most powerful insect in the world there is no comparison”.
What Paul loved was the idea that Adrian, by using Dr. Manhattan as his weapon, puts himself back on top again and that really appealed to me because what Watchmen is about, is about powerful people imposing their own moral codes on the world and yet they are not purely moral people, they are flawed, intensely flawed people with these huge egos. It is really acting out of ego to impose your will on the world. So, I also thought it all together.
The most important thing is that it brings you to the same sequence of events, and sets off the same character responses as in the book.
Alex, then where did you come in?
AT: When the project moved to Warner Brothers at the end of 2005, beginning of 2006. David stepped off the project and they were looking for a new writer, so I came aboard.
It sounds pretty well thought out already, what was left to be done?
AT: The main thing I did was resetting it in 1985 which was what Zack wanted and Zack certainly after 300 had the leverage to do.
DH: Yes, without 300, you wouldn’t have the same movie. For many years, it was just me, Lloyd Levin and Larry Gordon the producers and you can be the biggest screen writer in the world, and they don’t care. [Laughing] There was a great thing watching Entertainment Tonight saying that this movie has Steven Spielberg, Julia Roberts and the biggest screen writer in the world, whoever that may be. [Laughing]
So, there were certain things I would give up to try to buy the things I really needed, which were the complexity, the six character structure, the flash backs, so I would give them things I felt I could give up and still retain the integrity of the book. Like setting it to present day, like not softening the ending, but de-goreifing the end, if you will.
So then, he’s lucky enough to be working on it with Zack Snyder when 300 comes out, and Zack Snyder says I want it to be R-rated and I want Nixon to be President and I want it to be set in 1985, and Warner Brothers says “no you can’t do that” and Zack says “Okay, well I’ll talk to you later” and then it’s done. So, Alex and Zack really did the work of not only putting it back to the integrity that I really wanted in the beginning, but being able to take it further. That’s where the movie went.
AT: We did work on versions where my first version was still in the present day and then there was a lot of discussion of what we were loosing there and Zack and I talked about different people being President, could it be Reagan, maybe there could be a version where Arnold Schwarzenegger was President. But, he was very much drawn to Nixon because he was just an iconic figure and he said if we put it present day Nixon will be like 109 years old.
Some ridiculous things; then there were the loosing the cold war aspects because there is something important there. What if we still set it modern day but it was still the cold war because the existence Dr. Manhattan just ramped up this ascension in the world where people were so afraid of him that it isolated them more and they created more nuclear weapons. At the end of the day, certainly when the movie 300 started making money he said “No, we’ll just set it back to 1985”.
David who was the President in your version?
DH: I don’t even remember, I think he may have been “just the President”. I feel bad I didn’t come up with Arnold Schwarzenegger. [laughing] That’s not just because I’m a bad writer [laughing] It’s also because…
AT: It’s nothing that he needs to justify.
DH: No, but I have very specific film making concepts as far as, It is pretty difficult to pull off the President in a film, because they’re either James Cromwell and your like “oh that’s the guy from Babe” or they are an extra who is looking Presidential but not really say much or there is Morgan Freeman’s voice, or they are just someone doing a character.
So, if I set it present day and say that Reagan eliminated term limits and remained President, that would be thematically true, but, then you have to get an actor and make them an old, old Reagan and that’s a difficult thing. So, I was a little concerned about that. I think they did a great job with Nixon, and, Nixon really typifies thematically what Watchmen is. Which is, here’s a powerful guy who imposed his moral code on the world, but he was an egomaniacal jerk, and that’s not good for the world. I’m glad that they went back to that.
I didn’t feel I had the leverage to do that at the time, and plus, you have to keep in mind when I was writing, I wrote between 2000 and 2005, that was all about 9/11 and so when I first pitched it I said “Look, I want young people to understand when I was 15, we were under the impression that the Russians could launch their missiles and we would have a half an hours notice before the end of the world. That could happen at anytime and that was terrifying. That’s such a bizarre reality to try to explain to our current generation. I really wanted that to be part of the original thing, but once 9/11 happened it was very difficult to justify even to myself, to talk about issues that were not primary in people’s minds at that point. Fortunately, we have enough distance now, looking back on the Cold War is important and viable again.
AT: There are a lot of common themes even now, and it is still relevant.
DH: Yeah, when I first had it in 1985, I talked about the Russians going into Afghanistan and Adrian saying “it always begins with Afghanistan. It always begins with that part of the world. Alexander knew it, the Russians know it,” and at the time the Americans were going into Afghanistan, and I thought well isn’t this brilliant, they’re really going to love this [laughing]. Not so much.
Now at what point was the decision made to keep Viedt alive? I think that is one of the biggest sticking points that fans had with the scripts that had been leaked out, that Viedt was going to be killed by Dan at the end.
DH: Oh, that was me. I crushed him with the Owl ship. The thing is Dan Drieberg to me is sort of the glue, he’s the most human character, and he’s the audience’s doorway into the film. I felt like in the end he’s just sort of standing there and everything comes about. He watches his friend get killed, he’s got Laurie, but he’s not really active and I thought wouldn’t it be interesting if this guy who has been human, who has not been committing violence, serious violence, in the name of the moral code. If that’s what he gets from the death of his friend, that’s what he learned from Rorschach, that sometimes justice has to prevail and sometimes it has to prevail in an ugly way, that some people have to be punished to the ultimate extent. That’s why I did it. I thought it would be more satisfying for Dan and I thought it would be more fun for me to be able to kill Adrian [laughing].
Does it also come from the impulse that the feeling that Adrian should pay for what he done?
DH: Of course, that was me imposing my moral will on Watchmen, which I shouldn’t do because it was against my code for the movie, which was I don’t exist, this is all about Alan Moore and bringing this story to life. But, there, I did indulge myself; I did want to see Adrian pay.
There are a few fight scenes in the movie that isn’t in the book, right? How did you create those and when were those created for the film?
AT: There were actually a couple more that got cut from the film because of money. The thing about this movie, which is different than the other “comic book movies,” is that it was actually a note we had, which was there aren’t any real action set pieces. There is plenty of action in it, somehow, sometimes…
DH: A lot of it is subtle.
AT: yes, right. In other words an exec might read it and kind of miss it. In a scene the Comedian is burning someone with a flamethrower, that’s kind of an action sequence [laughing], but it’s not like, say, the car chase scene in the Dark Knight, which is an impulse of the studios to want those kind of scenes. Set pieces, which we didn’t have, so, there was some stuff that wasn’t just to indulge the studio, but to see the Comedian and his at the time unknown assailant fight in real time as opposed to a graphic novel where you just see flashes of it when the detectives investigate.
That can satisfy a studio, that’s something cool for an audience to see and it does not in any way compromise the graphic novel. So, I think in instances like when Dan and Laurie get jumped by the gang, the fight is over pretty fast in the graphic novel, you’re just expanding on beats like that. You can somehow justify spending 130 million dollars on this movie and say “wait a minute, there’s not a lot of killing going on.”
Like the prison break scene?
DH and AT: Yes.
DH: It becomes more of an action sequence. Well, it is a sequence you just don’t see that much of it in the comic book, because you’re going frame by frame and in the movie you have to follow it through and you see a lot more action. I tell you, the first draft I sent to Alan Moore, he read it and said “I think it’s very well done, and it’s very close to the book and I really appreciate that. I don’t remember as much action being in the story before” and I was like [laughing] well you know.
Alan supposedly liked the Sam Hamm script.
DH and AT: Yeah.
Did you use the Sam Hamm script at all? You didn’t reference it?
DH: No [laughing].
That’s something that you got. That you even got to work with Alan Moore because he’s currently not involved anymore.
DH: He doesn’t like movies, but he does like writers and I think he does appreciate people who really respect his work with everything he went through to do it. He was always pretty kind to me. He just doesn’t like watching 100 plus million dollars being spent on one film. I sympathize with that.
02.23.2009 Source: WatchmenComicMovie.com
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