David Hayter didn’t get to where he is in show business by backing off from a challenge. Nearly 10 years ago, the actor-turned-screenwriter first pitched Watchmen to a producer and said that he wanted to direct.
Never mind that he had never directed before, or that Watchmen was long called unfilmable, even by much of its die-hard audience and its creator, who refused to have his name associated with any possible screen adaptation.
The subversive superhero epic takes place in an alternate version of 1985, in which Richard Nixon is still president and masked crime-fighters had been an integrated part of society until Congress outlawed their existence. Heroes like Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) are left with conflicting emotions about their pasts and how they fit into the world. But when one of the old gang — a brutish lout known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) — is murdered, the remaining heroes reunite to investigate, and end up uncovering a conspiracy that threatens the entire world.
Hayter worked on the project for six years, conceiving it first as an HBO miniseries, then as a film that went through a cavalcade of scripts and directors. It wasn’t until the studio hired Zack Snyder, fresh off the mega-success of another comic-book adaptation, 300, that cameras began to roll. By that time, Hayter’s day-to-day involvement with the production was limited, but he did visit the set and is given credit on the screenplay.
Hayter shared with us his long history with the project and why he believes the film won’t be fully appreciated for several years.
Watchmen is now available on Movies On Demand, with the Director’s Cut premiering Aug. 4. The theatrical version debuts on Pay-Per-View Aug. 20.
You spent six years of your life on this movie, in one form or another. How often did you think it was just never going to happen?
Every day. I would say every other day, but I think that’s overly optimistic. But that’s really the nature of movies in general, you just keep plugging away and every day there’s some horrible problem that may capitulate the whole thing. With Watchmen, it was like that times ten. It was always a daunting prospect for the studios, and just to get it done in general was quite a challenge.
Were there a lot of fallow periods, when you wouldn’t touch it for a while?
For the years that I was on it, it was constant work. The studios all recognized the vast potential here. Nobody wanted to let it go, but it was sort of a matter of them continuing to give me notes to try to stake them to something they could envision without actually having to move forward and start spending major amounts of money. Anytime there was a vacancy in the director’s chair, it would get filled pretty quickly. A lot of top directors wanted to take this on. It was really a matter of getting it into production that was the real difficulty.
At one point you were slated to direct it.
Yeah, initially I was very concerned about translating it into a two-and-a-half-hour movie, and I was afraid that if I didn’t oversee it in that regard it just wouldn’t get done correctly. I felt it needed a champion who was a true fan, and since I was, I thought I would be excellent for that position.
You did get to shoot some test footage as director, though. Does that still exist?
It’s right over in my DVD case here. Guillermo del Toro saw it and he told an interviewer that he thought it was very, very good. It’s very close to the movie, but the scene that I did was the scene where Dan Dreiberg comes home and finds Rorschach in his kitchen. It was really all we could afford to do, we had one day to shoot. We built a set and did the whole thing and I got some really amazing actors. We got Ray Stevenson [as Rorschach] and Iain Glen [as Dan Dreiberg], and I got the director of photography from A Room With a View, and it was really a cool thing. It’s a very quiet scene for a big, complex movie and I think it just wasn’t enough to allow them to appreciate the scope of what I wanted to do.
Your version was not set in 1985, right?
It was initially going to be 1985, but I literally signed my contract on Sept. 10, 2001, and obviously the events of history had a great deal of impact on everybody’s mind-set. And both the studio — I think it was Universal, at the time — both Universal and I agreed that current issues were so pressing and so on everybody’s mind that it just made sense to bring it to the present day, which I thought worked just as well since the world was fracturing and dealing with massive hatred of certain groups to other groups and I thought the story still applied. Most of the time that I worked on Watchmen was in the shadow of 9/11, so I was really dealing in the present day. That wasn’t anything I was forced into, I just felt that it was appropriate for the story.
People had been saying for years that Watchmen couldn’t be adapted successfully — including Alan Moore, obviously. Did that make you nervous, or was that just too tempting a challenge to pass up?
To be honest, Alan was extremely nice to me and very supportive of my work on a personal level. I spoke to him a number of times on the phone as it was coming together. Alan’s feelings are entirely justifiable, he doesn’t believe you should spend that much money on a single artistic project, and I think he also feels that if it works as a book, which it obviously does, then why do you even need a film? But that didn’t preclude him from being extremely supportive of me as a fellow writer and as an immense fan of his work. I know where Alan is coming from, and I respect it completely.
Do you know if he’s seen the film?
I guarantee you he has not. I spoke to [Watchmen artist] Dave Gibbons about it, and he said that Alan really had no interest in talking about it or discussing it even with his friends. It’s a secret fantasy of mine that he will wake up at two o’clock in the morning one night and it’ll be on TV and he’ll get sucked in accidentally, but I’m pretty sure that hasn’t happened yet.
You mentioned Dave Gibbons. Did you work with him much?
Not in the process of writing the film. I first met Dave when I was in London working on the film with Paul Greengrass. A mutual friend of ours has a Canadian television sci-fi series and he wanted to videotape our first meeting, which I didn’t think was a great idea, because what if we hate each other and had nothing to say? But that wasn’t the case and we sat down and just launched into a two-hour conversation about comic books and inherent geekiness and found that we were of the same stripe. I’m extremely fond of Dave Gibbons.
You worked on X-Men and X2, both of which had multiple-superhero storylines. Was that helpful in writing Watchmen?
It was helpful in that X-Men had eleven main characters and X-Men 2 had about thirteen main characters, which forced me during those projects to really identify and clarify everybody’s story arcs, how they intertwined, and it gave me a huge amount of experience that I think was very helpful on Watchmen. Now, that said, Watchmen is so beautifully developed character-wise, in my opinion, that I think it was actually harder to develop X-Men, because we were really sort of making it up as we went, whereas with Watchmen, you kind of had it all there as a very detailed blueprint. But that experience definitely allowed me a certain comfort level in developing a number of varying character storylines.
Were there some particular challenges, or some particular scenes, that you saw as presenting the most difficulty in adapting?
Not really. It’s kind of an unsatisfying answer, but I was so drunk in love with the characters and the world that it was really just a joy to work on them. Really, I wasn’t particularly developing them as much as I was putting everything in context for somebody experiencing the movie without having read the book. I really didn’t want to change the characters. I think Alan’s dialogue is so good that it wouldn’t make sense for me to rewrite Rorschach’s dialogue in my own voice or in my own poor imitation of Alan Moore. It was really a matter of constructing a movie framework that would allow those characters to thrive and be able to move in the way that they need to move.
Which version of the movie, before the one that actually got made, came the closest to fruition?
The Paul Greengrass version came very close. Paul had pre-vizzed about forty minutes of the movie, which is somewhere on computer. I still have a booklet by the side of my bed with all of the costume designs. We were building sets and we were pretty close to going — we were just getting into casting, we had done tests on Doctor Manhattan — and then there was a regime change at Paramount and that was the end of us. That was really devastating, because we had spent about $7.5 million at that point, and that’s a lot of money to put against a movie that you want to get picked up by another studio. We were fortunate in that Warner Bros., as far as I understand it, I may be hearing false rumors, but they had the ancillary rights, the toy rights and such to Watchmen through their deal with DC, so it sort sort of made sense for them to pick it up financially.
Tell me about how Zack Snyder and Alex Tse came aboard.
After the Paramount version collapsed, I was really despondent. I was afraid they might go off the rails and I didn’t know what they were going to do with it, and I sort of stepped aside. Warners picked it up, they wanted to do work on the script and they hired Alex Tse, who came on board and he was on for a few weeks before Zack, then Zack signed on and then he and Alex worked the script and put it back to 1985, and did scenes of their own and developed things that Zack wanted to see in particular.
Were you at all involved with the day-to-day production at that point?
I was having secret phone calls with the producers just to follow up on it. I was really just watching as an invested observer at that point. I did go up to visit while they were shooting, and they were extremely nice and extremely appreciative of my efforts. I got to walk the New York street and meet all the actors and I watched a bunch of dailies. It was very cool, very exciting.
You must have had mixed emotions, though, after shepherding this mammoth production for so many years only to watch someone else’s version get made?
At that point, you don’t even know if you’re going to get credit or not, and it came from all that work. You know, because it was just dead before I picked it up, it had been dead for almost a decade and so yeah, it was stunning and it was inspiring but it was also inwardly horrible and frustrating as moviemaking can be so often. It was a very strange and emotionally fraught visit, but still, I’ve been working in the movies awhile now, and I’m used to the way these things go, especially the very big projects are very erratic processes. I tried to just look at it as a fan who had played some role in this. But just to see the Owlship, to see Rorschach, to sit and talk to Rorschach was really quite amazing. But yeah, it was bittersweet.
What are your thoughts on the changes they made to your version?
I was really thrilled that they went back to 1985. It eventually became clear, especially when I was attached to direct, that what we really needed here was a very hot director who was able to just sort of impose his will and say, “Look, I’m a fan of this material and I want to do it right,” and that was clearly what we got in Zack. And Alex. I thought they did amazing things with it. They were able because of Zack’s clout to take it even further than I was willing to take it. I am immensely proud of the film and my role in it and really thrilled that we had such great people — Zack, Alex, all of the cast, to come together on it. I think the fans need to understand, there are many, many versions of this film that could have been made that would not have come close to this. And there are other versions that may have been incredible, but I’m very happy with the way it turned out.
The knock on Zack Snyder is that he’s all style and no substance, that he wasn’t dramatically up to Watchmen‘s level.
That’s an opinion. I think 300 is amazing. Its characterizations are great — I love the king, I love the queen, I love the whole thing, and I don’t think it was style over substance. I think Watchmen is an obviously far more complex piece of storytelling, but I think he handled it pretty well. Just the choice of Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, these are pretty amazing pieces of casting and I think he did extremely well.
It’s crazy that he got away with keeping all that stuff from the book.
Completely crazy. I had fought all those battles for many years and just came away beaten and bruised and he was actually able to pull it off, so I give him massive respect for what he did. I think in terms of fan support vs. fan backlash that there is an inherent difficulty in being a Watchmen fan, being a fan of the book and then seeing the movie for the first time. You have run this movie in your head a million times and so you’re always going to be taken out of it on your first viewing by a number of the choices — “Does Bubastis look right?” or “Where’s the vivarium?” You know, there’s just so many thousands upon thousands of details that may go the way you expect, may not go the way you expect, but it is only in the fullness of time that people will fully come to appreciate the amount of work and respect and love that went into this movie and be able to get past their own prejudgments of what it should have been and get down to what it actually is, which is a pretty remarkable, original piece of filmmaking.
(WARNING: SPOILER toward the end of the next page)
You wrote a letter asking fans to come back and see the movie again on the second weekend, saying the future of adult-oriented, thoughtful comic-book movies depended on it. How did people respond to that, and what do you think the future holds for Watchmen-type movies?
It was very much like Fight Club, not that I’m comparing the two movies. You can say Fight Club is way more brilliant than Watchmen, the fans can say whatever they like. But in that Fight Club was a brilliant, completely original movie that people just didn’t go to see in the theaters. But there was a core group of people who saw it the first time, myself included, who said, “Oh, my God, this is just groundbreaking. This is incredible.” What I was really trying to tell the fans was, “If you like it, you need to support these films. Otherwise, the films you watch will get more and more generic. They’ll get more and more horrible.” And I get asked when I go to Comic-Con or I speak on a panel or something, fans ask me, “Well, why are the movies are so bad?” and I say, “Because you keep seeing them. If you go to see a horrible film and it makes $150-$200 million, you’re going to get more horrible films. The studios aren’t going to have to work so hard to bring you in. If you don’t see films where real fans and artists have had made them, you won’t get that anymore. You need to vote with your wallet.” That’s what I was aiming at. I took a lot of flack for it, but I’m a screenwriter, so I have more of a Teflon soul than when I started.
Why do you think you took flack for it?
I pointed out in the letter that I don’t make any money off future box office, I don’t get a cent of that. I also compared it to other films that are difficult to take in on their first viewing, like Apocalypse Now or Blade Runner or Fight Club. Films that are unexpected and do things to you that may upset you. Every film that Stanley Kubrick ever made is sort of designed to put you off, to upset you the first time through. But if you stick with it, if you watch it again and again and again, you’ll start to realize the brilliance of it, so I think a lot of people thought that I was saying, “Oh my film is as good as Apocalypse Now.” I’m not saying that. I don’t know, I don’t have any perspective on it. I’m just saying there are great treasures to be unearthed on later viewings. I think in addition to that, when Zack comes out with his director’s cut, there are so many scenes, so many things from the book that have been shot that were not in the theatrical release. To jump to any snap conclusions about the movie I think is a bit disingenuous because it’s too much for the human brain to take in on one viewing. It was always intended to be so.
Do you think the movie will find more of an audience over time?
I think so. It may just deepen the love of the core fans, and if that’s all it does, well that’s good, too. I want as many people to like it as there are people who like it. If it gains more of a cult following, or if it becomes unusually successful on DVD, well, that’s great, because I do get paid on that. But I did this for the 15-year-old fan within myself and for anybody else who is similarly afflicted.
Having some distance from the production and theatrical release, how successful would you say it was for the future of adult-oriented superhero movies?
Well, I would say, there was a lot of talk about it’s a bomb, it’s a failure, it only opened with $55 million or only broke $100 million at the domestic box office. But as I put together the numbers, we’re looking at $190 million worldwide, and I believe from my own fan perspective, this is a movie that is a must-have in your library, so I have a feeling it will be profitable. It will make money and it will engender conversation for many years to come, so in that respect I think it’s a great success. Now, would I have liked to have made half a billion dollars at the box office? Absolutely. But that was a long shot to begin with. This is a very dark movie, and it’s very complex. One thing Zack did, the violence is pretty hardcore. For people to expect it to behave like Spider-Man is not realistic. I believe it is very close to profitability, and that’s good enough for me.
(WARNING: SPOILER BELOW)
What did you think of the “Hallelujah” scene? That seemed to be polarizing.
I liked the “Hallelujah” scene. I don’t understand. Like, are these seriously comic book geeks complaining about an extended lovemaking scene with a naked Malin Akerman? I don’t know where that comes from. I think the music is beautiful. That song is amazing. This is really one of the most incredible character turns I’ve ever experienced in the book and just in literature in general. The fact that this guy, in the midst of a comic-book movie, this impotent guy rediscovers his manhood as a result of going back to being the hero, putting on the costume again, and seeing her in the costume. I think it’s a pretty incredible culmination of all the comic-book romances we’ve ever seen — Batman and Catwoman, Clark and Lois — all of these people. I think it’s a pretty amazing thing and I think it deserves a bit of lingering. I think Malin Akerman deserves a bit of lingering as well. I don’t get what’s wrong with it, but people love to nitpick. If you want less nudity in your films, there’s an area you can attack.
I guess it seemed silly and over-the-top to some people.
I think it’s hilarious. It’s intended to be funny, it’s intended to be lighthearted. It’s light and it’s serious. I just think it’s very cool. It’s also bringing it to a resolution that we never see between Bruce and Catwoman. I think it’s a very cool thing, and you could do a lot worse than Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”