CGI: 'Watchmen'--Zack Snyder brings superhero saga to the finish line

Who watches the Watchmen? Doubtlessly everyone who watched The Dark Knight, Iron Man or, apropos, that famous pot that never boils. After a more than two-decade gestation through 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount and finally Warner Bros.; through directors Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass and finally Zack Snyder; and through a cadre of screenwriters behind the likes of everything from Batman to Brazil, this adaptation of the much-acclaimed comic-book miniseries that deconstructed the superhero mythos like a hot Jacques Derrida through butter finally reaches theatres on March 6.

"It's exciting to finally get it out there, you know?" Snyder says, with glorious understatement and palpable relief: Watchmen had faced a cliffhanger ending that nearly slapped a permanent "To Be Continued" on it. Last February, just as production wrapped for stars Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino and Matthew Goode, erstwhile studio Fox sprang a previously threatened lawsuit seeking to quash the film's release, claiming rights retained under a 1994 agreement. A settlement reached mid-January awarded Fox up to $10 million in development costs and legal fees, plus worldwide gross participation scaling from five to 8.5 percent. But the movie, under the Warner Bros. label, had once more cheated death.

"I was a little worried, to be honest," says the 42-year-old Snyder, a visual stylist who emerged from TV commercials to direct the well-received Dawn of the Dead (2004) and the $211 million domestic, $245 million foreign-grossing 300 (2007)—the latter, like Watchmen, a comic-book adaptation. "I felt like—it was my hope, anyway—that cooler heads would prevail. But I just wasn't sure. It was a little bit scary for a while. It's one thing to say, 'Oh, another studio is gonna release the movie.' It's another thing entirely when they're saying, 'Oh, we're gonna shelve it for all time!'"

Snyder, himself a comics fan, was “very familiar” with Watchmen. He'd read the original 12-issue miniseries that DC Comics published in 1986 and 1987, which was then collected into a trade paperback often called, colloquially, a graphic novel. British writer Alan Moore—who became an industry star with his literary-horror revamp of DC's Swamp Thing a couple of years earlier—and artist Dave Gibbons (the venerable Brit science-fiction anthology comic 2000 AD and later DC's Green Lantern) wove an alternate-history epic of an America where President Richard Nixon had repealed term limits—shades of New York City's Michael Bloomberg!—and the Cold War was still freezing. Taking the superhero archetype to its logical conclusion, Watchmen saw a world of heroic ideals turned to heroic nihilism—"To Save You, Why Must I Kill You?," to borrow a classic Stan Lee title from the 1960s Silver Age of comics. In many ways the final word on the subject of superheroes, Watchmen won numerous awards, becoming the first comic book to win science fiction's top honor, the Hugo Award. Time magazine in 2005 included the collected miniseries in its list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.

That and subsequent successes—V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, Tom Strong—have made Moore, ironically, as above-it-all as Ozymandias, the übermensch antagonist of Watchmen. He refuses to have his name on movie adaptations and, perhaps petulantly, announces he will not deign to even view them. Whatever.

"Alan's always said, 'I don't want anything to do with it if Watchmen is ever made,'" says Snyder. "And so, as a fan of Alan Moore, I've really tried to do whatever I can to support his wishes, if you will. And that's really how I feel about that." Snyder is too much of an extraordinary gentleman himself to mention it, but others will surely note that Moore does himself a disservice by missing out on what promises to be an extraordinary movie: Judging from the 26-minute preview—three scenes and the opening-credits sequence—that Warner Bros. has screened, the credits alone could win a Best Picture Oscar.

Snyder came to Watchmen after his success with 300. "The studio called me to do the movie. They actually approached me," says the down-to-earth director, sounding as incredulous as a first-timer getting his big break. "I was a little bit hesitant," given the scope of the story and its reputation as being unfilmable, "but in the end I'm glad I did [accept the job]. It took me the course of a couple weeks, probably, to make my decision. What really made me do it was this whole idea that if I didn't, somebody else would."

At the time he hadn't heard Terry Gilliam's declaration that the story's epic sprawl could only work as a miniseries. "Thank God when I actually said yes to making the movie that I hadn't heard that," Snyder says. "I mean, I totally understand what he's saying, because it is hard, you know? It's been an intense, exhausting process. I was happy to do it, and I couldn't be happier with the result, but it's the hardest thing that I've ever had to work on."

What he's had to work on, until his three features, were TV commercials for such clients as BMW, Budweiser, Gatorade, Nike, Nissan and Subaru. Snyder won a Clio Award, taking home a Bronze for his Jeep commercial "Frisbee" (1997), and was on the Clio's official shortlist for Sega of America's "Elves" (1995), Audi's "The Test" and "Maharaja" (both 1997) and Sector Expander's "Rodeo" (1998). "Frisbee" also won a Gold Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. Most infamously, his European spot for EB Beer, "Generals’ Party”—featuring Soviet generals in a sex, drugs and rock ’n roll orgy set to Sid Vicious' extraordinary rendition of "My Way"—generated such controversy it ran only in movie theatres after TV networks refused to run it.

Snyder, born March 1, 1966, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, where his father is an executive recruiter and his mother was “a stay-at-home mom, but [also] a photography teacher at my high school," the Christian Science-oriented Daycroft School. She was also an accomplished painter, he adds, "one of those people who was always naturally talented, but was never that motivated to make it public. She was a big part of my inspiration"—so much so that even though Snyder at age 11 had begun shooting Super-8 movies with his friends, he wound up studying painting after high school, spending a year at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London, England.

Afterward, Snyder attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., where his classmates included directors Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) and Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon). He still lives in that city with his second wife and producing partner, Deborah Snyder, and has six children, ages eight to 15. His son Eli, now 11, played the young Leonides in 300, and portrays the young Walter Kovacs—the future vigilante Rorschach—in Watchmen.

Snyder began directing music-videos and got his first big TV-commercial break with a three-spot Nike package for the ad agency Wieden+Kennedy of Portland, Oregon. Eventually, his work attracted studio attention, and he was offered the Columbia Pictures feature S.W.A.T. (2003), an adaptation of the 1970s TV show about a Los Angeles heavy-weapon police unit. After beginning development on it, however, he turned down what would have been his feature debut. "We just got to this point where I realized [the studio] wanted the movie to be PG-13. And it was just hard for me to make a PG-13 version of a movie about guys who shoot machine guns for a living. I figured it just seemed better for everyone that I not do it."

Snyder then got involved in Spyglass Entertainment's Mage, based on writer-artist Matt Wagner's 1980s Comico Comics series and its 1990s Image Comics sequel about a contemporary Arthurian hero. That movie went unmade and other projects failed to reach fruition, but 2004's Dawn of the Dead—a well-received and profitable remake of George Romero's 1978 zombie classic—brought Snyder's movie career into the land of the living.

His subsequent blockbuster 300 helped give Snyder the clout to make Watchmen the way he wanted—faithful to the source material, down to exact replicas of key panels. Snyder was also able to get the theatrical cut at a length he says works for him.

"The movie's two hours and 37 minutes," he says. "The first cut I showed them was about three hours and 20 minutes," and though never intended for release at that length, was nonetheless the start of "a huge struggle—let's call it a process" to pare the story. We got stuck around two hours, 45 minutes," Snyder recalls, "and then I was able to find one more change. The director's cut is three hours, one minute," barring changes between now and its DVD release.

Upcoming for the director is the computer-animated feature Guardians of Ga'Hoole 3D, based on the children's-book series—Snyder got his feet wet in animation as executive producer of Tales of the Black Freighter, a direct-to-DVD accompaniment to Watchmen, adapting the story-within-the-story of the original miniseries. He’s also beginning work on Sucker Punch, about a girl unjustly placed in a 1950s mental institution, who escapes into a fantasy world a la Pan's Labyrinth. As well, Universal in 2006 acquired rights to the late Vaughn Bodé's post-apocalyptic, 1960s underground comix series Cobalt 60, with Snyder attached. "Cobalt 60, that's cool, that's bubbling out there," he says.

Whatever the project, it'll likely showcase his trademark style, generally—and positively—described along the lines of "flamboyantly visual." "The truth is, I have a slightly operatic style," Snyder reflects. "It's funny, I always think when I go to make a movie that it's gonna be gritty and real, and it always ends up being operatic. I guess it's just the way I do it."