(From left) JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN as the Comedian, MALIN AKERMAN as Silk Spectre II, BILLY CRUDUP as Dr Manhattan, MATTHEW GOODE as Ozymandias, PATRICK WILSON as Nite Owl II and JACKIE EARLE HALEY as Rorschach in Watchmen
In the annals of Hollywood development hell, the long-anticipated Watchmen ranks high on the list of movies that almost didnt get made.
Based on the iconic comic book series by Alan Moore, the movie has been in gestation for more than 20 years at four different studios and has been through the hands of at least four directors, one of whom, Terry Gilliam, gave up on the complex story, deeming it unfilmable.
On its tortuous journey to the screen, numerous scripts were commissioned and rejected and most of the names on Hollywoods A list, including Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jude Law and Daniel Craig, were all in the running for starring roles at different times.
Now, with an ensemble cast of relatively unknown actors guided by Zack Snyder, one of Hollywoods hottest young directors, the £80 million superhero saga Watchmen is finally completed and ready for release, much to the delight of the cult comic books fans around the world, who have been keeping the Internet buzzing with casting suggestions and speculation.
I know its been a long time coming and its been through a lot of capable hands before it reached me, said Snyder, who was picked by Warner Bros to direct the complex project following the success of his Spartan action epic 300.
People always said Watchmen was unfilmable because although the storys a pretty straightforward mystery, inside there is a huge plot that has international intrigue and a super-villain and everything you want from a superhero story. Its at once very traditional and also unusual in the way its structured.
For the uninitiated, Watchmen started life as a 12-issue comic book published during 1986 and 1987 and then republished as a graphic novel, the only one ever to win the Hugo Award or to appear on Time magazines 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.
In bringing it to the screen Snyder has come up with a visually startling, graphically violent, non-linear mystery adventure which unfolds over nearly three hours and offers a new take on superheroes. These superheroes are more human than super, with neuroses and emotions which force them to deal with everyday personal issues like cowardice, obesity and impotence.
Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985 America where Richard Nixon is still President, tensions are escalating between the United States and the Soviet Union and most costumed superheroes are in retirement or working for the government.
Its a history with similarities to the one we all know, says Snyder. The big events are largely the same, its the details that are different.
Actors portray historical and celebrity figures from the 1980s, including Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Andy Warhol, Albert Einstein and younger versions of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Annie Leibowitz and the Village People.
The multi-layered story begins with the masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) investigating the murder of The Comedian, an ageing superhero, and uncovering a plot to discredit and murder various masked heroes as part of a wide-ranging conspiracy which could change the course of history.
As well as extreme violence — arms are sawn off, heads are hatcheted, blood spurts in gushers, necks are twisted and broken, a woman is brutally beaten and raped — Watchmen also pushes the envelope with an explicit superhero sex scene between Night Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) that Snyder admits borders on pornography and which he filmed to the accompaniment of Leonard Cohens anthem Hallelujah.
This is not a kids movie, says the muscular, tattooed Snyder. But he insists: Theres way more blood in 300. Everyone says Watchmen is so violent but 300 was way more violent in a lot of ways. There were three decapitations in 300.
The British actor Matthew Goode, who went straight from Brideshead Revisited into the role of superhero Ozymandias knew nothing about the story until he received the script. I was surprised how much it subverts the superhero genre, he said. I think Alan Moore is trying to say that people who dress up and go out and fight crime and beat people up are more likely to be sociopathic and psychopathic than anybody else.
Jackie Earle Haley carries a large share of the movies plot development as the savage, misanthropic and tragic Rorschach who, behind his inkblot mask, tries to enlist his former masked allies to help him in his uncompromising pursuit of justice.
The movie explores what the world might be like if people really did dress up in costumes and went into the vigilante business, he said. What are their weaknesses, their morality, the beliefs driving their behaviour?
Haleys casting owed a lot to fans on the Internet, who were suggesting him for the role of Rorschach long before Snyder had got around to casting anybody.
The former child actor, now 47, had disappeared from Hollywood for 15 years because he was unable to find acting work as an adult. He made a dramatic comeback in the controversial 2006 drama Little Children, which earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
I didnt know anything about Watchmen when I heard about it on the Internet, so I looked it up and was fascinated by it, he recalled. When I heard the film was going ahead I was very pumped and fought like hell to win the part. I made a Rorschach Halloween outfit, took some scenes and stuck them together and my buddies came over and we did this little DVD. Its just a cheesy audition tape but it seemed to work.
Directors who dabbled with Watchmen before Snyder took over included Britains Paul Greengrass, Darren Aronofsky and Gilliam. I have great respect for all of those guys but I didnt talk to any of them about it and I still have no idea what their plans were for the movie, said Snyder, who admits he butted head with Warner Bros over several issues, including when the story should be set.
Previous scripts had updated the story to set it during President Bushs war on terror and the war in Iraq, but Snyder resisted, wanting the background to be Vietnam and the Cold War.
To me, the Cold War represents a really strong metaphor for any terror that can destroy everything we believe in so I just felt the book and its Cold War setting drew such interesting parallels to our modern times, he said.
Then there was his casting of non-stars in the main roles. The studio would have been happier if I had got bigger names, but it was all about getting the right actors for the movie, he said.
Filming finally got under way in September 2007 in Vancouver, where New York streets and storefronts were constructed on a lumber yard on the outskirts of the city and four studio sound stages were used for interiors and sequences on Mars and Antarctica.
Snyder spent five months shooting the movie and then had to defend its sex and violence to the studio bosses, who had wanted the film to be accessible to younger audiences. The running time, too, was a subject of contention. With the studio insisting on playability, Snyders first cut of the film was three hours long, which he has whittled down to 155 minutes. An extended DVD version will run nearly four hours.
But even when it was finished and everyone was happy, the films troubles were not over. A lawsuit filed by Fox against Warner Bros for alleged copyright violations arising from a dispute over ownership of the project threatened to delay or even prevent the films release entirely. With the release date looming, the two studios reached a settlement under which Fox will receive a portion of the gross receipts.
Part of me thought it would be really cool if the movie got shelved for all time because the few people who had seen it could go on tour and describe it in lecture halls and people would argue about it and debate it, Snyder laughed. But in the end I was happy that cooler heads prevailed.