The Secret Origin Of Watchmen's World-Building

The biggest superhero cliche is the origin-story. Watchmen flouts that convention, by starting in the middle, then provides the origin-story of an alternate world. We asked Zack Snyder and Dave Gibbons about world-building via superhero origins.

We caught up with Snyder, the director of the new Watchmen movie, and Gibbons, the artist of the original graphic novel, at Wondercon, where they were promoting the film alongside the cast. They showed about 15 minutes of footage from the film, including a big chunk of the film's beginning, with its hilarious McLaughlin Group sequence (sexy Eleanor Clift!) followed by the Comedian's murder and the credits over the montage of Watchmen's alternate history. And then Rorschach's investigation, and the two Nite Owls meeting up, followed by Rorschach's visit to Nite Owl and then jumping forward to Rorschach in prison.

So when I was sitting next to Dave Gibbons and Zack Snyder, at the press roundtable, I was struggling to come up with a question they hadn't already answered a million times. So I decided to ask them about the relationship between worldbuilding and superhero origins. The superhero origin is the often formulaic story of someone who either discovers superpowers or decides to become a superhero, and then confronts his/her heroic destiny while confronting some greater threat. And watching the first 10 minutes of Watchmen, I was really struck by how much it used the conventions of superhero origin stories to fill in the details of this alternate world - both because the superheroes are instrumental in spawning a different timeline, but also because we see the superheroes coming into themselves as the history unfolds.

The Secret Origin Of Watchmen's World-Building

Luckily, Gibbons and Snyder understood my somewhat wonky question, and their answers were revealing and interesting. Gibbons said he'd almost forgotten that originally Moore had only had plotted six issues for Watchmen, and then he found out he actually had 12 issues. So he decided, "We have time to do a bit more with the characters." The finished product spends a lot of time focusing on the characters' origins, says Gibbons, and "it's about why would you wear a costume, why would you fight crime." As much as it's about history and politics and society, it's also about where these particular characters come from.

Snyder added that coming to this story afterwards and recreating it for film, you get a "more pure experience" than starting out with a story and then doubling the length by examining more of the backstory.

In the traditional superhero comic, you get the first issue where you meet the superhero and discover how he/she became super, says Gibbons. And then in the second issue, you see the superhero fighting more villains and discover more of why he/she wants to fight evil. Watchmen mixes up both those stories into one seamless whole.

The Secret Origin Of Watchmen's World-Building

Another difference between Watchmen and the traditional superhero movie, according to Snyder: it's not the typical three-act structure, it's actually more like a four-act structure. Instead of a beginning, middle and end, it has a beginning, a middle, a second beginning, and then the end. In fact, at one point, he and the other creators were briefly talking about splitting it into two movies, and the natural break-points would be either Rorschach getting arrested, or Rorschach getting set free. Or you could break the story when Dr. Manhattan is on Mars, but that's a scary and bewildering place to leave the audience, said Snyder.

Other revelations from the Wondercon Watchmen panel and roundtables:

Ocean's Eleven The studio originally had an idea of doing an Ocean's Eleven type cast, comprised of huge movie stars, but that ended up not happening. Snyder talked to Tom Cruise for a while, but he was busy with Valkyrie, and Snyder was never sure what role Cruise would play.

The Secret Origin Of Watchmen's World-Building

Rorschach's Audition Tape Jackie Earle Haley was so eager to do the role of Rorschach, he filmed an audition tape in his living room, with a "slightly dodgy Rorschach mask." He did the scene where Rorschach is talking to a psychiatrist and screams, "Give me back my face!" Snyder was blown away and couldn't imagine giving the role to anyone else after that. He showed that tape to a bunch of people, until an embarrassed Haley asked him not to. (And the tape won't be a DVD extra, also because Haley didn't want to include it.) Haley told us in the roundtable that the tape was "cheesy" and that Snyder said he liked it for "the passion," which is a nice way of saying, "Dude, it sucked, but I loved the passion."

The Director's Cut The movie's "director's cut" is three hours and ten minutes, and will hopefully have a theatrically run in July. Stuff that didn't make the cut includes extra violence, more blue nudity, Hollis Mason's death, and some other "bits and bobs." Snyder actually included some extra "blue nudity" in his movie, to give Warners something to trim out of the movie. He had a whole "blue penis" meeting with Warner Bros. where they asked him to include a bit less of Dr. Manhattan's wang. "I don't think anybody's going to feel they were cheated, either of violence or of blue nudity," Snyder said of the theatrical version.

The Original Script The script that the studio gave Snyder, when he first agreed to do the movie, ended with Nite Owl killing Ozymandias by crashing the Owl-ship into him via remote control. Nite Owl even says a cool catch phrase immediately afterwards.

The Secret Origin Of Watchmen's World-Building

Nite Owl's Formula. To play Nite Owl II, Patrick Wilson gained 20 pounds, and then struggled to keep them on during all the fight training he had to do. He ate tubs of GNC formula that's pure calories, and also tons of ice cream.