A Long Time Coming: The history of the Watchmen film.

Posted on 25 February 2009 by Quaid

I wasn’t as big of a 300 fan as my friends, and the purist in me was always a little frustrated with the “fast zombie” take on Dawn of the Dead.  So when Zack Snyder became attached to direct Watchmen, I was less enthused than my buddies.

watchmen_posterBut that was before I read the novel, and before I saw the trailer.  Seeing a taste of what Snyder is bringing to the film and understanding the tone of the source material, I finally see that his appointment as director was a no-brainer.

 God knows it could have gone in another direction.  Names like Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, and Joel Silver have been attached to this material over the twenty-year development process.  As a recently converted Watchmen fan, the story of the movie’s development was total news to me, but it’s interesting enough to make a movie all its own.

It all started in 1986 when Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver acquired the rights to the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.  This is the same year that the serialized version of the graphic novel hit store shelves.

Silver began to work on his version of the novel.  Now remember, this is 1986, the year of Big Trouble in Little China, The Delta Force, and Cobra.  Action movies were in…big, dumb action movies with stunts and machine gun fire and jumping off buildings.  So it is no surprise that Silver’s take was to include Arnold Schwarzenegger in a main role and up-the-ante of action.  

big-troubleSam Hamm, screenwriter of Tim Burton’s Batman, rewrote the novel into a more traditional action screenplay.  The ending of the novel was changed to include an assassination and a time paradox.  As Keanu would say, “Woah.”

Needless to say, this would have been a very interesting take on Watchmen.  Thank God it didn’t get made.  

In 1991, Fox put the project into turnaround, and the rights were acquired by Warner Brothers.   This, ladies and gentlemen, is how far back the rights dispute that threatened Watchmen’s release goes.  More on that later.

Warner turned to director Terry Gilliam and his standby writer, Charles McKeown, to make the film with Silver and Gordon still attached to produce.  This is when Watchmen became a little more Watchmen-ish.   

Money was hard to find as Gilliam had gone over budget on a few other films.  Eventually, the director dropped out of the project, declaring the graphic novel “unfilmable.”  

Warner Bros. dropped the project, and Gilliam and Watchmen fans alike began to weep openly in public.

This is where Silver takes his leave of absence from our story, leaving Gordon alone with the project.  

In 2001, Gordon partnered with Lloyd Levin, producer of movies like Event Horizon, The Rocketeer, and United 93.  The two worked with Universal Studios to shoot the movie with Scorpion King and X-Men writer David Hayter both writing and directing the film.

Hayter soon left the project because of “creative differences,” and the movie was briefly put in the hands of Revolution Studios.   When it fell apart there, Paramount picked up the ball and ran with it, attaching Darren Aronofsky of Requiem for a Dream and Pi fame to direct Hayter’s script.  This was in 2004, and all the geeks of the world had one collective orgasm.

But like all orgasms, it wouldn’t last.

fountainAronofsky left to direct The Fountain (an amazing film with its own production woes), and Paul Greengrass was brought in to direct Watchmen.   Greengrass updated the story, extending Watchmen’s alternate reality into 2004.  It didn’t work out, and Paramount became yet another studio to place Watchmen in turnaround.

Gordon and Levin went back to Warner Brothers.  Impressed with 300, they approached Zack Snyder to direct the film.  Snyder enlisted the help of Alex Tse to create a new screenplay which pulled from other versions but brought the story back to its original 1980′s setting.  Originally set as a two-hour PG-13 movie, Watchmen developed into a two and a half hour R-rated movie with a three hour director’s cut.

There would be one more piece of well-publicized drama as Fox filed a lawsuit claiming that when Warner Brothers bought the rights from Fox (way back when), they didn’t acquire all the rights to distribute the film.  For a brief moment which seemed like an eternity, it looked like Fox might actually get the film shelved (at least for a time).  But all Fox really wanted was free money, and the dispute was settled, no doubt with large chunks of cash changing hands.

watchmen_poster16The movie coming out March 6 is said to be the most faithful adaptation that was ever bandied about.  Illustrator Dave Gibbons was brought on as a consultant on the film, and Snyder went to great pains to recreate certain key frames of the graphic novel.

Alan Moore refuses to ever see any adaptation of his work.  Which is kinda awesome.

We’re less than two weeks away from Watchmen’s release.  Reviews are popping up everywhere, and the general word-of-mouth has been very positive (minus some bitching about the lack of the squid).

So while it took me a while to come around to Zack Snyder’s side of things, I can now see the logic.  These are comic book heroes in a comic book world that looks a lot like our own.  His visual style, showcased in 300, can compliment this material perfectly (assuming he avoids using too much slo-mo).  And as long as he stays faithful to the characters and story, I think the movie will invariably contain all the subtext and thematic brilliance that is in the novel.

Well, that’s about all I have in me for today.  It’s March, folks, and the movie news and reviews pickens are slim.  Couple that with the fact that our site is filled with Watchmen fanatics, and you’ll understand why you’ll be seeing a lot more analysis about the novel and film as we move toward release date.  Stay tuned.




3 Comments For This Post

  1. ShepRamsey Says:

    Fun fact: Terry Gilliam talked to Alan Moore for advice on how to go about making the movie and Moore pretty much told him “Don’t do it.” A Gilliam version of the film would have been interesting to see, I think.

    Another fun fact: For one of the incarnations of the film that was being discussed in the early nineties, I believe Robin Williams was a name being thrown around to play Rorschach. So that’s kinda interesting.

    Anyway, God knows I love me some Watchmen and I want to see this film done right. I couldn’t stand “300,” but I loved the “Dawn” remake and everything I’ve seen from this movie so far is awesome! My brain just about exploded in a manic geek orgasm when I saw the first trailer back in July. Just about all the reviews thus far are really enthusiastic and I think this is gonna be quite amazing. I’m insanely jazzed.

  2. ShepRamsey Says:

    Also, if you want to see a guy talk crazy for an hour and find that everything he’s saying makes a frightening amount of sense, then check out the documentary/one-giant-interview “The Mindscape of Alan Moore.” Moore talks about everything from his childhood to his work to being a magician. Whacky stuff and totally engrossing.

  3. Johnathan Lane Says:

    i like kevin and joe

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