What lurks under the mask of your favourite superhero? Comic-book movies of recent times have featured heroes driven by a desire for justice or a longing for revenge but Watchmen, the long-awaited adaptation of one of the most acclaimed graphic novels in the history of the medium, delves deep into darker and more disturbing areas. The costumed crime-fighters in this story are motivated and directed by other impulses – rage, nihilism, megalomania.
Created by writer Alan Moore (who has taken his name off the film, as he has with pretty much every screen adaptation of his work) and illustrator Dave Gibbons, Watchmen is set in an alternate America circa 1985 where Richard Nixon is in his fifth term as President of the United States and the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union is heating up to boiling point.
While superheroes are part of the scenery in this world, governmental policy has seen their heroic actions outlawed. But when a ‘mask’ called The Comedian is thrown through the window of his penthouse apartment to his death, his former allies – some retired, some still covertly keeping the peace – reunite to crack a conspiracy that could have catastrophic consequences.
Filmmakers such as Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass were all attached to a Watchmen movie at one time or another but it seemed that the graphic novel was too hard to translate to the screen. The production gathered momentum, however, when Zack Snyder, whose adaptation of Frank Miller’s brutal sword-and-sandal graphic novel 300 was a worldwide smash, took on the job. When he first got on board, he was presented with a project that watered down certain elements of the book, tinkered with others and tailored the central roles to suit a big-name ensemble.
To his credit, Snyder insisted on utter faithfulness to the graphic novel and looked to cast respected but relatively little-known actors in a move that would keep the budget manageable and ensure the characters weren’t weighed down with movie-star baggage. Alongside Billy Crudup (Almost Famous), Patrick Wilson (Little Children), Carla Gugino (Sin City), Matthew Goode (The Lookout) and Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley, Snyder cast Malin Akerman, best known for her roles in comedies like The Heartbreak Kid and 27 Dresses, as Laurie Jupiter (also known as Silk Spectre II) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian.
Morgan’s well aware that his casting initially raised some eyebrows. “You went ‘What the fuck’, right?” he laughs. “Me too! For Zack to have this idea that a guy who’s really known as that nice dying guy from Grey’s Anatomy who never got out of bed could be The Comedian was kind of insane. To think that I had the chops to pull off this character…well, I owe him a debt of gratitude forever. I wanted to get away from playing the nice guy and do something different. And you can’t get much more different than The Comedian.”
Akerman was also looking to break away from the lightweight fare she was known for, and was seeking something with more of an edge. “I had no idea it was going to be Watchmen!” she laughs. “But I’m very glad it is. One of the reasons I chose this business was for the challenge, and this film is quite the project to take on for my first big dramatic role because it comes with so much extra. It felt like winning a gold medal at the Olympics, getting this role.”
Neither Akerman nor Morgan knew much about the graphic novel before they were approached about the film. That all changed, however, upon meeting the director.
“I got a call one day saying ‘Zack Snyder, the guy who directed 300, is doing this movie called Watchmen and we’re sending over some material’,” says Morgan. “I expected a script and instead it was a photocopy of the graphic novel. It was in black and white and I couldn’t read half of it, and when I got to page three I called my agent and said ‘I’m supposed to be looking at the role of The Comedian, right? He’s dead on page three!’ My agent was very patient with me and said ‘Don’t be a jackass; read the whole thing’. So I did, and I don’t even know where my head was when I finished – I put it down, took a deep breath and started it reading it again. I think I read it three times in the space of 24 hours.
“Then I met with Zack and it was probably the coolest meeting I’ve been a part of in my life. I went in, introduced myself and sat down, and for the next two hours I didn’t say a word. Zack had every wall of this huge office covered from ceiling to floor with conceptual drawings and panels from the comic. I listened to him in his enthusiasm and excitement, and I don’t think said a word for two hours. At the end, he said ‘Are you in?’ I knew it was a life-changing moment, and I was so in it was ridiculous. And then you find out what Watchmen is. You learn that it’s the graphic novel, it’s the Citizen Kane of this medium, and its fan base is this incredibly smart and insane group of people that are so passionate about this source material that they’ll kill us if we fuck it up.”
“It hit us in increments,” adds Akerman. “I had no idea about Watchmen when I first read the script; I was not familiar with it at all, and the understanding sort of came in waves. I read the book and went ‘Wow, this is great’, and then we went to Comic-Con” – the US pop-culture convention that’s ground zero for fanboys – “and saw the magnitude of the fan base and how passionate they are about it. Believe me, we all got that whole spiel: ‘You better get it right!’ And I get that point of view. I’ve had novels that I love and when they’ve been turned into movies the whole thing has been botched, and it’s not even close to what you wanted to see. And you’re so disappointed. We all got into it, and we all felt that this was a great opportunity to show the world that you can take a great book and make it into a great film. There was an immense amount of pressure going into it, and because we all became such fans of the novel we put additional pressure on ourselves to make it the best it could possibly be.”
Bringing their characters to three-dimensional life in all their flawed glory proved an exciting task for both actors. For Morgan, the job was difficult because The Comedian performs some truly reprehensible deeds throughout the course of the story. “He’s a little bit nihilistic, a little darker than the darkest” is how the actor views him. “How does he get away with attempting to rape Laurie’s mother, the first Silk Spectre? Or shooting a pregnant woman? He does these things but every time I close the book I find that I don’t hate him. If anything, he’s almost sympathetic. And it was clear to Zack and me from the beginning that the other side of the character should be shown. There are only a few opportunities in the story to show that humanity and that intense loneliness that I felt he always had. It’s in these moments that you discover that there may be an ounce of humanity in this guy – that was what I wanted to play more than anything. Making people walk away wondering ‘Why don’t I hate that guy?’ – that was my job.”
As for Akerman, she had to portray a second-generation superhero with a knack for dysfunctional relationships. “Laurie really didn’t get to choose her own life – it was almost like she had been raised by a stage mother – and a lot of times when you’re pressured in one area of your life you maybe look for other areas to make your own,” she says. “The thing was, there was so much reality to the story and the characters. All of us have people in our lives we have complex or difficult relationships with. I see her as a girl who never had a choice about the career she was pushed into. Up until the moment you meet her in this film, she’s been sheltered. Now she’s breaking free and trying to figure out who she is and what she wants to be.”
Pretty heady stuff for a comic-book movie. “I think it touches on everything that is real in life, and then adds this heightened layer to it,” says Akerman. “Essentially it’s a character study. It explores all sides of humanity, and anyone can relate to a certain aspect of it. The novel really explored humanity to its core, and we do the same in this film.”
Watchmen opens in Australian cinemas on March 5.