Watchmen: Must-See Movie of the Spring

The goal of visionary director Zack Snyder (“300”) was to create an experience true to the feeling of the graphic novel, unlike anything put to screen before. “There's massive spectacle in this movie,” he says. “It's that mix of hard emotional reality with Dr. Manhattan on Mars in this giant glass palace, floating above the Martian landscape, or Manhattan 200-feet-tall walking through the jungles of Vietnam. It goes back and forth between action and what that action means to the characters. We tried to push the storytelling to the very edge, and to push the look as far as we could to truly bring to life the experience of the graphic novel.”


Using the graphic novel and the screenplay as a starting point, Snyder storyboarded the entire film to lay out his vision for all involved in what would no doubt be an epic undertaking.  Production designer Alex McDowell remembers, “Zack opened his books of storyboards and that in itself was revelatory. Then, on the opposite page, he had picture references and extensions of the ideas contained inside the boards.”


But where the visual landscape of “300” was created almost entirely on a computer, for this film Snyder set his characters on solid ground. “With 'Watchmen,' the sets are so intimate,” he notes. “As we started to build New York City, we realized these characters are going to be walking down these streets. So, we ended up having something like 200 sets in the movie.”


But the film also encompasses less earthly vistas. “'Watchmen' is this gritty, real story, but yet a quarter of the film takes place on Mars,” Snyder continues. “And other scenes take place in Antarctica, at a retreat built by a millionaire ex-superhero. So there are operatic aspects to it as well. I'm naturally interested in those big thematic visions of reality. That's not to say Rorschach doesn't walk down a seedy 42nd Street world, but at the same time, there is this giant glass palace that's built on Mars. There are flying machines, huge blimps hanging over the New York skyline, and other things that we were able to layer in. I think that that's part of the strength of this visual approach.”


One set created for the film was entirely digital: Dr. Manhattan's Glass Palace on Mars. “The design is a combination of quantum physics and a clock,” comments McDowell. “There are layers and layers of references to clocks and watches in 'Watchmen'–the ticking clock of the nuclear countdown, the watch Osterman wears and then leaves behind, setting off the chain of events that leads to the creation of Dr. Manhattan. So, there's some idea that the Glass Palace is an elaborate clock mechanism that he creates in reference to his father.”


With so many sets, including an entire city, needing to be constructed, the next step was “to figure out where we could shoot this movie. As Zack continued to draw the boards and I started seeing more and more of his vision, I realized that even under the best of circumstances any single location was going to fall short of what he required. It became obvious that we had to control our own destiny, to build everything and create the environments with very little location work, which is essentially what we did.”


McDowell created a large schematic that incorporated images from the graphic novel, set designs, and other references to keep track of the multiple sets and characters and the timelines that define them. This schematic became a valuable tool for every member of the crew.

The World of Watchmen


Filming was accomplished at several locations around Vancouver, Canada, and a number of sets were constructed on four stages at CMPP Studios (Canadian Motion Picture Park). In addition, a new backlot was built from the ground up on what once was a vast lumber yard on the outskirts of town. There, McDowell and his team built from scratch the New York City that Watchmen fans will recognize–from the Gunga Diner to Rorschach's alley to The Comedian's high-rise apartment.


“In 'Watchmen,' there are many subplots and threads layered within the imagery,” observes McDowell. “It's very, very dense. As a production designer, one of the tasks is to set up an environment that the audience can enter and become completely immersed in, and then your work becomes part of the storytelling process.”


Under McDowell's direction, the crew compressed the entire city as represented in the graphic novel into three intersecting streets. The relatively upscale Brownstone Street incorporated Dan Dreiberg's apartment and also tha
t of the first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, while Blake Street housed The Comedian's high-rise apartment building.


Blake Street was eventually converted to Riot Street, where the Owl Ship lands during a scene depicting the Keene Riots. The central hub street, intersecting both Riot and Brownstone and representing the seedier part of town, was called Porno Street. An off-shoot, called Fight Alley, became the site of a major fight sequence between Dan and Laurie and the Knot Top gang.


Also built at an intersection on the backlot was the Newsstand, a key element from the graphic novel containing the overlapping stories presented in the Tales of the Black Freighter novel-within-a-novel chapters. Snyder shot those sequences specifically for a planned feature on the future DVD.


“One of the things that was great about working with Zack,” says McDowell, “is that he was as fanatically interested in finding the Easter eggs in the graphic novel and pulling them into the film. On some films, you make a decision that you've gone deep enough; let's just shoot the thing. But Zack shares my same obsessive interest in the fine detail, so it was great fun to do.”


In the middle of the New York environments, McDowell's team situated the Saigon bar, where Edward Blake has a run-in with a former Vietnamese mistress, with a full exterior and an interior shooting space with a depth of 40 feet. “We created a little piece of Vietnam right in the middle, with Brownstone Street on one side and decrepit New York on the other side,” McDowell notes.


One of the production designer's favorite sets to create was President Nixon's bunker at NORAD, which was inspired in part by the War Room in Stanley Kubrick's “Dr. Strangelove.” A member of the crew added an extra layer of serendipity to the sequences shot on this set. Director of photography Larry Fong remembers discussing how the moving, changing maps in the War Room might have been done. “My hunch was projection, others thought it was painted graphics with light bulbs, and then the gaffer said, 'Oh, I know how they did that. That was rear projection.' I had to ask him: 'How do you know that?' And he answered, 'Because I was there. I was doing the rear projection.' It was crazy. What were the chances? There was a lot of experience on this crew.”


Production also took over Vancouver's former Riverview Hospital, and remade it into the Gila Flats nuclear testing facility where Jon Osterman becomes Dr. Manhattan.


On soundstages at CMPP, McDowell's team built the production's largest set, Adrian Veidt's Antarctic retreat, Karnak, where the film's climax unfolds. They also created Veidt's palatial office at Veidt Enterprises in the form of a multi-purpose set that could be his interior office if shot from one angle, and his exterior office if shot from another.


Also built on these stages were the interiors for The Comedian's and Dan Dreiberg's apartments. The Comedian's apartment was comprised of three sets: the living room set, where Blake fights off his assassin; a tall platform set with a trick window for visual effects elements; and a bedroom set, with his closet and the secret compartment where he hides his Comedian memorabilia. Additionally, CMPP held the green screen stages for the film's visual effects sequences.


Veidt inhabits an environment of extravagant materials, in a palette of royal purple and gold, surrounded by priceless artifacts collected from his travels. “With the set design, we wanted to show what Veidt Enterprises is doing in terms of its connection to airlines, toys, and other endeavors,” says McDowell. “Around his office, you can see the Mask action figures, so he is profiting from his friends. We also wanted to infuse the backgrounds with imagery surrounding the Nostalgia perfume that Veidt created. It became one of the ways of insinuating how pervasive his empire is in the culture of 1985.”


“The guys were so good, it got to the point where I just expected a Veidt aspirin bottle to show up, or a pair of Veidt shoes,” Snyder says with a laugh. McDowell confirms that “the shoes did, in fact, appear.”


A soundstage at CMPP also housed the old subway tunnel, which Dan Dreiberg converts into the Owl Chamber. “Dan's brownstone leads through a secret passageway down into an old, abandoned subway station. We created three sets: the exterior of the apartment, built on the backlot, and, on the stage, the interior of Dan's home and the Owl Chamber, which houses the Owl Ship,” exp
lains McDowell.


Nite Owl's Owl Ship, Archimedes (“Archie”)–an engineering marvel that Dan created and once used to combat crime–is one of the indelible elements of Watchmen. McDowell brought together a team of artisans, starting with sculptor and boat builder Jack Gavreau, to bring Archie to life down to the hull scrapes and turbine exhaust ports. “Everyone, from sculptors and painters to set dressing and props, worked in this tiny little space,” McDowell recalls. “But it proved to be one of the most satisfying sets in the movie for us. The idea with the Owl Ship is that form follows function, and everything is there because it has a purpose. In the Owl Chamber, we also incorporated dents and damage where we assumed he crashed while flight testing. It was very important for the audience to believe that this was a real craft, so it's covered in scratches and scrapes.”


The other multi-purpose location taken over by production was an old paper mill called Domtar, which was large enough to contain Dr. Manhattan's government lab and apartment. “We built Manhattan's apartment based on the idea that Manhattan lives in the middle of this industrial space,” McDowell describes. “But we imagined that the government officials had hired the best decorators to design an elaborate living space within the lab, befitting the most important man in the world.”


At the height of shooting, Dave Gibbons visited the set, an experience he found overwhelming. “I was just bowled over by the level of attention to detail,” he attests. “Careful thought had been given to every little corner, even things I had stuck in the artwork that I hadn't given a second thought to. When you draw something from your imagination, you have this misty impression of a picture that you then try to interpret. This was like seeing that misty picture crystallized into reality.”


Gibbons, who had previously only seen his Owl Ship on paper, had the rare experience of physically exploring his creation. “I looked at the model of the full-size Owl Ship, knocked on it, stood inside it, moved some of the controls,” he marvels. “It was so fantastic for somebody who lives in their imagination a lot of the time to see these things actually become solid in the real world. It was one of the most exciting experiences I've had connected with comics.”


Snyder admits he was as nervous as everyone else about Gibbons's visit to the set. “When Dave arrived, we were all a little bit afraid, but excited at the same time. We loved the book, we loved the images; we cared to make them come to life as much as we could, and to make it respectful. You can show a set to a fan who says, 'The Owl Ship looks awesome,' but it's another thing entirely when the creator sees it and says, 'Wow, you guys loved that, didn't you?' That was what we wanted. It was pretty cool.”


The cast was equally inspired by the world within a world they inhabited for a few months over a Vancouver winter. Jeffrey Dean Morgan asserts, “The details of it were just astonishing in their quality, right down to the smallest detail. I've never been a part of anything like this in my life. Every day I came onto the set and I was blown away by the scale of it, the work that so many people put into this thing. The novel literally came to life.”


One of the most subversive elements of the novel, which McDowell sought to incorporate into the film, was “the twisting of the conventional primary palette of comic books into the secondary colors. It immediately made the Watchmen series into an incredibly striking package. People had not seen those colors in this medium before. Watchmen had fantastic graphic decisions throughout, from the smiley face cover onward, so that was key for us.”


What would not work on film were the clean lines of a graphic novel. “To embed these characters in the real world, clean lines don't translate,” the production designer says. “But we found that if we took a grittier, more textured style, then added the strong secondary palette of the graphic novel to it, it became a way to find a common language of stylization.”