Dave Gibbons Talks Watchmen

The legendary graphic artist reflects on his experience with Zack Snyder's film -- which he loves -- and why co-creator Alan Moore doesn't want to talk about it

by | July 27, 2009 | Comments

Dave Gibbons

Too reverential to the source material? Not reverential enough? What happened to the squid, anyway? Zack Snyder’s long-awaited adaptation of Watchmen divided both critics and fan-boys upon its theatrical release, while its US domestic gross — $107.5 million — was certainly less than the studio might have expected from the director of the enormously successful 300. But with the film now available on DVD and Blu-ray — and in Snyder’s extended director’s cut, which integrates footage from The Black FreighterWatchmen is set to take on a new life, perhaps even bound for the cult status its source material suggested. And one man who’s more than pleased with the film is none other than the graphic novel’s creator Dave Gibbons, the artist whose vivid imagery gave life to Alan Moore’s revolutionary text. We caught up with him recently to ask him about the director’s cut, his reflections on the film, and what Moore really thinks.

Looking back on Watchmen, what are your thoughts — do you think it succeeded as a film?

Well, I’m basically thrilled with the movie, you know; it’s been in the making for years. There have been proposals to make it — some I was excited about, some I was less excited about. But I think the way that it finally has been made is just great. I honestly can’t imagine it being made much better. I couldn’t say it’s perfect, but then the graphic novel it was based on wasn’t perfect. I can’t imagine it being a more faithful adaptation: it’s got all the detail, all the visual richness, all the emotional richness of the original; the same ambiguity. I do think that on DVD it’s going to be an even better experience, because one of the strengths of the graphic novel is that you can stop, refer back, and carry on reading. I think you’re going to be able to do that with the DVD as well. On the Blu-ray version you’re going to be able to actually look at frames from the graphic novel as you watch the movie — and I’ve heard reports of people sitting in movie theatres with the graphic novel open on their knees, so they can do that very thing. Yeah, no — I’m thrilled with it.

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Why do you think the film performed not as well as the studio perhaps expected?

It’s very strange, you see, because I think the kind of problem we had with Watchmen, if there was a problem, was that it came hot on the heels of The Dark Knight — which did incredible business. I don’t think it’s that Watchmen has done badly, I think it’s being compared to a movie that did phenomenally, surprisingly well. I think it took everybody by surprise exactly how well Batman did. I really don’t have a perception of Watchmen doing badly and I think, you know, it has been said about Watchmen that it was unfilmable. Actually, one of the producers put it better when he said that it was “unfinanceable”. I think the fact that it’s a long movie, that it’s an R-rated and an adult movie, the fact that there are no big box-office stars in it — although there are some wonderful actors — I think all of those things might have mitted against its box-office success. But I think, all things taken into account, that it’s done very well. I have every confidence that on DVD and Blu-ray it’ll perform well up to expectations.

There’s been a lot of talk about Zack Snyder’s director’s cut. Will we see The Black Freighter integrated into the film?

I’ve seen a director’s cut, a rough cut of that, because they got me to sit in a recording booth in Los Angeles and do a commentary on it — so I’ve seen the whole thing with The Black Freighter stuff cut into it. It’s really interesting; it becomes a different movie again, because one of the recurrent locales in the graphic novel was the newsstand on the corner, with the vendor and the kid who’s reading the comic, and they were very much our — literally — ‘man in the street’ characters, and they’re virtually absent from the theatrical release. But this reinstates them and gives us their view, their commentary on what’s happening. And also, of course, there’s the wonderful allegorical richness of The Black Freighter stuff. It becomes an even longer movie — it’s almost three-and-a-half hours long.

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That’s what the fans want.

Oh, I think the fans want that and I think that’s as close to a definitive Watchmen adaptation that you’re ever gonna get. That stands at three-and-a-half hours, but if you want the almost word-for-word, line-for-line, picture-for-picture version, you can get the “motion comic”, which is an animation of the graphic novel. With adaptations, I suppose there are some fans who will settle for nothing less than every word and every image — but I don’t necessarily think that makes for a good movie. I think you have to accept that you’re going into a different medium and you have to make compromises. There are things you can do in movies that you can’t do in comics and things you can do in comics that you can’t do in movies. But I do think that it’s been very intelligently adapted and Zack’s even hit on things that I wish we’d hit on in the original comic book.

What’s an example?

I knew you were gonna ask that! Well the whole thing for me, visually speaking, has been quite surreal. When I first saw the movie, I’m sitting in a movie theater watching, for real, the movie that I saw in my head when I drew it. When you draw a comic book you kind of run a movie and freeze a frame, you know. But to actually go on the set and to see the characters, to be in the room with the characters — to smell the cigar smoke — was incredible. To be inside the Owl ship which, you know, had originated inside my head and it’s now outside my head and I’m inside that is such a surreal and bizarre thing. I think the actual realization of all those things… I’m thinking particularly of the opening montage where Zack put elements in there that we hadn’t addressed but, to me, just made the whole world come alive and showed in a really immediate and graphic way how the Watchmen world was different to our world. It was the absolute orientation of where we were. That I think was a masterstroke. I think also the fact that it was kept in 1985 was one of the things that’s been most crucial in the successful adaptation, because it now has a kind of an historic distance; it has the feeling of a classic kind of fable or a parable rather than something that’s trying to be very contemporary or up to date.

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You once remarked that you thought the time had passed for Watchmen to become a film. What was it that made you change your mind — was it Zack?

Well, I think I first spoke to Zack after the premiere of 300, the adaptation of Frank Miller’s novel, and I was just bowled over by that, by how faithful it was — not only to the way the graphic novel looked, but to the spirit of it and what Frank had in mind. And I just got a gut feeling from the beginning that Zack actually understood Watchmen. There was really nothing I saw after that to dissuade me from that point of view. I think the fact that he had just come off the back of a huge success like 300, which made a lot of money for the studio, meant that they were very willing to let him see his vision out. Certainly by the time I arrived on the set there were things that I wasn’t happy with in the script that he’d managed to get reversed, and were much closer to what we wanted. In fact, to begin with the whole ending of Watchmen was completely different — it was much more ‘good guy kills bad guy, rides off into sunset with girl’—

Escapes giant squid…

[Laughs] Yeah. The first thing that Zack said to me when I got on the set was, “Dave, Adrian lives“. I said “great”, because once that happens all the ambiguity is retained, all the moral conundrum stays in place. So I was really pleased about that. I think also the fact that it now stands in relation to superhero movies, possibly as Watchmen the graphic novel stood in relation to comic; in that the general audience is now very familiar with the idea of superheroes, they understand all the conventions, you know — the secret underground headquarters, the costumes, the crime fighting — they don’t have to have that explained to them, so it’s very timely from that point of view. Of course it’s also a bizarre coincidence that when the graphic novel came out it was kind of paired with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, and now Watchmen the movie’s kind of paired with, and compared to, The Dark Knight movie.

Next: Gibbons discusses the previous mooted versions — including Terry Gilliam’s — and Alan Moore’s stance on the film.

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Is there anything that you would have done differently on the film?

I’m generally happy with it. I completely accept that I’m not a filmmaker, I’m a comic book guy, and I think that if I’d been heavily involved in the adaptation it would’ve been too precious. There I things that I couldn’t have let go. There are things that, you know — I thought Zack was very thoughtful about what he kept and what he changed. I think it would have been too precious to me to do it. I was just happy that it was done by somebody who was given the power to just do it the way he saw it, so that it did have — although there were lots of creative people involved — one person’s vision rather than a diluted committee-type version of it.

What do you think might have happened if Terry Gilliam or Paul Greengrass made it instead?

It’s hard to speculate. I’m sure the Terry Gilliam version would have been closer to five-and-a-half-hours! I think it would have been too… [pauses] I mean, I love Terry Gilliam’s films, and Paul Greengrass is an incredible director and I’m sure they would have been good movies.

Would it have been more of a “Terry Gilliam Film” rather than a faithful adaptation?

I think that’s possibly true. It might have been just too many cooks. I like the fact that Zack was able to stand back from it a bit; he was able to get what Alan and I were trying to do rather than feel it was raw material for him to embroider or embellish. You can speculate on that a bit. The other thing I would like to say — and that Zack is very clear about — is that I don’t think Watchmen needed a movie to validate it. I think graphic novels and comic books are completely valid media in their own right. If a movie had never been made of it, I’d have been perfectly happy. It’s not like, “Yes, finally — they made a movie!” I’m pleased that a good movie has been made of it. If no movie had been made at all it would have been okay, and Zack is always one of the first people to say, “Go and read the graphic novel!” The true experience of Watchmen is the graphic novel; that was how it was conceived. But I think Watchmen as a movie stands up remarkably well. It’s a great introduction to the graphic novel as well: I think if you’ve enjoyed the movie, the graphic novel will give you more richness. And I like to think that the DVD release is gonna bridge between those two. The thing about reading a graphic novel is it’s an active experience; watching a movie is more of a passive experience. I think the DVD experience is somewhere between the two — so it’s yet another kind of flavor of Watchmen.

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Because you can explore the different scenes in the way the novel flips chronology?

Yeah. Also, in the graphic novel not only are there comic book pages but there are text pages as well, and there’s an analogy in those in what the filmmakers have done — they’ve done these kind of spoof documentaries and glimpses of the characters in a different light, which again fleshes the whole thing out. I know some people who’ve read the graphic novel and never read the text pieces, and you can do that — that’s fine — but I do like to think that the basic raw material will repay many, many hours of investigation and re-reading. And I’ve certainly found with the movie, having seen it multiple times, that I’m seeing things in the movie that I didn’t see the first time.

Such as?

There’s the thing where Dr. Manhattan talks about meeting Silk Spectre II, and how when they first kiss, he says, you know, “After every kiss she plants a smaller kiss, like a signature.” I’d heard that and seen that in the movie and been struck by it being virtually what Alan wrote. What a wonderful line it was, and what a wonderful evocation it was of them together. Then after I’d watched the movie, probably for the seventh time, right at the end she kisses Dan Dreiberg and she does exactly that — she kisses him and then she gives him another smaller kiss. And I thought, ‘That’s detail — that’s resonance.’

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Have you spoken to Alan about the film, and has he offered any reaction to it?

As far as I know he hasn’t seen it. It’s quite simple: Alan hasn’t had a good experience with Hollywood in the past and he’s decided he doesn’t want to have anything more to do with it. Being a man of great principle, to him that means he doesn’t want any money from Hollywood adaptations and he doesn’t want his name on them; and I greatly respect his stance and his consistency on that. He doesn’t take the moral high ground. He doesn’t feel that I should have nothing to do with it, and I have to say that my experience with Hollywood — which is virtually my experience with Watchmen — has been extremely good. I’ve been very well treated; I’ve been listened to; I’ve had some input into it and I’ve been very happy with the result. Alan has specifically asked me not to talk to him about Watchmen — he’s quite happy to talk to me but he doesn’t want to talk to me about Watchmen and I completely respect that. He’s expressed no desire to see the movie and I see no reason that he should.

So, what does the creator of Watchmen like watching? Read Dave Gibbons’ Five Favorite Films here.

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