THE MASKS OF "WATCHMEN"
"Watchmen" unfolds in a world at the brink of war, in which costumed superheroes, called Masks, have been outlawed, driven underground by a society that once revered them but then grew to fear and despise them.
The uniqueness of the project attracted many talents. "We read a lot of actors for the movie," Levin affirms. "Ultimately the cast that emerged were, of course, talented, but also they absolutely believed in the words that they were saying and in the characters they were playing."
"'Watchmen' studies these characters' politics, their sexuality and their philosophy, their deviances and inadequacies," says Patrick Wilson, who plays Nite Owl II. "That's something you haven't seen before in this genre."
Carla Gugino, the film's Sally Jupiter, notes that the prospect of embodying the characters of what she calls "the 'Citizen Kane' of graphic novels" was both daunting and exhilarating. "There was a great amount of responsibility to do it justice," she says. "There was not one person who felt the need to shine more than anybody else. It was a wonderful true ensemble."
Cast as Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley was struck by the opportunity to portray "the humanity behind the mask," adding, "It explores what the world might be like if people really did dress up in costumes and went into the vigilante business. What are their weaknesses, their morality, the beliefs driving their behavior?"
They also quickly found that Snyder's enthusiasm was infectious. "I've never seen someone more passionate about a project in my life," says Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays The Comedian. "How passionate he is about this novel and making this movie true to it was a sight to behold and it invigorated everybody."
Even before Snyder selected the cast, fans were trying to select it for him. "About three years ago," recalls Haley, "people on the 'Net were suggesting me for the role of Rorschach. At the time I didn't know the novel. I looked it up and was fascinated by it. So when I heard the film was going ahead, I was very pumped and fought like hell to win the part."
The only Mask to openly defy the Keene Act, which outlawed costumed heroes, Rorschach remains vigilant, continuing to haunt the gutters of New York, hunting society's "vermin"…his mask the last thing they see before he metes out his judgment. Rorschach's moral compass has only two directions: right and wrong.
"We live in a complex world of shades of gray, but for Rorschach, the world is black and white," says Haley. "For him, complexity makes no sense. Complexity simply justifies the victimization of himself and everybody who is made to suffer from someone else's special interest."
Rorschach's psychology and sense of honor alike are reflected in the mask he wears, with shifting, mirror image patterns of black and white, like the inkblots of a Rorschach test. "Rorschach has this noirish quality about him," says Snyder. "He is the detective of the story, but at the same time, he is almost psychopathic in his uncompromising pursuit of justice. He's a very fascinating character. He comes from a broken family and grew up on the mean streets, and then gradually, through events both in and out of the mask, he became Rorschach."
The mystery unfolds following Rorschach's discovery that Edward Blake, also known as The Comedian, has been murdered, thrown from his 30th-floor apartment window. A disenchanted killing machine who has spent his years doing unsavory jobs for the government in both war and peacetime, The Comedian sees the world as a dark place where small acts of brutality or heroism alike make little to no difference.
The Comedian is as American as can be, but he is also the dark side of what America has the potential to be," remarks the director. "He rides that edge; he's always doing some dark job for the government, but he's doing it as a superhero would do it."
To Rorschach, he's nothing short of a super-patriot, an American hero who died in service to his country.
Tonight, a Comedian died in New York, Rorschach writes in his journal. Somebody knows why.
Rorschach believes someone is picking off costumed heroes, of which The Comedian is only the first. He sets out to warn the members of the interconnected group that in past years fought by his side--six souls tied together by fate and the desire to make their own brand of justice. His first visit is to Dan Dreiberg, who, as Nite Owl II, was his partner in the glory days of the Masks.
"Dan was probably the closest friend that Rorschach has ever had on the planet," says Haley. "The police don't like Rorschach. The citizens don't like him. None of the other Masks like him. When he stumbles upon this murder, he is going to pursue it all the way to the end. But I also think there's a little piece of him that sees the murder as a reason the guys should get back together."
Unlike Rorschach, however, Dan has moved on. Prior to assuming the identity of Nite Owl, Dreiberg had been "rich and bored, with this romantic fantasy of fighting crime, being a superhero, of saving and getting the girl," says Patrick Wilson. "He has an old-fashioned sense of values. He sees the good in people. When he went out and fought crime, it was about justice and helping people."
Dan now lives a quiet life and makes weekly visits to his predecessor, the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), to reminisce over a beer. "Dan has gotten soft physically, politically, sexually…" Wilson notes. "Without the costume on, he doesn't have an identity. He has no place in society and feels impotent in the face of its problems. He's terrified to put the suit on, but you also get the sense he can't live without being Nite Owl."
"It's only when he is confronted with this mystery that's unfolding--his colleagues being murdered--that he begins to see the potential of putting on the old costume," adds Snyder. "Once he gets the costume back on, he realizes that that's who he really is. He's this sort of Everyman who is lost until he rediscovers his purpose."
Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, has already established a new purpose beyond his previous life as a Mask. The world's smartest man and now one of its richest, Veidt retired before the Keene Act and made his fortune exploiting the masked vigilante era in the form of action figures, cartoons, perfumes, books and movies. Nevertheless, he believes he has a higher calling. Obsessed with the exploits of Alexander the Great and the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II (Ozymandias is the Greek name for Rameses II), Veidt seeks to perfect the human condition.
Where Rorschach seeks to punish the guilty, Veidt considers those efforts pointless when everything they know could be obliterated at any minute. "Adrian has a bit of a god complex," explains Matthew Goode, who plays the gilded magnate. "He has this idea that the world needs to be fixed because humanity seems to be broken. We are constantly warring with each other and he believes that no price is too high to get the world to unite in brotherhood."
"That philosophy is in many ways the spine of the movie," Snyder asserts. "How do you reshape humanity and make it peaceful? Can anyone really have that kind of control?"
"They're all just fundamentalists, in a way," says Billy Crudup, who plays Dr. Manhattan, the only Mask with true superpowers. "They see a threatening world where their only recourse is to take matters into their own hands, and their desire to order a disordered world overcomes morality. But Jon believed in the goodness of his country, in following the designs of his leaders."
Before the accident in a nuclear lab that forever altered his life, Dr. Manhattan was Jon Osterman, the son of a watchmaker, a brilliant physicist and "a quintessential '50s male," says Crudup, the actor behind the blue light that emanates from Manhattan's body.
Though Manhattan chose to join the informal group of Masks, the others are, by comparison, "people who play dress up," Crudup states. "They are vigilantes. They don't believe in the stability of the government. They don't believe in the community's capacity to take care of itself. Osterman was the exact opposite: someone who was by the book, believed in the stability of his country and the morality of his government. He did whatever they wanted. And initially after he becomes Dr. Manhattan, he continues to do it."
The accident transformed Jon Osterman into a superbeing, who experiences past, present and future at once and has the power to control matter itself. "He didn't put himself back together as mortal; he put himself back together as a deity," says Crudup.
Comparing Dr. Manhattan to the existence of a nuclear bomb, Snyder remarks, "It became a force in itself in that its existence changed the way we looked at everything. I think in some ways that's what Manhattan represents--this ability to save us or destroy us at the same moment. The implications of this new power are tremendous: Is he truly on our side? What if that power goes away or turns on us? How do you relate to that as a person? He brings into question so many things about our own way of thinking."
As Manhattan moves further into the limitless dimensions of time and matter, he commences a gradual disconnection from humanity and ambivalence about its existence. "He has apathy for almost everything, except for the inner workings of the atom," attests Crudup. "He sees the way the universe works. Humanity has a variable that physics doesn't seem to have. Physics is an ordered world to be discovered. And human interaction is a chaotic world to be taught through harsh experience. It becomes frustrating and burdensome to the point that I think he just doesn't care anymore."
"He longs for a relationship in a sense, but at the same time he's outside of his ability to connect to humans," describes Snyder. "He can see your subatomic particles; therefore you become an abstraction to him and it's hard to relate to that abstraction.
"What would that do to you as a person?" Snyder asks. "What does that do to your relationships with other people, with humanity?"
The one human being with a genuine connection to Dr. Manhattan is Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II, who fell in love with Manhattan as a teenager. Laurie is played by Malin Akerman, who offers, "Laurie was head over heels in love with him, but as he grows more and more distant, there's nothing left for her in the relationship. His work comes before her in her eyes. She feels him falling out of love with her and the more he drifts away, the more she loses her identity."
After the murder of The Comedian, Laurie reconnects with Dan Dreiberg, who shares her inchoate sense of loss. "Reconnecting with Dan gives Laurie back her sense of being a woman," Akerman affirms. "Someone is looking at her, for the first time in God knows how many years, as one human being to another. That reconnection reignites the fire that used to be there as Silk Spectre, the need for the adrenaline rush."
"Their common bond is that they have the same memories of fighting crime," adds Wilson. "They've since become regular human beings just trying to muddle through life without any special powers, moral certainty or superhuman brilliance. Laurie opens Dan up to putting the suit on again. It's the thing that he's most terrified of and the thing he wants more than anything. He just needed somebody to look him in the eye and say, 'Let's do it.'"
Laurie had been pushed into the role of superhero as an adolescent by her mother, Sally Jupiter, who had been the first Silk Spectre. "As Silk Spectre II, Laurie learned to fight like a man," says Akerman. "She was this strong, powerful woman and, in spite of her reluctance to be a Mask, somewhere inside she loved it."
The vampy Sally Jupiter now lives in a retirement community in California and spends her time reminiscing about the limelight she once enjoyed as a rare female crime fighter. "Sally is from the old school of superheroes, the same as The Comedian," says Snyder. "She represents to me the golden age of superheroes. They were almost like movie stars then. So, in a lot of ways, she's like a faded movie star who was never able to recapture that same glory and spotlight that she had in her heyday."
Carla Gugino describes her character as someone who "likes to think of herself as a little more polished than she really is. Sally definitely wanted to fight crime but she also wanted the attention. As she aged she foisted that upon her daughter. Sally's a very complex character who has been through a lot, but much of the drama was self-induced. This is a woman who in her heart of hearts is in love with The Comedian, even though they were never really able to be together."
Sally and Edward Blake, aka The Comedian, were intensely attracted to each other during the golden years of the Minutemen, the original group of superheroes. But their relationship was irreparably marred by an encounter that changed both their lives. "That was the moment that everything changed for Edward Blake," asserts Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays the role. "That's when the true lone wolf came about. He realized he didn't have the skills to convey his feelings; instead, he hurt the woman he's in love with. After that, his whole life is spent virtually alone. I don't know what kind of existence that would be for somebody. I think there's something incredibly sad about The Comedian. I think he wants so much more than he's been able to have in his life. He's a lost soul. The only time he isn't alone is in the midst of a war, with his buddies behind him. He laughs through the worst of it because the little things don't matter for him. Even death doesn't matter to him - until that moment when he realizes what's really going on."
Morgan provided at once the charisma and the brutality of his character. "There's duality in every role, but particularly in The Comedian," says Deborah Snyder. "When he's firing on a mob during riots, it makes you wonder, 'Who's better, the angry mob or The Comedian?' The way Jeffrey plays him, you shouldn't really like this guy and yet you do."
From New York to Mars, plots and conspiracies are unfolding with the fate of all life on earth suspended in the hands of a few. As the Doomsday Clock moves to near-midnight and humanity falls into its shadow, these masked heroes--lonely or megalomaniacal, compassionate or disturbed, loving or outcast, human or superhuman--must decide if they can make a difference, if the world is theirs to make or if, in the end, their fate is to simply find comfort in their mission or each other as the pieces of history fall into place around them.
"Who makes the world?" muses Dave Gibbons. "I guess it's the people in it. It's planning, because people do nothing if not plan. But, at the end of the day, I believe plain luck and happenstance are much more important factors than any of us thinks; they're woven throughout the fabric of reality. No matter how carefully you plan or however many people want something, it still doesn't mean it's going to happen. I think in the end, you have to bow to the greater power of the universe."
FABRICATING THE MASKS
The use of the graphic novel's color palette extended to costume design as well. "We wanted to be very respectful to the source material, so that affected a lot of our color choices," notes costume designer Michael Wilkinson. "We used a lot of greens, purples, oranges and browns…the murky secondary colors that darken as the story progresses."
With the novel spanning several decades--from 1938 to 1985--and with much cutting back and forth between eras, it was essential to choose clothing that was appropriate for each period to make it clear where in the timeline a scene is taking place. The design team settled on "archetypal pieces that really summed up each decade and gave a sense of period authenticity to the movie," says Wilkinson. While that sounds straightforward, the task was anything but, especially considering there were, at times, more than 300 extras in a scene. "There is a myriad of uniforms in the film--everything from World War II soldiers and sailors, to 1938 NYPD, to Vietnam War uniforms from both sides--and each one had to be meticulously well-researched. Adding to that, we had diner waitresses, prison cooks, security guards, flower children protesting in the 1960s, Soviet soldiers, astronauts and much more. I estimate there must have been about 150,000 pieces in our costume stock. We had a 600-page manifest, down to every last earring, and that's a lot to wrap your brain around."
The costumes for the key cast, like their environments, would need to be intimately designed, particularly their crime-fighting outfits. Wilkinson worked with the specialty costume company Quantum FX to create full body casts of all the major characters, upon which they then sculpted the details of each costume in clay. "We could then take those molds and render them in foam latex so you get a stylized physique--wrinkle-free and with beautiful, sculpted details, while being flexible and breathable for the actors," he says.
For Dreiberg's Owl costume, Wilkinson and his team researched 1970s aerospace technology to mimic Dan's knowledge of birds and aerodynamics. "We looked at interesting NASA-style technology, things like exposed zippers, and air vents that might help him move through the air in a smoother way," the costume designer offers. "At the same time, Zack wanted Nite Owl to be a little fear-inspiring; it's important that putting on his costume has a very empowering quality. It helps Dan access a side of his personality that's different from his very shy, retiring daytime character."
The juxtaposition of daytime personality against the masked vigilante is also quite dynamic in the character of Silk Spectre. Sally Jupiter had created a sexy costume for her teenage daughter, a yellow and black mini-dress only marginally more modest than Sally's costume had been. Wilkinson updated Laurie's costume to be a form-fitting latex suit. "We wanted to keep the spirit of the graphic novel intact; Silk Spectre is in the same colors and has the same graphic silhouette as her costume in the book," Wilkinson explains. "But we rendered it in latex because we liked the idea of that extreme, hyper-sexualized version of her character. It juxtaposes so beautifully with Laurie's day-to-day look, which is very stitched together, tailored and precise, wanting to be taken seriously. We enjoyed exploring the two different sides of her personality."
In contrast to the characteristically extreme costumes of the majority of the Masks is the almost non-descript costume of Rorschach: a simple trench coat. "When you read about the character in the graphic novel, he has a very bleak outlook on life," Wilkinson observes. "He's very misanthropic. He just wants to bring a little bit of justice in the world. In terms of his costume, there is the sense that he gave up caring about his appearance a long time ago. He just wears this outfit, not to make a particular impression, just because it's what he wears. He keeps it in a dumpster. It has years of layers of grime and other encrusted crud on it. The whole litany of his past can be read through his trench coat."
TRANSFORMING THE MASKS
Nevertheless, Rorschach has one of the most striking attributes of all the costumed superheroes: his mask of shifting inkblots. "The evolution of Rorschach's mask was a long and complex one," remarks Wilkinson. "We developed a printing process onto a fantastic four-way Lycra that enabled us to create a rough, canvas-like texture but also had a stretchy quality, so we could achieve that smooth, egg-like silhouette. And then the digital effects team created these beautiful moving inkblots on top of the fabric. It was a great collaboration between costumes and visual effects." READ MORE
READ MORE: FROM PANELS TO FRAMES: MAKING "WATCHMEN"/ BUILDING THE WORLD OF "WATCHMEN"