Zack Snyder: 'Nothing's too graphic for me'

Alan Moore believes his 'Watchmen' is unfilmable – and Zack Snyder agrees. So what has this 'choreographer of death' done to one of the finest comic books ever created?
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Zack Snyder doesn't know how to spell "enthusiasm". No, really. When I ask him to sign one of my Watchmen books at the end of our interview, the director has to find an assistant for help with the wording. Which, for a fan boy such as Snyder, is ironic. He is the geek who, in his feature-film debut, successfully remade George A Romero's cult zombie classic Dawn Of The Dead. He is the aficionado who decided that Frank Miller's graphic novel 300 – a majestic retelling of the Spartans' fabled exploits at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC – could be made into a viable movie. The resulting film made almost $500m. And in 2009 Snyder is the fan responsible for turning the greatest comic book ever made – one he's loved for two decades and that's defeated a clutch of directors before him – into the most exciting blockbuster of the year. At last, Watchmen cometh.

In an hour of voluble conversation at his office on the Warner Bros lot in Los Angeles, Snyder brims with excited agitation. And he constantly toys with a baseball bat to prove it. "It was funny – when I read The Dark Knight [the 1986 Frank Miller Batman graphic novel] I thought, I can make this into a movie! But when I read Watchmen, I thought, nah..." says Snyder with a laugh.

He has "supplemental" Watchmen material coming out of his ears: three making-of books, a portrait book, fake public-service announcements online, Flickr photo-sharing accounts; there's also a three-and-a-half hour director's cut planned, as well as a version of a pirate's story told incidentally within Watchmen. And arrayed on shelves around his office – amid the skulls, animal-skin rugs, Star Wars accessories and countless books on art, film and myths – is yet more material: the leather-bound sketch books in which Snyder, a former art student, drew out his vision for his $150m, 165-minute epic.

Watchmen certainly provides rich source material. Originally published as a 12-part comic series in 1986 and 1987, it is set in an alternative reality. The British writer/artist team of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons imagined an America where costumed superheroes have been around since the 1930s but by the 1980s are has-beens, their "vigilante" activities banned and their numbers dwindling.

Those remaining are a motley crew: Rorschach, Nite Owl, Dr Manhattan, Silk Spectre II, The Comedian (see box, right) are morally iffy characters quite unlike the superheroes audiences were used to in the 1980s. Watchmen was published at the same time as Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which radically overhauled Batman (Christopher Nolan's films draw deep from Miller's vision). But Watchmen went deeper, further. Moore, the writer, layered his plot with references to Ancient Greece, modern geopolitics, the Cold War, sexual tension and the philosophy of self. Gibbons, the artist, crafted elaborate city scenes, visions of Mars and Antarctica, wordless and repetitive panels.

Born in Wisconsin, Snyder attended boarding school in Connecticut, then studied art for a year in London before taking a film course at the Art Center College Of Design in Pasadena, California. It was there that he discovered Watchmen. "Reading it was like reading a poem – you just didn't think of it as a movie." Although he had made Super-8 films since he was 11, Snyder had thought he might be a painter until, during his year in London, at Chelsea's Heatherley art school, he decided he wanted to be a film-maker.

"You came in to Art Center and thought, 'I'm a young artist, I'm gonna make a feature film and be awesome!'" he recalls wryly of his younger self. "But halfway through the course you start to learn about the industry and how it works. It's scary – they're not just handing movies over to film students. And how am I gonna eat? Work in a video store?"

But the college had strong links with the commercial production industry in California and Snyder began making commercials half-way through his student career. By the time of graduation he had a "really strong portfolio of commercials". He landed a job straight away, and spent the next 15 years making ads and pop videos. Car commercials were a speciality, and you can see his grasp of speed and kinetic action in the kick-ass car-chase sequences in Dawn Of the Dead. For a film about dead people, it flew out of the screen.

Similarly, his understanding of art and flair for drawing his own storyboards helped him make 300. "It's a very tableaux-y movie. That's the way Frank draws his comic books. I translated his comic-book frames into movie frames in a way that didn't get in the way of the movie. That's the trick of 300."

There were other tricks: Snyder shot extreme violence – swords lopping off heads, spears skewering torsos – in stylish slow motion; he crafted vivid CGI backdrops; he had his cast, led by the Scots actor Gerard Butler, undergo mind-boggling training. And he had these super-buff warriors wear little more than leather Speedos.

"Zack understands combat," Butler tells me. "He's trained with Navy Seals. Why? He just loves it! There was that element to Zach – he's always been into these kind of things you weren't quite sure about. I'm sure he was operating in Afghanistan between films."

When I read this quote to Snyder, he grins. "Look, I'm an action geek, I can't help it. I'll show you this picture of me," he says, hopping out of his seat, "and you decide...' He hands me a Polaroid: it's a picture of the director in what looks like combat gear, next to a bearded corpse. Written underneath is: "Snyder and Hussein, 12-13-03" – the day Saddam was captured by US troops. Snyder is tickled by this (I imagine) artful piece of digital photographic manipulation.

"I love the promise action movies make," he continues. "They're gonna do something, and show you something you've never seen. [John Boorman's 1981 film] Excalibur is one of my favourites. The elements of action are the things that inspire me to say, 'Gosh, I wanna have a battle scene and then at the end of it someone gets knighted – I get the chills.' That's what I want. 'Cause I am into mythology and what Sam Peckinpah said: 'I'm a student of violence because I'm a student of the human heart.' I don't like violence for violence's sake. Someone said 300 was like a ballet of death, and I was like, 'Oh, that's nice, I accept that.' The violence becomes abstracted by the mythology and cinematic aspects of it. Then it can become symbolic."

The original graphic novel of Watchmen certainly has it moments of extreme violence – it opens with a crunching fight scene and a murder – but it has much more: flashbacks, subplots, side narratives, heroes who are occasionally less than heroic and villains who just might be on to something. It's the inability of film to convey this complexity that led Moore to denounce any adaptation of his work a long time ago (he's also rightly aggrieved by other Hollywood versions of his creations, from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to V For Vendetta). He's always said Watchmen was unfilmable, and, as ever, refuses to be associated with the film production. The failed attempts over the past 20 years by other directors – Paul Greengrass, Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky – to make the film offered some vindication. But superfan Snyder, with his heartfelt enthusiasm, has prevailed. Technology, and the creative and budgetary freedom that came of 300's tremendous success, enabled him to pour everything he had into Watchmen.

"I gotta say, maybe I agreed with Alan," he says. "His Watchmen is a complete thing; on one level it doesn't need a movie..." He whacks his bat into his palm for emphasis. "Listen," he says, beaming again, "a lot of my feeling about Watchmen is this: if we help sell 2m more copies of the book by the time the film comes out, I've pretty much done my job."

'Watchmen' (18) is released on Friday

Re-animated: The 'Watchmen' heroes brought to big-screen life

Doctor Manhattan After a nuclear accident, scientist Jon Osterman's godlike powers mean he can do practically anything – though he does find it hard to connect with people

Rorschach

An alienated, uncompromising masked vigilante who continues to fight crime long after superheroes are made "illegal" in the Watchmen world

Ozymandias

After retiring from superheroism, the man named after the Shelley poem, aka "the smartest man in the world", became a celebrated athlete and philanthropist

The Comedian

Amoral, sadistic and cynical, the Comedian is a government-sanctioned superhero whose murder kicks off the story. He appears in a series of flashbacks

Night owl

An affable inventor of super-gadgets, Nite Owl is now retired. He was based on the comic superhero the Blue Beetle and bears a resemblance to Batman

Silk Spectre II

Followed in her mother's footsteps to become Silk Spectre, she lives with Doctor Manhattan, with whom she has an unsatisfying relationship

Luiza Sauma

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