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Behind “Under The Hood

The Watchmen movie has been out for a few weeks now, and while it continues to polarize audiences, there is now some new Watchmen material for everyone to start talking about.

The comic-within-a-comic “Tales of the Black Freighter” has spawned a short animated film while the supplemental material within the comic series has been adapted as “Under the Hood.” Both of these films are due out today on DVD and Blu-Ray and are also available on demand and for download. spoke exclusively with Eric Matthies and Hans Rodionoff, the director and screenwriter respectively of the faux documentary “Under the Hood.”

If this DVD was released before the film came out I think it would have helped prep audiences for the Watchmen universe a little bit more. Do you think it would have helped audiences accept the Watchmen movie more if they saw “Under the Hood” first?

Eric Matthies: I think it might have, and I think it still stands a chance of doing that. I think it’s coming out a little outside the window, but I heard some people coming out of the theater saying that they would have liked to see a movie about all those people in the title sequence. I think that’s what we’ve got. It came out the way it came out in terms as how they chose to release it. I think there are a lot of decisions that had to be made around having enough content, “The Black Freighter” does come out and that could be one reason. Would I like to see it come out before? Yes, absolutely. I agree with you. I’m just happy it’s coming out when it is.

What was the process like of putting this thing together? Did you sit down with the graphic novel and its supplemental material and figure out what you wanted in the documentary?

EM: In the beginning there were a number of conversations. I do all the behind the scenes stuff and the DVD extras for the movie as well and I had done the same on 300 so, when we finished 300 there were a lot of conversations with Zack [Snyder], Debbie [Snyder], and Wes [Collier] about the opportunity within the graphic novel for so many things that could be a watching point for additional content that was based from the narrative of Watchmen. A number of things have been kicked around; obviously the “The Black Freighter” was already very important to them and already being planned out. They felt that “Under the Hood” probably very much for the same reasons that you just mentioned, it’s a back story that sets up the psychology of why put on a mask, why fight crime? What was this would like before Dr. Manhattan?

Unfortunately the theatrical cut of Watchmen removed a lot of Steven McHattie [Hollis Mason]. At least we got to see him a lot more in “Under the Hood.” Where you excited that you had such an incredible, electric actor like McHattie to anchor this entire project?

EM: Absolutely, definitely happy with all the performances. His being so integral to “Under the Hood,” you couldn’t have “Under the Hood” without Hollis Mason. It was great to work with Steven; I had met him on 300 and got to know him a little bit. He was game from the start, loved the script, and loved the idea of being able to bring something like “Under the Hood” to life. I think all the actors had so much research available to them either through the graphic novel itself, or the Absolute Watchmen and the notes that Gibbons put on the end of that goes all the way up to this really robust three ring binder of specific characters, this was information that Zack had given to each of the actors. So, they were ready. They knew what was there, and Steven in particular definitely understood the importance of balancing dialog that Hans [Rodinoff] had taken to try to bring the actual memoir to life and also sort of infuse some of his own take on how Hollis would deal with the reporter and deal with answering those sort of questions.

Hans Rodionoff: What Steven and all the actors brought to the project — and you can see it so clearly in the feature film — the level of commitment and the level of emersion that everybody put into it. I still remember when Eric had me flown to Vancouver to meet everyone and look at the sets and what would be available, and get my feet wet so to speak. We walk into the set and heard Jackie Earle Haley screaming at the top of his lungs, I asked, “What is this? Are they shooting a fight scene or something?” Eric said, “No, that is what he does before every take to get his voice into Rorschach range.” The level of commitment — that poor guy tore his vocal cords up to be Rorschach. That was just one of the things that he did. Every actor that was involved with the project was similarly in tune with their character and was putting that much work into it. It was great to do a project that gave attention to the characters that didn’t get as much screen time in the film, but did just as much immersive research to get into character and because of the notes and stuff that Zack had provided, all these actors were ready to do this sort of thing. It was great to be able to give them the opportunity to do that.

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It was fantastic to also see Matt Frewer [Moloch] in “Under the Hood” — another actor we don’t get enough of in the theatrical cut.

HR: Yes and what he’s saying is so scary. He’s a doomsayer I love the fact that he gets the most prophetic dark stuff to say.

Speaking of prophetic dark stuff, Rob Labelle is fantastic as Wally Weaver. He just really digs into that part. You can see the terror, the fear, and the intellect of his character coming out in his performance.

EM: The passion that he brought (and we had only a very limited amount of time with him especially after half that time gets eaten up by tweaking wardrobe and fluffing around with hair and what-not), he really just ripped into it, and it wasn’t a one take thing, but every take he did some kind of nuanced variation. I wish we had more stuff written for him because he was really fun.

So, you have the “Under the Hood” chapters, and a lot of the supplemental interview with Sally Jupiter; there's the psychiatrist and Big Bernie at his newsstand — Did you know what length this was going to be from the start? How did you decide what to put in, what not to put in, what to add — what was that process like?

HR: Eric and I sort of started from the place of knowing that the two pieces that were integral and were essential to “Under the Hood” were Steven McHattie as Nite Owl I and Silk Spectre I. That’s the love story and that’s the golden age of super heroes or masked heroes and their downfall when Dr. Manhattan is introduced. We are also trying to do a yellow journalism piece that was leaning toward supporting the Keene Act so it would serve as a propaganda piece. Once we knew we had our two essential components, it really just became a wrangling game for Eric to try to get people when they weren’t shooting.

There were a lot of wardrobe changes that were crucial to our thing, 100% of the footage in “Under the Hood” is unique. Eric didn’t cannibalize from the feature film. It is all unique footage. There is some stock footage that was from historical sources, but we don’t share any of the actual Watchmen footage from the feature film. Because our piece is from a very specific time period, I think the wrangling of sets and the wrangling of actors became a big component of who we were going to be able to include and who we weren’t going to be able to include.

Originally we just built the whole story around Nite Owl I and Silk Spectre I, and then throughout added a couple of people. We thought it would be great to get Wally, and it just started to build from there. I think we were just forging forth knowing that we wanted the length that an actual Sixty Minutes episode would be, it would be like thirty-eight minutes with commercial breaks and everything. We were aiming for about the length that we got.

So what was it like? Someone from the production would call you and say, “guys you can actually have Matt Frewer for two hours tomorrow.” Would you guys scramble to write something to get him in? Was it like that?

HR: Yes, There was a certain point in which it was Eric and his team just busting it out. This was right before the writer's strike happened so it was a hard deadline for me because after a point I couldn’t be involved anymore. Basically what happened was, there were pieces of dialog that I thought were essential and that capture what “Under the Hood” is really all about and add to the Watchmen mythos.

Eric and I discussed this to where he said “I’m going to have to play this very guerilla and very loose, and at some point I don’t know who I’m going to get, and how long I’m going to have them for so why don’t we come up with a series of questions that Larry Culpepper can ask that would inspire or get great responses from the actors because they have all done the research and they are going to be in character.”

EM: We did know at that point that we were going to get [Sally Jupiter's husband Larry] Shexnayder and we kind of knew the characters I could get so in Hans final script we definitely had those layers in there. We had a pre-production process, the script was finished and then it was just a matter of juggling logistics and essentially coming to this already overwhelmed all though be it very enthusiastic production team that is trying to get their hundred day shoot on the big film done and saying, “hey guys, we have an extra forty minutes of content that we need to shoot in character on your sets with your actors in wardrobe”. They really had to figure out how to fit us in. There was a lot of back and forth and actually I’d known a lot of them for a long time so it worked out really well. But it certainly was a surprise to a few people on the production side.

Eric, while working on “Under the Hood” you also produced all of the production journals as well. Are all these things sort of overlapping so that you’re shooting a little piece for the production journals and then also pull a character aside for something in “Under the Hood?”

EM: Everything was happening at once but I had two cinematographers coming around doing a lot of the behind the scenes stuff. But we would block out that this was an Under the Hood during the day or in the afternoon we would cover the behind the scenes. We had a pretty fluid schedule for “Under the Hood.” I had an Assistant Director working in conjunction with the AD on the main unit. We really had to step it up to the equivalent of a main unit production, with no where near the budget, to make everything work well. There was some sort of rhyme and reason to it. Initially I thought it was going to have to be really guerilla then [Watchmen producer] Herb Gaines took me aside and said “No, [laughing] here’s the rule book kid.” Actually it is a lot better to have discipline and control over the whole thing.

The fans will kill me if I don’t bring this us, but I have to call you out on a continuity error. You have the name of the psychiatrist as William Long, when he is supposed to be Malcolm Long. Was that a mistake or if it was done intentionally?

EM: Uhhhh…

Apparently that was an “oops” then, huh?

EM: That was an “oops.” Wow! That’s bizarre. I’m not trying to deflect anything, because I should have caught it but all that gets vetted through an insanely complicated process of clearing names and actor names and doing all the credits through the legal team. So it’s really surprising that it actually got there and I apologize to all the fans for screwing it up. I’m going to throw the Culpepper Minute production crew under the bus and say that you know that news crews sometimes screw up the bylines. I’m going to go ahead and say it’s the Culpepper Minute's staff and that they should all be lynched but they are all dead now.

Or you could say his name is Malcolm William Long but that professionally he goes by William.

EM: I love it! Thank you! [laughing]

[Note: Some time after this interview I was contacted by Eric Matthies who explained that it wasn't a mistake after all, and there were undisclosed legal reasons they could not use the name Malcolm Long]

The other one fans picked out is that you show a photo of Jon Osterman and its not the photo of him and Janey from the carnival. Dr. Manhattan mentions in Watchmen that the carnival photo is the only photo of him as Jon Osterman in existence.

EM: The government works in mysterious ways. That was one of the photos from the black ops side of things that we really don’t want to know about.

What was the other continuity error that they didn’t pick up on? Might as well let that cat out of the bag now too.

EM: The one I thought you were going to say, but yeah since we’re clearing the decks, I know that as it is written in the graphic novel the version of “Under the Hood” and our version of the script, Hollis talks about seeing the first ever issue of action comics. Of course our screen shot up there is Superman #1 and not Action Comics. I’m thankful there were some fans, I think on your site that say “oh they screw up a lot of those sort of things all the time so it’s probably intentional” But it was actually an issue with clearance and copyright laws in getting the Action Comic for this piece so we used the Superman cover instead.

Was there an intentional decision not to bring in characters like Rorschach or Nite Owl II or even have a mention of them in the “Under the Hood?”

HR: We did talk about it. I think we came to the understanding that the best you could get of Rorschach would be that footage like the Big Foot footage type and we didn’t want it to detract or double up on the gag and feel repetitive so why not let this be Hooded Justice’s moment, because he doesn’t have much to do in the feature film. It just seemed much more interesting to let him have that footage.

Also, I feel like “Under the Hood” is really the realm of the Minutemen. It’s the movie of the original Watchmen not the new generation. I feel like it works best almost seen as a prequel to Watchmen. It’s about a change in generations; it’s about a change in what is important. I think that if you start putting in a lot of the heroic characters that were in the feature film I think it might have gotten diluted.

Eric, you mentioned you were handling all the DVD features, are there any special features that you can shed some light on? I would love to see a Dave Gibbons commentary.

EM: Well, you may very well get a Dave Gibbons commentary though not necessarily on the Theatrical Version of the film. I have recorded a commentary with Dave but it has not been fully locked in as far as what version it’s going to go on. But, we did it to the longer cut, the ultimate cut.

What would be really interesting is to maybe get the guy who runs the largest Watchmen fan site to do an audio commentary. I think that would be really cool.

EM & HR: [Laughing]

Or, maybe just a link to somewhere — a nice Easter egg.

EM: I don’t know if this is for sure either but I would think they are going to provide the DDY Feature that is popular these days where you can do your own Mystery Science Theatre thing with it.

The blu-ray features are really cool. We are working on a lot of stuff for that. We shot everyday for behind the scenes coverage so in terms of the amount of material that was at everyone’s disposal to create different things for the different versions of the film, there is definitely a lot of stuff people haven’t seen in video journals and the HBO specials. There are some RMO where you try to delve into other documentary type footage that will shed some light on some of the scenes, particularly on vigilantism; we’re working right now on a piece like that.

Like other “Under the Hood” style documentaries that take place inside the Watchmen world?

EM: More like real people going out and fighting criminals and all the different versions of how the word is used. Everything from Bernard Getz to Curtis Sliwa, there are guys today, you’ve probably seen the article in Rolling Stone, where a lot of people are doing what the Watchmen were actually doing. They are feeling fed up with society and dressing up and going out and fighting crime. There is history of that going on in our country with fighting the cattle rustlers and other vigilante behavior to historians and crime authors it’s got that perspective of it. It’s not so great for the Neighborhood Watch group to turn into the Neighborhood Watchmen.

I remember back when Blair Witch came out, they put some fake documentaries on television to help promote the film. Was there any talk of maybe putting “Under the Hood” on TV? Like on the History Channel or the Sci-fi channel as a special to help tease the movie or was it always going to be on DVD?

EM: I think it was always in the intention or the realm of the home video product because of the connection to the “Black Freighter.” I think there may have been times where that may have been the idea higher up the food chain at Warner Brothers. It certainly would have been cool to do that. I think that the internet was used effectively with the stuff the Paramount guys did. We were able to provide from footage to them from “Under the Hood” to make some of those things. But they really ran with that viral concept. I thought that those pieces were great. Some of them were maybe a little long. I thinks that’s kind of what you’re talking about. As far as doing stuff on television, there just wasn’t really a big demand for that from the studios so it sort of stayed where it was.

HR: And it seems like the only way to get it done or the coolest way to expand it is to do it on HBO, do it somewhere where there wouldn’t be any commercial interruptions. Then you’d just play it with the period commercials. People would turn it on, see an old Seiko commercial and people would be like what the hell? You turn on HBO expecting Deadwood or something and it’s a Seiko commercial. It would draw them in.

Give them the old Orson Welles War of the Worlds treatment.

HR: [Laughing] Exactly.

Will all of the video journals and all of the New Frontiersman viral stuff that Paramount did be piled on this Ultimate Edition Watchmen DVD?

EM: Actually what we’ve done with the Video Journals — since you’ve already seen them and they’re kind of pre-released — We’ve tried to go back and sort of do a 2.0. So that material will be there in a slightly different form. I’m not sure about the Paramount stuff. I don’t really know. That’s out of my jurisdiction to talk about what might be coming from them that’s going on a DVD. I don’t really know.

I hope its on the level of features they put on the Lord of the Rings DVD’s. I felt like I was really brought inside the entire production with those material. I hope you get a chance to do something similar for Watchmen.

EM: I think with the Blu-Ray you’ll be pleased on that level. I definitely think with the Rings, Peter Jackson did just a whole different breed of cat in terms of how he takes on the behind the scenes stuff as part of his responsibility. I think Zack gives us a lot of leeway to do what we do and definitely is very participatory. I think with directors like those guys, like when we did all the Matrix stuff, you get a lot more when you’ve got a filmmaker that actually embraces that possibility of sort of expanding their world by using other tools, like DVD and Internet. I think in other situations the film makers that are reticent to do that. They don’t want to give away the magic or view it through a different filter and that’s why you have a different balance on different DVD’s.

I want to get both of your takes on the Watchmen film. Obviously it’s been very polarizing. Some critics love it, like Roger Ebert, some critics are tearing it apart. I think the majority of the fans like it. With non-fans it seems kind of split. What's your take on the mixed reaction to the film?

HR: I think there are a couple of things that help Watchmen in the terms of how the public perceived it. One of the things is because we had a slew of super hero movies over the last 5 or 10 years probably. It’s much more in the public consciousness, so making fun of or poking holes in the established archetype makes a lot more sense now than it ever did before. When Watchmen was first published everyone in the comic book world was annoyed and sick of Superman and Batman. I don’t know if the public was ready for that. Now we’ve had all these super hero movies in the past few years that have propelled public awareness and it is much more in the public eye. The timing of that was definitely good and the nonlinear telling in the flash backs and flash forwards, it’s something that comic book readers have been down with and experienced with for many years, the X-Men run or what ever it is, the idea of moving through time and all that showing a disjointed story in that way is something that comic book fans have always embraced and loved.

I guess it took TV shows like Lost and some of the movies that have come out recently to get people or the rest of the public to embrace the nonlinear story telling. That was another thing that helped Watchmen. Ultimately I think when people try to compare it to the Dark Knight or the X-Men, when you try to compare it to a comic book movie, it just really can’t be done, strictly for the reason that Brian Singer is doing an X-Men movie or Raimi is doing a Spiderman movie, there is such a huge amount of material on so many different story lines, and so many things happened over the last 30 years that they can do a film that stays faithful to the source material but still manage to surprise the audience.

With Watchmen you don’t have 30 years worth of stories to pull from you don’t have the different tangents. There is a very finite story to it. By it’s nature it’s going to be difficult to surprise an audience the way that the Dark Knight could surprise an audience because of you go into the Dark Knight and you know that Batman and the Joker are going to fight but how that’s going to happen and how the dialog is going to be between them you really have no clue. It’s so much easier for Christopher Nolan to surprise his audience and yet stay faithful to the source material, so I think Zack really had his work cut out for him. If he really wanted to remain faithful to the source material he couldn’t surprise anybody. That’s why Watchmen specifically is really hard to put up against or judge against another super hero movie. It’s just not the same. Did I answer your question at all?

Yes, your lengthy answer just shows how difficult a question it really is.

HR: It’s a hard question to ask me and Eric because, well I can’t speak for Eric but I love the movie, so I can’t really speak to people that didn’t like it or really understand where they are coming from. I just know that I loved it and am trying to figure out why there would be that polarization because I loved it and all my friends loved it.

EM: I’ll give you my two cents on it. I think that if you look at the graphic novel, they brought every tool to bear in terms of literary vehicles, artistic vehicles, in the terms in the way it was written the way it was drawn it was laid out. You have to go back, you can’t read it linearly. You have to think about things. You have to get to the point where you go “Oh, now I understand what that thing meant 10 or 20 pages ago.” Everybody who talks about that book talks about constantly finding something new in it. I think this movie is the same. I think Zack did the exact same thing with all the cinematic tools he could bring to bear on it.

I know every frame from the theatrical and the director’s cut from all the work we’ve been doing on it and Zack can point things out to me in a shot that I have been looking at for two years now and haven’t seen some of the stuff that he has tucked away that he had hidden in there. He has double meanings. That is not necessarily him being “see and say” true to the graphic novel, that’s him being true to his spirit. That’s why I agree with you that this is the kind of movie that over time it’s going to really grow. It’s the kind of movie that you have to see more than once.

Another thing, and this is me totally speaking as a fan, I don’t know of any other industry, any other product that you make in this world that you base the life or death of that product on opening day receipts. [Laughing] There is no other product, like we are going to put out this car, but if we don’t sell out every lot by Sunday morning it’s a failure. I think that it is an unfortunate model that our industry has created because to me the film, just looking at numbers not listening to all the other stuff, it’s a success. If you look at it’s world wide box office receipts it has already made back what it cost. Then how is that a failure? But if you read the inflated numbers and the exaggerated, wishful thinking projections, how do you make a projection on a second movie based on the first movie that admits and agrees was out of the box and an anomaly of 300? How are they thinking we are going to make the same money on a completely different movie that is longer or more complicated?

What I know is it is done fairly well as it is and it will continue to do well and I think it is a disservice to the quality and the attention to detail that was given to it by the film makers, and when I say that I mean every person that worked on it, to say that it is a failure. You have to give it time, you have to let people absorb it, go back and think about it. It was made for people to actually come out of the theater and have something to talk about. How do you deal with crime on the streets? How do you deal with abuse of power? That is the beauty of the book and the movie.

3.24.09 Source:

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