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A Watchmen Weekend - Part II

After a late night party with the cast and crew, a Vancouver fan visits the New York City backlot for a once in a lifetime experience

The following account is part II from “Happy Harry,” a Watchmen fan who shared his story exclusively with If you missed it — take a look at part I.

Battle on the Backlot

How long it has been since I was willing to get up at 7am on a Sunday.

I had been asked just the night before if I’d like to join my Watchmen friend for a little gathering on the New York City Backlot set. We head out to the set along the Burnaby freeways, and even without coffee, I’m buzzing like an eight-year-old on Christmas morning. They’re not going to be filming on the set today, in fact they’ve started breaking parts of it down already. So if they’re done with the set, then what are they up to?
We approach the lot and the backs of the facades become visible. We park the car and step into a darkened warehouse adjoining the set, and there, lying flat on the floor are the Forbidden Planet and Rumrunner signs. I also spot also a collection of movie posters, some of which appear in the graphic novel, but others which were just actual movies from the era. I’d been wondering what sort of references they could throw in to establish that the movie takes place in 1985, but I didn’t think of they’d use actual movie posters.

By the time my eyes adjust to the shadowy storage space we’re at a doorway, and we step out into daylight, and… we’re right in front of the “Institute for Extraspatial Studies!” Right at the newsstand corner, but… no newsstand. Lots more signage has come down, but I recognize this corner immediately from the official set photos. I spot the “Promethean Cab Company,” and the “New Frontiersman” office, and the “Burlesk,” and, and, and…! We stroll past the “Rumrunner” and there it is — the “Jolly Roger” doorway, and the row of apartments next to it with one room conspicuously missing one of its windows. Hurm.

There are posters glued up everywhere — the “Pale Horse” concert, “Nova Express,” assorted Veidt products, and “Punk Bomb”?  My host points out a device jutting out of the sidewalk, roughly the dimensions of a parking meter — it’s a spark hydrant! From the official set photos, it looked like they’d dropped the idea of electric cars, but now it seems like they’ve come up with a great workaround — cars look like regular old automobiles, but that doesn’t mean they’re not electrically powered.

For some reason there’s a couple of smoke machines running, and with cars scattered in the street and signage stripped, for a moment I feel like I’m in the movie “Children Of Men”. But this was so utterly familiar! It was like stepping onto the bridge of the Enterprise, or the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. But for me only better.

After a block, we’re standing across the street from the Gunga Diner. The neon has been stripped off, but it’s unmistakable! There’s about twenty crew members hanging about, mostly inside, where the fixtures and dressings have been removed, but there’s still booth seating and the service counter is still there. The designers have taken the “diner” element and played with it, so it’s not exactly the “boxy” eatery we’ve seen in the comic, but something with more 50’s character, and it’s obviously going to look great on a movie screen.

I spy some of the crew opening packages filled with gear - paintball guns, padding, masks, gloves… Yes, that’s right – paintball! There’s a crew of professionals overseeing the game, both as referees and team members. Billy Crudup is getting a rundown on reloading and safety catches. Malin Akerman looks like she’s getting the feel for it too. Zack Snyder is running around outside, and I get the immediate impression that he’s no stranger to this paintball stuff. One of the crew had just finished working on a custom mask/helmet for Zack, painted eerily in Rorschach’s likeness; now I’m ready to trade my old Watchmen t-shirt in for one of these!

Outside, the streets are starting to look like one of those tabletop miniatures war games. While there’s lots of gear being unpacked, not everyone is here to play; several of us are content to just watch, and the diner now serves as a safe-house for non-players and “kills” who are put out of play. I’m offered a chance to jump into the game later, after a “victim” checks into the diner from being hit. Then I can borrow their paintball gear and get a rundown of how everything works.

We’re given a walk-through of the backlot with the paintball pros, and the boundaries of the game are established. They also set up bases for “capture the flag”, so that the two teams have a goal on the other team’s territory. Bases are set up in “Saigon” and “Creepy House” respectively. Both locations stick out from their surroundings, but at the same time they fit right in. 

Stepping into “Saigon” I could sense where the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan would be standing. Without the association of that scene, I wouldn’t mind having a drink there, if only they were serving.

“Creepy House” was even more evocative, and actually disturbing. The work that went into making this place look run-down is astonishing, and yet any furniture and household fixtures had been removed here also. The front door is scrawled with a warning that some mean dogs live here, and the paw mark scratches on the walls and doors were, in a word, intense. We passed through the tiny, enclosed patch of grass serving as the yard, and there were still traces on the ground that suggested something bad really did happen here. Even in broad daylight, this place was unsettling.

The teams pair off and start on their sides of the “field”, while the rest of us take refuge in the diner. It’s clear that walking around the set without safety gear is a bad idea, so in a way it’s like being trapped in the diner — not that I’m complaining!

Even as “casualties” enter the diner after being hit, just about all of them seem ecstatic about it! Everyone’s having a great time, and Malin is clearly getting right into the spirit. Those of us in the diner had a pretty good view down the length of the set, so we could see “squads” of people rushing across the street, rolling behind cars, getting into sniper positions and such. From time to time there’d be confrontations on the street where those of us in the diner would swarm to one window, then to another, and back and forth, to get a better look and keep up with the action.

I decided I was ready to jump in for a little while after one team member checked into the diner, so I got a super quick rundown of the safety catches and reloading routine. I managed to fit my big head into a helmet/facemask combination, got my gloves on, and ran behind a car across the street for cover. I had a band around my arm indicating I was on the yellow team.

Seconds after I emerged from the diner, someone from the red team popped out from the front door of “Creepy House”. I recognized the jacket. It was Malin. She hadn’t seen me yet, and was beginning to take aim into an alley, so I fired off a round and missed her by about a meter. My shot, however, caught her attention, and by the time my second shot was in the air, she figured out which direction the volley was coming from, and snapped herself back, just out of the way of my second shot. Just then I felt a sting in the middle of my back; I had just been shot. Wow. I lasted maybe two minutes, max. OK, that was fun! But I realized that if I lasted any longer, my sudden appearance on the field would have been an unfair advantage to the yellow team. At least I got to fire a weapon at “Laurie”! 

The set was gradually getting covered by orange paintball hits, and as the day progressed, the pros brought out gradually heavier artillery including smoke bombs, paint grenades, and automatic rifles that rattled windows and left fluorescent dotted lines of fire along walls. For the last round, there was no restriction on players regarding how much ammo they could carry. Teams loaded up with cartridges and loose paintball pellets. The smoke machines in the street were cranked, and they went at it. By the end of it, it was clear that the set was done for, but what a great way to send it off.

When it was all over, teams met back at the Gunga Diner. A few people had some paint on a shoulder or an elbow, others had it on the chin, even through their facemasks. There were laughs, and there was exhaustion. Then Zack brought out a small cardboard box and began passing out what looked like army patches. They read, “OPERATION WRATH OF GOD. COMEDY, TRAGEDY, VIETNAM. 1970 - 1971” and had visual nods to both Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian in the form of a hybrid smiley face. Nothing like this appeared in the graphic novel, but it was a detail that just as easily could have.

It was just about 2pm and everyone was hungry. As we loaded up in our cars and headed out I couldn’t help thinking of that set sitting there — finished — “played with” one last time and now waiting to be torn down.


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