The Black Freighter Sails
How do you film the most unfilmable graphic novel of all time? It turns out you do it in well-crafted chunks. When you this much rich source material, you no doubt don’t want to lose any of it. But squeezing them all into one movie would just be impossible.
Tuesday’s release of Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter brings yet another element of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s groundbreaking mid-’80s series to life. It’s two elements, really. First is the long comic narrative that runs through much of the original graphic novel, a dark tragedy about a man trying to reach his home before a band of evil pirates does. But his arrival in the port city is far worse than anything that he imagines the Black Freighter will do. The story was an allegory for the entire Watchmen series, a unique framing device Moore used both to anchor the story in the real world and also to deconstruct the comics format.
Moore reasoned that a world that already had superheroes would have no need for superhero comic books. But the format would still exist, and one part of it for him took form in pirate comics. In the real world, pirate-based comics were a small part of comics history; they never quite flourished, but they definitely had their place. Moore used them to macabre and breathtaking effect in Watchmen.
For Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter, the story gets animated. The team behind the movie, including director Zack Snyder and several of the producers, also produced this new content. It features the vocal talents of actors Gerard Butler and Jared Harris, and it was written by Watchmen writer Alex Tse and Snyder. Daniel DelPurgatorio and Mike Smith share directing credits.
The other feature on the new disc is based on Hollis Mason’s autobiography, Under the Hood. Mason, played by Stephen McHattie in the film, was the original Nite Owl, one of the first masked heroes to appear in the 1940s. He’s been succeeded by Nite Owl II (played by Patrick Wilson), with whom he gets together weekly to discuss old times.
In the original graphic novel, Under the Hood is excerpted to shed light on the foreboding events of the story and fill readers in on the background that led to their creation. We learn of Mason’s life with the original Minutemen, the first band of costumed adventurers who joined together to fight crime in simpler times. They all get older, and their humanity often got in the way of their heroics. Mason, seemingly the most normal and well-adjusted of them all, serves as a fitting guide to the strange world of masked crimefighting.
On disc, Under the Hood unfolds documentary-style as part of a TV newsmagazine program. It’s directed by Eric Matthies, written by Hans Rodionoff, and features the characters of Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and Moloch the Mystic (Matt Frewer), as well as Mason himself.
Director Matthies has been key in bringing bonus content to a lot of DVDs through the years. He’s worked on releases for Spider-Man, 300, and The Matrix, to name a few. Here, he’s responsible for two relatively small but exceptionally important and beloved facets of the original book. In some ways, they’re as integral to the Watchmen storyline as Dr. Manhattan.
The live-action story is told as part of a fictional news program called The Culpepper Minute and details what led to the formation of the Minutemen team and the individual heroes who joined it.
“We needed a concept that would not require a leap of faith, and that would not just be a book on tape,” Matthies says. “The newsmagazine format really allowed us to expand in so many ways. We were able to cover two different time periods and give the original piece greater perspective within the Watchmen movie. It also gave us the chance to explore more of the characters through interviews…and delve more into the background of their characters. This was an idea that worked on so many levels.”
Actors were interviewed in character for the story. They used much of the source material as basis for their interviews—before filming, Snyder gave each of the actors a three-ring binder containing background information they needed to play their characters effectively. Matthies explains, “One of the ways we stayed true to Under The Hood was simply to have Stephen McHattie answer the interview questions pretty much the way Hollis had written them [in the Watchmen graphic novel], combined with some of his own improv on what Hollis would say. And then we were able to fill in the gaps with other interviews.”
Those other interviews include Gugino as the first Silk Spectre. In the film, she’s retired and living in Floriday, but here she appears in all her vixenish glory. “Carla was amazing,” Matthies says. “She and I probably had the most dialogue about the project.”
The filming of this newsmagazine content was done simultaneously with the filming of the actual movie, allowing the actors to stay in character even longer. The grueling schedule for cast and crew paid off in authenticity.
“The tricky part of Under the Hood,” Matthies says, “was balancing the shoot schedule with the film, and coordinating shoots on certain sets or areas of sets in combination with which actors were available, in coordination with hair and makeup and costumes, because everything had to match with the different time periods.”
Other references to the graphic novel abound, and readers will be excited to see things like a Veidt commercial, supporting characters, and small storyline items from the series make their way into the DVD release. Whenever possible, the filmmakers used actual film footage from the era to make the story as seemingly real as possible.
“The goal was to make ancillary material that complemented the film,” Matthies says, “and I think we achieved that. The wonderful thing in the graphic novel is that Under the Hood gives you all the background and psychology and philosophy of the masked adventurers and the impact they had prior to Dr. Manhattan. But there was no way Zack could include every bit of that information. It was a great responsibility to make something that they didn’t have to shoe-horn into the movie.”
All images copyright (C) Warner Bros. Ent. Inc. Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter (c) Warner Bros. Ent. Inc. Watchmen (c) Warner Bros. Ent. Inc. Watchmen and all related characters and elements are trademarks of and (c) DC Comics. All rights reserved.