Production designer Dominic Watkins talked to CBR about his work on Paul Greengrass's 'Watchmen' and how it would have taken liberty with some of the story elements of the series, he also shared concept art belonging to the film:
"At that time, I thought it was very poignant because it was written under the backdrop of Reaganism and all that in America and the Cold War being in full effect. I thought that the political climate from Bush was escalated to a similar point, with us on the brink of something quite catastrophic, so I thought making a version of 'Watchmen' that was more contemporary and applying it to the decade of the '00s was a good idea and was a lot more relevant than it turned out to be. I think the difference between Zack Snyder's 'Watchmen' and ours would've been night and day. He pretty much made the movie page-to-page from the graphic novel. Ours was definitely going to be based on the graphic novel and all the characters would've been drawn on that, but we'd have updated it somewhat."
As for how their "Watchmen" would have faired, Watkins admitted a new version of the story would have been a tougher sell in some circles. "I think from the point of comic book enthusiasts, we might have pissed off some people, but even some of the real purists were pissed off that Snyder's wasn't close enough to the original. I just thought it wasn't anything original, and ours was going to be an original take on it while trying to do as much justice to the graphic novel as possible.
"It would've been done a little bit documentary-style, with a little news reporting mixed in. I feel like that would've been really interesting to see it as real-feeling as possible. Obviously, Doctor Manhattan was always going to be the biggest challenge to that. When there's a 50-foot blue man, it's hard to cinematically make it feel real. I felt they actually did a good job with that in Snyder's."
To help illustrate the differences, Watkins opened up his own personal collection of pre-production art he'd worked on over the course of his and Greengrass' development process. "We basically put together a production book, and when Paramount closed it down to send it to Warner Bros., Greengrass was attached to it. He then decided to do 'United 93' and was supposed to 'Watchmen' right after, but moved on to the third 'Bourne' movie, which was a big disappointment to me because I felt we had something much more original here," he explained of how the final product got away from them.
"Anyway, this production book was page-by-page, set-to-set what we were going to be shooting. We were that close to shooting. We were still in pre-pre-production, but I think we were about a week away from breaking ground at Pinewood [Studios] and building a back lot based on the West Side of Manhattan. It was kind of a conglomerate of downtown in the teens, between 5th and 6th Ave and a couple of other areas mixed in. I think we were going to build square blocks, so I was quite surprised they pulled the plug on it because at that point I'd imagine they spent at least two or three million just to get everything up and running. The visual effects team were doing tests on Doctor Manhattan and various other things, but that's Hollywood."
Creating a realistic version of a superhero world involved compressing elements of the story down to their most logical pieces. "I think the biggest challenge was Doctor Manhattan, but even things like the Owl Ship were hard to consider," Watkins told CBR. "Ours was similar to Snyder's, [but] much more kind of fucked up. Ours felt like it had been moth-balled for a lot longer, and we just wanted to try and figure out what fuel was in it. But we definitely felt that Doctor Manhattan was the one to figure out what the fuel was for it - some kind of nuclear fusion along the lines of nuclear submarines. We tried to think through every element and go, 'If this was a real thing, then where does it come from? How did it get there?'"
Building became a concern for Doctor Manhattan as well as Watkins looked to find a way for his Mars construct to make sense in a rational world. "The take on Manhattan was rather challenging, and what I looked at for that was a photo book I found in a book store. So the inspiration for the world he built on Mars and where it came from, instead of being a big glass palace, it was something that dealt with the most minuscule particles imaginable. These photographs I found were of magnified tiny particles and the photographs of the cosmos and the similarities between them. When he's creating it, the notion was that he'd start with these atoms and neutrons and combine them. They'd look very much like living atoms, but they'd combine into this vast cosmos that he's creating and pulling in his hand. That was something where I felt we had something quite original and unique."
Even after he left the project, Watkins still sees some of his influence, or at least some shared ideas, in the "Watchmen" that made it on screen, particularly in the world of New York the movie was set in. "One of the things they did kind of lift from the stuff I was doing was for Night Owl's apartment that went down into a basement. My thought was that if you lived in New York, how would you have this hidden workshop space with the Owl Ship down there? You'd have to be closest to a subterranean world and also have something that looked like a normal apartment, so my solution was to have him in this split-level Brownstone, and that in turn led to underneath Manhattan where there are a lot of other tunnels besides the subway system going back to pre-Victorian and late 18th Century times. He's taken one of these spaces and found a disused chamber. That's where the Owl Ship was built and stored, which in turn led to other tunnels which came out on the West Side by the piers. Back when I lived there, there were a bunch of piers that were really run down. Fom under one of those, he came. I'm still pretty happy with that."