INTERVIEW: Alex Tse, screenwriter of “Watchmen”

Who watches the Watchmen? A whole lot of people! One of the spring’s biggest breakout hits was director Zack Snyder’s cinema adaptation of the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons classic 1989 graphic novel, Watchmen. ScriptPhD.com first caught up with one of the Watchmen screenwriters, rising star Alex Tse, during this summer’s Los Angeles Film Festival, and sat down with him recently to talk about the experience of working on the blockbuster. Before being contracted on the Watchmen project, Tse got his big break when his first script, Sucker Free City, was produced by Showtime Television and directed by Spike Lee. His current projects include a collection of sci-fi and comics screenplays, including the 1951 collection of science fiction short stories The Illustrated Man, the 2005 American thriller novel The Winter of Frankie Machine, the anime Ninja Scroll, and a film adaptation of the upcoming graphic novel Battling Boy by Paul Pope. Tse grew up in the San Francisco area before attending Emmerson College in Boston. Our full transcript under the “continue reading” jump.

ScriptPhD: How did you get involved in the Watchmen project?

Alex Tse: It’s the only way I could have been involved, given the amount of credits I had, which were not many. I had read that the project was going to Warner Brothers, I think at the end of ’05. And I knew that because it was going to WB, and I had done a lot of work there, that I would be given the opportunity to be heard. So I just told my agent, “Hey, get me in a room.” And they did, and I talked to [producer] Lloyd Levin over the phone and that went well. He had read a script of mine that he liked. And that just began the process, the competitive process, from there.

SPhD: Actually, when I watched the movie, I hadn’t read the graphic novel. And I have done since, and it only struck me after I’d read it, and talked to [author] Dave Gibbons at Comic-Con, how much material you guys had to deal with to condense into a movie. Interestingly enough, Dave loved the adaptation! It’s amazing how much of a higher standard is held sometimes by fans of a particular enterprise—

AT: [laughs]

SPhD: —than the creative talent! While the script was being written, was there an acute cognizance on your part that you had this one shot to get it right?

AT: Well, you can’t not be conscious of it on some level, I think, certainly it’s always even a hesitation of taking something like this on because you don’t want to be the person that messes it up. But what overpowers that notion is the fact that, and I always use a sports analogy here, at the end of the game, do you want to be the guy with the ball in your hands and the responsibility despite the fact that you might miss the shot or make the wrong play? Is that your personality? And I think for a lot of people involved, they wanted that responsibility, because for myself and I speak for [co-writer] David Hayter, and especially for Zack [Snyder], we were all fans of the material. So I think there didn’t have to be an overconsciousness of the fanboys necessarily, because we’re fanboys! So we come in from that perspective—now that’s much different than being a fanatic, and it’s interesting that you say that sometimes the creators of the material aren’t such sticklers for certain things that strict fans are. And when you’re coming from a creative background, especially a working creative background, you understand the pitfalls and challenges of trying to do good work, given the system, and you are not so hard on certain things because you understand how hard it is to get it to the point where it is at now. Does that make sense?

SPhD: Oh it makes perfect sense! And that was one of the things, after I read the graphic novel, that got me curious. What was the process of what stayed in and what didn’t? Watchmen has a LOT going on. It was really complicated, there were stories within stories, you guys kept out the Black Freighter. Take us through the development of the script.

AT: Well first of all, David Hayter had already done a draft, and had done a good job of the editing process. When I became involved in the project, and especially when Zack became involved, when 300 was successful, he had the leverage to call certain shots that people couldn’t do without that currency. If you go back and look at the comic book, there is a lot of time given to let’s say secondary characters that are not the Minutemen, that are not Rorschach or Adrian or what you would consider main characters. There’s a lot of pages given to the two Bernies. The whole issue with them is like the whole issue with The Psychiatrist. Now, obviously they’re not going to be main characters in this movie. So you can immediately edit that out, and the Black Freighter stuff that’s not gonna fit in the movie. And if you look at a lot of that stuff, you’ve already lost a chunk there. You’ve already lost a great deal with the most obvious stuff to go. And then, when you’re left with the main characters, we also lost a lot of the Golden Age Minutemen stuff, with the Hollis Mason crew, we lost some of that backstory. So, when you trim those things, you’re left with what you’ve determined to be the main ensemble. It’s pretty workable, if you go back and look at it and cut all the interstitial stuff. When you look at the core story and the core of what Watchmen is, and you’re determined to protect that—

SPhD: And certainly Dave Gibbons, and Alan Moore of course, must have had creative input into the transfer process. I can’t imagine not involving them in that.

AT: Well Alan Moore doesn’t give a shit! [laughs]

SPhD: Oh seriously?

AT: Yeah, he openly doesn’t give a shit. Dave was involved from the get-go. That was important. Critical box office numbers didn’t mean as much to me as his approval. His approval was certainly one of the highlights of my career.

SPhD: What drew you to screenwriting and who were some of your early influences in screen and print that you enjoyed growing up?

AT: Well I’ve always been interested in writing from a really young age, but you certainly don’t consider it to be a real job. I didn’t consider that until I went to college. And then I saw Pulp Fiction and that [movie] made me want to suffer for [the craft]. It’s an important distinction and an important decision, because everyone can wave a magic wand and want to be in the movie business. And I’ve always loved movies and television. My first love was comic books, but I couldn’t draw. Not that you have to draw to do comic books, but to be in comics, I would have wanted to be able to draw. I wanted to draw so bad, but I just sucked! It’s probably what I would have ended up doing, because that was a big influence. My parents loved movies, and they took me to see a lot of movies at a young age, and that certainly influenced me.

SPhD: What kind of comics did you like to read?

AT: Yeah, first, before I got into what you would call more “serious” comics, I was way into X-Men. All the mutant stuff: X-Men, X-Force, New Mutants, anything that was mutant related. I got into Batman, Spiderman, but mainly all the mutant stuff I really loved. Then in terms of writing, when I initially read comics as a kid, I might recognize the writer’s name, but I wasn’t buying stuff because of the writer. But the first time I really started paying attention to writers’ names was when I read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. And I was like, “I want to buy everything that this guy wrote. I need to read more of what this guy wrote.” So I started reading his Daredevil stuff, then I read Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. And that led me to Watchmen and a lot of his other work. And I began paying more attention to who was writing these things. So it all kind of blended together in terms of writing influences. Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Star Wars was huge, all of the George Lucas/Spielberg early stuff.

SPhD: It sounds like you’ve been able to really combine your love of comic books and graphic novels with screenwriting. And in my generation, it seems like there’s this whole slew of movies that are going back to the graphic novels and the Golden Age serials. What do you think it is about this genre that so lends them to the cinematic experience?

AT: Well, I think you’re giving a lot of credit there to people. I’m talking about on the development side. Yeah, some of it is deserved, where you get people who recognize a piece of material that could translate to the screen. I think at this point, it’s just another source of material. Certainly there’s been a bunch of graphic novels that have been successful as movies, and of course anytime that happens people are just going to jump on that bandwagon. And they’re not necessarily comic book fans or anything like that. And in a very basic way, it’s a storyboarded thing. Like, “Look there’s pictures!” so you can have some reference. But I’d say it’s more a bandwagon at this point. Hollywood is always hedging their bets, Hollywood is always making the safer decision.

SPhD: Tell me a bit about the current project you’re working on. I know we heard a bit about it at the LA Film Festival earlier this summer.

AT: I’m working on Battling Boy right now. It’s been an interesting and fun process to work with Paul Pope. With anything in the film business, all I can do is my job, which is to write the best film script that I can, and getting a movie made is like winning the lottery. There’s so many moving parts.

SPhD: And you’re writing the movie at the same time as the graphic novel is being written, right?

AT: Yeah, I think the novel is getting released next year. I’m not sure what percentage [Paul] is done with, but it’s in the process. So that’s been interesting for both of us, but a lot of fun because he’s a great guy and really visionary.

SPhD: Anything else you’re really excited about that you’re working on?

AT: I sold a TV pilot and I’m going to have to start working on that. And we’ll see if any of the projects that I’ve finished a script for get made.

SPhD: Can you reveal…. comedy, drama?

AT: It’s going to be a drama, for FX. And I haven’t started writing it yet, so I’m going to have to get started on that soon.

SPhD: Well it sounds like you are very sci-fi/comic oriented, so if and when any of that pans out, you are more than welcome to come back and talk about that with us anytime you’d like! Alex, we wish you the best of luck in the future. Thanks so much.

AT: Thank you very much.

Watchmen (the theatrical cut and the extended Director’s cut) was released on DVD and Blu-Ray July 21st.

~*ScriptPhD*~
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