Alex McDowell, the amazing production designer for Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Minority Report, takes us inside Dr. Manhattan's digs in Watchmen during a lecture at MIT, and talks easter eggs, Bowie and design.
On November 21 2008, the Futures of Entertainment 3 conference took place at MIT, and moderator Henry Jenkins joined Alisa Perren (from Georgia State University) and super-designer Alex McDowell at MIT to discuss the work behind making Watchmen so beautiful. For over 100 minutes, they talked set design, easter eggs, how some movies fail in the marketing department (Fight Club) and how they've all remained pretty on top of Watchmen to keep things like the toys (which will be featured in the movie) top notch.
But most interesting were the stills McDowell shared with the crowd that allowed us into Dr. Manhattan's apartment and inside a few other rooms in Watchmen. Even though Zack Snyder admits he followed the comic-book panel storyboard style of directing, there were a few places that weren't terribly fleshed out in the novel, where Snyder could have a little fun. For example, can you see the Dr. Strangelove influence in the Watchmen war room below.
Dr. Manhattan's apartment is built inside his laboratory. I love the reasoning behind the design of this set. McDowell explained that they thought that in the Watchmen world:
The powers that be, who know nothing about design, but needed him to feel like he was the most important guy in America, went to the designers of the White House, who had just recently designed for Jackie Kennedy, Maison Jansen, and had them design this completely artificial set.
And on top of that is a reference to The Man Who Fell To Earth: the book in the front is Masterpieces in Paint and Poetry directly copied from a book that Thomas Newton produced, but instead McDowell explained that they stamped it Veidt Enterprises.
The table tennis room in Dr. Manhattan's apartment was also inspired by The Man Who Fell To Earth, with the outside indoor wallpapering.
Now onto more details: McDowell shows all the touches that they added to Archie (Nite Owl's ride) including a copy of Under The Hood (of course) but also a 8-track player, to get everybody in the mood.
Here is another great example of the many pains the production crew went to, to get the perfect look on set. This is Dan Dreiberg's desk, and the signed photograph is none other than the Twilight Lady, whom Laurie Juspeczyk kind of teases old Dreiberg about.
It's pretty surreal the amount of detail the crew went into, even when press was visiting on set. McDowell explained that during one press trip a journalist mentioned that he didn't see the four-legged turkey anywhere, which was one of the many subtle touches in the novel that explained just how different this alternate universe really was. Immediately McDowell went to work crafting the perfect genetically engineered prop bird.
Sadly this discussion took place during a much happier time in November, and the trial over the movie rights hadn't taken such an ugly turn yet. When McDowell was asked about the legal proceeding between Fox and Warner Brothers., McDowell had pretty good faith that the movie would still be released:
I was in a press conference with Zack a couple months ago and he basically said that they're not stopping us from making the movie. In fact it sounded awfully like Fox was contributing to the press and marketing campaign. So it looks to me like a big spoof that just engages. It looks like a big spoof that ends up with a lot of money changing hands down the line and the audience won't notice the difference. But I think Warner Brothers' coffers will be lighter. I think somebody made a mistake along the way, and they're going to pay for it. But I don't think anyone is going to stop the release of the film, that seems foolish for all.
I wonder if he still feels the same now. The entire meeting is very interesting just to hear about the franchising and taking care of every detail and past failed works with the Tim Burton Charlie And The Chocolate Factory video game that eventually tanked because the studio wouldn't give Burton control over some of it. McDowell talks about the Watchmen video game and the pains they are going to recreate it, including fans and fleshing it out as best as they can, but we'll see on that idea.
Here's the entire lecture, enjoy!: