Watching a filmmaker grow up is an exciting thing. It's not a matter of managing missteps or chronicling their commercial appeal, its seeing how they absorb both their failures and successes and apply them to their future work. Zack Snyder launched his directing career with one of the most auspicious debuts of the last decade – a high-octane, hugely entertaining remake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead – and has since matured into a remarkably sophisticated purveyor of thrills, while managing to maintain a comfortable foothold in the mainstream. And after two iconic adaptations of equally iconic comic book series (300 and Watchmen), Snyder has created his own fantasy world with Sucker Punch, an original project that combines the iconography of his earlier films along with a whole host of other influences to form something epic, sprawling, and most of all unique.
Following the first screening of footage from the film at Comic-Con's storied Hall H last Saturday (watch the trailer here), Cinematical sat down with Snyder and his producer (and wife) Deborah Snyder for a discussion about the evolution of his career. In addition to revealing a few details about the foundations of Sucker Punch, he offered insights into his creative process, and commented on the ongoing collaboration he enjoys with Warner Brothers in order to continue conceiving these spectacular new worlds.
Cinematical: As awesome as the footage that you screened at Comic-Con looks, the real success of a movie like this is based on how effectively all of the spectacle works towards examining something larger. How did you make sure as you conceived each set piece that the overall story was going to have a deeper emotional or conceptual resonance?
Zack Snyder: A hundred percent! We basically had a second story already done and really what happened is all of the action sequences just end up servicing the other story. You have this dramatic story with these girls that is pretty compelling and pretty intense and pretty present – it doesn't rely on anything – but in their personal struggles they do need something. So we use those fantasy sequences to get those needs met, and the thing that's interesting about it is that it's such an intimate thing and such a small thing that they actually need that when you blow it out to this amazingly, ridiculously gigantic sequence, it has some kind of [larger significance]. Again, it's interesting and ironic to me, personally, that something so simple and so small in their own lives when you think about it because when you do fantasize about something, it can be [the case] that the scale is not an issue. So that's kind of how we treated it; it always in the end came back to the girls and where they were and what they needed.
Cinematical: As unfettered as the creativity feels up on the screen, do you tend to construct these ideas linearly or does it sort of pour out of you in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way?
Zack Snyder: I write in a pretty, uh –
Deborah Snyder: I can't get over how he writes.
Zack Snyder: I write in a pretty straightforward way. I kind of sit down at page one and start writing.
Deborah Snyder: But he spends lots of time thinking – he'll be in thought and thinking and thinking, as opposed to a lot of people I know that are writers who will write and they'll crumple it up, or they go back and redo it. You, it all happens in your head, and then you put it down.
Zack Snyder: I kind of put it down in one, like –
Deborah Snyder: And that's usually how [the script] is.
Zack Snyder: But the thing that's interesting is that I do spend a lot of time constructing it because it is like a tapestry. It's all woven together in this kind of super-complicated way. But I feel like it's that I just have this slightly odd process; it doesn't mean that when I'm done, I don't go, "oh it would be nice to layer that one thing one more time." That's stuff that you can do. But pretty much it's stream of consciousness – maybe a combination.
Cinematical: Because these girls are in so many different outfits and have so many different personas, and you created them yourself, how careful did you have to be or how did you empower the actresses to make sure that the characters were themselves empowered and not just a sort of male fantasy figure?
Zack Snyder: Once the script was written, that was never really going to be a danger, because the girls, the characters were so important to me that I never wanted to belittle them or make them anything more than [people].
Deborah Snyder: And what's great about them and what's great about the action role that they're taking is that they can be badass and they can be fierce, but they also can cry and they can be sexy and beautiful and feminine – not necessarily masculine. That they are so dimensional, I think, is really important, and it was there and then the girls just brought even more to it as well.
Zack Snyder: We never shot it like an exploitation film; there's nothing about the film that – someone asked me before they'd seen any of the footage, "is this kind of like an exploitation movie? Is that like what this is? Because there are these sort of fetishistic-looking girls." And I was like, no, it's heart-attack serious. And they were like, "well, how do you do that?" and I said, I don't know, you just do it. But the truth is that in ways they're icon-busting or cliché-cracking rather than sort of embodying [them]. It's not like a Halloween costume where they dressed up like a schoolgirl, you know.
Cinematical: Something I wanted to ask you after Watchmen, which I thought was a pretty amazing achievement, was how conscious are you not of the tone, but the sort of levels on which something is meant to operate. For example, the thing about Watchmen is that it operates on this supremely sophisticated ironic level, providing the superficial gratification of a superhero movie even though it isn't about that at all. When you are conceiving these ideas, as you discussed with the fetishistic but empowering design of the women in Sucker Punch, do you tend to be very careful about building that into the design of the film, or is that something that sort of just comes out subconsciously through your creative process?
Zack Snyder: I think it's a combination of the two things because a movie is an ironic experience for me, because I know it's not real, and that never goes away for me. I was saying the other day that Toy Story 3 is a perfect movie to me because it never tries to make you think it's real – it's a cartoon – and yet you cry at the end and it's ridiculous because you have this experience of being completely tricked by your own brain that these characters are real, that they are alive and you care about what happens to them. In Watchmen, that was almost the main thing that I was going for – that tone of sort of irony on almost every level, whether it be history or it be our perception or superheroes, which is what I felt like Alan was doing anyway, but it was what I wanted to do with the movie. And I think Sucker Punch has a very similar point of view without being as much of a worldview; it's more about sort of the icons of sexuality and feminism and all of those things. It really sort of goes after those things more than it goes after, like I would in the past, some historical [portrait] of why we are who we are. This is more about why certain icons of sexuality persist, but I think also I love action and I love doing it, so I have this weird relationship with movies in that way. Like I'm always making fun of movies, but I love them more than anything.
Cinematical: Warner Brothers has such a unique ongoing collaboration with filmmakers. Obviously Kubrick was the gold standard back in the day, but you and Christopher Nolan have enjoyed a longtime partnership with them. What is it about that relationship that makes you want to continue to work with them as opposed to maybe shopping your projects around elsewhere?
Zack Snyder: Well, I think just the movie itself, Sucker Punch itself, the fact that it got made in the same –
Deborah Snyder: They greenlit Nolan's movie at the same time – two original ideas that were not like, oh, this is formulaic. They were bold ideas and for them to be like yes, this is what we want to do and we want to support our filmmakers, and we will take chances and strive to do something that's different, no other studio is doing that.
Zack Snyder: And hopefully by the same token, we try and make a movie that audiences would hopefully find different. If they're tired of the same old summer fare, there's something else. People can go, I'm going to sit down, the lights are going to go down, and that's going to be something else, and I think Warner Brothers respects that and they seem to have really been amazingly generous with us.
Deborah Snyder: Even with Watchmen – and even with 300. They had just done Troy and they were like, another sword and sandal movie?
Zack Snyder: They had done Alexander too.
Deborah Snyder: They were like, we don't really need this. It's like sword and sandals fatigue and we were like, this is going to be something different. I don't think they really understood what it was until we started shooting.
Zack Snyder: And even then, it was all greenscreen. They were like, "what is this?" But they were like, okay, we trust that you know what you're doing and it's going to be cool.
Deborah Snyder: And that blind faith sometimes, you know, it's faith in the person, and it's a two-way street of mutual respect.
Zack Snyder: But we want to make them a great movie; I want them to make money. But it's just if they can use our points of view and our movie and sort of the way we do it and then the images that we create, if they can figure out a way that that works in the marketplace, then that's awesome and everyone wins.