After tackling a remake and three adaptations, filmmaker Zack Snyder must have reached the point where he was ready to share some of the original ideas that sprang from his own head, and so was born Sucker Punch, an action-fantasy premise Snyder has had rattling around for many years while making movies like 300 and Watchmen. Not only is Sucker Punch based on his own original concept, but it allows him to literally wear his cinematic heart on his sleeve and let him explore previously unexplored film genres.
By now, you’ll probably have seen a trailer or two and the commercials and might have a general idea of what the movie’s about, but back in early December 2009, ComingSoon.net went to the Vancouver Film Studios where Sucker Punch was being filmed at a time when very few people knew anything about the movie other than the title and the striking T-shirt image that debuted at Comic-Con. While we didn’t get to see a ton of scenes being shot, we did get to see one of the main sets, and his wife and producer Deborah Snyder took us through the film’s plot via some production art. We were also able to visit some of the key art departments and talked to most of the lovely actresses who helped bring the characters of Sucker Punch to life.
Before we get to all that, let’s kick things off with our on-set interview with Snyder himself, because really, he’s the best person to tell the story of how this movie came about and where he was going with it, which you can read via the link below.
Welcome to the Lennox House
Zack’s producer and wife Deborah greeted us on our arrival and walked us down a hallway lined with paintings, drawings and photos taken by unit photographer Clay Einos that helped give us a better idea of the general story and scope of the film.
The movie revolves around a teen girl named Babyboll, played by Emily Browning–some may remember her from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Uninvited. Her story takes place in an “alternate 1967,” where Babydoll’s abusive stepfather takes her to the Lennox House for the Criminally Insane so she won’t testify against him after her sister dies in a horrifying accident. There, she encounters Oscar Isaac’s Blue Jones, a shady orderly who makes a deal with her stepfather to have someone perform a lobotomy on her in five days. Babydoll is still so shaken up by her sister’s death, she retreats into her own fantasy world in which the mental asylum is transformed into a brothel, and she’s a virgin whose deflowering will be performed by the wealthy “High Roller,” played by Jon Hamm.
“It’s kind of like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” Deborah told us, “In that our characters are book-ended in an institution at the beginning and end of the film, but basically, the film takes place in the brothel and our characters play dual roles, so Blue Jones, who is the head orderly is the pimp who runs the brothel. Mrs. Gorsky, who is played by Carla Gugino, she’s the psychiatrist in our real world, but then she is the choreographer and she is Madame Gorsky in the brothel.”
In fact, Gugino is the one returning cast from Snyder’s Watchmen, so she had a lot of insights not only about her character and her relationship with the girls but also her ongoing work with Snyder, which you can read in the interview linked below.
INTERVIEW: Carla Gugino on playing Madam Gorski
Realizing she has to escape from the brothel/asylum in five days, Babydoll needs retrieve five items–a knife, a map, a key, fire and one other–and to do this, she enlists the help of four other girls there, played by a quartet of hot young actresses from across the globe including Australia’s Abbie Cornish as the top girl Sweet Pea, former child actor Jena Malone as Sweet Pea’s sister Rocket, Vanessa Hudgens as Blondie, and Jamie Chung as their pilot Amber. More on them later.
The Brothel and Paradise Theater Sets
An important aspect of this brothel Babydoll has created in her mind is that the girls aren’t just there to appease the sexual pleasures of the male clients; they also perform elaborate musical numbers to keep them entertained. Deborah emphasized that this isn’t meant to be a seedy strip club, but rather it shows off Sucker Punch‘s most surprising influence as Zack Snyder has used the setting to pay tribute to Baz Luhrmann’s glorious movie musical Moulin Rouge!. This was immediately evident not only from the red velvet décor lining the stage where the girls perform, but also in that Snyder enlisted Moulin Rouge!‘s own Marius De Vries as the film’s music supervisor to create original musical arrangements along with Snyder’s regular musical collaborator, Tyler Bates, to accompany each of the girl’s distinctive dance numbers.
Since one of the main reasons to visit film sets is to actually see said sets, we were given a walkthrough of the film’s main setting, the brothel where Babydoll meets the other girls. Most of the sets actually pull double duties because all of it looks old and dingy as the mental institution, but then they’re all dressed up in brighter colors and patterned wallpaper for the brothel. Even though cleaner and more colorful, there’s still something that feels rather sleazy about the setting, especially the brothel’s sex rooms, which were all decorated in different motifs with a few having ornate murals on the walls. We were taken into the High Roller Suite, complete with a revolving bed where Babydoll would eventually be deflowered if she didn’t escape.
The most impressive set was the inside of the Paradise Theater, which they literally built from the ground up. Even abandoned of the rowdy male patrons and not lit up as it would be during filming, it was quite stunning, particularly the area for the audience filled with round tables and chairs. Red velvet surrounded the stage enhancing the Moulin Rouge! comparisons, and we were able to walk up the steps to see that it was in fact a working stage you might find in a theater complete with backstage area.
While all the cast would get a chance to do a dance number on that stage, we were told that Babydoll’s dance moves are the ones that really mesmerize anyone who watches her dance, something she uses in her plan to distract the men while the other girls retrieve the necessary items. Except that every time she dances, it takes us into her mind and transports her and the girls to all these different worlds in which they have to find each item.
Into the Fantasy Worlds
This is where things get interesting, because each of the fantasy worlds visited by the girls is influenced by a type of film genre Snyder has wanted to explore, and it allowed him to really flex his creative muscles to put twists on them while creating distinctive action and FX pieces.
One of the first worlds Babydoll visits she does so on her own. We’ve seen this in some of the trailers in which Gorsky is urging her to close her eyes and a snowflake lands on her eyelid. When she reopens them, the camera pulls back to reveal a snow-covered courtyard and a Japanese Pagoda in which she meets “The Wise Man,” a character played by Scott Glenn who acts as mentor in a way, guiding the girls through each of their missions. He tells Babydoll about the items she needs to retrieve and gives her weapons, an ornate decorated Kata sword and an accompanying handgun, both of which she immediately needs to defend herself against three giant 12-foot tall Samurai she must battle in the courtyard.
After defeating the Samurai, she’s joined by the other four girls to retrieve the map from the next fantasy world, a WWI setting where they take on crazy-looking undead German steampunk soldiers in the trenches while zeppelins and biplanes fight overhead. That’s followed by an even more elaborate fantasy world heavily influenced by John Boorman’s Excalibur and “The Lord of the Rings” as the girls arrive at a castle in the middle of an intense battle between Dark Knights and Orcs, which they have to get through in order to take on a fierce baby dragon protecting the fire talisman. The last world comes straight out of science fiction and the world of Anime as it involves an alien world and a bullet train speeding along elevated tracks guarded by high-tech robots; here, they need to board the train and disarm a giant bomb that’s on it on which another item has to be retrieved, guarded by high-tech robots.
More importantly, playing in these different environments allows Snyder to return to some of the techniques he used so impressively in 300, creating CG backgrounds and working with cinematographer Larry Fong to bring back “The Crush,” a process which filters out different colors to give each f world a distinctive look. Even so, we were told by Deborah that certain elements and themes from the “real world” will crossover into these fantasies, allowing the sets to be repurposed.
As they enter each world, the girls transform into their fighting costumes, which remains consistent through each fantasy, and they’re very much influenced by the type of sexy outfits one might see in Anime, particularly Babydoll’s schoolgirl outfit and the leather and fishnets worn by Rocket.
The production involved so many different costumes, it really kept costume designer Michael Wilkinson, working with Zack for the third time, on his toes, not just creating different outfits for the girls but also for the various characters they fight in each world. (Somehow, they were able to find the actual armor used in Excalibur to modify for the Dark Knights!) Each girl also has a distinctive outfit they wear during their dance number which best represents their personality, so for instance, Abbie Cornish wears all sorts of religious iconography since her musical number is influenced by Joan of Arc, while Jena Malone is the healer, so she has a dance number where she dresses up like a nurse.
The “Sucker Punch Girls”
Clearly, the best thing going for Sucker Punch is that Snyder has filled it with a group of very attractive women. The biggest surprise in the casting is probably that of “High School Musical” sweetheart Vanessa Hudgens as Blondie. Snyder must have known her casting could get the geek crowd riled up, which may be why he brought us into the editing suite and showed us two very different scenes featuring Hudgens, one where she’s fighting her way through the trenches in the WWI segment and the other when she’s on-stage dancing in the theater we walked through earlier. We had spoken with Ms. Hudgens earlier in the day (an interview you can read via the link below) before being shown the footage, so it was cool to see exactly what she was talking about.
INTERVIEW: Vanessa Hudgens on playing Blondie
We also got a bit of time with the rest of the female cast, who talked about the dichotomous nature of a film in which they’re fighting on one day and dancing the next.
“The burlesque numbers have been the most terrifying thing I’ve done in this film, the most terrifying and the most thrilling,” Jena Malone would tell us when we sat down with her and her “sister,” Abbie Cornish.
“We had this week where each night it was everyone’s dances back to back, and it was an amazing week,” Cornish agreed. “We were all here every day even though we didn’t have to be, just to be there for each other. It was the most beautiful thing to see. I was the last one up so for me I got to see Jena go through the whole process and then Vanessa and Jamie. It really was the most beautiful thing, to see these girls I love so much work so hard towards something and then that day rehearsed it up to the point where it was technically ready and then get transformed head to toe.”
Malone tried to describe what the atmosphere in the theater was like during those dance numbers. “It’s a spectacle, a huge space with back-up dancers, the most beautiful sets and the most beautiful lighting. I mean I’ll never get to do that again. I’m not going to go and do a Broadway dance theater piece. It would probably be something with song or spoken word and it was just crazy to be a character in dance.”
Not that it’s any kind of shocker but both of them had nice things to say about their director as well:
“I think he’s mastered the art of collaboration,” Malone gushed. “I think a lot of people pretend to know what collaborating is but really they are just telling you what to do. He really makes you feel like you are a part of it. He makes you feel like nothing is set in stone and that you’re still finding it together. Like there is no voice that will go unheard and that there is always time for questions. There is always time to sit down and talk about something too. There is no small voice. You truly feel that way and that is amazing on a movie set because there are 200 voices. Most of the time it just becomes one giant mouth that speaks for everyone but Zach’s just not like that.
“What he is doing here with this film is a big job and it is really complicated with so much involved and he’s always happy, light and energetic,” Cornish added. “That trickles down into the way that everyone else feels as well. If anything it’s excitement and a little bit of nerves rather than the next day of shooting being really daunting. It’s just a different energy about everything. It’s a different process.”
Last and most certainly not least, we spoke with our personal favorite “Sucker Punch Girl,” the ultra-adorable Jamie Chung as Amber, who is the group’s pilot.
“Amber’s pretty simple though,” Chung said about her character. “Yeah, she’s not too difficult, she’s pretty easy-going. I guess I don’t have to go into too much backstory, but she wants everyone to get along. She is one of the first girls to really accept Babydoll in the group, and one of the first to really agree and stand by her decision to try and escape. In the brothel world and in the insane asylum, when she’s first introduced to the other girls, she really is the kind of girl that wants to accept everyone, she wants everyone to get along. She looks out for each and every one of them, and her loyalty is with all of these girls, and in the action world, that’s what a pilot does. The pilot makes sure that everything is safe for the girls. That the group of girls are okay, that’s her number one concern, like you’re looking out for the girls, so it really translates well into the different worlds.”
Besides flying various helicopters and planes, Amber also gets to ride in the cockpit of an ovoid Anime-inspired Meka during the WWI sequence, which we actually got to check out even before she had a chance to see it. Sadly, she wasn’t able to get in the physical aspects of the action along with the others. “I was really bummed out about that at first,” Chung opined. “Coming off two shows that were martial arts based, I really felt I could use my stuntwork for this movie, but it’s kind of nice to go against the grain, like to do something different, to be hired as the pilot. It was a nice change, and I did get to do a stunt, which is nice. Something to do with an Orc and my B-25 and breaking glass…”
“Well of course it makes sense to have me as a French maid doing the tango,” Chung chuckled when talking about her own dance number. “It was hard. I don’t have a dancing background but you know, martial arts is a form of a dance. You’re learning the moves, you’re making it work but the tango is very strong and dancing is difficult. Being on stage in front of a live audience was the most terrifying thing, and singing, I’m like the only Korean in Los Angeles who hates karaoke (laughter). I run away from it. I can’t do it, I just can’t do it! And now they’re like, ‘Okay, get up on stage and we’ll be recording your vocals,’ and I’m like, “What?! Are you insane?!?’”
Creating a Scene
Much of what was going on that day involved creating the elements needed for a scene within the futuristic Anime-influenced world in which the girls leap from Amber’s plane onto a speeding rocket train to retrieve an item that’s guarded by hundreds of robots. They were actually shooting that first part of the scene on a stage where the chassis of Amber’s helicopter had been mounted on a green screen rig, and while Jamie Chung remained at the helm, the other three girls leapt out of the cabin onto a large green screen mat over and over. On a different soundstage, they were in the process of building the single bullet train car for the next stage in this complicated scene in which Zack’s cameras would be tracking in and out of the windows of the moving train as the girls advanced from one car to the next.
Earlier in the day, visual effects supervisor John “D.J.” Des Jardin kindly showed us some of the stuff they’ve done for the fight on the bullet train, specifically an extended single-shot sequence Zack designed in which Jena Malone’s Rocket takes out 40 CG “Deathbots” at once. After storyboarding the elaborate shot, computerized pre-vis was used to figure out Rocket’s gravity-defying movements, how much could be done with Jena Malone herself and how much would have to be done in post using CG, something that’s much easier to determine when you see it animated. The robots themselves would be created using CG, but they had stuntmen in green screen motion-capture suits replicating the movements of the bots. (And yes, kids, this scene will have Snyder’s trademark technique of speeding up and slowing down the action within a single shot.)
D.J. also showed us behind-the-scenes footage for Babydoll’s fight with the giant samurai, which are fully CG-generated, which included test footage Snyder shot with stunt coordinator Damon Caro and Emily Browning’s stuntperson to test out how they’ll be able to shoot the scene and capture the movements of the CG constructs. He showed us the different elements that went into creating that early fight sequence, shooting each bit of the fight and then assembling them within the Pagoda environment, only part of which was built on set.
Lastly, we briefly popped into the props department run by Jimmy Chow and Catherine Leighton where they showed us some of the items they constructed for the scene including a small bomb the girls use to blow a hole open in the train, which had active LEDs. We also saw a bunch of other important props such as the talisman items, and they talked about how they design and handcraft some of the custom items needed for the show.
Besides getting an early taste of what Zack Snyder has planned with his first non-adapted film, one of the main things we got out of the visit was that Sucker Punch is going to be an incredibly layered film that blends many different elements in exciting ways that should certainly appeal to fans of action and fantasy.
You can see how it all turns out when Sucker Punch opens everywhere on March 25, but if you can’t wait that long, you can see a lot of the cool stuff we saw on set for yourself now that Titan Books has just released “Sucker Punch: The Art of the Film,” which has lots of behind-the-scenes concept art as well as photos by Clay Einos. It is available at Amazon.