At this point, there’s no denying filmmaker Zack Snyder’s “visionary” status with the way he’s brought graphic novels like Frank Miller’s 300 and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen to the big screen. His fifth film Sucker Punch may be his most ambitious project to date, and it’s a movie that allows him to flex those visionary muscles in ways that he hasn’t been able to do while working from original source material.
It stars Emily Browning (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) as Babydoll, a young girl committed to an insane asylum by her stepfather, where she recruits the help of four other inmates, played by Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung, to help her escape by procuring a number of talismans. It’s not such a simple concept though, because it also involves a second world inside Babydoll’s mind where the girls are all courtesans in a musical theater brothel transported into other fantasy worlds where they fight dragons, orcs, WWI clockwork soldiers, killer robots and other obstacles to get those objects. The movie also stars Carla Gugino as Madame Gorsky, who choreographs the girl’s dance numbers and Oscar Isaac as Blue Jones, the head of the brothel. (Make sure to stick around through the end credits to hear them perform an amazing version of Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug”!)
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Zack to talk about the movie and another high-profile iconic comic book character you may have heard of.
ComingSoon.net: I was on set a few years back so I feel I know a lot about the origins of this project. The results are pretty cool because it still feels very original despite all the influences. Did it generally take longer to plan everything out considering you didn’t have the source material of your other movies or did that just make it more freeing? How was it different?
Zack Snyder: Yeah, you know it was a little bit more freeing, I gotta say it was a little bit of a vacation from these massive iconology films that I’ve been working on, although in a weird way, we still ended up doing this… in my mind when I started talking about the project, it was going to be this kind of straight-forward thing and then as you work on it, it has really evolved into, I gotta say, a pretty complicated and complex structural and a sort of psychological study that we ended up doing.
CS: On those other movies, whenever you had a question about something, you or your team could always go back to the graphic novel. In this case, when you had a question on set about something, was it just having the preparation and planning in place so you knew exactly where to go or were you able to improvise or change things as you went along?
Snyder: Yeah, I feel like we improvised a little bit, but it’s hard when you have such a complicated thing where they have to be careful. You can (upset) the whole thing, but yeah, it’s funny, because when I think about “Watchmen” or “300″ and I think about whether or not–because I didn’t invest in the entire world–whether or not I felt like that, I could just turn to the graphic novel. And I could, but I gotta say, from my point of view, it’s as personal and it’s almost the same. Once the script is written, I treat the material and go through the same process.
CS: Considering you’re going from your own imagination and you didn’t have any limitations, how dangerous is it to do a movie like that when you have a certain budget and you want to explore all of these ideas?
Snyder: It’s hard, because you really do run into production limitations ’cause you set out to make this massively awesome action film with massive set pieces and then you realize that it’s not that easy. Reality gets in the way, but you still do your best to get the biggest thing you can think of.
CS: Even though I’d been on set and read the art book, I was completely blown away by the WWI scene and the dragon sequences. If you compare those to the biggest scene in “300,” they seem four or five times as big. It also seems like you were doing a bit more practically in the real world but then the fantasy sequences were mostly CG, so how did you approach something like the World War I sequence where you had so much going on?
Snyder: World War I was fun to do for me just because we had a fair amount of landscape. It was kind of like “300,” and we basically used the same production methodology as “300,” because you had real enemies that were just dressed like WWI guys and then we had the girls fighting them, and we had sets for the trenches and sets for No Man’s Land and that was the approach. In that way, it was kind of comforting to start with that early on because it was like we all got in on the groove and we understood how to shoot it.
CS: Did you have thirty or forty stuntmen at a time like you did on “300″ for those battle sequences on a green screen stage?
Snyder: That’s exactly how we did it, on a big huge green screen. Actually, I think we had less guys than we had on “300″ but a bigger total number of enemies at any one time with maybe 30 or something like that.
CS: One of the cool thing is the transitions between the real world, done on practical sets, and the fantasy stuff. How hard was it to work out how to make those transitions work?
Snyder: No doubt the transitions were one of those things that you really have to design carefully and understand all the elements that are going into them and really lay them out sort of moment by moment, because it’s just as you say, you can easily get lost in the transition but if the transition works well, I felt like I wanted to set up this language with the audience where they’re like, “Okay, where am I going to go now?”
CS: Like I said, even though I knew a lot of what was going to happen already, things like the dragon sequence was nothing like I’d seen before, it was quite amazing. I really liked the music but I thought at one point there was going to be more musical dance numbers. I know there’s one during the end credits which I loved, was there ever going to be more of that during the movie?
Snyder: No, the movie was always deemed in its own weird way like a musical in my mind. I always felt like… I remember talking (about it) early on and saying, “These action sequences are going to be like these Busby Berkley-style action scenes.” That’s my version of them, and I think that was the approach, that was my feeling and that’s why the music plays such a strong part in the whole structure of the movie and the way that the adventures are designed, the music is really the key in and out.
CS: Who picked the actual songs for each of the action scenes? Marius de Vries and Tyler Bates did an amazing job with the music on this one.
Snyder: For instance, I would say “White Rabbit” I had when I was writing, I would say “Search and Destroy” I had, and then we changed a few songs, but early on, Marius would just pitch me songs, “Well, what about this?” ‘Cause I’d have a song on and we’d try with another song, and that part was fun. I think Marius and I really came up with most of them.
CS: Emily doesn’t actually sing in the movie but I was surprised that she actually sang many of the songs on the soundtrack.
Snyder: Yeah, I know. She never auditioned to sing. Early on I thought it would be cool if the girls sang so I was like, “Okay, you gotta sing for me” and so she sang “Killing Me Softly,” you know that song? She sang that sort of a capella and it was really beautiful and haunting and I remember saying to Marius, “Okay, we need to get that in the movie somehow, what she can do” and that’s how we ended up getting her to sing the songs that she sings in the movie.
CS: You’ve done a lot of great work with Tyler over the years but Marius brings another dimension to the music so do you think you’ll be able to work with him again in the future? Or they might work together again?
Snyder: Yeah, I had a great time working with them, I thought it was amazing.
CS: It’s very different because it’s more like some of the Comic-Con presentations you’ve done by cutting the visuals to enhance the music.
Snyder: Absolutely, that part was really great.
CS: Obviously, you’ve been labeled in a complimentary way as a “visionary” so does that put a lot more pressure on you to make a movie like this where it’s hard to just do a simple two-person dialogue scene, because there are so many expectations that every scene looks amazing? I guess my question is “How do you feel about being labeled as a ‘visionary’”?
Snyder: Yeah, I mean look, there’s a lot of pressure on the whole movie, there’s pressure on everything, but I really tried as best as I can. I really try to say, “If there’s pressure, let me have it,” because I don’t want it to stop us from doing something cool or something crazy or I think might be fun visually to do. That’s why there’s a fine line but you really have to go after it in the movie because we really try to do things differently than everyone else. That’s like a risk-reward, so it’s high risk but if you do get it to work, you really get a lot of pleasure from it.
CS: I really love the fact you’ve been able to use a lot of the same team from “300″ through “Watchmen” and this including Larry Fong and Michael Wilkinson, and we can see how that collaboration evolves. I know your next movie “Superman” will be high-profile but do you think you’ll be bringing a lot of them along?
Snyder: Yeah, you know, I really wanted to, but they’re all out on other movies now, so I don’t know if they’ll be able to, because “Superman” is going so fast that none of my people expected it was going to be so quick and that I’d have another movie up so fast, and “Superman” has come pretty quick. Because they try and get their next geese in line, so I’m kind of having to go to another team for “Superman” but I will be back to my people as soon as I can.
CS: I was personally surprised by the announcement because I thought that after doing two movies at once (ED: Zack was also working on “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” at the same time as making “Sucker Punch”), you’d take a year off but that’s not happening. What’s going to happen with some of the other projects you were going to do like “Heavy Metal,” “Army of the Dead” you were going to produce–are you still able to develop some of those projects?
Snyder: Yeah, absolutely. “Heavy Metal,” no one wants to do that, but I just basically made a “Heavy Metal” movie, that’s what “Sucker Punch” is. I’ve got a script for “Illusion” and I have a script for “Xerxes” and I have a script for “Army of the Dead,” so there’s a lot of stuff we have that we can work on, but I think that I’m just going to knock this “Superman” movie out and then see how we feel about what we want to do after that.
CS: One thing that’s really intriguing is to see you work with Christopher Nolan, because I feel like you have very different sensibilities. I was curious how that would work especially with him doing another movie at the same time. Are you guys finding out that you have similar approaches to thing?
Snyder: Yeah, I feel like Chris and I, we actually get along really well and Chris is a really interesting guy and he’s been incredibly helpful and incredibly supportive. I think he just treats me the way he would want to be treated as far as he just has a lot of respect for other filmmakers. He’s an incredible resource on the other hand and he’s super-busy but we see each other quite a bit, and it’s kind of fun and I think we have a pretty good time.
CS: I’ve been reading some of the soundbites that have come out of the junket this weekend, and it’s interesting how your career has grown along with the evolution of the internet, the fact that each movie you make just has more and more speculation. Obviously, “Superman” is getting even more attention because it’s so high profile, but do you think it’s going to surprise people who think they know what to expect from you after your last five movies?
Snyder: Yeah, I think it will. Actually, that’s something I’ve endeavored from the beginning and one of the first things I said to Chris and Emma was that Superman needs to live in the real world and if I were to do this, it would be me making a more realistic movie, whatever that even means. I’ve never shot a movie on location or in the real world, it’s a weird thing.
CS: I guess “Dawn of the Dead” was probably the closest thing you’ve done to that…
Snyder: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s a super-stylized movie anyway.
CS: Obviously, it’s early to tell and I don’t know what your timeframe is, but do you have a date when you’re shooting for or is that up in the air until you actually start filming?
Snyder: For “Superman”? No, we’re going to shoot it at the beginning of August.
CS: But do you have a release date yet? Because at one point, it was going to be released during Christmas time 2012 which is getting pretty crowded.
Snyder: Oh, for the release? Well, I don’t know to be quite honest with you. They’re just screwing around with the release. I’m just going to make the movie and let them determine when they’re going to put it out. It is Superman after all.
CS: Any idea when we’ll hear more cast announcements for the movie? A lot of people are getting really excited to hear who else will be in it.
Snyder: I know I think that, too. Soon, soon. I can’t say exactly when but I think you should stay tuned. The movie is growing and getting more awesome every day, so it’s good.
CS: Do you think you might do something at Comic-Con this year even though you won’t have started shooting by then?
Snyder: I have the DVD for “Sucker Punch” so I may go anyway.
Sucker Punch opens everywhere in regular and IMAX on Friday March 25.