Heading straight from their well-received presentation in Hall H, writer/director Zack Snyder proudly led his cast to a press conference in the neighboring Hilton. Ready to talk Sucker Punch in depth was Emily Browning (Babydoll), Vanessa Hudgens (Blondie), Jamie Chung (Amber), Jena Malone (Rocket), Carla Gugino (Madam Gorski) and Zack’s wife and producing partner, Deborah Snyder.
The first completely original film from Zack, Sucker Punch takes place in the 1950s and tells the story of young woman (Browning) who is confined to a mental institution by her abusive father. Facing a lobotomy in five days, Babydoll works on an escape plan with her fellow inmates. The story moves in and out of anachronistic fantasy sequences, replete with dragons, robots, heavy weaponry and musical numbers, depicting Babydoll’s perception of reality of a number of imaginary levels.
Also starring in the film but, unfortunately, not present for San Diego are Abbie Cornish, Jon Hamm, Oscar Isaac and Scott Glenn.
Q: A zombie film, comic book movies, an animated owl story and now this. So you are just schizophrenic, right?
Zack Snyder: Completely schizophrenic.
Deborah Snyder: Who isn’t?
Zack: That’s my wife. But yes. The real answer is, “What’s not cool about all that stuff?” Nothing. I think we’ve been trying to make movies that, so far, are things that we’re interested in, that we think are cool. If it happens to have a broad — Though, I would say that zombie movies and comic book adaptations aren’t a crazy jump there. Animated owl film? Okay, I’ll give you that one. But it is animated, so there’s the whole maybe-relationship.
Q: Are you finding it harder and harder to top yourself?
Zack: Well, I don’t think of it like that. I’m not saying, “I’ve gotta top myself!”
Emily Browning: I should say, in Australia, “top yourself” means “commit suicide”.
Zack: Oh, great. If I don’t do good, I will top myself. This is what happens with an international crowd.
Q: Vanessa, your early career started with Disney. Is that a hard association to break and is that something you’re consciously doing with edgier pictures like this?
Vanessa Hudgens: It was a bit of a challenge at the beginning, because I felt like a lot of people could only see me as the girl who randomly broke into song and dance. But I sort of loved this movie. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I auditioned for it several times and just tried to put the work in. I hope that people give me a chance and, once they see me in this, I won’t be the little showtune girl.
Jena Malone: Yeah, but to her credit, every young actor has something they start in that they need to break out of as they get older. Whether it’s Disney or whether it’s this or whether it’s that. You could ask any actor that question.
Q: What sort of discipline, dancing or otherwise, did you have to learn for playing your part?
Vanessa: Well, I enjoy it. I love it. I grew up dancing. I spent six years of my life in the dance studio just going every single day. As I grew up, I started to move around and stopped dancing. Dance studios in LA are pretty intimidating, so I haven’t gone back to it. Once i found out that were going to do a little bit in this movie, I was just so excited. It’s more of a themed dance in this. And it’s just so much fun, you know? It’s very theatrical. You just get to play.
Q: 300 was pretty much an all-male cast. Can you talk about working with a primarily female cast in this one?
Zack: Yeah, I vowed never to have just one gender in a movie and sort of hopscotch genders, if at all possible. No, I’m kidding. It really just worked out that this story happened to be about these girls. So it wasn’t anything where I was, “Oh, I’ve been around men too much. I’ve got to make a movie with only women in it.”
Deborah: 300 had some kick-ass women, too.
Zack: Yeah, it did. Absolutely. The one… That character was based off of one frame in Frank [Miller’s] graphic novel. But that’s okay. Some things are based off one frame.
Q: Do you ladies have any special gear or technology that you love?
Jamie Chung: Oh, technology?
Zack: They all came from a farm.
Deborah: I want to steal Zack’s iPad. I don’t have one yet, so I’ve been trying to get it out of his hands. Especially because you can get service all over the place. The computers and the phones aren’t working too well here because everybody’s on them. But he seems to have good luck. I’m going to steal his.
Emily: I’m fond of the occasional videogame now and again, but not very cool video games like Mario Kart and those sort of things.
Vanessa: I want to find the Call of Duty: Black Ops people here. I think they’re showing a little bit here and I love that game.
Zack: That is a good game.
Emily: Your stock just went up so much here, Vanessa. Everyone is just like, “Oh my god! She’s amazing!”
Q: Your known for striking effects and visuals. Can you talk specifically about the production design of this film?
Zack: You know, we tried to just make good looking shots all the time. It’s not just in an action sequence. We really did just try to do it all the time. That influences production design and it influences everything. Because movies are visual, I tend to like it all the time. I think that influence the movie all the way across. Every aspect of the film, I think we did something that was striking. That’s kind of how I want the experience of watching the movie.
Q: Vanessa, do you still feel any connections to High School Musical?
Vanessa: Well, I see Zac [Efron] a lot (laughs). But I do feel different responsibilities. High School Musical was very much a part of my childhood and, as soon as it was finished, I thought, “Okay. It’s time to grow up and figure some things out.” But I’m enjoying myself. It gave me the chance to do things like this, which is just awesome.
Q: Carla, this was your second time working with Zack. How did you come aboard the film?
Carla Gugino: Well, once you work with him once, you want to work with him again. Watchmen was such a great experience and Zack and Debbie both create this environment where every single person in every department is at the top of their game. It’s just game on. Nobody there is just punching a time card. It’s amazing and we have this great leadership and a really collaborative team that just comes together. I don’t know. I recall Zack having this role that he thought I could do and we sat down to talk about it, both excited by what she could become. In terms of being able to work together again, one of the great things is that you learn this creative shorthand. You know going in that you’re on the same page. I know that he’ll let me fail miserably, if need be and will be able to say, “That didn’t work. Let’s try something else.” That’s how you find really good stuff.
Q: Why did you make the decision not to go 3D?
Zack: When we started talking about it, I had a certain idea of how I wanted to move the camera and I had a certain idea of how I wanted the film to feel. I am a fan of 3D. Legends is all 3D. It was conceived in 3D and, if anyone has seen it, I think the 3d is pretty friggin’ awesome. If I do say so myself. We did talk about and, in the press, there was word that we were going to do it in 3D. We really were considering it. But we had seen a bunch of tests and conversion didn’t sit with me that great. Without being baked in, it just felt a little weird. But they also showed me a test of 300 that was pretty awesome. But it didn’t feel right for this movie. It’s in eye-numbing 2D, which is also awesome.
Q: The footage was amazing, but the plot was a little unclear. Can you put the story for Sucker Punch in your own words?
Zack: Well, the movie doesn’t come out till March and the point of the footage was not to tell the story.
Q: Can the actresses each talk about your characters a little?
Jena: I play Rocket and, basically, Babydoll comes to this mental institution and meets all these characters that she sort of brings into these alternate realities. I sort of help her rally the troops and form a really beautiful bond with Babydoll. And, you know, I’m kind of crazy.
Vanessa: I play Blondie. She’s in this whole crazy world as well. She starts off as kind of a follower. I feel like in a lot of the fight sequences she becomes a total badass, which is kind of funny because it’s a complete difference. As well as the whole Blondie thing.
Emily: I play Babydoll. She’s the only character whose story you get to see any of outside of the asylum. She sort of comes into the institution and has very little time to kind of escape, so she rallies these girls together and gets them to help her escape as well. It sort of goes into her imagination a lot. It’s really cool, being at the center of those fantasies.
Jamie: I play Amber and she’s kind of the first one to jump onboard with Babydoll’s plan. She’s really sweet and she is extremely loyal to her friends but, you know, she’s always there for Babydoll. All she really has is her friends.
Carla: I play a Polish psychiatrist named Dr. Gorski. It’s all in the world of the 1960’s, but it’s kind of Zack’s reality, so there’s a heightened reality to it as well. The time and place is sort of questionable. In the alternate world, I play the keeper and sort of Madam of the brothel who is Madam Gorski. She just has a really interesting journey because she’s clearly been through a lot before. She’s in charge of taking care of these girls and she does it in a very strict, tough love way. But there’s probably no one who understands them like her. It was such an incredible experience because you’re trying to see all these characters come to life as we were filming. We were discovering things while we were shooting, which is a luxury that you oftentimes don’t have. We’d find these little gems of the relationships.
Zack: If you get a chance to look at the footage again and pay close attention, there’s a lot of the background in there.
Deborah: What I think is amazing is that a lof of these women are so multi-dimensional. They can be strong and they can fight, but they can also be feminine and sexy and vulnerable at times. I think we haven’t really seen that yet in these female action films. I think that, for me, that’s what was so exciting for the project.
Q: Can you talk about the special training?
Emily: Yeah, we trained for like three months before we started filming. We did lots of martial arts and gun training and me and Abbie [Cornish] did like swordfighting. We also just did a lot of physical strength training with scary Navy SEALS. It was sort of our whole lives for three months. It’s all we did.
Zack: The idea for me was to give these guys a chance to live like a pro-athlete instead of an actor for a little bit.
Jena: And eat like one, too.
Zack: To feel like, in a sense, that there was no movie to made. That what they were doing was just every day going to train, go to the gym, shoot a gun, go to bed and wake up and do it again. I think that that’s kind of a cool way to think about it and I hope that their experiences together in that setting then had an influence on the movie itself and, having to do those scenes, there was a weird leftover from the sweating and the gun shooting.
Jena: In a lot of ways, three months of training in the stunt gym felt a lot like a mental institution. You just do it, pushing past this idea of pain or emotional discomfort. You get to this point where you’re crying.
Zack: Take your vitamins!
Jena: You get 45 minutes and a juice break. But it’s amazing because once you get back that routine of discomfort, you get to this amazing point of exhilaration. You’re totally finding new things inside you every single day. As a woman, I’ve never been asked to push myself to such extremes. So you’re finding out some strengths that you can play directly to the characters and the relationships between the characters. So that was smart on your part.
Zack: I didn’t do it on purpose. (laughs)
Q: What was it like acting without the CG backgrounds? Was seeing the footage close to how you imagined it?
Vanessa: You can never imagine it to be as good as it is. There are scenes where I’m shooting at this dragon and Zack’s just like, “Shoot in the air and then go there and go down there and shoot there!” Shooting at the little balls on the green screen. And then seeing it today, my god.
Jena: And we weren’t shooting in a vacuum. We had the ultimate resource which was the interior of Zack’s mind. It was all there. As much information as we needed. Of where to go and what to shoot and what everything looked like. We had so many things to pull from.
Jamie: And there were images onset and clips of what the scene was supposed to look like. So that really helped, visually.
Emily: But even seeing the footage today, we all knew it was going to look cool. But it was 10,000 times cooler than I had expected.
Q: Carla, can you compare this film experience to Watchmen?
Carla: What was very different is that, with Watchmen, we had a very specific bible that was always something that being allegiant to was of the utmost importance. So there was something that predated any of us that we had to refer to. This was also, absolutely, a bible that had as much significance to us as that did. But because the creator of that bible was also the director of the movie, it was cool because we could ask, “Is this where you’re coming from?” And we could ask and try things. There was a certain kind of exploration that was a little bit different because there was less pressure.
Zack: Yeah. With Watchmen, there was, “She says this, so say it.” Where, with this, we could play with it.
Q: She was Polish in Watchmen as well.
Zack: It’s interesting.
Carla: But she hid her Polish nature!
Zack: Yeah, Alan [Moore] didn’t want her to be Polish and I did.
Q: Was it fun to wear those outfits and did you take anything home with you?
Vanessa: Absolutely not, but I did think about it.
Q: Were you able to incorporate those outfits into your performances?
Jena: I think they incorporated themselves. We had to learn how to fight for three months and then, with the outfits, we had to learn how to fight again. They got in the way a little bit just figuring out the belts and the straps and what these things here were.
Zack: What hurts.
Emily: But I felt tougher in the costume, actually. I found it kind of easier to fight in costume. Michael [Wilkinson], when he designed, was obviously somewhat revealing, but also wanted to make sure we were really comfortable. I felt awesome in my costume. It was kind of easier to fight, in a way.
Jamie: It really helped put you into character in all the different fantasy realms that we were in. All of the costumes translated really well. They still gave the essence of your character. They were great. Most of the things were vintage of handmade. The corsets were custom-made to fit our bodies.
Carla: What’s great about Michael is that he’s just really a genius. He’ll work with you. There was an entire crystal outfit that just snapped on. There were certain moments were it was just like, buck up. They’re so beautiful that you have a to have a sense of humor.
Zack: Yeah, a sense of humor is perfect. You don’t have to wear it too long.
Sucker Punch hits theaters on March 25, 2011.