INTERVIEW: Zack Snyder on ‘300’

The final interview from my 300 junket weekend was with writer/director Zack Snyder. If you haven’t read my chats with stars Gerard Butler and Rodrigo Santoro be sure to; I will include the links at the end of this article.

As for Snyder, I met this guy for the first time at Comic Con last year and to say he is a cool guy and a fun interview would be quite appropriate. Snyder seems to “get it” when it comes to these cool genre films. He took on directing duties of the Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004 to the tune of $59 million at the box and a 77% Rotten Tomatoes rating, which is saying a lot when you consider it is a well loved Romero film and pleasing that audience is tough. In 2008 he is expected to release Watchmen based on the popular Alan Moore graphic novel and he talks a lot about that as well as a lot about 300, which I am sure is the one and only reason you are reading this interview.

Snyder utilized blue screen, multiple cameras and CGI in an effort to make 300 such a unique film and one I am sure fanboys around the world will be screaming about all year. I already reviewed the film and gave it a “B” and one of the reasons it got that grade is talked about in the first question. So dig in and enjoy as one of the great upcoming directors shares his thoughts on his new film and the future.

For someone that hasn’t read the Frank Miller book how closely did you stick to the source material?

Zack Snyder (ZS): I would say it’s probably 90-percent the book, there is maybe 10-percent that I added which was the Queen’s storyline and we did that initially to remind people of the ‘why we fight’ part of it. You get all the way up there to Thermopylae and suddenly Sparta becomes abstract. I wanted to remind people. Once we got into that, we started to realize that we had to figure out what the queen was about. There’s a line in the graphic novel where Gorgo says, ‘Come back with your shield or on it,’ which was attributed to her in history. In my research I found oh here’s another thing, ‘only Spartan women give birth to real men.’ That was another line I found attributed to her. I thought gosh, if you combined those two, wow, what kind of character is that? Who is that woman who said those things? That’s really what we used to sort of build her and flesh her out.

Where do you start with movie like this? You’re on a blue screen stage so do you start building environments? Do you start with the actors?

ZS: The way we started was with the concept art. I would do a little doodle and Grant [Story] would do some Photoshop, whacking together some images. That would sort of get us in an area where I would say, ‘Okay that’s kind of working.’ Then we’d try to refine that by maybe shooting some stuff. Shoot a guy in a Spartan outfit. Not the ones we used in the movie, but something like it, red cape for composition and sky and things like that.

So, that process led us all the way to production where we sit at a table like this. We’d have the story board sitting in front of us and I’d say, ‘Okay, I want the camera low. What happened a moment before? If the guy that walked up and stopped on the hill… I’m imaging that it’s a silhouette and that sky we’d replace.’ Everyone would take a turn and the visual effects guys would go, ‘Okay, what we plan to do is generate this sky, get this background. Maybe there’s a sun flare. Maybe… blah, blah, blah.’ Then Jim Bissell, the production designer, would say, ‘Okay this is what I plan to build for you to shoot on. It’s a little silhouetted hill, it’s made out of concrete and you can use it for all these different things.’ We basically do that 2,000 times and you have a movie.

Miller has such a distinct style in the book. Was it difficult as the director to leave your own mark when adapting it?

ZS: I didn’t really think about it in that way. Even when you try to get out of the way of something, you’re like a filter, you can’t help it. It goes through you and when it comes out the other side, it’s got people in it and there are all sorts of stuff that happens so I wasn’t really worried about.

The thing I love about a movie is its tone. That’s my favorite part of movies, the tone of the movie. What is it? What kind of a movie is it? I think when I did Dawn of the Dead my feeling was that I wanted to make a movie that felt like a cult movie. You could feel it was organic and it was simple. It wasn’t going to be a lot of CGI and it was going to be a lot of makeup.

When we went to do 300, I wanted to make a movie that felt like the graphic novel, but the characters stood and they looked and they talked like the graphic novel and that you felt the graphic novel. That was the most important thing to me because I felt like the story was there was sort of the heroic nature of the film. But, the tone of it, the where it came from, I wanted you to feel it. So in that way, I used the graphic novel as a thing that informed the tone of the movie. That’s my favorite thing about the movie is that I feel it.

Would you say this is more mythology than history here?

ZS: Absolutely, I’d say 300 is a movie that is made from the Spartan perspective. Not just from the Spartan perspective, the cameras are the Spartans, but it’s the Spartans sensibility of the Battle of Thermopylae. If you had Spartans sitting around a fire and they were telling you, before anything was written down, what happened at Thermopylae, this is the way they would tell it. It’s not necessarily down to the fact that they don’t have armor on. Everything about it is just to make the Spartans more heroic.

So what about the color palettes you went with?

ZS: All the color choices have to do with and I have theories about each sequence and why they are the color they are and also how they sort of relate back to what the overall palette of the book is. In the book, the only color that is really saturated is the red. Everything else is pretty washed out. Even [the red] in 90-percent of the case in the book are almost that brownie red.

What was dealing with the MPAA like?

ZS: You know it wasn’t that bad. On Dawn I had like five or six tries before I got my R. But, we got an R right away so it was pretty cool. I don’t think the movie is that gory, personally, 300. I think it’s so bizarre. I’ve had 50-year-old women see the movie and go, ‘Oh, I thought it was cool.’ I go, ‘What about all the gore?’ They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s cool It’s like art. It’s fancy.’

I think on one hand yes. If you want to enjoy that you can, but I think on the other hand it’s abstract in a way. I think the MPAA looked at it and said, ‘Oh, it’s not Saving Private Ryan.’

Were there any shots you just couldn’t make work and they’re out of the movie?

ZS: Nothing from the graphic novel really except for that one scene with Stelios and Leonidas at the very beginning of the novel. We did shoot this thing, it’s going to be on the DVD. It’s these giants with these midget archers on their backs. They just got so outrageous that when I looked at it I thought this is from another movie. This crazy.

Is it finished?

ZS: Yeah. It’s like 90-percent finished but it’s pretty cool. The Spartans are running and [the midgets] have no arms, their arms have been hacked off. [These giants] have these little sort of elf looking guys in these kind of wicker baskets on their backs. They’re firing arrows and then the Spartans comes and hacks the leg off it. It falls and they leap off and stab the little elf.

Frank Miller was hesitant on Sin City about letting Robert Rodriguez do the film. Was he apprehensive at all with you?

ZS: He was hesitant. I don’t think he thought that anyone would ever try to make 300 into a movie. When I’ve been with him and we’ve talked about it in these kinds of scenarios, he always seems to me to be very surprised that we picked it. It’s almost like a passion project for him. If you look at it in relation to his other work, it’s sort of an anomaly in a lot of ways. I think the graphic novel world, it’s is an anomaly, it sort of exists outside the realm. The one thing that is consistent is who Leonidas is. Leonidas is Marv or he’s Batman. He’s the same guy. Frank likes that guy. He writes him a lot. I think his chance to have Leonidas march up to Thermopylae, fight like a madman and then die, that’s the thing he just likes.

What’s going on with Watchmen?

ZS: Well, we’re trying to get a budget together now. I feel like the movie is in a pretty cool place, the script is pretty cool. I’ve been talking to some actors; I’m not going to say who. It’s cool because you can get real actors, you don’t have to go Hollywood. So that’s all going along, I’ve been drawing away and I think that it’s coming along. They have talked about maybe shooting in the summer.

What’s been the delay? 10 years ago it was a Joel Silver film.

ZS: I can only thank God that they haven’t gotten it together yet. I think the delay is always that they haven’t known what it was. I’ve set the movie in 1985 and have the luxury of being far enough away from 1985 that that is a viable idea. I think that what happened in the past is that when you are only five years away from 1985 it’s a weird – it’s hard to make a period piece that took place only three years ago, studios don’t get that and there has been a push on the other scripts that exist to update the movie or make it take place in the present day. I think by setting the movie 1985 and having the Cold War, having Nixon, having all that stuff you reinvigorate what the story is about. If you set the movie in modern time you are basically saying it is the war on terror, then the movie is asking me, Oh Zack what do you think of the war on terror, what’s your take on it? Who gives a fuck what I think about the war on terror, that’s not what the movie is, that’s not why people go to the movies. What Alan [Moore], in his book, the comic he has made is about authority and government and all those things, they’re big things, maybe if you make that movie right what that has to say makes people think about what is happening now or in their own lives. That’s my hope for what the movie could be.

How has the universal praise of 300 assisted you with Watchmen and other projects?

ZS: I can’t say it hasn’t helped, it has helped a lot, but I think what it does do – people have said to me, ‘What’s going on with Watchmen? You gotta make sure you don’t fuck that up. What can I do to help?’ I say, ‘Go see 300,’ because the truth is 300, to the studio anyway, is a graphic novel, it’s not a movie that they necessarily understand exactly when I pitch it on paper. I say, ‘Listen, it’s this [pointing at the artwork] in a movie,’ they don’t get that. So my point is that they feel in some way that about Watchmen, they wonder why it’s not Fantastic Four and I have to remind them it’s much more Strangelove than it is Fantastic Four which they don’t like hearing. But they believe that I know, and so in that way it helps. And with [300], when they finally saw it, I think the felt, Wow, we didn’t know that was the movie you were making but we like it. So maybe that will apply to Watchmen.

What is your approach on Watchmen going to be and how much CGI do you plan on using?

ZS: The thing we really tried to do with 300 was not try to make it look like it was made by a computer. I wanted it to feel organic as much as we could because you don’t want it to end up looking like Polar Express. It’s a possibility, you have enough CGI in there and suddenly it’s that movie. The problem is, even though that’s a great looking movie and it’s super cool, I feel like it doesn’t relate back to the printed media it came from. I know this sounds contrary because an animated film is much more like a graphic novel, but I disagree because I feel like Frank’s graphic novel is an organic experience. It’s a gritty book and a lot of spilled paint on that book. It feels like it anyway.

The idea with Watchmen is not to do a CG movie, but to do it when it’s necessary. Like when he goes to Mars, there’s an issue there. You’ve got to figure that out. We can’t go to Mars. I know a lot of people are going to be disappointed in that, but I don’t have the money. Antarctica also, there’s no Karnack built there. I know again we should probably build it, but I don’t think they are going to let us do that. So those two things right off the bat. Dr. Manhattan himself. What do you do? How do you make him? How do you render him? Rorschach’s mask. There are things that have to be dealt with and figured out. The appetite for me is to make a movie that feels more like Taxi Driver than like Fantastic Four. It’s a balance.

Is the budget for Watchmen set right now or is there some sort of plus or minus depending on how well 300 does?

ZS: That’s theoretical. I believe that is probably the reflecting reality. I don’t know that for sure. It’s not set right now. Maybe that’s a coincidence. Maybe not.

300 opens in theaters on Friday, March 9. For more information on the film including clips, pics, news and much more click here.

For my interview with Gerard Butler (King Leonidas) click here and for my chat with Rodrigo Santoro (Xerxes) click here. Also be sure to check out our 300 Sweepstakes!


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