“I truly like movies that are self-aware, and that are constantly reminding me that they’re movies while immersing me deeper into them,” Zack Snyder told FilmInk. “Every part of the movie is an illusion…every single part. It’s fun for me to play with the icons and the visual language of movies to make people buy into these worlds.”
Zack Snyder is, indeed, one of today’s cinema’s greatest fantasists, a filmmaker capable of creating stunning cinematic tableaux from the ground up, and films that pulse and pound with an energy and originality all their own. Like the best directors of big action films, however, Snyder also has a firm grip on cinematic essentials such as characterisation and plotting. His films are not merely engineered to set up the next action sequence, and in four out of his five films to date, Snyder has proven adept at reworking existing material for the big screen, putting his own often delirious spin on proceedings while remaining faithful to the work that has come before him.
Snyder was born in Wisconsin in 1966, and was first truly enraptured with cinema at the age of eleven when, like so many aspirants of his generation, he saw George Lucas’ 1977 classic, Star Wars. At around the same time, Zack received a Super 8 film camera from his parents, and started toiling on his own mini-films. Throughout his adolescence, Snyder further developed his love of film, and discovered a particular taste for genre cinema, with a special fondness for George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie satire, Dawn Of The Dead. After high school, Snyder studied at Heatherley School Of Fine Art in England, before attending The Art Centre College Of Design in Pasadena, while continuing to make his own short films the whole time. In the early nineties, Snyder started directing television commercials, and quickly made a name for himself in the industry by dent of his nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic and highly individual sense of style. Among countless others, Snyder spent the bulk of the decade on high profile campaigns for the likes of Nike, Reebok, Budweiser, UPS, Audi, Subaru, Nissan and BMW.
By 2002, Snyder’s talents had come to the attention of Hollywood, where commercials directors were well and truly in vogue. He signed a deal with Columbia Pictures to make a big budget version of the 1975 television series, S.W.A.T, but jumped ship when the studio questioned his gritty, hard edged approach to what they envisioned as a straight-ahead actioner. He was next slated to helm an adaptation of the comic book, Mage, about an ambivalent superhero. That project stalled, which gave Snyder the opportunity to jump on board the remake of Dawn Of The Dead, one of his touchstone cinematic experiences. The film was exciting, visceral and terrifying. The reviews were positive, the box office rung, and Snyder was Hollywood’s new genre-friendly it-boy.
Since making such a big splash, Snyder has had his fair of production struggles. The politics of his adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300 – which traces an epic battle between a small Spartan war party and the massive Persian army – were questioned, with accusations that the film was a barely disguised, highly simplistic, and dangerously propagandistic depiction of America’s current battles with The Middle East. On his next project, Watchmen – an adaptation of Alan Moore’s epochal graphic novel – Snyder had to endure several legal tangles over ownership of the material (as well as the public animus of the source material’s infamously prickly author, a vocal non-supporter of the project) before going through a long, hellish shoot to realise his epic vision.
Snyder moved through smoother waters with his breathtaking animated fantasy, Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole, and Sucker Punch, a girls’ own adventure flick. Zack Snyder now stands as the lynchpin in Warner Bros and DC Comics’ burgeoning cinematic universe, which he surreptitiously created with 2013’s Man Of Steel, and now launches into headfirst with the superhero-saturated Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. FilmInk spoke with the producer/director during the production of the film.
When you were looking down the barrel of this, what was the thing that excited you the most?
“All of it, honestly! Let’s see, where to begin? I’ve told this story a couple of times, but I’ll tell it again because I love to. It’s the story of how we conceived the why of Batman V Superman, and why it ended up being Batman as the ‘V.’ We had a bunch of discussions when we were doing Man Of Steel about what we were going to do for a bad guy for the sequel, or the continuing saga. And in a lot of ways, we were like, ‘Let’s not make a sequel in the traditional sense. Let’s kick start another mythological storyline. Once we knew that we weren’t going to do a straight sequel like you would do for a normal movie franchise, we said, ‘Okay, here’s Superman, now we can begin another path.’ When we were doing Man Of Steel, I said something like, ‘What if at the end of the movie we saw kryptonite being delivered to Wayne Manor, and that’s the last shot.’ Everyone was like, ‘Oh, hmm, interesting.’ The problem with that whole thing is that once you start talking about Batman, and you go down that road, it’s hard to come up with a better idea than that. At one point, we just talked a little about Batman fighting Superman…but then that was it. We were done. Because there’s no other guy that he should fight that is better than Batman. Sure, there’s Brainiac or something…but nobody is better than Batman. People were always like, ‘What was that thing you said about Batman? That was good. Let’s go back.’ Once we’d said it out loud, the work started on creating the philosophical oppositional stances that would put them into conflict. That was the fun part, because I knew immediately that they weren’t going to get along, right out of the gate. They have common ground, but they have different approaches. The morality is different. Even though Superman is an amazingly benevolent and kind individual, who has grown up in Kansas, which is known for its niceness, the potential abuse of his power is staggering. An anarchist like Batman would not want such a potential power out there. I don’t want to say he could be a dictator but…the potential human rights violations that could go on based on Superman’s powers would be pretty scary to Batman. So it was an easy fire to stoke in both of them. And you could imagine that Superman would not take kindly to someone who he believed was acting as judge, jury, and executioner in the vigilante position. That he’s not respecting due process, Batman!”
Is this movie going to start a nice rivalry between DC and Marvel?
“I’m a comic book fan, so it’s a hard thing for me. I have a great interest in the movies that they’re making, and I have nothing bad to say about those movies. But I will say that Warner allow for these amazingly open movies that allow a giant audience. But they’re very careful, they age the movies with the people that are watching them very carefully, in a very interesting and thought out way, but they’re also very filmmaker driven. You can’t imagine those films being made by these very strong filmmakers without a sense of respect and kindness. They say, ‘We hired you to go and make something cool, so show us what that is.’ I don’t know what the Marvel process is. They have their own way of doing things. But I know what happens at Warner, and I feel like the great work that they’ve done here has been based on that philosophy. That will end up being the thing maybe for me which is most rewarding as a filmmaker. They allowed for this unexpected journey for the film, because I was just allowed to make it cool.”
Can we talk about casting? With Christian Bale out of contract….
“This is a total and opposite reality from the Chris Nolan movies. It’s another universe, so we couldn’t hire Christian Bale if we wanted to, because he doesn’t exist in our world. Maybe we could hire him to play another part. We did talk about that briefly. I just wanted to hire Christian to play another part to make that obvious. Christian could play, like, Alfred with age makeup. No! Of course not. But you know what I mean. Even people at the studio would say, ‘Who are you getting from the other movies?’ And I was like, ‘Hey, come on guys, let’s all understand, it’s a different world.’ In the Batman universe that Chris Nolan created, Superman would have a hard time existing. That that’s why we did a reboot on the universe, so we could allow these characters to exist together. We needed to do that to have Batman exist in this world.”
What was it that you saw in Ben Affleck that made you choose him to play Batman?
“I really wanted an old Batman – not, like, decrepit! I wanted a world weary Batman… someone who has had experiences, and Ben has really hit that. He’s a movie star now in the greatest definition of the word. He has gravitas. We’ve greyed his hair a little, and we’ve made him look a bit rough and rugged, in a good way. He’s a great actor, and he’s a big person. He’s 6’4”, and in the boots, he’s 6’6”. I don’t like a small Batman…I like my Batmen bigger!”
Ben is also a filmmaker…
“He was amazingly kind with me and generous. He was like, ‘Yes sir, boss, what do you need?’ He would be like, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing here, sir, just tell me that to do.’ And I couldn’t be more grateful to his generosity and his work ethic. He just worked, and it was gruelling, I’ll be honest. That costume isn’t easy to wear. And it’s raining and it’s cold and it’s Detroit and you’re out for hours. We were turning the rain on him, and he’s like, ‘Arrrggh…’ There’s nothing glamourous about shooting a movie, especially a superhero movie. The suits are no good!”
But it does have a zipper!
“It does have a zipper. We did that. We gave him a zipper. There’s only so much torture a man’s going to take. By the way, Henry’s suit has a zipper now too…we added a zipper to Henry’s. Ben’s Batman costume is the most traditional Batman costume that’s ever existed in the movie world, in the purest sense. I didn’t want a hard suit for his normal costume. In the past, they’ve always done variations of him looking like it’s armour of some kind. I’ve always been a fan of what I thought would be more like, I don’t want to say fabric…we said that it was some sort of Kevlar weave that his suit was made of. It’s more about the body. It seems like with every movie that I’ve ever made that they’re all very physical. It seems like I’ve destroyed a lot of men’s self-esteem. They have no chance no matter how much they go to the gym.”
You worked with Frank Miller, who famously wrote the graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, which features an older, angrier Batman. Did your Batman come out of some of his ideas?
“I’m a huge fan of The Dark Knight Returns, but this movie is not The Dark Knight Returns. Frank and I share a lot of aesthetic interest, and certainly his portrayal of an old Batman in that novel inspired me, because it rings true. That’s how I approached it, through that prism of what meets my standard of cool superhero.”
When we were talking to Ben, he mentioned that you and [co-screenwriter] Chris Terrio working together was like magic. Could you talk about that?
“Chris is amazing, and Chris and I did have an amazing collaboration. Chris is super smart, and he does his research. He knows what’s going on….but he’s not a total dork! Well, maybe academically he’s a little bit of a dork. But he’s read all the books, and he’s got more dogma now than I do because he’s done all this research. Now I’ll say, ‘Let’s not do this’ and he’ll be like, ‘But in such and such comic book, they did that.’ And I said, ‘Chris, what happened to you?!’ In the beginning, he was like, ‘Screw those comic books! We’ll make it awesome, and more literary.’ Anyway, it’s great. Chris, in the end, wants it to mean something, and he wants it to be about something. It’s amazing having these three titans of pop culture…I mean, it’s just the craziest IP that you can imagine! Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman! And we’re actually manipulating and having fun with their stories! It’s an amazing opportunity.”
How exciting is it to have Wonder Woman in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice?
“It’s an amazing opportunity to have Wonder Woman in the film. We haven’t had a female superhero of that magnitude, and it’s an amazing opportunity for the world to get behind an amazing, powerful female character. I’m happy that we have the opportunity to do that. Half of my movies have female leads…maybe that’s because I have so many strong women in my life. I’m not in the least surprised by a strong female superhero. I’m shocked that it hasn’t happened sooner. By the way, I highly recommend Jill Lepore’s book, The Secret History Of Wonder Woman, if you haven’t read it; it’s amazing, and truly epic.”
How hard was it to find your Wonder Woman, and what characteristics were important for her?
“We tested a bunch of actresses, as you can imagine. But the thing with Gal is that she’s strong, she’s beautiful, and she’s a kind person, which is interesting, but fierce at the same time. It’s that combination of being fierce but kind at the same time that we were looking for. She can get serious, but she’s amazingly fun to be around. And by the way, she really held her own with Ben in the screen test. Ben was like, ‘Whoa, that girl is something else!’ That was a good sign, because Ben is very tough in the scene, and he’s big and commanding. Anytime that you’re doing a test like that and you’re looking at the other person, you’re thinking, ‘Okay, that’s good stuff.’ That was part of the process, and over time as we got to know Gal, we found out how amazing she is.”
Did you see a lot of actresses?
“We did…I can’t even remember how many in terms of interviews, but for the final test, I think that we tested six actresses. But we interviewed and saw hundreds, so it was a pretty exhausting process.”
Does she have as much screen time as Ben and Henry in this movie?
“No, she has a cameo in this movie. No, actually… it’s bigger than a cameo. She comes in and does something.”
In the trailer, Superman and Batman make a joke and then Wonder Woman appears. How did that joke come about?
“The ‘Is she with you?’ joke at the end of the trailer? You have to see the movie, because it gears into the drama of what’s happening, and if you see it in the context of the film, it completely makes sense that the two of them were trying to figure out who she is…”
What kind of dynamic do the three of them have?
“Well, they’re forced together, which you get a sense of from the trailer. They’re forced to work together.”
Were you more of a Batman kid or a Superman kid?
“Probably as a kid, when I was younger, I was more into Superman, which is the opposite of a lot of kids. I was definitely more of a Superman kid. Dr. Manhattan is my favourite character in Watchmen, and I always related those two characters to each other in a lot of ways. I always thought that Superman could go the way of Dr. Manhattan any minute. He could just have a revelation and decide that time and space were just another thing like an emotion, or something like that. I always found Superman interesting on an intellectual level. But on a physical, emotional level, Batman is a lot of fun. When I got into college, I was more of a Batman guy. I’m a fan of all the Batman movies, because you’re always looking for that little piece of the Batman movie that you want to make, but until we made this movie, I’d never seen a Batman that I really wish that I’d made. I still felt like I had to make my own Batman. I had a clear idea about what I wanted Batman to be. There wasn’t really a lot of discussion about what he would be. I was like, ‘This is Batman, and this is what he does.’ Ben understood immediately the kind of Batman that I wanted.”
Can we talk about Lex Luthor? Was the script changed when Jesse Eisenberg was cast?
“I don’t know where you heard that. When we wrote the script with Lex in it, we invented this version of Lex. We never had an older version of Lex in our movie. We talked about it, sure. I met with Jesse for another part, and after he left, I was like, ‘Oh man, he was awesome…he could play Lex!’ It was very easy for Chris Terrio to channel Jesse because they’re very similar people in the best kind of way. They have similar points of view on a lot of things. They’re intellectual types. The careful construction of that character came right out of Chris. And, it was Chris and Jesse from the beginning, you know? The part was custom made for Jesse, and Chris did an amazing job creating it. When Lex Luthor confronts Superman and they talk about the why of it, it’s a crushingly cool point of view.”
You’ve got a long slate of films coming out. How much in the scripting of this was foreshadowing what’s to come?
“I tried to have as much fun with it as possible, maybe because I love comic books and I love the potential for that kind of madness. We’ve been talking a lot about where we’re going to go with Justice League…we kind of knew what Justice League was going to be pretty early on, which allowed us to lay the groundwork in a lot of ways. When you see the movie, you’ll really get a sense that there’s a second layer coming, and filtering down through the film, as far as what’s possible. We slowly introduce the other characters and how they play and what is their purpose and where they are in the world.”
And do you think it resonates with the world, the subject?
“I do. We’ve really gone out of our way to imbue the movie with a sense of meaning beyond the comic book world. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s definitely something that we tried hard to do. Justice League is my next movie, and that’s about turning the whole thing up to eleven as much as you can, with all these guys trying to work together, if that’s possible. That’s a lot of fun for me.”
Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is released in cinemas on March 24.