Having conquered the world of commercials and music videos, 41-year-old Zack Snyder is now a serious up-and-comer on the film scene. His first feature, the 2004 “Day of the Dead,” a remake of the George Romero zombie classic, won the approval of hard-to-please horror buffs; and now, following ambitiously in the footsteps of fellow director Robert Rodriguez, he’s attempting to bring the world of comics god Frank Miller alive on the screen with “300,” a relentlessly violent tale of ancient Sparta that takes live-action visual stylization several steps beyond even Rodriguez’s 2005 “Sin City,” which was itself virtually nothing but style. Next up for Snyder will be two other comics-based pictures — a film version of the late Vaughn Bodé’s “Cobalt 60″ and Alan Moore’s brilliant superhero noir, “Watchmen” — an accursed project upon which the dreams of several more established directors have already foundered and died. Snyder is actually at work on “Watchmen,” though, and he hopes to see it released either in the fall of 2008 or the spring of 2009. Right now, however, there’s “300” to talk about.
Kurt Loder: This movie has a very eerie visual look, with radically desaturated colors. What exactly did you do to achieve that effect?
Zack Snyder: The music-video world has already embraced this kind of super-high-contrast, freaky look. It’s funny, a lot of times when filmmakers get into the visual-effects world, they stop putting a look on a movie. They just say, “Oh, let’s make it look plain, because we don’t want to hide the visual effects,” right? It’s like sticker-shock. They think, “Oh, my God, the effects cost so much money, we don’t want the audience to miss any of them.” What we tried to do with “300” was just make sure it always looked good, no matter what. Even if there were effects going on, we still wanted it to look cool.
Loder: Even the skies are kind of fascinating.
Snyder: Yeah, we’ve exposed the human beings so they have super-bright highlights and super-dark shadows, but the skies are still exposed as if we shot them differently. The skies still have detail, and I think that’s what makes you go, “What happened here? This is weird.”
Loder: Is there a ton of CGI in this film?
Snyder: Not a ton. There are a lot of digital matte paintings and backgrounds, because every shot we shot in front of a green screen. I wouldn’t say the techniques we used are revolutionary. You know, putting a guy in front of a green screen and changing his background, you guys do that on your shows. But the massed armies, the creatures, the shipwreck — absolutely, all of that is incredible CGI. We took a lot of those tools and we said, “You know what? Let’s see if we can use these tools to do something crazy, instead of just your standard thing.”
Loder: Are you a longtime fan of Frank Miller’s graphic novel?
Snyder: Yeah. I’m a huge Frank Miller fan in general. Frank is a super-cool guy. You know, he’s kind of intimidating, because he’s really smart, and he’s really intense. But he appreciates artists working as hard as they can to get at what he tried to do. He’s really gracious. We worked together a lot in pre-production, talking about the script. And then when we were actually shooting, he’d be available when I’d say, like, “Gosh, I can’t tell what this prop looks like from the graphic novel,” and he would send me some drawings of it that were clearer. And I’d give them to the prop guys and they’d build ’em.
Loder: What did you think of “Sin City” ’s replication of a Frank Miller world?
Snyder: I loved it. I was a huge fan of the graphic novel, especially the Marv story, which is my favorite. In a lot of ways, Robert and that movie opened the door for us. I don’t think we would’ve had a chance to make this movie if “Sin City” hadn’t been done. “Sin City” made Frank’s aesthetic commercially viable — his attitude and his way of seeing. You know, he’s kind of unapologetic in his sort of relentless brutality, and we tried to make that fun. I think he actually tries to make it fun in his books. A lot of people take it really seriously, but I think it’s just a good time.
Loder: How did the studio feel about all the violence?
Snyder: Well, it’s an “R”-rated movie, and the studio, their knee-jerk reaction was, “We’re not gonna give a ton of money to an R-rated movie, because we just can’t market it the way we can market a PG-13 movie.” And I said, “Listen, guys, I don’t wanna make a PG-13 movie.” Especially with this subject matter, you know? This is not really a thing for kids. And so we made a huge sacrifice when we decided we were gonna make an “R”-rated movie — we left a lot of production money on the table. But in the end, everyone was totally dedicated to the concept of making a hard movie — not for kids, necessarily; for us.
Loder: Did you have to cut a lot?
Snyder: They kept telling me I was gonna have to cut stuff, and I kept sayin’, “You know what? I’m not.” It really became about force of will. We just went nuts.
Loder: Are you a total comics person?
Snyder: I’m not a complete comic-book geek, but I’m enough of one to be serious.
Loder: You’re doing a movie version of Vaughn Bodé’s “Cobalt 60,” too, aren’t you?
Snyder: Yeah, “Cobalt 60″ is a graphic novel that I’ve always loved. So I’m tryin’ to figure that out. But “Watchmen” is what we’re workin’ on right now.
Loder: Where does it stand?
Snyder: We’re pretty far down the road. We have a script we like, and I’ve been drawing like crazy. We want to shoot it this summer.
Loder: Who’s in the cast?
Snyder: I don’t have a cast yet. I have a bunch of good ideas, and I think soon I’ll be able to start talking about who goes where.
Loder: This is a pretty heavy endeavor. I mean, Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass have all been associated with this project, and now it’s yours. Must be a lot of pressure.
Snyder: Dude, it’s a lot of pressure. But you know what? It’s also a dream project for anybody, I think.
Loder: Terry Gilliam said it would have to be a three-and-a-half-hour movie. Are you anticipating turning in a long film?
Snyder: It’s a slightly long film, I think. I know the script reads pretty long, and I know that in the visualization of the film, it’s not exactly gotten shorter.
Loder: Are you gonna have to cut out the pirate subplot?
Snyder: Well, I wanna shoot the black-freighter plot for DVD or special release, you know? So I don’t scare the studio too much with, like, a four-hour movie. [laughs] I know the fans would love to see it, and I know I would love to see it, and those are the kinds of things I’m trying to keep in the movie as much as I can.
Loder: Dr. Manhattan will go to Mars, won’t he?
Snyder: Oh, sure he will!
Loder: How come you stayed with the old, unproduced David Hayter script?
Snyder: Actually, Alex Tse has done a rewrite. There’s a lot of elements from the Hayter draft that are still in there, but mostly we tried to put the story back as close to the graphic novel as we could. We put it back in 1985, for instance.
Loder: Can we assume there’ll be a political aspect to this movie?
Snyder: You can’t make “Watchmen” and have it not be political. I mean there’s a line in the movie that says, “God is real — he’s American.” If that’s not political, I don’t know what is.
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