SAN DIEGO — One year ago, “Dawn of the Dead” director Zack Snyder walked the halls of Comic-Con unnoticed, telling anyone who’d listen that his weird little flick “300″ would be something worth watching.
Late last month, the tattooed, affable auteur returned to San Diego much like King Leonidas — a revered hero whose box-office triumph has led to the glorious snagging of “Watchmen,” the Con’s most beloved graphic novel, as his next project.
In just 12 months, Snyder has gone from another behind-the-camera wannabe to the most promising director in Hollywood with only two films in his catalog. His humor recalls Tarantino, his style is downright Kubrick-ian, and his rare ability to appease the commercial aspects of filmmaking is reminiscent of a young Spielberg.
Refusing to rest on his laurels, however, Snyder wakes up in his hotel on this morning and continues his daily routine of hand-drawing storyboards for “Watchmen” — a project that has already chewed up and spit out such esteemed directors as Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass. After an hour or so getting ready with his wife/producer Deborah, he’s ready to embark on a hectic 12 hours consisting of two discussion panels, an autograph signing, 100 interviews and the biggest party in the history of Comic-Con: a “300″ screening and party held in his honor at the massive Petco Park stadium.
When the conquering-hero aspect of his return to Comic-Con is mentioned, Snyder can only grin and reply: “Yeah, but Leonidas died at the end, let’s remember that.”
With that in mind, we tag along with him for what turns out to be an epic day with an epic director …
10:37 a.m. The bright-eyed Snyder walks out of his room at the Omni Hotel and is immediately greeted by our camera crew. Navigating through a logjam of cars and the hundreds of costumed geeks who flood San Diego’s Gaslamp District, the T-shirt and jeans-clad director gets shouts and waves from fans. “I’ve got a ‘Watchmen’ panel in the morning, then this afternoon we have another panel, for the DVD release of ’300,’ ” he says as we try to keep up.
10:49 a.m. “Last year when we came to Comic-Con, we had the trailer for ’300,’ which was cool, but nobody really knew much about the movie. When we showed the trailer, it pretty much stomped the yard,” Snyder recalls as he meets up with a Comic-Con rep who leads him through the catacombs of the San Diego Convention Center. “Now, it’s pretty cool to come back and check out the crowd again. I saw some half-Spartans [dressed up on the floor]; I saw a guy with no shirt, and he had jeans on and a helmet. But he didn’t go full-throttle, because he didn’t go leather.”
11:13 a.m. Entering the green room, Snyder hangs out with “Watchmen” stars Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach) and Malin Akerman (Silk Spectre). “So now we are going into the green room — and it’s not really green, by the way. There are bagels over there — they really spare no expense! And there’s Jackie!”
Putting his arm around Haley, Snyder beams: “Jackie’s here because he is going to be in ‘Watchmen.’ We are going to bring him out, and hopefully whip the crowd into a frenzy.”
Haley: “You don’t know how excited I am! I’m just pumped!”
11:21 a.m. As Snyder pulls out his iPhone, it catches the eye of a young girl who wants to play with it. As much fun as he has showing her the videos and games, Snyder does point out one downside of the wonder gadget. “I have my iPhone — because that’s how I roll — but [I've been] in Canada shooting the movie. And AT&T doesn’t have an international calling plan, so it’s 90 cents a minute in Canada to make a phone call! I’m just like, ‘Hello, what do you want? Goodbye!’ ”
11:34 a.m. “There are a lot of people who have recognized me [this year],” says a surprised Snyder as he gets loaded onto a secret elevator. But the praise that he’ll receive all day is a double-edged sword: “They all say, ‘Hey man, “300″ looked awesome! I can’t wait for “Watchman” — but don’t f— it up!’ ”
11:43 a.m. Backstage, in front of a few dozen onlookers, Snyder takes off his white T-shirt, revealing enough tattoos to make 50 Cent jealous. He slips into a brown T-shirt bearing the strange logo of a fictional bar from “Watchmen.” “It’s for Rum Runners, a bar that’s next to Moloch’s house,” he explains. “It’s pretty obscure.”
11:44 a.m. Moments before taking the stage, Kate Beckinsale talks on a giant monitor while Snyder is handed the brand-new “Watchmen” poster he’ll unveil during his portion of the panel. “This is awesome. ['Watchmen' graphic novel illustrator] Dave Gibbons did this special poster for us. There are only a limited amount, and they are only here at Comic-Con. That’s the Comedian getting punched by … well, you’ll have to see the movie. And there he is with Nixon!”
11:51 a.m. Admitting that “I am a little bit nervous,” Snyder walks onstage in front of 6,500 fans who’ve likely memorized every word of the classic comic. He says he’ll call out Ackerman and Haley “when I start to stammer,” and does so at 12:03. Snyder’s casual charm quickly wins over this geek version of “Showtime at the Apollo,” which has damned many a project with well-timed boos. At 12:08, he fields questions from die-hards dressed as Rorschach and Night Owl, and at 12:19 p.m. he unveils the poster. “I didn’t tell [the fans] that Dave Gibbons had signed some [of the handed-out copies],” he tells us as he walks offstage. “Because I thought they would lose their minds and start trampling each other.”
12:33 – 1:31 p.m. Snyder is led back up to the second floor to do roundtable interviews with a few dozen reporters. “‘Watchmen’ is a fan favorite,” he says, acknowledging that many Con attendees have come to guard the dark tale of retired superheroes as if it were one of their children. “It’s a super-precious piece, and I want to make sure of that … I hope that the fans know that I care.”
1:34 p.m. As Snyder is led back down to the convention floor — where he is immediately mobbed by “Watchmen” fans — it brings his thoughts back to the blood, sweat and ink he spilled this morning when he rolled out of bed. “[This morning I was storyboarding] the scene where Rorschach goes and kills the child molester,” he tells us. “And that is where I am at. I am working morning, noon and night.”
1:35 p.m. Spying the Sideshow Collectibles booth, Snyder breaks away from his handlers and politely insists on doing some quick shopping. “I have a real soft spot for ‘Star Wars,’ and I can’t help it — there are some cool Luke Skywalkers,” he says, looking at some maquettes. “There’s also a cool John Wayne one, an old-school John Wayne.”
1:41 – 2:09 p.m. Arriving at the DC Comics booth, Snyder looks out at the huge line, grabs a Sharpie, and gets to work signing “Watchmen” posters. The director makes it a point to talk up each person who approaches, and breaks up his hand’s monotony by switching between print, cursive, and even block-lettering. To some, he’ll write their name — on others, he’ll scribble messages like “Who watches the Watchmen?” And on several occasions, he insists on crumpling up the poster and starting from scratch rather than making the fan settle for something he deems illegible. “My signature sucks, it looks like a child’s,” he laughs. “I still don’t feel like I have a job where someone would want my autograph.”
“Hey man, I’m Jeffrey,” says an enthusiastic fan, shaking Snyder’s hand. “I’m really psyched to see ‘Watchmen’ — I’ve been waiting my whole life.”
“I’ll try not to f— it up!” Zack responds.
“Don’t worry,” the fan says back. “You won’t.”
2:10 p.m. With the signing over, Snyder is pulled off the floor and led back into the barren catacombs of the Convention Center by a Comic-Con staffer. Stepping into a freight elevator, Snyder shows his first signs of weakness. “It smells like pizza in here,” he sniffs. “Speaking of which, I’m getting hungry.”
2:28 – 2:52 p.m. Sitting at a table opposite a revolving door of scruffy journalists, Snyder does one-on-one interviews promoting this week’s “300″ DVD release. “Y’know, I’ve traveled all over the world and had 2,000 interviews for this movie. And I swear, everybody is always like: ‘So, how did you get those guys in shape? Are those real abs or CGI?’ ”
3:08 p.m. A handler shoves a tostada salad in front of Snyder, the only food he eats all day. “This is how they feed me — they just jam food in front of me. I’m talking to someone and they’re like, ‘Here’s your lunch! Eat it! Let’s go!’ It’s a long day, so I need this, otherwise I might pass out. So, tostada salad … yum!”
3:11 p.m. After his three-minute lunch, Snyder attends to another basic human need. “I need to potty.”
3:12 p.m. Snyder is led back down to Hall H, this time to do a “300″ panel. “Hopefully, they won’t ask us any questions about working out or blue screens,” he laughs.
3:17 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. Re-entering the stage, Snyder sits down next to “Sin City” creator Frank Miller, shows off some footage from the “300″ DVD and takes questions from 6,500 more fans. Keeping up the frantic pace, he leaves his rocket fuel — a venti Starbucks — backstage. “Dude,” he says as he walks offstage, “did you hear the person ask: ‘What’s it like being around all those men with the sexy bodies? Does that turn you on?’ I was like, ‘Great, thanks for that question.’ ”
4:30 – 5:45 p.m. Snyder does dozens of interviews, answering the abs question repeatedly. “No one took a swing at me,” he said of his answers. “So that was a good thing.”
5:46 – 6:01 p.m. As he slowly inches his way out of the Convention Center, Snyder receives hugs, handshakes and autograph requests every few feet. “I saw some good Storm Troopers today. If I was going to dress up, I’d dress up like a Storm Trooper,” he says. “I’m always looking out for the good Storm Troopers, the guy who’s got enough weathering on his uniform.”
6:15 p.m. After receiving handshakes and compliments from geeks all day, Snyder turns the tables and becomes one. The cast of “Blade Runner” is in town to promote their upcoming DVD, and in his hotel lobby he spies Sean Young, Joanna Cassidy and James Hong. Slicing through the crowd like an elk in the woods, Snyder dives in. He returns gushing like a 12-year-old boy. “I got Sean Young’s autograph! That was the freakin’ highlight of my day,” he grins. “That rocks!”
7:37 p.m. After a few minutes of preparing for the final leg of his fantastic voyage, Snyder is loaded into a golf cart outside the hotel. With Deborah by his side, the director seems to grab a second wind from the anticipation of hosting a crowd of 16,000 people at Petco Park — the massive stadium where the Padres play baseball. In an unprecedented move, Warner Bros. has rented out the state-of-the-art stadium to screen “300″ on the JumboTron and host a themed VIP party near the left-field foul pole. “I’ll jump into the back. Woo-hoo!” he yells excitedly, climbing into the cart. “Look! There’s ’300′ on the side of Petco Park!” He basks in the moment, then looks around a little uneasily. “This is crazy, because I don’t know where we’re going right now …”
7:38 p.m. As the doorless vehicle zooms through the catacombs beneath Petco Park, Snyder yells: “This is like ‘Spinal Tap’ on steroids!”
7:41 p.m. The director poses with a male model dressed as a Spartan, then faces dozens of reporters on a lengthy red carpet.
“I think you might be bleeding,” one reporter says, concerned.
“No, it’s fake blood,” he answers with a grin. “I bumped into that Spartan over there.”
8:17 p.m. Snyder is stopped halfway through his interviews and told to get back into the golf cart — he’s then whisked onto the baseball field to introduce the movie to the screaming fans. “We’re not allowed to touch the grass, but I still want to,” he says into the mic as they cheer and wave promotional “300″ shields. “What’s that? ‘Play the movie?’ ‘Shut the f— up?’ Yeah, that’s what I thought. All right, so you guys have probably seen it before — but I guess it’s time to watch it one more time. So, without much more ado, we’re gonna check out ’300′!”
8:39 p.m. The movie starts, Snyder walks up the players’ tunnel and gets back into the golf cart. “That was cool, man. … I wanted to run around on the grass because — I don’t know, when you’re on a baseball field, you want to run around on the grass! Did you see how everyone in the crowd had crazy shields? That doesn’t happen every day.”
8:43 p.m. Snyder is brought back to the red carpet to pick up the press line where he left off. “For ’300,’ I would imagine that when the actors were on set they were pretty sure they were in the worst movie ever made,” he tells a reporter. “They were in little leather underwear, boots, and there were no sets. They had to really trust me.”
9:19 p.m. Snyder sticks around until every last question is asked and answered — more than 100 total interviews in the day, by our count. “It’s 9:19, and I’m done with the carpet. Look — everyone’s gone,” he grins, showing just the slightest signs of exhaustion. “That was an epic … I was just like abs!’ ‘Blue screen!’ ‘ “300″!’ ‘Blu-ray!’ I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore.”
9:22 p.m. With the day finally winding down, Snyder comes around the corner to see a dozen models dressed as Spartans, guarding the path to the VIP party inside the ballpark. The man has earned himself a stiff drink and, damn it, tonight he dines in heaven. “I’m gonna go get … well … I’m not gonna get drunk — I’m just going to get marginally smoothed out,” he laughs.
9:23 p.m. Finally at the end of a long day, it’s time for us to bid Zack goodnight. “That was a pretty awesome day,” he says. “The Con is super cool. I got my ‘Blade Runner’ geek-out, I saw some cool maquettes, I got some autographs, and I’m pretty much a happy camper. Thanks, MTV, for hanging out with me all day. I’ll see you at Comic-Con next year!”
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