Zack Snyder has made a name for himself reimagining other people's properties, from his daring take on George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, to his visionary re-creation of Frank Miller's graphic novel 300, to nailing, as far as I'm concerned, the big-screen adaptation of Watchmen, a previously believed unadaptable comic book. With Sucker Punch, however, Snyder tackles his first original project -- one hatched inside his very own mind, much as the fantasy worlds of Sucker Punch are conjured in the mind of asylum patient Babydoll's. With a lobotomy scheduled to be performed on her, Babydoll must escape literally and metaphorically from her horrifying situation. I sat down with Snyder last weekend, to discuss the movie as well as his next job -- directing Superman: The Man of Steel.
Cole Haddon: So Sucker Punch, it's like an imagination orgasm. It's also the first time you've conceived the story you're telling. How did that happen?
Zack Snyder: I'd written a script a long time ago, before I'd made any movies. And in it there's a sequence where this girl is forced to dance by these bad guys and she doesn't want to do it, but they're going to kill her if she doesn't do it. And so she has this fantasy that she's somewhere else while it's happening, like on an adventure in her mind. Eight years ago, or 10 years ago, however long ago it was, I reread [the script] and was like, "This is crap. But this one bit is interesting, where the girl goes on this little thing." So my buddy Steve Shibuya, we met for coffee and started talking about it. The next thing we knew, we'd sort of came up with a concept for the story. After we finished shooting Watchmen, we started writing it and we wrote it pretty quickly, considering how complicated it is. Then, here we are.
CH: You've made a lot of masculine movies, particularly 300. Watchmen also, which I've always thought of as a rather brutal deconstruction of superhero masculinity amongst other things. And now: you've made a movie about five girls kicking ass. Was that an intentional transition away from bulging biceps?
ZS: I don't think it was premeditated necessarily in that I wanted to have girls fight because I was tired of having men fight. "I'm tired of being around naked men. That's exhausting." Yeah, I didn't do that.
CH: Your protagonist, Babydoll, is about to be lobotomized when she retreats into her fantasy world -- a fantasy world where she has to do everything she can to keep herself from being sold sexually to a "High Roller" character. Sounds an awful lot like the lobotomy is a metaphor for losing one's virginity, or the other way around.
ZS: That seems like the most obvious possible link [laughs]. Well, there are a few metaphors. It's funny, when I was originally conceiving the film, that element was much stronger. I guess the perception for me is it's also a sex and death link. Sort of the idea that, in ancient cultures, there were ritual sacrifices of sex and death. The sacrifice had to be a virgin. Also, I think in the early, pre-MPAA version of the movie, that link, the discussing of virginity and lobotomy as linked, were more obvious.
CH: The MPAA pressed you to remove that link?
ZS: There were a couple of reasons we took it out. They'll be on the DVD ... 18 minutes' worth. When I conceived the movie, I definitely wanted to make a PG-13 movie because I know how to make an R-rated movie. I have no problem with that. As a matter of fact, it is really easy and natural for me to do so. But I worried the story might get lost a bit in visualizing the film that way. And so I thought, "We talked about this early. Let's make the movie PG-13. Let the bigger ideas transcend and kind of shine through. We can really have fun with the movie, but still have this dark undertone." We just had no idea how hardcore the rating board was going to be.
CH: How did the MPAA surprise you with this project?
ZS: The more tonal stuff surprised me. No one wants to go to a movie rated R for leering and uncomfortableness, which is basically what we were faced with.
CH: Sucker Punch enjoys a whole host of influences, but Japanese culture, from samurai to manga, seems the most prevalent. Was that the influence of your co-writer, Shibuya? I know he's Japanese.
ZS: Yeah, I would probably say I put more of that in the movie than Steve did [laughs]. Even though Steve's really Japanese. It's probably because I'm not Japanese that the influence of that stuff is stronger on me. Being American and just having an interest in that direction, whereas, for Steve, he's like, "Whatever. That's just how it is."
CH: Babydoll is played by relative newcomer Emily Browning. I've met her. She certainly doesn't look like the girl we see on-screen, and I'm not just talking about the absence of tiny skirts and katana sword. In other words, imagining her as your badass heroine must have been a bit of a leap of faith. How did you decide it was one you had to take?
ZS: I had been a fan of Emily's since Lemony Snicket's. [We were working in Australia on The Guardians of Ga'Hoole], and she flew over and met with us. She did an amazing read.
When we brought her in, it was to read for Rocket [the character Jena Malone plays in the movie], and then we got home and I was like, "You know, Emily's got this thing. It's impossible to describe."
CH:Your movies share a similar aesthetic style; they're very clearly Zack Snyder movies, in other words. You've also clearly got an affinity for genre. So how are you choosing your projects these days? How do you know "this is the one"?
ZS: I guess it's difficult in some ways. I guess the thing for me is ... well, we were talking about a few different things and Superman came along. Chris [Nolan] called us and said, "You want to have lunch and talk about Superman?" and we were like, "Sure, that sounds cool." I think that, for me, Superman just seemed to make a lot of sense to me. After doing Watchmen, it was -- you know that thing, you've got to know the rules before you can break them? There was something about that in making Watchmen. [That movie] gave me a way to understand superheroes in a way that a lot of modern superhero movies aren't being made. And Superman just demands a level of sophistication, I think, in order for him to be relevant and cool and modern. And so I think [Superman] made sense to us as the next thing to work on."
CH: Having done Watchmen, the ultimate superhero deconstruction, what does Superman offer you as a storyteller?
ZS: I guess, for me, because I do love superhero movies and the genre, and when you make Watchmen -- that wasn't a love affair movie. When you intellectualize it, it makes sense. [Superman] gives me the chance to fall in love with the world again, and that's what I'm into. Didn't they say of the Superman symbol that it's the most recognizable symbol in the world? So yeah: make a movie about that [laughs].
CH: You recently told the LA Times that you wouldn't be looking backwards to the Richard Donner Superman movies -- as Bryan Singer did -- while making The Man of Steel. Can you talk a bit more about what your vision for the character and the movie will be?
ZS: I can't speak specifically about it, of course, because it's super-secret. It's beyond secret. You can't imagine how secret it is. That we're even talking about it right now is crazy. But I will say I think the challenge is you have a character that is the most iconographic character. It would be like making a movie about ... no, I won't go there. It would be taken wrong. It would be like making a movie about the Greek gods, all of them. And everyone had made a movie about all the other gods except Zeus. And they hadn't done Zeus because they were like, "We don't know what to do with him. He's, like, too awesome." And I kind of feel like we're at this point where all these minor gods have movies and franchises and stuff like that. It just seems to me it's time of for the reason all these other [characters] exist be made relevant. It's time to understand why all these other things exist. By the way, I'm a fan of the Iron Man movies, but really? Iron Man? A whole franchise of movies around him? And Thor? [Pause] OK, fair enough on Thor. But the fact that we don't have a Superman movie in the midst of this is crazy.