Interview: Director Zach Snyder on 300 & the Watchmen
Category: 300 News | Posted by: DaisyMay
Article Date: February 26, 2007 | Publication: Crave Online | Author: Fred Topel
You don't have to read graphic novels to recognize that there's something different about 300. It's historical battle, but it doesn't look like any period piece Hollywood's made before. Transferring Frank Miller's art to the big screen required a lot of CGI, with the actors, pumped up as ancient Spartans, performing against blue screen so that the scene could be added in later. Director Zack Snyder led the charge and let us in on how he did it.
Crave Online: For those who havenít read the graphic novel, how close is the movie to the book?
Zack Snyder: I would say itís probably about 90% the book. Thereís maybe a 10% bit that I added thatís sort of the queenís story line. We did that to really initially 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. Thereís 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 hereís another thing, "only Spartan women give birth to real men." That was another line I found attributed to her. If you combined those two, what kind of character is that? Who is that woman who said those things? Thatís really what we used to sort of build her and flesh her out.
Crave Online: Where do you start with movie like this? Youíre on a blue screen stage so do you start building environments? Do you start with the actors?
Zack Snyder: The way we started was with the concept art. I would do a little doodle and Grant [Story] would say, "Okay." He would so some Photoshop, whacking together some images. That would sort of get us in an area where I would say, "Okay thatís kind of working." Then weíd try to refine that by maybe shooting stuff. Shot 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. Weíd have the story board sitting in front of us and Iíd say, "Okay, I want the camera below. What happened a moment before if the guy that walked up and stopped on the hill and Iím imaging that itís a silhouette and that sky weíd 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 thereís 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. Itís a little silhouetted hill. Itís 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.
Crave Online: Miller has such a distinct style in the book. Was it difficult as the director to leave your own mark?
Zack Snyder: I didnít really think about it in that way. Even when you try to get out of the way of something, youíre like a filter. You canít help it because it goes through you and when it comes out the other side, itís got people in it and thereís all sorts of stuff that happens so I really wasnít worried about. The thing I love about a movie is its tone. Thatís 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 wasnít 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. Thatís my favorite thing about the movie is that I feel that.
Crave Online: So what about the color palettes you went with?
Zack Snyder: 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 that in 90% of the case of the book are almost that brownie red.
Crave Online: Would you say this is more mythology than history here.
Zack Snyder: Absolutely. Iíd say 300 is a movie that is made from the Spartan perspective. Not just from the Spartan perspective, the cameras are the Spartans, but itís 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. Itís not necessarily down to the fact that they donít have armor on. Everything about it is just to make the Spartans more heroic.
Crave Online: Were there any shots you just couldnít make work and theyíre out of the movie?
Zack Snyder: Nothing from the graphic novel really except for that one scene with Xerxes, Stelios and Leonidas at the very beginning of the novel. We did shoot this thing thatís going to be on the DVD. Itís 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. It was crazy.
Crave Online: Is it finished?
Zack Snyder: Yeah. It's like 90% but itís pretty cool. The Spartans are running and they have no arms. Their arms have been hacked off. They have these little sort of elf looking guys in these kind of wicker baskets on their backs. Theyíre firing arrows and then the Spartans comes and hacks the leg off it. It falls and they leap off and stab the little elf.
Crave Online: Frank Miller was hesitant on Sin City about letting Robert Rodriguez do the film. Was he apprehensive at all with you?
Zack Snyder: He was hesitant. I donít think he thought that anyone would ever try to make a movie out of 300. When Iíve been with him and weíve talked about it in these kinds of scenarios, he always seems to me to be very surprised that we picked it. Itís almost like a passion project for him. If you look at it in relation to his other work, itís an anomaly in a lot of ways. I think the graphic novel world, itís is an anomaly. It sort of exists outside the realm. The one thing that is consistent is who Leonidas is. Leonidas is Marv or heís Batman. Heís the same guy. Frank likes that guy. He writes him a lot. I think his chance to have Leonidas march up to Thermopylae and fight like a madman and then die, thatís the thing he just likes.
Crave Online: What was dealing with the MPAA like?
Zack Snyder: You know it wasnít 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 donít think the movie personally is that gory, 300. I think itís so bizarre. Iíve had 50-year-old women see the movie and go, "Oh, I thought it was cool." And I go, "What about all the gore?" Theyíre like, "Oh, its cool. Itís like art. Itís fancy." I think on one hand yes. If you want to enjoy that you can, but I think on the other hand itís abstract in a way. I think the MPAA looked at it and said, "Oh, itís not Saving Private Ryan."
Crave Online: Whatís going on with ďWatchmen?Ē
Zack Snyder: Weíre trying to get a budget together now that. I feel like the movie is in a very cool place. I think the script is starting to become pretty cool. Iíve been talking to some actors. Iím not going to say who. But, itís cool because in some ways you can get real actors. You donít have to go Hollywood. So thatís all going along. Iíve been drawing away you know and so I think itís coming along. They have talked about maybe shooting in the summer.
Crave Online: Whatís been the delay? 10 years ago it was a Joel Silver film.
Zack Snyder: I can only thank God that they havenít gotten it together yet. I think the delay is that they havenít known what it was. Itís only now. I set the movie in 1985 and I have the luxury of being far enough away from 1985 so that that is a viable idea. I think what happened in the past was that when youíre only five years away from 1985, itís a weird time to make a period piece that took place three years ago. But, studios donít get that. There has been a push I think on the other scripts that exist about trying to update the movie or trying to make it take place in present day and things of that nature. I think by setting it 1985 by having the Cold War, having Nixon, having all that stuff, you sort of reinvigorate what the story is about. It allows all the metaphors to sort of erect. But, if you set the movie in modern times, youíre basically saying itís the war on terror right is the thing. Then the movie is asking me, "Oh Zack, what do you think of the war on terror? Whatís your take on it?" Who gives a f**k about what I think about the war on terror? Thatís not why people go to the movies. I think that what Alan in his book, the comment heís made about authority and government and all those things, maybe if you make that movie right what that has to say makes people think about whatís happening maybe now or in their own lives. Thatís my hope for what the movie could be.
Crave Online: How has the universal praise for 300 assisted you with making Watchmen and possibly other projects?
Zack Snyder: I canít say it hasnít helped a lot. What it does do, people have said to me, "Whatís going on with Watchmen? Youíve got to make sure you donít f**k that up. What can I do to help?" And I said, "Go see 300." The truth is, 300 to the studio is, itís a graphic novel movie. It is not a movie that they necessarily understand exactly when I pitch it on paper. When I say, "Listen, itís this in the movie." They donít get that. My point is that, they feel in some ways the same about Watchmen. They donít understand why itís not Fantastic Four. I have to remind them that itís much more [Dr.] Strangelove than it is Fantastic Four which they donít like hearing, but they believe that I know which is a mistake. No. They believe that I know and in that way it helps. When they finally saw this movie, I think they felt, "Wow, we didnít know this was the movie you were necessarily making, but we like this movie." Maybe that will apply to Watchmen.
Crave Online: What is your approach on Watchmen going to be?
Zack Snyder: 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 donít want it to end up looking like Polar Express. Itís a possibility. You have enough CGI in there and suddenly itís that movie. The problem is, even though thatís a great looking movie and itís super cool, I feel like it doesnít 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 Frankís graphic novel is an organic experience. Itís 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 itís necessary. Like when he goes to Mars, thereís an issue there. Youíve got to figure that out. We canít go to Mars. I know a lot of people are going to be disappointed in that, but I donít have the money. Antarctica also. Thereís no Karnak. I know again we should probably build it, but I donít 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 render him? Rorschach's mask. There are things that have to be dealt with and figured out. I think the appetite for me is to make a movie that feels more like Taxi Driver than like ďFantastic Four. Itís a balance.
Crave Online: Is the budget for Watchmen set right now or is there some sort of plus or minus depending on how well 300 does?
Zack Snyder: Thatís theoretical. I believe that is probably reflecting reality. I donít know that for sure. Itís not set right now. Maybe thatís a coincidence. Maybe not.