300: A conversation with director Zach Snyder

Category: 300 News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: March 9, 2007 | Publication: Filter-Mag.Com | Author: Daniel Fienberg
Publication/Article Link:http://www.filter-mag.com/index.php?id=14007&c=2

Hollywood Spin Dictionary Entry #5676: When a filmmaker says that ďthe landscape was like another character in my movie,Ē unless that director is Terrence Malick, it usually means that the acting stunk and the script stumbled, but the cinematographer got some stunning footage of yawning prairies and fog-cloaked pines.

The Hollywood Spin Dictionary offers no interpretation for a director claiming he treated blood as another character in his movie. The cinematic sanguine saint in question is Zack Snyder, whose Dawn of the Dead follow-up is 300, an adaptation of Frank Millerís similarly hemic graphic novel which expands on the Sin City authorís common themes of masculinity under duress and warriorís virtue through the story of Leonidas, the Spartan king who led an army of 300 to inevitable death at the Battle of Thermopylae. The bookís title is spelled out in splattered crimson, an aesthetic choice befitting a second half thatís little more than frames of impaled torsos, piled corpses and honorable platitudes.

Studio suits may have had trouble distinguishing 300 from Mr. 3000 until a command performance at Julyís Comic-Con, where the overheated throngówell aware of both the source material and Snyderís online documentation of the filmís entirely blue screen productionódemanded three showings of an uncensored preview featuring marauding mutants, severed heads soaring in slo-mo and exposed perky nipples.

Suddenly, Snyder earned a high-profile spring launch and all the accompanying pressure. Then again, he was told that his 2004 remake of George Romeroís zombie epic was a foolís errand, until Dawn exceeded $100 million worldwide, earning nearly as many converts as detractors. After 300ís release in March, the director tackles the allegedly unfilmable Watchmen, Alan Mooreís seminal deconstruction of the comic genre, completing a trilogy that suggests what Snyder may lack in common sense, he makes up for in confidence.

Various parts of this movie have brought the house down at fanboy gatherings like Comic-Con, but how important is it that this movie plays to an audience beyond fanboys?
I think itís important to the studio. They sent me to Montreal to film an obscure graphic novel written by Frank Miller based on the fact that they liked Dawn of the Dead and they liked me as a filmmaker. Their expectations for 300? I donít know what they were. But I feel like now that theyíve watched it, the idea is to eventize the movie, because they feel like theyíve been given an event movie out of nowhere. I went to shoot this little graphic novel and I came back with an epic, and that part is cool for them. Theyíre trying to get their heads around how to get the rest of pop culture to drink the Kool-Aid of the movie.

Why do you think itís taken so long for Hollywood to fully embrace graphic novels?
What Hollywoodís really good at is taking characters out of comic books and putting them into movies. What theyíre not that good at or that experienced with is taking a graphic novel and making it into movie true to what the novelist intended. They tend to throw that out and say, ďOh, heís in a cool costume. That part, we can use.Ē I feel like now theyíre starting to respect what the graphic novelists are doing and say, ďWow, that structure is different from what weíre used to. Letís see if we can use that.Ē

What was your own childhood comic experience?
I am a comic book fan. I come more from the Heavy Metal sideóHeavy Metal, the illustrated fantasy magazineóthan I do the standard X-Men, Wolverine comic book reader. I always liked something that was a little darker, a little sexier and a little more violent when I was a kid. Iím a little broken, but I think it makes for good movies.

And why were you drawn to 300?
I think the thing that first attracted me to 300 was that itís hard to get a Frank Miller property. There arenít that many out there that heís going to give over. I just think he was shocked that we wanted to make 300 into a movie. Also, itís such a beautiful book. When you really get a chance to examine it, you realize that Frank and [the bookís colorist] Lynn Varley poured their hearts into it and that every frame is a work of art. That was the thing that, in the end, made me go, ďOK. If I could make a movie that looked like this, that would be something else.Ē

How would you describe the perspective or the aesthetic that you had to use?
Not compromising what Frank intended with his shotmaking. Of course, as a director itís hard to get out of the way of the material, especially if you love it, which is in some ways worse. The thing we had going for us is that Frankís particular aesthetic is the beautiful brutality of it. This heroic vision is a thing that I think is cool. Movies like Excalibur, movies that are theatrical and mythological, but also hint at events that shape who we are, thatís stuff I like.

Do you view the film as having a particular political opinion or stance on war in general or warriors in specific?
I try to take the Spartan stance on warriors and war, which is a non-21st Century approach, because itís so radically hardcore. Thatís to me whatís fun about the movie. Once you say, ďOK. Weíre telling this movie from a Spartan point-of-view,Ē you get to shed all the political correctness and all of the stuff that comes with a modern aesthetic, you get to just kick ass and be insane.

But can you honestly make a movie like this at a time like this without reflecting anything contemporary on the story?
People absolutely extrapolate modern conflicts and modern aesthetics into the film. But I feel like itís a pre-Muslim world. Xerxes, the Persian king, is certainly the voice of reason in some ways. Sure, there are political statements that people can extrapolate from the movie, but, depending on your own political views, you see the movie you want to see. Iíve had people ask me all sorts of crazy questions about what I intended: ďIs Xerxes George Bush or is Leonidas George Bush?Ē Iím like, ďGeez. Thatís up to you. Youíre doing that, not me.Ē

Though Miller brings his own particular and peculiar ideology to everything he does...
Oh, absolutely. Heís hardcore! Itís easy to just have fun with his perspective. Heís a person who doesnít care what other people think of him, which is rare in this world. And he really doesnít care. I believe he would keep drawing and writing graphic novels even if the world didnít want them.

How much of your job on set was being a cheerleader and just making people believe that all of this imagined stuff could become a movie?
I think that my basic nature is always to be enthusiastic about the material, about what weíre doing and the way weíre working. Iím very physical and itís just the way I am. I never feel like Iím convincing anyone of anything, but I guess people always say that I am. Itís not conscious. It just comes from my enthusiasm for the work. I was constantly saying, ďThis is gonna be awesome!Ē and showing people early frames and early looks just to get everyone going, ďOK. This is cool. Iím not just an idiot standing in front of a blue screen in a leather bikini.Ē

How did you make sure the actors knew that they werenít just props wedged between visual effects?
Itís funny, because what happens if you make a movie in front of the blue screen is that the actors are the only thing you have. The actors end up feeling very important because thereís no sunset to wait for, no wind to create, thereís no logistics of getting there, no donkey rides into the canyon with all of our gear on it.

How much of the blood was CG?
I would say 99 percent of the blood is digital and the reason I did that is because I wanted to do this sort of 2-D blood thatís kind of stylizedóitís red, but itís shot in a unique way. That allows you to almost paint with it and it becomes an element, a part of the language of the movie, not in a way thatís gratuitous, but in a way thatís part of the aesthetic. I always felt like blood was a thing that you couldnít manipulate on set. I mean, you can manipulate blood on set, but itís sloppy work. Iíve done it. But I wanted blood to be another character.

How did the MPAA respond to that?
It wasnít as hard as Dawn. With Dawn I had to go back six times to get my R and I thought it would be harder this time, but because the violence is so stylized and so beautiful, I ended up getting an R pretty easily.

And where do you stand now on cracking Watchmen?
Thereís a script. Iíve started drawing. Iím talking to some actors. Itís fun. The trick for Watchmen is to make a movie that does all that Alan Moore wants to do in pointing out the issues that we face in the world of graphic novels and superheroes, more now than ever. I think itís really ripe too because of the way that cinema has become an extension of comic books. From when Alanís graphic novel was written to now, is really when movies have adopted the comic book hero and turned him into a cinema hero. I think itís ripe to reinvent the comic book movie, because movies have sort of settled into it, in the same way that the comic book world was ripe to be reinvented when Alan reinvented it with Watchmen.

This article first appeared in FILTER's Winter '07 Issue