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300: A conversation with director Zach Snyder

Category: 300 News
Article Date: March 9, 2007 | Publication: Filter-Mag.Com | Author: Daniel Fienberg

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Hollywood Spin Dictionary Entry #5676: When a filmmaker says that “the landscape was like another character in my movie,” 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 Miller’s similarly hemic graphic novel which expands on the Sin City author’s common themes of masculinity under duress and warrior’s virtue through the story of Leonidas, the Spartan king who led an army of 300 to inevitable death at the Battle of Thermopylae. The book’s title is spelled out in splattered crimson, an aesthetic choice befitting a second half that’s 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 July’s Comic-Con, where the overheated throng—well aware of both the source material and Snyder’s online documentation of the film’s entirely blue screen production—demanded 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 Romero’s zombie epic was a fool’s errand, until Dawn exceeded $100 million worldwide, earning nearly as many converts as detractors. After 300’s release in March, the director tackles the allegedly unfilmable Watchmen, Alan Moore’s 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 it’s 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 don’t know what they were. But I feel like now that they’ve watched it, the idea is to eventize the movie, because they feel like they’ve 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. They’re 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 it’s taken so long for Hollywood to fully embrace graphic novels?
What Hollywood’s really good at is taking characters out of comic books and putting them into movies. What they’re 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, “Oh, he’s in a cool costume. That part, we can use.” I feel like now they’re starting to respect what the graphic novelists are doing and say, “Wow, that structure is different from what we’re used to. Let’s see if we can use that.”

What was your own childhood comic experience?
I am a comic book fan. I come more from the Heavy Metal side—Heavy Metal, the illustrated fantasy magazine—than 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. I’m 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 it’s hard to get a Frank Miller property. There aren’t that many out there that he’s going to give over. I just think he was shocked that we wanted to make 300 into a movie. Also, it’s such a beautiful book. When you really get a chance to examine it, you realize that Frank and [the book’s 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, “OK. If I could make a movie that looked like this, that would be something else.”

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 it’s 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 Frank’s 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, that’s 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 it’s so radically hardcore. That’s to me what’s fun about the movie. Once you say, “OK. We’re telling this movie from a Spartan point-of-view,” 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 it’s 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. I’ve had people ask me all sorts of crazy questions about what I intended: “Is Xerxes George Bush or is Leonidas George Bush?” I’m like, “Geez. That’s up to you. You’re doing that, not me.”

Though Miller brings his own particular and peculiar ideology to everything he does...
Oh, absolutely. He’s hardcore! It’s easy to just have fun with his perspective. He’s a person who doesn’t care what other people think of him, which is rare in this world. And he really doesn’t care. I believe he would keep drawing and writing graphic novels even if the world didn’t 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 we’re doing and the way we’re working. I’m very physical and it’s just the way I am. I never feel like I’m convincing anyone of anything, but I guess people always say that I am. It’s not conscious. It just comes from my enthusiasm for the work. I was constantly saying, “This is gonna be awesome!” and showing people early frames and early looks just to get everyone going, “OK. This is cool. I’m not just an idiot standing in front of a blue screen in a leather bikini.”

How did you make sure the actors knew that they weren’t just props wedged between visual effects?
It’s 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 there’s no sunset to wait for, no wind to create, there’s 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 that’s kind of stylized—it’s red, but it’s 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 that’s gratuitous, but in a way that’s part of the aesthetic. I always felt like blood was a thing that you couldn’t manipulate on set. I mean, you can manipulate blood on set, but it’s sloppy work. I’ve done it. But I wanted blood to be another character.

How did the MPAA respond to that?
It wasn’t 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?
There’s a script. I’ve started drawing. I’m talking to some actors. It’s 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 it’s really ripe too because of the way that cinema has become an extension of comic books. From when Alan’s 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 it’s 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


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