300: An Interview with Director Zack Snyder
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300: An Interview with Director Zack Snyder
Since the first trailer was shown at last year’s San Diego Comic Con and received 3 playbacks after the crowd chanted “Run It Back” over and over, the buzz all over “300” has been nothing but anticipation and praise for months. Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, Gerard Butler plays King Leonidas, who as a young boy was thrown into battle and grew up to be the leader of 300 men who will fight to the death against Xerses (Rodrigo Santoro) and his massive Persian army. Directing the film is Zack Snyder, who made his directorial debut with the horror hit, “Dawn of the Dead”. Snyder is on board to direct another film based on a comic, “The Watchmen”. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Snyder talks about The Watchmen, working with Frank Miller on “300” and dealing the MPAA on the film.
What’s going on with “Watchmen?”
Zach Snyder: We’re 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. I’ve been talking to some actors. I’m not going to say who. But, it’s cool because in some ways you can get real actors. You don’t have to go Hollywood. So that’s all going along. I’ve been drawing away you know and so I think it’s coming along. They have talked about maybe shooting in the summer.
What’s been the delay? 10 years ago it was a Joel Silver film.
Snyder: I can only thank God that they haven’t gotten it together yet. I think the delay is that they haven’t known what it was. It’s 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 you’re only five years away from 1985, it’s a weird time to make a period piece that took place three years ago. But, studios don’t 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, you’re basically saying it’s the war on terror right is the thing. Then the movie is asking me, ‘oh Zach, what do you think of the war on terror? What’s your take on it?’ Who gives a f**k about what I think about the war on terror? That’s not why people go to the movies. I think that what Alan in his book, the comment he’s 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 what’s happening maybe now or in their own lives. That’s my hope for what the movie could be.
How has the universal praise assisted you with making “Watchmen” and possibly other projects?
Snyder: I can’t say it hasn’t helped a lot. What it does do, people have said to me, ‘what’s going on with “Watchmen?” You’ve got to make sure you don’t f**k that up.’ I’m sorry if I’m swearing. He goes, ‘what can I do to help?’ And I said, ‘go see “300.” The truth is, “300” to the studio is, it’s a graphic novel movie. It is not a movie that they necessarily understand exactly when I pitch it on paper. When I say, ‘listen it’s this in the movie.’ They don’t get that. My point is that, they feel in some ways the same about “Watchmen.” They don’t understand why it’s not “Fantastic 4.” I have to remind them that it’s much more “Strange Love” than it is “Fantastic 4” which they don’t 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 didn’t know this was the movie you were necessarily making, but we like this movie.’ Maybe that will apply to “Watchmen.”
For those who haven’t read the graphic novel, how close is the movie to the book?
Snyder: I would say it’s probably about 90% the book. There’s maybe a 10% bit that I added that’s sort of the queen’s 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. There’s 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 here’s another thing this thing where ‘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? That’s really what we used to sort of build her and flush her out.
Where do you start with movie like this? You’re on a green screen stage so do you start building environments? Do you start with the actors?
Snyder: The way we started was with the concept art. I would do a little doodle and Grant would say, ‘okay.’ He would so some photo shop, whacking together some images. That would sort of get us in an area where I would say, ‘okay that’s kind of working.’ Then we’d 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. We’d have the story board sitting in front of us and I’d say ‘okay I want the camera below. What happened a moment before if the guy that walked up and stopped on the hill and I’m imaging that it’s a silhouette and that sky we’d 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 there’s a sudden 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. It’s a little silhouetted hill. It’s 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.
Miller has such a distinct style in the book. Was it difficult as the director to leave your own make?
Snyder: I didn’t really think about it in that way. Even when you try to get out of the way of something, you’re like a filter. You can’t help it because it goes through you and when it comes out the other side, it’s got people in it and there’s all sorts of stuff that happens so I really wasn’t worried about. The thing I love about a movie is its tone. That’s 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 with “Dawn” 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 wasn’t 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 formed the tone of the movie. That’s my favorite thing about the movie is that I feel that.
We’re primarily dealing with mythology rather than history here.
Snyder: Absolutely. I’d say “300” is a movie that is made from the Spartan perspective. Not just from the Spartan perspective, the cameras are the Spartans, but it’s 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. It’s not necessarily down to the fact that they don’t have armor on. Everything about it is just to make the Spartans more overwhelming.
Were there any shots you just couldn’t make work and they’re out of the movie?
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 that’s going to be on the DVD. It’s 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.
Is it finished?
Snyder: Yeah. It’s 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. They’re firing arrows and then the Spartans comes and hacks the leg off it. It falls and they leap off and stab the little elf.
Frank Miller was hesitant on “Sin City” about letting Robert Rodriguez do the film. Was he apprehensive at all with you?
Snyder: He was hesitant. I don’t think he thought that anyone would ever try to make a movie out of “300.” When I’ve been with him and we’ve talked about it in these kinds of scenarios, he always seems to me to be very surprised that we picked it. It’s almost like a passion project for him. If you look at it in relation to his other work, it’s an anomaly in a lot of ways. I think the graphic novel world, it’s is an anomaly. It sort of exists outside the realm. The one thing that is consistent is who Leonidas is. Leonidas is Marv or he’s Batman. He’s 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, that’s the thing he just likes.
What is your approach on Watchmen going to be?
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 don’t want it to end up looking like “Polar Express.” It’s a possibility. You have enough CGI in there and suddenly it’s that movie. The problem is, even though that’s a great looking movie and it’s super cool, I feel like it doesn’t 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 Frank’s graphic novel is an organic experience. It’s a gritty book and a lot of spilled paint on that book. It feels like it anyway.
So what about the color palettes you went with?
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 relay 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% in the case of the book are almost that brownie red. But, to get back for a second to the “Watchmen” answer. The idea with “Watchmen” is not to do a CG movie, but to do it when it’s necessary. Like when he goes to Mars, there’s an issue there. You’ve got to figure that out. We can’t go to Mars. I know a lot of people are going to be disappointed in that, but I don’t have the money. Antarctica also. There’s no carnac.(SP) I know again we should probably build it, but I don’t 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? 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 more like “Fantastic 4.” It’s a balance.
Is the budget for “Watchmen” set right now or is there some sort of plus or minus depending on how well “300” does?
Snyder: That’s Theoretical. I believe that is probably reflecting reality. I don’t know that for sure. It’s not set right now. Maybe that’s a coincidence. Maybe not.
With the DVD what can fans look forward to beside that one scene you already spoke about?
Snyder: There’s only a few deleted scenes because it’s pretty much the movie that we made. That’s the thing. The one cool thing about the cinematic experience of “300” is that it’s my cut. They haven’t really messed with it that much. Although there are a few Ephialtes scenes we took out where when we first see him and he’s looking down on the Persians. It’s just straight out of the graphic novel. You can look at the graphic novel and those are the two scenes that aren’t it in. But, we shot them. Also Stelios jumping off the wall of the dead that was also in the movie.
I was curious about documentaries.
Snyder’s wife: I didn’t understand this answer b/c him and his wife are talking back and forth and I can’t hear what she’s saying since she’s sitting on the ground away from the mics. Sorry.
What was dealing with the MPAA like?
Snyder: You know it wasn’t 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 don’t think the movie personally is that gory, “300.” I think it’s so bizarre. I’ve had 50-year-old women see the movie and go, ‘oh I thought it was cool.’ And I go, ‘what about all the gore?’ They’re like, ‘oh it’s cool. It’s like art. It’s fancy.’ I think on one hand yes. If you want to enjoy that you can, but I think on the other hand it’s abstract in a way. I think the MPAA looked at it and said, ‘oh it’s not ‘Saving Private Ryan.’
How do you see the art of animation evolving with technology?
Snyder: Oh you mean in the sense that animators are now doing everything on the computer and not really a drawn medium?
Snyder: Is it good or bad? I don’t know. In some ways I think it needs reinventing. Look at the movies now like “Shrek” and all the Pixar movies. In some way they were so original and now they’ve become the same thing. I think that’s a genre that could use a little kick in the ass.
300 opens on March 9, 2007
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