Zach Snyder Interview, Director Frank Miller's 300

Posted by: Sheila Roberts
Zack Snyder is one of the new greats in the director's seat to hit Hollywood. He has already established himself as one of the most creative and sought-after directors in the commercial and music video arenas before segueing to feature films.
 
He made his feature film directorial debut with the hit horror thriller "Dawn of the Dead." Released in March 2004, the film opened at the top of the weekend box office and brought Snyder widespread critical acclaim for his inspired re-imagining of George Romero's cult classic. Snyder was also nominated for the prestigious Camera d'Or Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for his work on the film. Zach was able to take the word that most horror fans despise "Remake" and set a new precedent and deliver a remake that although not entirely true to the original story set the bar for other remakes.
 
Snyder attributes his distinctive style, in part, to his early artistic training in London, where he studied painting at the Heatherlies School. He later refined his artistic sensibilities at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where he developed the bold cinematic style of filmmaking that he has become known for today. We had a chance to sit down and talk to Zach at the LA screening of 300 and here is what he had to say about his latest project that is sure to be another hit!

Q: Was the timing right for this movie in terms of technology, to bring something like this to the screen? Is it a matter of ‘get technology right and then’?

Zack Snyder: I guess it is a little bit, but it’s not – I think the technology that we used to make the movie existed. I think the real change was the studios had kind of exhausted the shorts and sandals genre a teeny bit – to the point where they felt like the idea of reinventing it a little bit was a thing that they could go, ‘You know what, maybe that is good and maybe that does work. Maybe people do want to see something else.’

Q: Was that because of the studio’s failure on Troy?

Zack Snyder: I think that was the thing that said, ‘you know what, maybe this is another way to do it, maybe people will like it like this, like crazy, whatever it is.’ And so, yeah, but I do think there was the studio saying, ‘Hey, maybe it’s cool.’ Frank (Miller) going, ‘You know, no one’s going to make this graphic novel but Zack. I don’t know why he wants to.’ Frank loves it, but he doesn’t… My feeling is that Frank never thought anyone would try and make *this* book. This is one of his more obscure titles. So the idea that someone would say, ‘Hey, let’s make the 300 graphic novel into a movie,’ I think he was surprised by it, so he gave me his blessing. And then the third thing is then the technology being there.

Q: Why did you fall in love with the subject matter?

Zack Snyder: Look, I’ve been a big [fan] – I came to graphic novels, basically; when I was a kid. My mother used to buy me a magazine called Heavy Metal, an adult illustrated fantasy magazine. My mother did not realize it was an adult magazine. She thought it was a cool publication that had comics in it, and I encouraged her to keep buying it. (laughs) And at the same time, she would try and buy me Wolverine or X-Men or some classic comic books as well, but no one was having sex or dying in those – not a lot anyway, not graphically. (laughs) And so it really didn’t hold my interest like the Heavy Metal did. And I was pretty devout. I would always try and order Click, or some pornographic stuff, and I would always get caught. My mother would be like, ‘Oh, what is this?’ ‘I don’t know.
 
They must have just sent it for free.’ But then when Dark Knight came out, and Watchmen around the same time, it sort of re-jigged me back into the graphic novel world in a way that I was satisfied is the way it happened. I wanted to make any Frank Miller work I could, you know. You always say, ‘I want to make Sin City into a movie. Oh, they just did it.’ ‘I want to make Dark Knight into a movie. Oh, they’re going to do that.’ So 300 was basically – we would talk about 300 like film students going, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we made this shot? It’d be awesome!’ Just basically, nothing would ever happen, but [we would] just talk about it like it’s fun.
 
Then, Gianni Nunnari, who’s one of the producers on the movie, he’s the one who actually got the rights and said, ‘You know what, I called Frank Miller (in an Italian accent)’ – that’s my Italian accent, it’s not great. (again, in an Italian accent) ‘I called Frank Miller. He’s very difficult as you know, but he’s going to give us the rights.’ I was like, ‘What?! What do you mean, give us the rights? When you say give us the rights, what do you mean by that?’ He said, ‘Well, we should try and make it into a movie.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ So it was scary, but at the same time, the idea of making it was a thing that I was really passionate about.

Q: Did you throw history out the window?

Zack Snyder: Did Frank throw history out the window – a little bit. I feel like I have shown the movie to historians. But it was funny because Bettany Hughes, who’s this English historian who has done… [She’s] a Spartan specialist. I showed the first 20 minutes of the movie to her, and said, ‘What do you think? Is it crazy? Am I stupid? Do I hate history? Am I f*cked up?’ And it was cool, because she said, ‘No, you know what, in a lot of ways, it’s more Spartan than anything I could do.’ In a sense that it is – ‘As historians, I can’t be emotional with what I feel about the Spartans because I’m trying to give historical reference. But you, what you’ve made feels like it was made by Spartans.’

Q: Like a home movie –

Zack Snyder: Yeah, like a home movie, like the essence of how a Spartan thinks. The other thing I always say… You know, people have asked me, ‘is it political? How do you feel about the politics of the movie?’ And the one thing I always try and stress is we are not Spartans in the movie. I try and show you from the first thing – it’s fun to be with Spartans, and it’s fun to go along with them, but you’re not them. And you see the first image is the Spartans throwing their kids off a cliff. I’d hope you’d go, ‘Wow, these guys are a little rough.’ They just beat their kids constantly.
 
It’s an effort to remind you that you’re not.....like when they meet the free Greeks, and he says basically, ‘we’re the free Greeks.’ He (King Leonidas) says, ‘What do you do?’ ‘I work for a magazine.’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a movie director.’ ‘What do you do?’ And then they’re (the Spartans) all like, ‘What we do is Rah rah rah! Kill, that’s what we do!’ And I think even when they’re looking down on the Persian encampment, and Stelios says, ‘It’s awesome. We Spartans are looking for a beautiful death. That’s what we do.’ All that stuff is in there just to hit you a little bit. I want you to embrace the Spartans and I want you to try and be with them, but I always feel like it’s important for people to remember that they are freaks in their own way. (laughs)

Q: You really capture the essence of the graphic novel and Frank’s style and Frank has shown a great deal of respect towards you. Do you think you’ll collaborate with Frank again?

Zack Snyder: That certainly is an option that I would consider.

Q: Have you guys discussed it?

Zack Snyder: We haven’t really, but we have fun when we talk, so it could easily be a thing that we may have gotten around to talking about. He has really stressed to me, and he did from the very beginning, ‘Look,’ he goes, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do, but it’s your movie, so go kill it.’ Which in some ways was harder, because you put the responsibility on me and say, ‘Okay, don’t f*ck it up’ basically.

Q: How important was it to you that you got to that point where he gave you his approval?

Zack Snyder: It was really great. When he saw the movie, he said to me, ‘Listen, I wrote this book because I saw a movie called 300 Spartans when I was a young man. After I saw your version of my book in movie form, I realized I wished this was the movie I had seen, not the one I had seen.’ I said, ‘Wow! That’s awesome.’

Q: Do you want to do other work that utilizes that same technology or are you thinking of going in a different direction?

Zack Snyder: Well, for instance, with Watchmen, which is the thing we’re working on right now, there’s no reason to do it that way. There are things like ‘if you go to Mars,’ sure. I think that my experience with 300 helps me with using technology. It helps me go, ‘Gosh, you know what, we should do this here. When we go to Antarctica, we can do this and that would be cool. And in this scene we ought to use snow.’ There’s things I do know how to do because of 300, but also I think that Watchmen is much more like Taxi Driver or Dr. Strangelove than it is like Fantastic Four so you have just a stylistic thing that you have to get at.

Q: There’s been talk about Watchmen for quite a while actually.

Zack Snyder: There has been. Yeah.

Q: Is there a lot more pressure for you from fans to deliver on something like that?

Zack Snyder: Yeah, there really is.

Q: Are you going to be at Comic-con this year?

Zack Snyder: I don’t know if we’ll get shots done by Comic-con this year, but hopefully. Our plan is to shoot in the summer, but I’ll go down there and I’m sure I’ll have something to show. I hope.

Q: Is that pressure?

Zack Snyder: Yeah, that pressure is real as real can be. But also the thing is with Watchmen, there’s huge pressure from the fans, but at the same time, the way I gotta do it, and the way that I work is I just have to sort of go and say, ‘Ok, I feel like when I look at what I’m planning to do, I think it’s cool.’ So that’s the only thing I can do in the end, and hopefully everyone else thinks it’s cool too.

Q: How far along are you on that production right now? Where are you at currently?

Zack Snyder: We’re trying to get a budget together that is palatable to everybody. It’s a long movie, and I’m trying to shoot the Black Frater part as well, and no one has ever even talked about that. You know, it’s like crazy time. And whether that ends up as a DVD extra or as a special release or something like that, that’s yet to be seen. But I don’t know, that’s my plan anyway.

Q: Is it fully cast?

Zack Snyder: It’s not fully cast yet, but I’ve been talking to a lot of people.

Q: When will you know?

Zack Snyder: I’ll know soon, I think after Berlin – when we get back from Berlin.

Q: Oh, with this [means doing press for 300 in Berlin]?

Zack Snyder: Yeah, I’ll start to know who’s going to lock in.

Q: What was it like answering to Debbie (Deborah Snyder) on this film?

Zack Snyder: It’s good. Debbie’s awesome. She’s the voice of reason a lot of times, and I need that. I think you need to have someone close to you who you feel has no agenda other than making the movie awesome and making your decisions make sense.

Q: Did she shut down anything?

Zack Snyder: Oh, I don’t know, probably, lots of stuff.

Q: What do you have planned for the DVD?

Zack Snyder: It’s funny, I feel like the movie is very close to what I intended. There’s no director’s cut. This is the director’s cut. But there are some scenes I cut out. There’s a behind the scenes, I think there’s going to be some historical things, there’s going to be a picture sort of thing where you see the graphic novel come to life and things like that. And then there’s probably three deleted scenes of Ephialtes mostly because it just made the movie too long.
 
Then there’s this midget archers thing that we did. We did these crazy, armless giants. Look, basically we had these giants with their arms chopped off, and there’s these elfy-looking midgets riding them with arrows, and they’re shooting them at the Spartans, and then they get their legs chopped off, and they fall down. But there is this cool shot where this giant Spartan – not giant, it’s Astinos -- he jumps up on the body of the giant, and there’s a little elfy midget, and he spears him with a spear. It’s kind of sad, but it sounded awesome because he’s little, and he’s laying on his back saying, ‘No!’ But we cut that out, it was too much – even for me.

Q: What was the best resource you found of the real history?

Zack Snyder: I really liked Bettany Hughes’ documentary, The Spartans. It was one of my favorites, I have to say, because hers isn’t dry. If someone is interested in Spartans,

she’s pretty cool. We interviewed her for the DVD – and I’m not plugging her because of that – but honestly, in my research, you’d get these Victor Davis Hanson books, and they’re dense, and beautifully written, but they sort of – ‘what is the essence of the thing?’ – and I found she really just said, ‘Hey look, this is what a Spartan is.’ But she has no issue with that fine line between the Spartans being slightly barbaric and completely brutal and also admiring them for their crazy society that they lived in.

Q: For a studio movie, you managed to have the right balance of extreme violence and sex and you captured the reality of that period which doesn’t happen that often. Did the studio pressure you at any time to tone down the violence or sex?

Zack Snyder: I thought they would more than they did. From the beginning, there was this discussion about whether the movie would be PG-13 or R – those were the early discussions, pretty early. And they said, ‘What are you thinking?’ And I said, ‘Listen, in my mind, this movie couldn’t be more of an R. I don’t know how to make it as a PG-13 movie. I don’t even know if I know what PG-13 is. Even if I told you that the movie would be PG-13, I honestly don’t know what I would deliver you.
 
If I do what I’m thinking, I’m sure it’s an R.’ And that’s why they gave us a certain budget, and a certain amount of time to do it because although they believed in that concept, it’s a difficult thing in the market place. That was the thing. I was supported incredibly by Warner Bros. in the sense that they said – in some ways, once I said it was an R-rated movie, they said, ‘Ok, well, go do it. Here’s money. Go do it. We don’t know what you’re doing. You’re crazy; but we support your vision. We think you’re going to do something different and that’s the thing we want. The drawings of the sex scenes – I showed everyone these drawings, I said, ‘Look, this is what I want to do.’ And they said, ‘Well that looks cool, I guess.’ The sex scene, I think we cut maybe one shot out, but that was really for timing.

Q: And there’s the transsexual orgy scene.

Zack Snyder: Yeah, that’s fun. Who doesn’t love that?

Q: Are you drawing the storyboards on Watchmen?

Zack Snyder: I am. The way I do it is, if you look at that book – the way I do it is, with Watchmen, the cool thing is that Watchmen is much more of a linear story, not when you look at the overall – it goes all over the place. But if you look at the scenes, for instance, when Rorschach picks up the badge, and looks up and she fires this grappling gun and goes up to the thing and looks around the room – there’s no reason not to shoot it like that.
 
I don’t know if you didn’t shoot it that way, that would mean your ego got f*cked up somehow, and you thought, ‘Wow, I can do it better than that; I’ll do a low angle, and I’ll dolly in, and ooh, I’m cool.’ You know, that’s not how I want to do it. So basically in my book, it’s similar to that. I have a drawing, but then I redraw the shift frame because all those frames are like this. So I redraw it, but then I glue in the book right next to the drawing, the frame from the graphic novel.

Q: Have you had a chance to talk to Alan Moore?

Zack Snyder: I have not; they’re trying to work it out for me to go talk to him.

Q: Good luck.

Zack Snyder: I know. He’s going to hate me, but I hope he doesn’t.

Q: What was your process in terms of how you worked with the actors? They undergo such an incredible mental and physical transformation. Rodrigo Santoro had mentioned bringing a nuance of insecurity to his character. How do you as a director pull that out of them as actors?

Zack Snyder: You know it’s funny, the way we worked was we would talk about it before hand, and what we wanted to do, and then I would just watch for it in the performances. When we were ready to go again, I might say, ‘Look, I know we talked about you being a little more shaky at this moment, but I didn’t feel it in that last one. Maybe you should think about that’ -- just simple stuff. I think the director’s role – on a movie like this, it’s a physical job. I didn’t sit down much. I operate a lot too, so it’s hard for me to – maybe just because I’m energetic, or whatever you want to call it, or schizophrenic, I don’t know what it is.
 
But I do like to touch the camera and make the shots, and so in some ways it gets you closer to the actors. A lot of people think that distances you from the actors, and I haven’t found that at all. I think if you’re standing there with a camera, there’s nowhere… You can’t hide behind a monitor and get behind it and yell, ‘Hey, do it better,’ and then go and look at your TV again. It’s kind of a sh*tty thing to do anyway, but I think it’s normal. That’s the normal way of doing it. But when you’re just standing there holding the camera – and it’s heavy, by the way – and you’re saying, ‘You know, it’d be cool if we did this, ok.’ And they’re like, ‘Ok’ (Zack makes noise of camera rolling) ‘Here I’ll take that.’ There’s a lot more urgent, there’s a lot more. I’m not back there with a cappuccino and just relaxing, although I’d like to be.

Q: What was the most fun scene or sequence?

Zack Snyder: I have two favorites. One of my favorite scenes in the movie – I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie – is the ‘apple eating’ scene, which pretty much sums the whole movie up in one scene. I mean in a lot of ways it’s like the attitude and just the whole thing. It’s ridiculous. And also, I do love Gerry’s freelance shot in battle 1, where he breaks out, that long tracking shot, so technical, because it’s all things. The thing I like about it is it’s super technical, but it’s also super raw and real and it’s hard to mix those two and make it [work]. And also it’s lyrical. It’s like an opera, but it’s violent. It’s all the things I wanted the movie to be.

Q: Which shot is that? When he’s throwing his spear?

Zack Snyder: He throws the spear, but not at Xerxes. It’s in the middle of Battle 1 and it’s where he breaks out and it’s that long tracking shot where he chops off the leg, throws a spear at the guy, and it ends with him stabbing that guy in the ground. And it was a hard shot to operate because it’s this huge rig, and basically I operated the long lens. So there are three lenses. There’s a long, medium, and a wide. And I’m not really looking through, or operating or having anything to do with the other two lenses. They’re just slaved to the close-up lens. So when I watched the whole thing, I was basically watching Gerry from here up (waist) and then having to tilt down for the sword at the end, and not let the whole rig go over and crush me. So it was a difficult shot to actually do. The other thing was if I had f*cked it up, all those guys are gone – giant stunt adjustments – every stunt man is getting paid every time they hit the ground, so it’s an expense. It was fun.

Q: What about the music?

Zack Snyder: The music? Tyler Bates did the score, who did the score for Dawn of the Dead, and he also did the score for the original animatic, which I took basically the graphic novel and filmed it and showed it to the studio and said, ‘Here’s the movie.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, no.’ And then I shot it, ‘Here’s the test shot.’ And they went, ‘Yeah, keep trying.’ (laughs) And so I kept trying to get them to say yes, and in every case Tyler was there with some beautiful music. And so he had worked on it – it wasn’t like I plunked the movie down and said, ‘Ok, make music for this.’ He knew as it came along. He had been working on ideas and stuff like that. So I feel like the music evolved with the movie, which I think is kind of a nice and unusual experience.

Q: Would you ever make another movie like this again that relied heavily on blue and green screen technology?

Zack Snyder: I would if the subject was correct, because I really didn’t look at it like a blue screen movie. That was just the tool to make this movie. I didn’t set out to make a blue screen movie. I just wanted to make the graphic novel come to life and so it just happened that was the way to do it. If I was making a Star Wars sequel, or something like that, I might say ‘yes, that’s the way to do it.’

Q: Are you making a Star Wars sequel?

Zack Snyder: No, I’m going to plant that seed so George reads that and goes, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Maybe Zack Snyder’s the guy!’ (laughs)

Q: George Reeves?

Zack Snyder: No, George reads (laughs) – George Lucas reads. I don’t know if he does read, but if he did, maybe he’d give me a call and say, ‘Snyder, listen, I need you to carry the mantle.’ I’d make an R-rated Star Wars. Wow; that would be cool. Sorry, just zoned out for a second. (laughs) That’s a good geek-out moment right there.

Q: What was your choice for not going with a superstar actor?

Zack Snyder: I wasn’t really – look, Gerry’s amazing, and I feel like there’s no one else who could do it but him. There’s that aspect of the choice. Is it conscious to choose someone who is not a giant US magazine Hollywood royalty? Or is it just we felt like the movie was the star in some ways, and we wanted you to feel that and not be plucked out for a minute by ‘oh look, there’s Brad in a freakin’ loin cloth.’ Gerry is awesome.

Q: That was never even a choice?

Zack Snyder: We didn’t really think about it that way.

Q: Thank you.

Zack Snyder: See you guys. My pleasure.

"300” opens in theaters on March 9th. Based on the epic graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 is a ferocious retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae in which King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and 300 Spartans fought to the death against Xerxes and his massive Persian army. Facing insurmountable odds, their valor and sacrifice inspire all of Greece to unite against their Persian enemy, drawing a line in the sand for democracy. The film brings Miller’s (Sin City) acclaimed graphic novel to life by combining live action with virtual backgrounds that capture his distinct vision of this ancient historic tale.

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