An older interview but a good one for insights…
Director Zack Snyder at the Japan premiere of his film “Man of Steel” in Tokyo, Japan, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP)
With the Man of Steel sequel about to start shooting in Detroit, fans have been hoping new information about the movie will drop soon, and desperately awaiting the reveal of the new batsuit and Wonder Woman costume. Well, dear readers, I had a chance to speak at length with the film’s director Zack Snyder, and we talked about Batman’s 75th Anniversary this year, about how he became a Batman fan, about his past film projects… and yes, about the upcoming Batman-Superman-Wonder Woman film.
Snyder revealed some interesting information about how Batman came to be involved in the story, about how Batman and Superman will face off in the movie, about how Watchmen is a good template for approaching a world where Batman and Superman coexist, and about the new costumes — including the giant picture of the costumes that’s hanging on the wall in his office (feel free to freak out).
We also discussed how his thoughts on the history of Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen project caused a crazy media reaction that got out of hand. And he told me how you might get to see his intended version of Sucker Punch some day, if all goes well.
One thing that comes across clearly when speaking with Zack Snyder is his passion for these projects, and how much thought he puts into the worlds and characters he builds on screen. You might be surprised to find out some of your assumptions about him or his films are probably very wrong. There are layers and ideas at work that too often go unappreciated, and as a fan of Snyder’s work I was happy to have this chance to explore those issues in depth with him.
To this day, his Watchmen remains one of the true masterpieces of the genre, and hearing him discuss it and how he is approaching this next DC film makes me suspect we might be getting another masterpiece in 2016 — and if you think that’s hyperbolic, just wait until you read what he said about his approach to the characters and story.
Okay, I think I’ve teased you enough, so let’s get on with it! And pay close attention to the details, folks…
MH: When did you become a fan of Batman, and of comics in general? Was it in the mid-1980s with the arrival of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, two comics you often discuss with such adoration?
ZS: Frank [Miller]‘s book really made me see that comic books, and Batman specifically, could really reflect political and social concepts that I felt like maybe before I hadn’t imagined were possible. Watchmen, of course, I sort of see in the same light — that being, this comic that’s able to shed light on what I would say is our reality, but do it through the sort of metaphor and mythology of comic books, right?
For me, that’s really what The Dark Knight Returns did as well. When I read it, I felt like — of course I knew who Batman was and I was familiar with him as a comic book hero — but it was that book that made me say, “Gosh, you know this could be an amazing film.” At the time, I was just starting my college career, but I thought, “Wow this would be a cool movie!” I wasn’t sure exactly how that would manifest itself, but you know you dream when you’re a kid and you’re in college, “God, if one day I could make a Batman movie, that would be awesome!”
The reality of course is another thing, but it’s kind of amazing that it’s worked out as it has. You know, that’s the thing that you’ve just gotta be super-grateful for, and at the same time you’ve gotta take these opportunities. I think, in my mind — I don’t want to say make the most of it, but in a way you really have to accept these challenges and really try and realize those [opportunities]… Because, the things you thought when you first read them, you try to recapture those feelings. I always say that about Watchmen, when I first read it I had an emotional response to it, and that’s what I always tried to get at when I made the movie. It was a certain way of feeling, and I feel like that was what I really pursued — those ideas.
And I think those same opportunities exist for Batman and Superman, in the sense that they teach us about ourselves. I think Batman — now after Chris [Nolan]‘s movies and the way we track Batman through his cinematic history — he does have this license to enter our world and be a real character and not a complete cartoon, and he’s able to tell us about the way we live and our society. He moves with us, his morality — I think Superman probably less so, but I think Batman definitely sort of reflects us in a more personal way.
MH: Superman is kind of the ideal of what we’d like to be, and Batman is kind of rooted in what we are. He reflects what we are, so to speak.
ZS: Oh, 100%. And I think that’s at the heart of that, you know.
MH: When you came aboard Man of Steel, were you thinking in the back of your mind, “I could be the guy who gets to reboot Batman on film too!”
ZS: I gotta be honest, it definitely was a thing that… after Man of Steel finished and we started talking about what would be in the next movie, I started subtly mentioning that it would be cool if he faced Batman. In the first meeting, it was like, “Maybe Batman?” Maybe at the end of the second movie, some Kryptonite gets delivered to Bruce Wayne’s house or something. Like in a cryptic way, that’s the first time we see him. But then, once you say it out loud, right? You’re in a story meeting talking about, like, who should [Superman] fight if he fought this giant alien threat Zod who was basically his equal physically, from his planet, fighting on our turf… You know, who to fight next? The problem is, once you say it out loud, then it’s kind of hard to go back, right? Once you say, “What about Batman?” then you realize, “Okay, that’s a cool idea. What else?” I mean, what do you say after that? …But I’m not gonna say at all that when I took the job to do Man of Steel that I did it in a subversive way to get to Batman. I really believe that only after contemplating who could face [Superman] did Batman come into the picture.
MH: This year is the 75th anniversary of the first published Batman story, of course. But when the Man of Steel sequel hits theaters, it’ll be the 75th anniversary of Wonder Woman’s first appearance in comics as well. And this year happens to be the 40th anniversary of Wonder Woman’s first live-action appearance, in the Cathy Lee Crosby TV movie on ABC. And on top of all of that, your Man of Steel sequel releases during the 35th anniversary of the first Christopher Reeve Superman film, too. So there’s all of these anniversaries and all of this history coming together around this production. Had you realized how significant the timing of this film was going to be? And that you’d be launching the first movie really showing and firmly establishing the much bigger DC Universe on film at this important time in everyone’s history?
ZS: We just went through Superman’s 75th, and it was very exciting… and to me, it was just really awesome. And the idea of having the Batman 75th and the Wonder Woman 75th together is kind of an amazing thing, too… The thing also that’s really fascinating for me is that, even just in the tests we’ve been doing, the costumes, right? You basically have Batman and Superman — and this is without Ben [Affleck] and Henry [Cavill] in the costumes, but just like the stand-ins, just testing to see what the costumes look like. And you have them standing there and they’re standing in the same shot — and then we have Wonder Woman, you know, all three of them in the same shot. Even just for a test, you really have to go, “Wow, that’s crazy!” Not only is it the first time that I’m seeing them, it’s the first time they’ve ever existed together on screen in a movie. And that’s kind of a huge deal. Even just Batman and Superman standing next to each other… [I]t’s kind of epic. You do sort of sense the weight of the pop culture iconography jumping out of its skin when you’re standing there looking at the two of them and Wonder Woman. It’s crazy. But it’s fun. I mean, I have the first photo, I’ve got it in my archive because I was like, “Okay, I better keep this, it’s gonna be worth something,” [laughs]!
MH: Fans are wondering, because there have been some reports that it could be much later this summer or even next year before the suits are revealed. Can you tell us if we really might have to wait six months to a year to see them, or could it be sooner?
ZS: Unfortunately, I don’t even know the timeline… Because the movie takes place so far from now, it’s hard to know exactly. That all gets tied to marketing and strategies for the movie. It’s not just a free-for-all, which I’d love it to be. Because I take a picture of the suit with my camera– I’m actually staring at one right now in my office. And it’s just massive on my wall in my office and it’s epic, let me tell you! And I’m like, “God, I want to send this to the Internet immediately.” But I know I’m not allowed to [laughs]! I do value the sort of excitement of the way the film is [revealed]… the pieces that are released and sort of trickle out to everybody, and those reveals are exciting milestones for us.
MH: People are always looking for the set photos and things. Feel free to tell fans, “Wait for the official release, it’ll be epic and that’s the way to experience this.” They’ll only get to go through this once, where you see Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman for the first time together like this, and it should be something better than a cheesy picture on an iPhone.
ZS: The one nice thing is that, the schedule is designed carefully so that I don’t know that that’ll be [a problem]– but who knows, these cats are pretty good at getting the drop on us with these photos. But, when we finally do show it, it’s gonna be real fun. And it’s true, you gotta make sure– you’re gonna want the real shot…
MH: When I first saw Watchmen, I came out thinking “That’s the way to approach a DC superhero team-up universe where the characters exist together, pseudo-realism and peering into the political implications and social backlash that would exist against costumed vigilantes, and really showing us the true nature of the sort of violence that would occur rather than sanitized bloodless, restrained application of force.” Can we expect some of those same kind of sensibilities to inform your approach to this next film? Not storywise, but that idea — which you mentioned earlier — of putting these realistic elements on screen, but also alongside some of the more fantastic things like Dr. Manhattan for example, but it all fits so perfectly?
ZS: …I think with Superman we have this opportunity to place this icon within the sort of real world we live in. And I think that, honestly, the thing I was surprised about in response to Superman was how everyone clings to the Christopher Reeve version of Superman, you know? How tightly they cling to those ideas, not really the comic book version but more the movie version… If you really analyze the comic book version of Superman, he’s killed, he’s done all the things– I guess the rules that people associate with Superman in the movie world are not the rules that really apply to him in the comic book world, because those rules are different. He’s done all the things and more that we’ve shown him doing, right? It’s just funny to see people really taking it personally… because I made him real, you know, I made him feel, or made consequences [in] the world. I felt like, it was the same thing in Watchmen. We really wanted to show it wasn’t just like they thought, like the PG-13 version where everyone just gets up and they’re fine. I really wanted to show the violence is real, people get killed or get hurt, and it’s not fun or funny. And I guess for me, it was like I wanted a hero in Superman that was a real hero and sort of reflected the world we live in now…
MH: He’s a big enough character and a good enough character, and the source material is rich enough, I think the material allows for a lot of these different approaches to the character. So when fans kind of feel like there’s only one correct way to approach it and only one right way, that’s a limited way of thinking about it, in my opinion.
ZS: I really believe this — and I think it’s obvious — I believe superheroes, they’re our modern myths. They’re our mythology in the modern world, and myth is designed to tell us about ourselves. In the ancient world, a volcano would go off or the stars would fall from the sky, and they would make a myth up around it to help ancient man to sleep at night or understand it, or at least to have a way of dealing with these things that were outside of their control. So, they’d make a story about a god on a mountain or whatever it is. And I think that’s kind of what our superheroes can do for us, they can help us explain our world a little bit.
I think that’s what Watchmen is a perfect example of, this comic book that tells us who we are. It actually tells us about our century, and about the nuclear age, and politics, and the balance between obliterating ourselves and going into the future, and what is justice, and what is the difference between right and wrong in the world– all the things are in the comic, and in the movie. And I think that Batman and Superman also in a weird way occupy similar space, that they are the most powerful, iconographic superhero figures, and they occupy a place in all of our collective consciousness. Almost every person in the world at one time or another has said, “I’m Batman!” I believe that that’s a powerful thing. And he absolutely can tell us about ourselves.
As we’ve been writing the script and talking about what to do with these characters, how they face off and why and what it means, you know, we’ve really tried to think about it in a real– I guess in a way that talks about who we are as well.
MH: I think the film wasn’t just faithful to the Watchmen comic, I think — and I know this is a controversial position — I think you got a lot more right, especially with the revelation of what the “secret conspiracy” was. I think it worked better and actually spoke more to the themes of the story, about this idea of the ultimate use of violence, finding some ultimate use of violence that would bring about ultimate peace. And how much vigilantism, our politics and warfare, and all of these things that are that same kind of balance seeking that same kind of thing. Your film really, I felt, got a lot of those things more right than the comic did in some ways. Not to take anything away from the comic, obviously.
ZS: No, no — and by the way, you know how I feel about the comic — but I just felt like, especially that concept, it just seemed obvious to me that of course you blame God. That’s the move. That’s Adrian [Veidt]‘s move, you pin it on God if you can. And I just felt like, to me it seemed dramatically obvious. … It’s funny, Terry Gilliam and I having this ridiculous back and forth– by the way, Terry Gilliam is literally one of my favorite filmmakers, and literally Brazil is one of my favorite movies of all time. I consider it a masterpiece… I don’t know, I just find the whole conversation, that whole thing that happened, ludicrous.
MH: So did I. It seemed very much to me like there were some folks within the media and within the fan community who were trying to create this false conflict, actually. Because I thought what you said was not only true, it was also very obvious what you meant. There were outlets that claimed you bashed Terry Gilliam or denounced him as a filmmaker, when obviously what you meant was that at that time it’s true the general consensus among studios and Terry Gilliam was that the story had to be changed or it just couldn’t be done. And people kind of refer to it as the “Terry Gilliam Watchmen project,” so when you said that, I took it as that kind of a reference, “Well, people thought this, and I was trying to rescue it from being changed.”
ZS: Exactly. That’s exactly how I meant it. I just meant that, you know– all I wanted to do was do it as close as I could to the way it was in the comic book. That was my entire point of view. And everyone was like, “You can’t do it like it was in the comic book, you have to figure out a way around it.” And I just said, “Well, let’s try it — and maybe we’ll fail — but that’s the idea.” So yeah, I agree. Look, I have nothing but respect for Terry Gilliam, and I think he’s a genius. So, that’s that.
MH: When I saw 300: Rise of An Empire, I happen to have seen Jason and the Argonauts two days earlier on the big screen at Quentin Tarantino’s theater in West Hollywood [note: it is actually in Los Angeles, I misspoke here]… I saw them basically back-to-back. When I saw it — and I’m glad I did, because I don’t know if I would’ve made the connection — I felt like there’s a very strong connection between Jason and the Argonauts and your 300 movies. Did you go back and look at those older kind of classic sword-and-sandles genre movies to inform or think about how to approach the 300 series?
ZS: I’ll be honest, I do think those movies touched me most powerfully when I was watching them on Saturday afternoon on TV at home. And probably Frank [Miller] as well, to be honest… I think the connection for me is that idea of taking Greek myth or Greek mythology or fake Greek settings, whatever you want to call it — that time in between history, it feels like it’s sort of out of history but it’s in a time, right? And it’s kind of setting a movie there. I think if anything, that’s what those movies really are able to do to me. Because in a way they feel like, it’s almost like Excalibur, where you feel like it happened, but it still exists outside of the reality we know [and] what’s possible to us. But there was another time when that was.
And maybe that’s kind of what 300 is about, in a weird way. It’s about history that’s out of time. It’s funny, because I was talking — and I won’t say who said it — but I was talking to a history professor who said that 300 has done more for the classics than any school. Because kids, they see 300, and then they’ve read Herodotus or sort of gone to look at the real story of 300, and it’s just one of those things… Even my kids at school… this was before they even knew that I did the movie, right? The teacher would bring in 300 to show, to get them excited about history. They’d edited it, of course. But, you know, this is a way of starting to talk about Thermopylae. I’m not an advocate of that, I gotta be honest, [laughing] because I just find that slightly irresponsible. But on the other hand, the kids would be like, “That was cool, maybe history’s okay.”
MH: You probably won a lot of converts to it who might not otherwise have paid as much attention or sought out those stories.
ZS: I 100% think that’s true. Look, I think it’s a lot of fun, that’s my feeling about it. I mean, I make those movies with a sense of irony. I made both those movies with a sense of, you know, there was a tongue in our cheek… I believe in the heroic aspect of the sacrifice, and that’s not funny. But there was a tone to the movie, it knows what it is, it’s not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. It’s very straightforward about what it’s doing.
There’s that Leonidas scene, the apple eating scene in the movie — in the original 300 – where’s he’s all like, “There’s no reason we can’t be civil, is there?” And the guy’s stabbing, he’s killing helpless guys laying on the ground, and he’s like, “No, no sire, none.” It’s kind of like, okay I get it! I think that stuff is fun. …But that idea of a beautiful death is a thing that is outside of our way of thinking. These are guys that literally had this aesthetic idea about how they would die on the battlefield, almost like samurai. They had a picture in their mind of the perfect death, and these Spartans were looking to fulfill that. And that is a thing that is outside of our way of thinking.
MH: “A good death is its own reward.”
ZS: Yeah, by the way, a little bit. And those scenes I find really kind of fun and interesting, and fun to kind of challenge the viewer with, because… it’s just not the way we think. That’s the Fassbender line in 300, where Mike Fassbender says, “With all the world’s armies down there, there’s gotta be someone who can give it to me.” Like, basically, “I’m crossing my fingers that someone down there can kill me! Maybe?”
MH: The media and fans kind of treat it like there’s this harsh competitiveness between Marvel and DC to the point you’re trying to hurt each other’s films. But my feeling is — and I wrote an article for Forbes about it saying — that’s not really true. There’s a competitiveness, but everyone wins when there’s a successful film in the genre, and nobody wants to cause the other’s films to fail. Is that true?
ZS: I think that’s 100% true. Look, I’m a fan of the Marvel movies… and the thing that’s awesome is, we make a different movie. We have a different product than them, although they both exist in sort of the superhero world, which is great. I think that those are the opportunities. That’s what you get at the movies, you get a chance to go to all these different worlds. And I’m as interested in going to the Marvel Universe as anybody. So, I personally don’t think that there’s any, from my point of view, we definitely don’t have any animosity or anything of that nature. We’re all in this big business together, and we hope people are interested in the adventures that we put up on screen. And I do believe it’s infectious, and the next weekend you’re like, “You know what? Let’s go do that again, that was awesome. We saw a cool movie, maybe we’ll get another cool movie.”
[On how his films are often misunderstood and underestimated…]
ZS: We were just talking about — and I don’t know if it’ll happen — but I was talking to DJ [John DesJardin], my visual effects supervisor, about doing this special edition of Sucker Punch, which is sort of like this super-super-uncensored “uninfluenced by the studio” version of the movie. Which exists, you know, I had it cut. It was my very, very first cut of the movie, which is basically more like the script… it’s much more meta, it’s much more of an indictment of fandom and it’s just… harder on the genre, which is how it was designed.
MH: That message was there, and I got it. You’ve said before that you think people misunderstood your films and that they don’t get credit for being as smart as they are. I absolutely agree and that’s the argument I’ve been making for years, including about Sucker Punch, which I think is great.
ZS: Did you see that SlashFilm thing that they did on Sucker Punch? The SlashFilm guy [Adam Quigley] did this little video, it’s about seven minutes long, I think it’s called, “You Don’t Understand Sucker Punch.” And he really breaks it down in a really, really cool way, and I was like, “ Wow!” …His thing is like, you can dislike the film, but you can’t dislike it because it’s “dumb.” That was his argument, you know — it’s fine to not like a movie, but you can’t not like a movie for something that it is not. And it is frustrating, I’ll be 100% honest. Sometimes I do get frustrated. I’m categorized as basically this visualist whose movies don’t mean anything–
MH: Which is completely false.
ZS: –I think that that’s part of it… aesthetically those things are so important to me, that I think people just assume that’s just “eye candy” so it doesn’t mean anything. I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy…
MH: No, there are actually some really good essays written by feminist journalists defending Sucker Punch and pointing out that the misunderstanding about the movie is entirely because people are assessing it through the typical, standard fanboy approach to watching these films and to looking at women, and the film is the opposite of that. Really, really eye-opening assessments of the movie by these women and I send the links around all the time to people whenever I see a conversation come up about the film.
ZS: Yeah. By the way, you should send them to me. You should, because I really feel like there’s one thing about it that I always say — and I don’t want to bore you with it — but, it’s one of those things that I find it’s not hard to look at it like, there’s not one redeemable male character in the movie except for the imaginary bus driver, you know what I mean? It’s the Scott Glenn character, this kind of fake father we all imagine but that is not real. It’s very much an incredibly girl-power movie, not like girl-power in the comic book way but in the sort of psychological way.
MH: The camera’s never looking at them from an ogling perspective — the same as with 300. Nobody’s complaining that 300 that movie is just hyper-sexualizing the men and doing nothing but ogling them, even though they’re half-naked, and it’s because the film is from their perspective and has a male perspective. And Sucker Punch very much has that female perspective, which is one of the main points some of these essays have made… I think you’ll find it enlightening just how many fangirls like that movie…
ZS: That’s interesting, that’s really cool. But yeah, please do send that along, that’d be awesome.
Big thanks to Zack Snyder for taking so much time to talk with me! Hope you enjoyed it, dear readers — sound off with your thoughts and comments below!
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DC is producing some really excellent shows. Arrow, Flash, and now Constantine.
And I don’t know who that guy playing Constantine is but he got it nearly pitch perfect. The whole episode was superb.
My only regret, not seeing Doc Fate in action. I also hope that in the future we’ll get to see Zauriel.
I’ll definitely be adding Constantine to my roster of TV shows to watch on the weekend.