Zack Snyder on developing the Frank Miller graphic novel.
It's one of the most anticipated films all year - 300. From the mind of Frank Miller, Zack Snyder wrote and directed the graphic novel adaptation starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey.
The film shows the early demise of the Spartan army in ancient times; Snyder used the newest technology to bring Frank's drawings to life. He also gave us a small update on another graphic novel he's developing - The Watchmen. Movieweb.com sat down with Zack to talk about the film; here's what he had to say:
Was the timing right for this movie in terms of technology?
Zack Snyder: I guess it is a little bit, but it's not - I think the technology we used to make the movie existed; I think the real change was in the studio's head, kind of exhaustive 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 that does work. Maybe people do want to see something else.'
Was that because of the studio's failure on Troy?
Zack Snyder: I think that was the thing that was 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 a way the studio was saying, 'Hey, maybe it's cool.' Frank (Miller) going, 'No one's going to make this graphic novel but Zack; I don't know why he wants to.' Frank also, my feeling is 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 300 into a movie,' I think he was surprised by it, so he gave me his blessing. And then the third thing is the technology there.
Why did you fall in love with the subject matter?
Zack Snyder: Look, I've been a big - when I was a kid, 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. And at the same time, she would try and buy me Wolverine or X-Men or some classic comic books as well, but there was no sex and dying in those - not a lot anyway, not graphically. And so it really didn't hold my interest like the Heavy Metal did; and I was pretty devout. I'd always try and order a click, 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 at the same time, it sort of re-gigged me back into the graphic novel world - I was satisfied in a way is how it happened. And so I wanted to make any Frank Miller work I could; 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 as film students going, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could do this shot? It'd be awesome!' Just basically, nothing would ever happen, we would just talk about it like it's fun. Then, Gianni Nunnari, he's the one who actually got the rights and said, 'You know, 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, it was a thing - the idea of making it was a thing I was really passionate about it.
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 Bettany Hughes, who's this English historian who has done - 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 a f*ck up?' And it was cool, because she said, '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.'
Like a home movie -
Zack Snyder: Yeah, a home movie, like the essence of how a Spartan thinks. The other thing people ask me is 'is it political?' How do you feel about the politics of the movie? And the one thing I always try to 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 constantly - not constantly - it's to remind you to not - it's like when they meet the free Greeks, and they go - basically, we're the free Greeks. He says, 'What do you do, what do you do?' 'I work for a magazine.' 'I'm a movie director.' 'What do you do?' And they're all '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 want you to try and be with them, but I always think it's important for people to remember that they are freaks in their own way.
Do you think you'll collaborate with Frank again?
Zack Snyder: That certainly is an option I'd consider.
Have you guys discussed it?
Zack Snyder: We haven't really, but we have fun when we talk, so it could be easily a thing that we may have gotten around talking about. He and I are - he has really stressed to me, and he did from the very beginning; he said, 'I'll do anything you need me to do, but it's your movie, so go kill her.' Which in some ways was harder, cause you put the responsibility on me and say, 'Don't f*ck it up basically.'
How important to you was it that 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, I wished this was the movie I had seen, not the one I had seen.' I said, 'That's awesome.'
Do you want to use that same technology again in other movies?
Zack Snyder: Well, for 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 my experience with 300 helps me with using technology; it helps me go, 'You know what, we should do this here. When we go to Antarctica, we can do this,' and that would be awesome. There's things I do know how to do because of 300, but I think that Watchmen is more like Taxi Driver or Dr. Strangelove than it is Fantastic Four - so you have a stylistic thing like that.
What about the pressure of the fans for Watchmen? Are you going to be ready for Comic-con?
Zack Snyder: Yeah, there is; I don't think we're going to be shots done before Comic-con. Our plan is to shoot in the summer, but I'll go there and I'm sure I'll have something to show.
Is that pressure?
Zack Snyder: Yeah, that pressure is real as real can be. But also, there's huge pressure from the fans, but at the same time, the way I gotta do it, and the way I work is I just sort of have to go and say, 'Ok, I feel like when I look at what I'm planning to do, it's cool.' So that's the only thing I can do in the end, and hopefully everyone else thinks it's good.
How far along are you?
Zack Snyder: We're trying to get a budget together that is palatable to everybody; it's a long movie, and we're trying to do. And I'm trying to shoot the Black Frater part as well, and no one has ever even talked about that, it's crazy time. And whether that ends up as a DVD extra or as a special release, that's yet to be seen; but I don't know, that's my plan.
Is there a cast?
Zack Snyder: It's not fully cast, but I've been talking to a lot of people.
When will you know?
Zack Snyder: I'll know soon, I think after Berlin - when we get back from Berlin.
What was it like to answer to Debbie on this movie?
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 the decisions make sense.
Did she shut down anything?
Zack Snyder: Oh, I don't know, probably, lots of stuff.
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 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 and picture of the graphic novel come to life - things like that. And then there is one deleted scene; there's probably three deleted scenes of Ephialtes is mostly it, cause it just made the movie too long. Then there's this midget archer's thing we did; we did this crazy, armless giant - look, basically we had these giants with their arms chopped off, and there's these elf, elfy-looking midget's 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. Cause he's little, and he's laying on his back saying, 'No.' But we cut that out, it was too much - even for me.
What was the best resource you found of the real history?
Zack Snyder: I really liked Bettany Hughes' documentary; hers was one of my favorite, I have to say. Cause hers isn't dry with it; cause if someone is interested in Spartan -
What's it called?
Zack Snyder: What's the name of that? I forget the name of it; I could get the name, I have it at home; if you go to Bettany's website, you can find it; 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 felt like she really just said, 'Hey look, this is what a Spartan really 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 they lived in.
Did the studio pressure you to tone down the violence or sex?
Zack Snyder: I thought they would more than they did; from the beginning, there was this discussion 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, 'In my opinion, this movie couldn't be more of an R; I don't know how to make it a PG-13 movie. I don't even know if I know what PG-13 is; even if I told you 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 certain amount of time to do it; because 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, '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 - look, I showed everyone these drawings, I said, 'This is what I want to do.' And they said, 'That looks cool, I guess.' The sex scene, I think we cut one shot out, but that was for timing.
And the transsexual orgy -
Zack Snyder: Yeah, that's fun; who doesn't love that.
Are you drawing the story boards 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 about that book, Watchmen is 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.' No, that's not how I want to do it. So basically how I do it in my book is similar to that, I have a drawing, but then I redraw the 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.
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 talk to him.
Zack Snyder: I know. He's going to hate me, but I hope he doesn't.
How did you work with the actors in terms of the emotional characteristics?
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; there might be - I didn't sit down much. I operate a lot too, so it's hard for me to - maybe 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. And 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 no where, you can't hide behind a monitor and get behind - (yelling) '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 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, but not sure what it is) 'Here Harold, take that.' There's a lot more urgent, there's a lot more; I'm not back there with a cappuccino relaxing, although I'd like to be.
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 movie up in one scene - in a lot of ways with the whole attitude, and just the whole thing, it's ridiculous. And also, I do love Gerry's freelance shot, that little in battle 1, when he breaks out, that long tracking shot, technical. It's all things, the thing I like about it is it's super technical, but it's also super raw and real; and that's hard to mix those two and make it. And also it's lyrical; it's like an opera, but it's violent - it's all what people want the movie to be.
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 that long tracking shot when 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 - it's this huge rig, and basically I operated the long lens. So there's three lenses, the 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 for me to do; and the other thing, if I would have 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.
What about the music?
Zack Snyder: The music, Tyler Bates did the score, who did the score for Dawn of the Dead, and did the score for the original animatic, which basically I took the original 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, 'Here's the test shot.' And they went, 'Yeah, keep trying.' 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 plopped the movie down and said, 'Make music for this.' He knew as it came along, he was working on some ideas; and I feel like the music evolves with the movie, which is an unusual experience.
Would you make another movie like this again with a lot of blue screen?
Zack Snyder: I would if the subject was correct, cause 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; it jut 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.'
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!' I don't know if he does read, but if he did, he give me a call and says, 'Snyder, listen, I need you to carry the mantle.' I'd make an R-rated Star Wars; that would be cool. Sorry, just zoned out for a second; that's a good geek-out moment right there.
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 like him. There's that aspect of the choice - is he 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, and we wanted you to feel that and be plucked out for a minute by 'oh look, there's Brad in a freakin' loin cloth.' But Gerry's awesome.
That was never even a choice?
Zack Snyder: They didn't really think about it that way.
300 roars into theaters March 9th; it's rated R.