Posted on Tuesday, March 1st, 2011 by Peter Sciretta
It’s December 2009, and I’m in Vancouver Canada. Earlier this morning we saw the first press screening of James Cameron’s Avatar with an audience of Vancouver press and filmmakers which included District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. A few hours later, I’m standing in a green screen stage at Vancouver Film Studios. This is the production centre where a lot of sci-fi television series are filmed, shows such as Dark Angel, Smallville, Battlestar Galactica, Bionic Woman, Reaper, Caprica, Eureka, Fringe, Human Target and films such as X-Men II and 3, I Robot, Fantastic Four 1 and 2, The A-Team and 2012.
Zack Snyder filmed some of Watchmen on this lot, and has returned to Canada to shoot his latest — Sucker Punch.
Snyder even pushed our set visit back a couple hours so that we could attend that local screening of Avatar, allowing us the ability to see the movie at the same time as the press at the nationwide press screenings. The fact that Snyder was able to arrange this is mind-boggling for a bunch of different reasons, but especially considering studio politics — Avatar was being released by Fox and Sucker Punch was a Warner Bros production. And most other filmmakers probably would have said “Fuck Avatar”, not wanting to be out-done — how can your set visit possibly compete with a film which was billed as a cinema changing event? But that’s the kind of confident filmmaker Snyder has become.
A helicopter is situated about twenty feet above us, and Snyder is on a ladder talking to Jena Malone, one of the four main stars of the film. Jena Malone plays Rocket, beside her is Emily Browning, who plays Baby Doll, Abbie Cornish, who plays Sweet Pea, Vanessa Hudgens who plays Blondie and Jamie Chung who plays Amber. Snyder explains how the helicopter will bank to the left in the upcoming wide shot. Emily asks how far they’re jumping in the real world, and Zack quickly responds “About twenty feet” before stopping himself and laughing “What real world?”
With that he slides down the ladder, is positioned back at the director’s chair. A big space heater spreads the warmth in front of us as Snyder yells “4…3…2…1… Go!” That’s right, he doesn’t say action, he shouts “Go!” And with that the girls jump from the Helicopter twelve feet onto a crash bag. The shot is filmed in ultra slow motion. Of course, this is Zack Snyder we’re talking about! Snyder jumps up and yells “Nice Guys!” Most of us were surprised that the young actresses were doing their own stunts, no doubles anywhere to be seen.
Snyder is anxious to show them playback from his portable monitor and asks the girls “What did you think?” One of the girls responds “One more…” Zack is happy to hear that response and they go again. In the finished film who knows what this shot might even look like. The green screen is an empty canvas and Snyder has invented a world and story which more closely resembles a video game than any movie I’ve ever seen.
From what I understand, the story is set in the 1950’s. Baby Doll is committed to a mental institution where she begins to imagine an alternative reality where the ward is a brothel. More interestingly, the ward and brothel use the exact same sets, but painted and set dressed to look completely different — an alternate reality. She plans to escape from this imaginary world but to do so she needs to team up with her inmates/brothel co-workers, who through the power of dance sequences, are transported into different worlds which include a Samurai land populated with giants, the world of medieval dragons, a World War I trench with zombified German soldiers and a monorail like train set in an evil robot-inhabited future.
The girls must defeat a big boss in each world and steal five magical objects. The magical objects are representations of items or things in the real institution. For example, one of the missions is to steal fire from a dragon, and the fire is represented in the real world by a particular zippo lighter. So the film is like one giant video game with three different Inception layered levels of gameplay. If that doesn’t sound crazy and super ambitious, then I don’t know what does.
During our visit, we saw a ton of awesome concept art, some early cuts of a couple sequences, and much more. I will say this — one of my initial disappointments on set was learning that the film would be PG-13 and not Rated R as Snyder has promised during the Watchmen press tour. Of course, Watchmen underperformed at the box office, which probably resulted in the rating change.
Hearing the revised rating initially worried me. But don’t fret — I later learned that Snyder found a way around the system. The movie is violent, and is able to maintain it’s level of violence by making minor cheats. For example the World War I German soldiers are zombies that wear gas masks. The fact that they are no longer human allows Snyder to pull no punches. As long as the blood isn’t red, Snyder can pretty much do whatever he wants. Snyder showed us an early cut of this sequence in the editing room minus special effects, and I can tell you that it was more violent than action sequences from 300.
I was very impressed with what I saw on set, but at the end of the day much of this film is created in the computer with CG worlds and animated creatures. It will be very interesting to see how this turns out and if Snyder is able to accomplish his dream.
Let’s remember, James Cameron only had to create one new world for Avatar — Zack Snyder hopes to create at least six in Sucker Punch. If Snyder is able to accomplish even 50% of his vision, we’ll be in for a visceral treat.
Interview With Zack Snyder
Question: I’m going to ask the question you’re going to get every time you do an interview—why did you call this “Sucker Punch”?
Zack Snyder: It’s called “Sucker Punch” because you know to me the movie is, I think in a way it’s not just about like… the story sort of like has some pop culture implications and I didn’t want to like try and go with that kind of ????? (I have no idea what was said here cause I was moving my mic closer) (00:29). “Sucker Punch” kind of summed up how I felt about it when I was working on it.
Q: Does the title still work for you?
Snyder: Yeah, it still does, especially as I see the movie kind of unfolding, definitely.
Q: When they were showing us some of the sequences they were talking about how “Excalibur” was an influence or “Lord of the Rings.” How much of this for you is inspired specifically by pop cultural things and how much of it is you trying to do something that is not homage?
Snyder: It’s weird because when you distill something down, so let’s say it goes beyond, “Oh, I like these movies,” (Laughs) and it becomes just how pop culture has sort of digested these images and things like that and so I’m sort of using myself as the filter of some kind, then when we went to write it we never even went like, “Oh, should we do like, ‘Lord of the Rings” here and ‘Excalibur’ there?” It was more just those influences were in us and we went, “Oh, that would be cool.”
Q: We’ve heard you’ve been thinking about this for a long time. When did the idea come up and how did it develop?
Snyder: I had been working on this other story a long time ago and there was a character in it, this baby doll character, and she kind of went on these sort of fantasies. That whole story kind of, she was only like a small side of the story, but it’s like those characters that you’re like, “Oh, that’s cool.” Then we just kept talking about her and sort of seeing how it evolved and then this story kind of happened. It happened over quite a little period of time, but the actual structure of what it is, is locked in. We had been talking about it, knowing what it was, for quite a while and I’ve just been busy with all these other things, never really got around to it.
Q: How important was that it that it’s completely originated by you and that it’s your project?
Snyder: I think that it’s a big deal. I’ve gotten a little bit exhausted by… I love adapting things and I love making those pictures real, but I felt like I was ready to just not have anyone to sort of.. as far as whether the canon was correctly represented other than myself.
Q: Has it been liberating?
Snyder: It has, it has. It allows us every day to just go, “This would be even better.” So the thing evolves and it’s a movie so it evolves in that way. But I do have my influences, I think they are pretty glaringly obvious, but on the other hand I take the movie very seriously, it’s sort of like the struggle ?????? (03:51). So for me all the sort of iconology that the movie embodied, and then the struggle that girls go through, even though it’s built on pop culture sort of imagery, I take it really seriously as far as what they’re sort of emotional struggles are and what they really go through.
Q: How pleasant is it not having forty sweaty guys around you while you’re doing these stunts?
Snyder: It’s kinda nice, a kinda nice movie. The girls have trained so hard and they’ve done such a great job. It’s good fun too. They’re all crazy individuals, every single one of them. They took this character that I wrote and they turned it into a real thing and they really took it all the way. The movie’s pretty hardcore. Let me just take a quick look there.
(Zack steps away to watch a rehearsal)
Q: It seems like the biggest trick in a film like this, forget all the ambition, forget the fact that you have nine or ten different levels of reality in this, but it seems like tone would be the hardest thing.
Snyder: It is and you know how I feel about that. I feel like the tone, I really happy so far with kinda where we –
Q: Is there a consistent throughline through it?
Snyder: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I think that to me the tone, it has to do with. I mean it kind of has a slightly dark, from the point of view whether it’s in the insane asylum or the brothel or these adventures, everything is dangerous and everyone is emotionally trying to find their way and I think those adventures are all metaphors for sort of what’s happening emotionally when the event is happening. We’re always at a point in the film where these transitions are happening to these characters emotionally and then during the event you kind of get some of that.
Q: It looks like a Terry Gilliam film on steroids. Gilliam’s famous for always directly tying the character to theme and they’re never just a fantasy for the sake of it.
Snyder: Yeah, and I think that that is kind of what it’s about for me. It’s also like –
(Someone on the crew talks to Zack about hand possitions)
Snyder: Yes, I think that the other fun thing about the way that the girls work out there, and also not just individuals, but it’s weird because the group dynamic is also sort of affected by what happens even though the way the movie is kind of constructed so that they do really sort of… if they steal the mask, it’s not a super complicated affair in their world, but in fantasy world, it is super-complicated and dangerous and it’s life or death and they’re fighting these exotic World War I steam punk Nazis. They’re not Nazi’s of course because it’s World War I, they’re Huns, but that struggle is directly related to again, they’re just trying to figure out whether this will work and they kinda don’t trust each other and don’t really work that well together yet. All of those things kind of manifesting, but that in the end they’re able to persevere and to pull it off. Then that brings them closer together for the next one and the next one. This one of course, the bullet train is the most… it all goes a little awry on this one.
Q: How difficult was it to maintain or preserve that kind of conceptual or emotional undercurrent for these set pieces? Did you think of like what the sort of metaphor was and then create the set piece?
Snyder: Yeah, that’s kinda how we did it. We were like, “Okay, I want to steal a map and I want to steal fire, I want to do steal a super dangerous device. In their world it’s a knife, but here it’s a crazy bomb.” So that’s kinda how those things started, and then we would say, “Okay, well, the map is kind of a labyrinthine sort of it object. It represents sort of” – so we thought everybody was going to be a fan of trench warfare and that kind of imagery. I was like, “Oh, it would be cool to do it in World War I, because trenches are cool and crazy.”
Q: Is that what excited you about the project, the fact that you get to make several different movies?
Snyder: Yeah, I mean also I gotta say– there’s that part of it of course which is super exciting, but also the drama of working with the girls (S____?) (10:01) and the drama of Baby’s story really in the end is what became the thing that made me okay, “Okay, I gotta make it ‘cause it’s cool. I want to see it. I want to see this worked out.” That kinda became the thing, then of course, the studio – they were a little bit like, “It’s not based on anything and it’s super strange…”
Q: Were they concerned coming off of “Watchmen”
Snyder: Nah, I think they… I mean, their biggest thing was about whether they felt like it was too obscure, too strange. And I go, “No, I get that. I understand why.” I cut together a little trailer to show them what it could be like and everyone’s like, “Oh, there’s an adventure in it.” I’m like, “Yeah, there’s a lot of adventures.” It kinda changed a little bit, but I mean, I think that like anything it’s based on–especially when it’s an idea that no one’s ever seen–it’s a big deal to get other people to finally, “Yeah, sure, okay.” So, five girls go on crazy adventures, and they’re really in a brothel, but they’re really in an insane asylum. Let’s put this on the schedule. It is a bit of a struggle, but on the other hand, it is original and it is actiony and the girls are amazing and the setting is sexy, and on the other hand it’s kinda easy. (Laughs)
Q: Is there anything you wanted to do, that you either weren’t able to or that you had to pull back in on terms of violence or sex and that kind of stuff?
Snyder: Oh, everything, both. (Laughs) I just think my default setting is pretty rough, thank God, so it’s been an interesting exercise for me to kind of work in this idea that the movie was gonna be PG-13 and not this crazy hard R that…
Q: What you’re used to?
Snyder: Yeah, and in some ways I think it’s been better.
Q: Wait, this is a PG-13 movie?
Snyder: Yeah, that’s where we’re (going).
Q: Wow, so is there an R-rated cut you’re shooting as well?
Snyder: I don’t know if they already cut it, it could be… But no, I mean, because we’ve really tried, really endeavored to not… like, for instance, in this world they fight robots, so we we really tried to find enemies, sort of soulless enemies for them to fight, but it’s pretty intense.
Q: I want to ask about the references. The reference to “Excalibur,” people won’t be too surprised or the Manga probably won’t be too big a surprise, but the “Moulin Rouge” thing, you actually have Marius DeVries doing some music and that might throw some people off. I was curious, was that something very early on that you said you have to have musical numbers?
Snyder: Yeah, I felt like the movie has sort of a musical ending and it always struck me as an important thing to do the music right. I love musical movies as entertainment, the way the music and imagery kinda come together. It’s been a thing that I’ve always been a fan of and I think it’s pretty amazing. Marius has done an amazing job so far just giving us the tracks, the little skeletons of tracks that we’ve worked with for the action sequences and some of the other sequences. So yeah, I like Baz and I don’t know, it’s a great movie.
(We continued the conversation in an editing room)
Snyder: Come in, you guys can all sit down, we are going to be taking a look at the tv screen. Some people might have to sit on the floor.
Q: So, are we going to see Jon Hamm wear assless chaps too, ’cause that would make the movie so good.
Snyder: He doesn’t, but he does look good, there he is right there.
Q: As a male writer/director making a movie about the imagination of four women, how careful did you have to be about the line between empowerment and…
Snyder: I don’t think there was a version that the girls would’ve let me do that they didn’t feel was…it’s all about power, the movie, so anytime you are dealing with power and men and women, you are on the edge with everybody, so this movie is all about being on the edge in that way, like, when is a person is strong and when is a person weak. That’s what it’s all about, you know, and when to take advantage of that and when people take advantage of it and when do you have to dig deep down inside yourself. This shot is one of our mirror shots as you can tell, it’s a fake mirror of course cause the camera would be right there.
Q: They’re twins? That’s really slick.
Snyder: Let’s show some stuff and then we will get to the action. This is the lead into the Samurai, this is called Baby’s First Dance but it just gives you an idea of the tone of the place, the girls and things like that.
Carla Gugino Character: One two three four five six seven eight, Two two three four Arms! six seven eight, stop! Stop. Where are you right now? Are you with us or not? Sweet pea, take break, ya?
Baby doll, come over here. Come, come. Let me look at you. Hmm, you seem fit enough. I am going to play you some music, ok? I want you to just relax, feel the music, open your heart to it, let it in and when you are ready, I want you to dance.
If you do not dance, you have no purpose. And we don’t keep things here that have no purpose. You see, your fight for survival? Starts right now. You don’t want to be judged? You won’t be. You don’t think you’re strong enough? You are. You are afraid. Don’t be. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight.
Snyder: Anyway, so that goes into Samurai, it actually goes closer, closer, closer and the flake falls on her eyelash and then you see that she’s in a snowy courtyard and she fights all these giant Samurai. So, this next bit, they’ve gone to get the map and they are just entering the trenches. They’ve made it across No Man’s Land and they just jumped down into the German trenches and they start fighting these guys.
Gunfire and explosions
Snyder: The hits aren’t on the guys yet…
Snyder: That’s a little bit of them making their way. Right after this they get to the Colonel’s bunker, they actually get separated and Baby has to fight the Colonel by herself and then the guy gets away. Let’s show that little bit of No Man’s Land, just that one little piece where she [Vanessa] shoots the guys. There is a ton of pre-viz in here so don’t look at it too close.
Snyder: Yeah, so anyway, that’s a little tease. The movie, I think, is action-y and it’s funny, you know, so much of the movie really is the drama between these girls though and their situation. It’s a weird mix between those. I mean, the story that they are facing is so compelling and I feel like everyone has done such an amazing job just creating this amazing drama with this other world that lives inside of it, it’s really been fun to work on and the girls and all the actors have done just an amazing job just not flinching at all, just going 100% percent after it, it’s been really fun. I will show you guys some more later, and by later I mean a couple of months (laughing). Just think when you see our full presentation, even the World War I stuff, with bi-planes and everything on fire. Our backgrounds are so stupid it’s awesome. When Baby shoots down the giant Zeppelin with a machine gun, this huge, like the Hindenburg and she’s like…
Q: Are you doing correction to this as well, similar to 300?
Snyder: It will have it’s own look that’s unique to it, I mean, I kind of want, like when they are in the dance hall, it’s a Euro-I don’t even know what that is (laughing), it’s like Retro-Euro. The whole thing, the look of it, is starting to come together.
Q: The color palette is so strong in the artwork.
Snyder: Yeah, we have a lot of cool stuff. Do you have, I’m not supposed to do this, but I want to show one thing, I’ll get yelled at. Do we have one take of Vanessa’s dance sequence? There’s a montage in the middle of the movie, where Carla and Oscar sing “Love is a Drug” in the club, and it’s sort of a montage, sort of a day in the life of the club. Oscar and Carla did an amazing job. And Oscar can really sing and dance like a fucker. So each of the girls has their own dance and that’s also, kind of, part of the song. There is a break in Love is a Drug where it just goes, it’s only for like eleven seconds, it’s an eleven second break, and then it goes right back into the song but so we shot these numbers so we could squish like, the concept of what kind of production value they have in the club, anyway, here’s the Vanessa one.
Q: Wow, awesome, thanks!
Snyder: My pleasure.
Q: You have a lot of the same crew back for this one from Watchmen?
Snyder: Yeah, my crew on Watchmen was amazing, I couldn’t have asked for a better crew and I’ve been really fortunate to get a lot of the same guys back. Alright guys, thank you so much!