SNYDER, ZACKDirector Adapts Frank Miller's Graphic Novel
Zack Snyder knew he was entering enemy territory. Like King Leonidas, the Spartan leader who marched 300 of his soldiers into battle against the massive Persian army in 480 B.C., the 40-year-old filmmaker found himself outnumbered, staring down a horde of ruffians who might not let him leave in one piece. The place? Butt-Numb-A-Thon, the annual 24-hour film festival run by Harry Knowles, founder of the heavily trafficked movie website Ain't It Cool News. His opponents? Hundreds of sleep-deprived fanboys who had already cheered their way through sneak peeks of such geek-friendly features as Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, Kyle Newman's Fanboys and Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces. Now they waited to pass judgment on Snyder's second film, 300, an adaptation of Frank Miller's award-winning graphic novel about the aforementioned Battle of Thermopylae, in which Leonidas and his brave Spartan battalion met their end at the tips of Persian spears.
The director had already experienced a run-in with the formidable fanboy army two years earlier, when his remake of Dawn of the Dead arrived in theatres amidst cries that it would be a desecration of George A. Romero's beloved original. To everyone's surprise, including Snyder's, the new Dawn was well-received in geek quarters. Still, the Butt-Numb-A-Thon crowd wasn't about to just rubber-stamp his latest effort. He would have to prove himself all over again to an audience that had already been spoiled by an ultra-faithful adaptation of Miller's Sin City and wouldn't be happy to see their hero's work messed with. All in all, it seemed like Snyder was embarking on a suicide mission, one that might cost him his creative, if not his literal, life.
So it's a relief to hear Snyder's voice on the other end of the line on a Monday morning in December, shortly after his return to Los Angeles from Austin, Texas, where Butt-Numb-A-Thon unspools every year. "It was nice," the upbeat survivor says of his close brush with death. "The audience was awesome and gave me a standing-O at the end. And I guess the fact that I'm still alive is a good sign." Getting the fanboy seal of approval means a lot to Snyder, but he's even happier about the fact that 300 is winning raves amongst other demographics as well, prior to its March 9 premiere. "We just previewed the movie with a standard test audience and they reacted in very much the same way that the BNAT crowd did. The studio was shocked--100% of girls under the age of 25 gave the movie an excellent. They didn't even have that number on The Devil Wears Prada!"
Snyder can laugh about the film's broad appeal now. When he originally pitched 300 to Warner Bros. several years ago, there didn't seem to be any market for a movie version of Miller's bloody, brutal graphic novel. It didn't help that the studio was in the midst of producing Troy and Alexander, two more traditional B.C.-era epics that experienced difficult shoots and, later on, underwhelming box-office returns. "300 was not a no-brainer," Snyder emphasizes. "Studios like something guaranteed and in this case, they didn't get a lot of info about what kind of movie it was going to be." The lack of information wasn't purposeful--Snyder himself didn't know what the film would look like at first. Like Sin City, 300 was filmed entirely on a soundstage against a bluescreen, with the backgrounds and effects added later. But where that film was, at heart, a small-scale film noir, Snyder had to make a giant war movie without leaving the confines of the Montreal studio where 300 was shot. "This is not something you do on purpose," he says. "As a matter of fact, it's a very expensive and difficult way to make a movie. The only good thing is when the studio sees the dailies, they have no idea what's happening. So they were like, 'Okay...keep going!'"
Snyder didn't set out to make Warner Bros. nervous. He just knew there was no other way to bring Miller's book to the big screen. "Early on, I asked myself, 'What's the right way to do this?'" he remembers. "Do you go out into the desert or the Vasquez Rocks and build the Sparta set and then find a canyon and make your Thermopylae set? If you do that, it's a different kind of movie. You've said, 'Frank's the inspiration, but now I'm going to make a movie of the book.' And that's not what I wanted to do--I wanted to make the book into a movie." That meant replicating Miller's heavily stylized images onscreen, as well as staying true to the author's patented blend of male machismo and good old-fashioned ultra-violence. If you thought Sin City was blood-soaked, wait until you get a peek at 300's elaborate battle sequences, in which limbs and heads are hacked off with carefree abandon. "But not in a bad way," Snyder insists. "The violence is stylized, but not gory. One person at Butt-Numb-a-Thon called the film a beautiful song about violence. And that was kind of the point; this is meant to be an opera of a war movie. Also, it's in the Greek tradition of storytelling. You can imagine that this story got told around the campfire hundreds of times."
An early peek at one of 300's many battles confirms Snyder's description of the violence as operatic, while also pointing to another possible influence: videogames. Throughout the sequence, the camera is in motion with the characters, zooming in and pulling back at certain choice moments and frequently switching to slow-motion whenever a Spartan moves to attack an enemy. One particularly memorable slo-mo shot shows Leonidas (played by The Phantom of the Opera's Gerard Butler) cutting through swaths of Persian soldiers before launching a spear that takes out several more. It's almost as if this bit of action was directed by a kid with a PlayStation controller rather than a filmmaker with a traditional camera crew. Asked whether he intended 300 to be, in effect, the first true videogame movie, Snyder seems surprised. "It wasn't conscious," he says. "I think it's a credit more to the way videogames have moved towards being cinematic. You can control the 'camera' to see what you want to see. I also think it might feel like a videogame because there's no cut in that shot. You see the character the whole time and everything he's doing. It's usually very difficult to shoot action this way in a movie because you can't hide any mistakes with a cut."
No matter what Snyder's influences were, the film's striking visuals appear to be achieving his intended goal: namely, to give the audience a "fucking good time at the movies." In addition to the raves he received at BNAT and other preview screenings, a recent presentation of select scenes from the movie elicited positive reactions from a roomful of New York movie journalists. But the most vocal champion of the film at that event was none other than Frank Miller himself. The author let loose an enthusiastic "Wooo!" during one sequence and raved about how "cool" another shot was in the Q&A session following the screening. (According to Snyder, Miller has seen the completed film several times now and "loves it.") "Zack brought the story to life," Miller said approvingly, "which you can't do in a comic book unless you really yell at the characters [on the page]."
Miller's enthusiasm for the film version of 300 has strengthened Snyder's resolve to be equally faithful in his impending adaptation of Alan Moore's seminal graphic novel Watchmen, a project that has been kicking around Hollywood for almost 20 years. He's well aware that he's in for a challenge, not only because of the book's immense scope and challenging subject matter, but also because it's widely considered to be the comic-book equivalent of Holy Scripture. "My plan with Watchmen is the same as my plan with 300: to get at what makes it a great book," he says, adding that the flaw with most of the earlier incarnations was that they strayed too far from the source material. "I look at it as if we're making Moby Dick-you don't change it." As with 300, Snyder has been using Moore's graphic novel as a storyboard during the pre-production process and plans to recreate artist Dave Gibbons' illustrations as closely as possible, while also peppering the movie with visual cues to such instantly recognizable films as Taxi Driver and Dr. Strangelove. "I'm interested in making an iconographic film of Watchmen, because I feel that's the way the book is drawn," he explains. "There's so much pop-culture referenced on the page, if you make a movie that's smart enough to do that, then you're in the right [ballpark]." But don't expect Watchmen to be filmed in the same manner as 300. For one thing, Snyder feels that a movie version of Moore's book demands more "hard reality" than Miller's deliberately exaggerated take on ancient history. More important, the director isn't sold on the idea that bluescreen represents the future of filmmaking. "Someone asked me, 'Do you think all things will be made like 300?' And I was like: Have you seen the movie? No other movie looks like it and I don't know that another movie would want to. It's so particular. It would be like saying that a particular painting is the way all artists should be painting."
Watchmen has come close to getting the green light many times in the past, only to fall apart at the last minute, but Snyder is optimistic that his script will actually be the one to go before the cameras. It helps that Warner Bros., the studio that's footing the bill on the movie, is happy with what the director achieved with 300. "This was a movie they made against their better judgment and if it works out for them, I think they'll trust me a lot more when it comes to Watchmen." And if, for some reason, the film falls apart again, Snyder already has another idea ready to go. "I want to make a summer tentpole zombie movie," he says, laughing. "Enough with these low-budget zombie movies, we need a film that can stop all those forever. I want a zombie war, a real war, complete with F15s and stealth bombers and hordes of zombies. That way people will say, 'Why make another zombie movie?'" Now there's a picture the Butt-Numb-A-Thon crowd is guaranteed to love.