The interviewer first met Zack Snyder, director of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, in 1977 as 11-year-olds at a summer camp in Maine. They shared common interests on the soccer field, at the neighboring girls’ camp, and in tribal ceremonies. They were there for six consecutive summers and later attended boarding school together in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Zack Snyder and Chris Read spoke at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco on Friday, February 27, 2009.
Zack Snyder: Awesome. So give me my crack. Don’t try to steal my crack.
The Rumpus: So, I’m playing journalist.
Snyder: That’s fine.
Rumpus: The magazine is called The Rumpus.
Snyder: The Rumpus!
Rumpus: It’s literary and cutting-edge, a little subversive.
Rumpus: It has interviews and reviews. One of the filmmakers interviewed was Stephen Soderbergh.
Snyder: Cool. He’s cool.
Rumpus: He IS cool.
Snyder: So that’s good.
Rumpus: And Julie is the art editor.
Snyder: Julie Bertles [Greicius] is the art editor? She better be fucking kind to me then. That’s all I have to say. I have secrets to divulge.
Rumpus: All right. If you want to start there…
Snyder: No, I’m just kidding. No, I’ve got attorney-client privilege or whatever. [laughs.]
Rumpus: So, when I think back to our summers in high school, in Greenwich, Connecticut, it seems like we were always watching movies. From 1980 to 1984, there were all these iconic filmmakers that were just hitting their stride, like Spielberg, Lucas, Ridley Scott, Brian DePalma. What is the common element between what those filmmakers were doing to us as teens and what you’re doing to the teens today?
Snyder: It is similar, but I’m not trying to do that. Blade Runner, fucking Road Warrior, Conan—those movies really stand out to me as movies that have shaped me. Return of the Jedi. Heavy Metal. All that stuff. It’s funny how you get shaped more then, actually, than when you’re in film school trying to be all intellectual. And there’s nothing you can do to change that. I aim my movies, as much as I can, at myself. I think that those movies have an interesting quality. They’re very movieish. They are movie movies. Like I think Watchmen is a very self-aware movie. 300. Dawn of the Dead definitely. That’s really where I’ve ended up. I’ve ended up as a filmmaker who really loves the movie part of movies. That time in my life was a big influence on the kind of movies that I ended up making. I always think I’m going to make a movie that’s gritty and real, but then I make a movie that’s like an opera. I fight it at first and then that’s just the way it is.
Rumpus: What did you mean by self-aware?
Snyder: In the sense that Watchmen references movies, comic books, pop culture in general. It knows it’s a movie. I really do like movies that ride that fine line, the razor’s edge between parody and supporting the fake movie part of the movie.
Rumpus: Like an inside joke with the audience?
Snyder: More like a deeper comment about how pop culture reacts to fads or superheroes, in this case, or movies or ideas. The cool thing about Watchmen is it has this really complicated question that it asks, which is: who polices the police or who governs the government? Who does God pray to? Those are pretty deep questions but also pretty fun questions. Kind of exciting. It tries to subvert the superhero genre by giving you these big questions, moral questions. Why do you think you’re on a fun ride? Suddenly you’re like how am I supposed to feel about that?
Rumpus: I have a vivid memory of ravaging back yards of Riverside with play swords after seeing Conan the Barbarian for the third time.
Snyder: John Milius. He made two movies that as a kid I thought were really awesome: Conan and Red Dawn. Two pretty influential movies in my youth. I was a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger before he made that movie. Probably one of the few fans of Arnold Schwarzenegger before he became a movie star. Ron Cobb’s production design is amazing. I think he’s one of the best designers in the world. His drawings are of like Jeremiah Johnson rising out of these buffalo hides. Amazing thing. I like fantasy art and sci-fi fantasy material. That’s material I’m drawn to. I always say 300 is a sci-fi movie as much as anything. It’s like that could be another planet. It doesn’t have to be earth necessarily. That’s like when people get so wrapped up in the politics of 300 I always go, “By the way, that’s a sci-fi movie. It’s not really a historical film.” I also think Watchmen is totally sci-fi. They go to Mars and there’s some crazy shit where they walk around on Mars. I guess my point is that I do love fantasy art. Conan was one of those things that just really said: this fantasy, this Frazetta, is a real cool world to go to. Even now I’m a huge [Frank] Frazetta fan. All my movies have a Frazetta influence. Because basically Conan is like Frazetta that moves. Remember Barb Reynolds read to me Arnold: The Education of a Body Builder on our school field trip to Cape Cod?
Rumpus: Anything about Arnold’s biography that stuck with you?
Snyder: I’ve always been influenced by the human form. I’m a big fan of that Shakespeare quote. I tend to leave out the bad part of the paragon of animals quote, because I have this sort of Ayn Rand aesthetic. It was always one of those quotes that inspired me. For whatever reason I was always obsessed with the potential of humanity’s physicality. Especially since we grew up with such a non-physical philosophy.
Rumpus: Yeah, it’s interesting that we were raised in this religion where you’re taught that what you see isn’t real and so in a sense we’re given a license to create what’s real with our imaginations.
Snyder: It’s interesting. What’s backed up in that philosophy is the ego. Or there is no mind, right, so that’s a problem. You can’t will something into being. If you follow that philosophy all the way, to will something into being, that’s animal style. That’s what man does. But if you’re looking at the philosophy correctly, and I never did–I like to think I did sometimes–you have to do it without ego, without the I. You have to separate yourself. I stumbled across this Joseph Campbell when I was in college. There was this interesting quote that he said: try and live your life without fear and desire. It’s this concept that’s like when you look at a painting in a museum and you are held in aesthetic arrest. So the I, the ego, is stripped, is gone. The observer and thing become one. That’s where fear and desire come in because you don’t want to own it, possess it, desire it, and it’s not moving you to fear. It’s like you’re in this harmonious state with the object. And you get that when you look at the sunset or the Grand Canyon or whatever. My understanding of that comes from the way I thought about life as I was growing up. I don’t know how that relates back to this obsession I have with physicality.
Rumpus: I was digging through a 9th grade journal the other day and wrote about how you planned to make a movie to produce and star in. You had drawn pictures of frames and thought up different stories for different scenes. I referred to you as the Omega One. Would you tell me about the Omega brand?
Snyder: Z is the last letter of the Greek alphabet, omega. I knew no real actors when I was growing up. A lot of the people I knew were theatrical. If I had known some real actors I wouldn’t want to be in the same movies I was thinking about. It’s worked out well that I haven’t put myself in the movies. That’s a smart move. Other than a cameo style. I’m in Dawn of the Dead. I’m in Watchmen, too. In Dawn in the title sequence, helicopter landing in front of the White House. Some of my early sci-fi movies were all Omega-influenced, if you will. Remember I used to have a bicycle cap that had the Omega sign on the side. Yeah, I was branding myself.
Rumpus: Breaking Away came out about that time too.
Snyder: I was talking to Jackie [Earle Haley, who plays Rorschach in Watchmen] about that movie at dinner last night. I was mentioning that I thought Breaking Away was an awesome movie and he’s in it. He’s cool as hell. “Punch the clock shortie” and he smashes it. He’s cool. And they have all that bicycling stuff and bicycling hats in that movie so.
Rumpus: It seems like in one sense you’ve been preparing for this your whole life.
Snyder: I think so too. I always say, thank god I have this job or I don’t know what I’d be doing. It’d be sad. I’ve always felt like I have been trying to brand a world for a quite a long time. You know what though, I feel no different. I feel like I’m doing the exact same thing I did in high school. Only I have more people helping me out now. And we have to take it all the way. We can’t just go, like, oh that’d be cool then not do it. So it’s one of those weird things. You gain all these things on your journey. You get smarter. It’s interesting how you are who you are in high school in a lot of ways. When I look at my friends, I feel no different about them than I did when I was in high school. I mean that in a great way. They’ve taken on a micro scale what they were doing and making it bigger.
Rumpus: There was peer pressure in public school and cliques that you didn’t really have at Daycroft [the boarding school we attended in Greenwich, CT].
Snyder: It wasn’t that cliquey at Daycroft. There was only like a hundred of us. It was more incestuous than it was cliquey. That was the problem. Weird but true. There was a freedom for you to be yourself. There were a lot of characters in that group; I think it was because they were allowed to be. It’s weird I have a job and I’ve had a job since out of college that doesn’t require me to edit my personality that much. It’s your thing. It’s insular and whatever you do, you do. It’s crazy and I get yelled at sometimes by people in a restaurant for being too loud because I just don’t realize it. It’s like you can’t do that. But it’s interesting. At school, at Daycroft, I had the same kind of personality then. I don’t think I’ve changed that much. Other than that I’m a little bit smarter. Maybe.
Rumpus: It was great having your mom and dad as dorm parents. What was it about having them at school that made the rules bearable and the experience gratifying?
Snyder: In some weird way, I’m at this real strict boarding school with my parents there, and my mother, my mother more than my father of course, happened to let me break the rules and get away with stuff. In some way, I would bend that world to my will, in a really manipulative and horrible way because I was in high school. I mean I feel bad about it a little bit, but on the other hand, it gave me a way I’d approach life, the same thing, I bend the rules of society a little bit and have chosen a lifestyle that’s outside of the normal approach to how to make a living. My mother and father and sister—they were pretty supportive of me. They knew that I was not the sharpest tool in the shed. That I was a bit of a dreamer and you know, I think having them pull up the slack for me as far as what was expected of me from the rules aspect of high school, they let me get away with things. I would have had a really hard time without them.
Rumpus: I was talking to Jon Polito [a classmate at Daycroft].
Snyder: Oh no way! Oh my god. My star. He was my star.
Rumpus: He was telling me about the film you guys shot in 11th grade. The amazing thing was about getting the police to participate. How did that happen?
Snyder: Yep. I got the police to come. I don’t know how that happened. They said they wouldn’t take their guns out. I REALLY wanted them to take their guns out. But they wouldn’t do that. Just to set it up, we filmed this movie in high school and the character, Jon’s character, is being arrested because he’s murdered the principal. I was doing this shot. I remember the camera was up super high. At first there was a shot down low and they were arresting him then I cut to the high shot. They were supposed to handcuff him and shove him in the car with their guns on him, but I guess they just put him in the car. They had the lights on and stuff so that was pretty cool.
Rumpus: I’d love to have heard that conversation you had with the police, like come on, can’t you guys just put on the cuffs?
Snyder: I did! I said, he’s done a really horrible thing. He’s murdered the principal. This is the scene so you guys really need to like rough him up and handcuff him and be really hard on him. They’re like, ‘No. I don’t even know why we’re here. We’re just going to put him in the car and drive away.’ But they did do it, so that was cool.
Rumpus: To have the balls to call them up in the first place.
Snyder: It didn’t occur to me that that was a weird thing to do, to be honest. Just seemed like, we need a shot with a police car so. I didn’t know how to get a car except to get a hold of the police.
Rumpus: You were also pretty upset that they weren’t shaven. I guess they had been on strike.
Snyder: They did look scruffy actually. The thing is you didn’t want them to look like fake cops because we went through all this trouble to get cops; you don’t want them to look fake.
Rumpus: Let’s talk briefly about Camp Owatonna. That’s where we met I think.
Snyder: Yeah, we did. We met there around [in unison] 1977. That was a big year. I look back fondly on 1977. Star Wars came out. My brother won black and white feather. I was in Cabin 13. I won a black and white tuft that year.
Rumpus: Your freaking first year?
Snyder: Yeah, that was probably my best year. I found out later actually. What that meant was that some counselors voted for me to win the black or white feather when I was frickin’ 11, which is pretty crazy. The same age as Eli [his oldest son who has played a small role in Watchmen and in 300] right now. Of course I think Eli could win the black feather now though if he wants. We had .22 rifles that we shot. And we were shooting bow and arrows straight up in the air. Completely irresponsible, but it was just a magical and awesome place. I’ve often wanted to go back and go to a black and white feather ceremony and check it out. Part of me is afraid it won’t be as good as I thought it was.
Rumpus: We should do that some day.
Snyder: We should. I’d love to do that.
Rumpus: So I have some questions about Watchmen. I’ve heard of this movie. I loved going up to the set in Vancouver. The one scene I was there with the lightning.
Snyder: And Jackie lowering himself on the cable? Then him lowering on the cable then teleporting.
Rumpus: What were some of the production highlights for you? Which scenes were the most fun to pull off?
Snyder: Doing stuff with Jackie is fun because it’s so iconographic. I think the stuff with Manhattan is fun now because I know what it looks like. At the time it wasn’t quite as fun. I mean visually as fun. I mean part of the fun of that was working with Billy [Billy Crudup plays Dr. Manhattan] and Billy’s an amazing actor and cool. So that experience was sort of its own thing. Some of the iconographic stuff that Jackie did whether it’d be on the roof or in the window, fighting the child killer. That’s all good fun. Also, as a fan of the graphic novel, it’s just a weird experience to be able to actually make that. You’re the one who’s making those images for all time so you have to be careful and make sure you’re doing it right. So it’s half geek, half responsibility. It’s weird.
Rumpus: So you’re saying you have the audience in the back of your head, like they’re watching over me as I’m doing this?
Snyder: I think more it’s like I’m a fan of the images. So I feel a responsibility to make sure it’s cool. It’s not just that I feel like I’m doing it for myself because the images are timeless.
Rumpus: I love your musical choices in your movies. What’s so fun about messing with the norm?
Snyder: The truth is the music is really an incredible personal part of the movie. When I was drawing the storyboards for Watchmen, I had just gone to my iPod and was grabbing music. It took me about two weeks to really put my playlist together. But once I had it, I kinda just put my headsets on and drew for five months. But that music’s the music that’s in the movie. And all of it has a bit of irony. There’s that weird and cool line that music can cross where it still gives you the goosebumps and you think it’s cool but on the other hand it’s sort of like also letting you off the hook a little bit with the ironic aspects of the thing. I think that’s the inexplicable, the smell of a movie. That’s the taste of the movie. You can’t teach anyone. You can’t tell anyone. That’s the thing you have to sit down and experience in order for it to mean anything. You can’t intellectualize it. It’s like why movies are cool. It’s a combination of pictures and design and acting and music can create an experience that is outside of the experience that you can actually have in reality, which gets to my motion picture philosophy. People are like, ‘aren’t you trying to make the movies as real as you can?’ I’m like, I’m really not. Reality’s its own thing. And I’m not really into reality that much. I’m into this cinematic stylized reality that can comment on reality. It’s like the most beautiful parts of reality and the saddest parts, but it’s none of this middle ground.
Rumpus: It feels like you’re putting on layers too.
Snyder: No, well that’s what Watchmen is. That was the most difficult part frankly of making the movie, was keeping track of all those layers. It’s flaky layering. Beyond layers. Micro layers. You have to be on your game to keep all that in line.
Rumpus: I’m sure you handled it well. Studios have their measure of a movie’s success, I think you you OVERachieved it in 300. [The movie raked in more than $450 million worldwide.] What’s the measure for your personal success?
Snyder: My personal success would be that people understand what I was trying to do. It was the most palatable when I did Dawn. With Watchmen, too, I feel the same way. The movie’s ironic and satirical and it’s funny and serious and that’s kind of the same way I felt about Dawn. Like I really was making a movie that knows it’s a zombie movie and enjoys that and wants the audience to say, yeah, that’s okay. With Dawn I was afraid people would just think it’s a B-movie and I didn’t know what I was doing. That’s really what I was afraid of. Like the subtlety of the movie they would miss. If the movie succeeds, it’s that people understand the subtlety. That they’re able to see past the conventions of what they think a movie is and go a teeny bit deeper and let it be both. Sure you care about Rorschach and Dan and Dr. Manhattan and Laurie and sure you want them to work out their personal problems. But at the same time it’s an opera that’s asking you what is your own morality? How has pop culture shaped the way you perceive a hero? Or how has pop culture shaped the way that you perceive good and evil or your own morality? When you watch something on screen and you react, oh that was bad, like what made you think that was bad or that guy’s cool? Or, oh shit I shouldn’t think that. That’s the fun of the movie. That’s really what it does at every turn. That’s the thing I hope people get that that’s what I’m doing, ‘cause that’s what the book does.
Rumpus: I’ve been purposely not reading the book until after I see the movie.
Snyder: I’d say the purest experience for the movie is not to have read the book because I think when you’ve read the book you’re just ticking off boxes. I think that after you see the movie, reading the book is a cool thing. I always say the movie’s not meant to replace the book. That’s ridiculous. I’m a huge fan of the book. They’ve sold an additional 2 million copies of the book since the first trailer was released after ComiCon. So I think that’s a success right there, regardless of whether the movie sucks or not. You know we’ve gotten more people exposed to it. We’re doing Guardians right now. We’re finishing that. Then we’re going to start Sucker Punch in the fall back in Vancouver. Guardians is an animated owl movie based on series of children’s books by Kathryn Lasky and they’re like a hero’s journey, but these owls have their own culture. There’re no people. Just about a world where only owls exist. They have their own mythology. Different classes. Different warrior classes.
Rumpus: What stage in the process are you?
Snyder: I’ve been working on it for about a year. And we’re just starting animation. We’re finishing the story. It stars Jim Sturgess, Rachael Taylor, Geoffrey Rush, David Wenham. They’re all awesome.
Rumpus: I look forward to all your creations. I know Watchmen is going to be a huge success.
Snyder: Thanks, bro.
see also: The Rumpus Film Section