How did he do it? How did Zack Snyder go from motion picture no one (well, he did direct a Michael Jordan documentary short and a Morrissey video) to helmer of hits like Dawn of the Dead and 300? Even better, how did he become the kind of Hollywood heavyweight capable of getting the long dormant Watchmen movie out of development Hell and into theaters? Better men than him - Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass - have tried and failed miserably, each one claiming that Alan Moore’s graphic novel was practically “unfilmable”. Yet here we are, less than four weeks away from the movie’s release, and the buzz is so thick both in and outside the industry that Warner Brothers and Fox actually went to court over who actually owned the rights (and the resulting profits).
Snyder’s story is nothing new. He’s not some wunderkind who dropped out of the directing tree and hit homeruns all the way down. No, he was an art school savant, earning his wings as a creator of commercials and a star cinematographer. When Universal was looking for someone to jumpstart their horror genre remakes, Snyder was brought in to take on one of the more forbidding projects - a new twist on George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Dawn of the Dead. With a script from Troma trained outsider James Gunn and a modern feel to both the moviemaking and the monsters, Snyder unleashed his unique, hyper-stylized vision of Hell on Earth. With rapidly moving members of the living dead, and bloodshed o’plenty, the film was a box office bonanza.
Dawn of the Dead
Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell, Michael Kelly, Kim Poirier
(Universal; US theatrical: 19 Mar 2004; 2004)
Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Regan, Dominic West
(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 9 Mar 2007; UK theatrical: 23 Mar 2007; 2007)
Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Stephen McHattie, Matt Frewer, Carla Gugino
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 6 Mar 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 6 Mar 2009 (General release); 2009)
Aside from the violence, which gets ramped up beyond all possibility of survival, Snyder understood the inherent hopelessness of an all out zombie apocalypse. Sure, there was the external threat of flesh eating fiends, but society cannot survive for long outside its classified comfort zones of instant gratification and material want. Romero emphasized this element to a fault in his brilliant cultural commentary. Snyder pays it lip service, but also acknowledges the need for humanity to scrape and claw its way back to the consumerism womb. The sequences inside the mall are claustrophobic and creepy, as if something horrific is just around the food court, hungry and unable to control its voracious appetite. That said creature could be a frazzled security guard or a distraught father accentuated the already palpable horror.
Success allows for a little artistic license, even for a newcomer, and Snyder picked a whopper for his feature film follow-up. Enamored of Frank Miller and the masterful Sin City, the comics writer’s take on the Spartan battle at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. became the foundation for 300. In order to convince the studio to make the film, Snyder scanned the entire graphic novel into a computer. Adding simply animation and a voice-over narration, he proved the movie could be made. A year later, he was still tweaking the CG-aided action to match his vision of Miller’s brutal universe. With very little hype and even less expectations, 300 hit theaters in March of 2007, and the rest was history. A surprise blockbuster, it put Snyder in the position of handpicking his next project. The choice, as we now know, would be as controversial as consistent with the filmmaker’s fearlessness.
If anything, 300 surly symbolizes Snyder’s desire to expand the language of film and the comic book genre in general. Similar to Sin City in that it takes direct inspiration from Miller’s designs, the accented realism achieved and the level of cinematic experimentation were indeed eye popping. What was most impressive, though, is how Snyder kept the emotional level so intense. We care about King Leonidas, his attempt to save Sparta, and his good lady queen who suffers significant humiliation in order to provide his army some hope. That none of it matters in the end is part of the film’s heartfelt heroics. We understand the battle may have been in vain, but the meaning of what these men went through clearly stands out among the washboard abs and bulging muscles.
Many felt 300 was all pizzazz and little passion. That’s why an uproar occurred when it was announced that Snyder would make Watchmen next. After all, treading into such nerd nation volatility demanded an equally histrionic response. The filmmaker said all the right things - dedication to the source, adulation for Moore, a desire to make a definitive version of the material, an attention to detail, etc. When the casting news hit and the teaser trailers sprang up, the intensity of discourse leveled off. Soon, Snyder was seen as the messiah, a man harboring the greatest comic book creation into its rightful place in motion picture history. Even as The Dark Knight bagged a billion dollars worldwide, many still believe that Watchmen will set the tone for all graphic novel adaptations to come.
So far, his gamble appears to have paid off. Few can argue that 6 March is becoming a destination date for film fans and early, early, early takes from Kevin Smith and various Ain’t It Cool News spies indicate that Snyder may have actually created a motion picture classic here. There are those, like Movie City News’ David Poland, who wonders if the movie will make any money outside the dedicated followers and already hip demographic. There are also concerns that, no matter what kind of reception the film receives, it will be viewed solely on terms of the money it makes, and not the aesthetic merits of what Snyder created. Hollywood wants - nay, NEEDS - this movie to be huge. If the director merely succeeds in being faithful to Moore’s masterwork, a lax box office will spell disaster for Snyder’s upcoming plans (and there are many).
Clearly, this is one filmmaker whose gone from lucky as Hell to damned if you do/don’t. No one expected 300 or Dawn of the Dead to be a monster. Now everyone believes that Watchmen needs to be just as popular or, somehow, Snyder has failed. How he went from over achieving newbie to set in cement vanguard will be something for cinematic scholars to argue over for decades to come. And even if he never makes another film, Snyder will always be remembered as the man who tackled Alan Moore, and managed to live to tell the commercial tale. When it finally hits theaters in less than four weeks, Watchmen‘s already inflated legend will finally come down to Earth. Whether it’s a crash or a cushioned landing, remains in the hands of the man who made it. Zack Snyder has defied convention before. Here’s hoping he can do it again.