How did he do it? How did Zack Snyder go from motion picture nobody (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, 18 months removed from said movie’s release, and while less than a boffo blockbuster, he still managed to accomplish something few in the film world thought was even possible.
Now he’s flummoxing fans once again with his technically brilliant (if emotionally hollow) CG fantasty effort Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. Based on the book series by Kathryn Lasky, the story centers around a young bird named Soren, his tiny head filled with myths of a noble avian race of warriors. When he and his siblings are kidnapped by a power mad foul with domination and destruction on his mind, he escapes and flies off to find the elusive Guardians, taking a ragtag bunch of buddies along for the adventure. Using both the photorealistic elements of computer generated imagery and the latest cinematic craze, 3D, Snyder has once again forged something completely out of character and yet stylistically in sync with his eccentric oeuvre.
It’s a definite leap into left field, but then again, that’s not unusual for someone known for diving in and taking risks. Odder still is how someone without an lengthy established creative canon can switch from genre to genre to readily. In truth, Snyder’s whole story is a weird combination of nothing new and all innovative. 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.
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 such 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 believed that Watchmen would set the tone for all graphic novel adaptations to come.
They were partly right. While some saw it as a masterpiece, many felt that the final result was too reverent to its source (missing squid and all). Others argued that, as filmmakers before had suggested, the ‘unfilmable’ had been proven so. The truth actually lies somewhere closer to ‘classic’. Copying many of Dave Gibbons’ pen and ink panels, Snyder imbued his take on the tome with the kind of epic earnestness one sees in a great expansive novel. He remembered to give each character its due, to delve deeply where such psychological spelunking is necessary and yet, he never let up on the spectacle. Sure, Dr. Manhattan’s digital dong drove a few audience members to distraction and not every performance was pitch perfect, but this was still a significant step forward in melding the pop art pizzazz of the comic with the more serious subtexts of the motion picture medium.
And now we get battling owls. For many, the notion that Snyder is involved here still seems like a hoax. After all, few outside a devoted Comic-Confab knew he was even making this movie. Then there is the idea of their favorite R-rated director going all parental and PG-13 on them. What’s more interesting, however, is the idea that, for all its flash and finery, Legend of the Guardians does not appear to follow the filmmakers desire for envelope pushing. Dawn of the Dead certainly did, as well as 300 and Watchmen. Even more unusual, his next film, something called Sucker Punch, looks like another boundary beating baffler. So why this film… and better yet, why now? The latter question will perhaps remain elusive. Snyder’s status as the father of six may suggest a response to the former.
Leave it to a mystery to stay true to his own mysteriousness. Frankly, almost anything he did at this point, short of a sequel to his previous films, would render Zack Snyder strange. Few directors challenge themselves with differing sources, let alone genre demands, and yet he has so far managed (with varying levels of success) to maneuver both barriers quite well. While Sucker Punch and its fantasy/reality blending wow-factor may feel like a step sideways, Snyder will surely find a way to make its part of his apparent aesthetic mandate — a leap forward. Legend of the Guardians probably won’t be the box office hit the studios strive for, yet it’s another fascination piece of the auteur puzzle known as Zack Snyder. No other enigma is so entertaining.