Zack Snyder talks about bringing Frank Miller's graphic novel to the screen
Zack Snyder probably didn't envisage being branded a fascist when he took his uncompromising adaptation of Sin City author Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300, about the Spartans' fight to the death at Thermopylae, to the Berlin Film Festival last month. But following the press screening, the f-word was on a lot of journalists’ lips.
The Canadian actor and sometime activist Sarah Polley, who worked with Snyder on his remake of Dawn of the Dead, suggested I ask him about his politics. “Just for the freak show that it is," she chuckled. “You’ll be like, ‘People like him actually exist?’” She claimed he once brought a blown-up photograph of an American soldier with his boot on Saddam Hussein’s neck to the Dawn set, with his own face plastered over the Marine's. “It wasn't a joke. He’s like, ‘Is that cool?’ That's f****** psychotic.”
“She’s a piece of work,” Snyder says later, grimacing. “I could kill her. I love her, though. You know I do.” After a day of interviews, the fast-talking 41 year old is well aware of what people have been saying. “It’s kind of fun for me,” he says unexpectedly. “I’m a genre filmmaker so for someone to call me a 'fascist filmmaker' is like the best compliment in some ways.” He checks himself. Compliment is the wrong word. What he actually meant was, "it’s pretty awesome” people are taking the film so seriously.
“If I was Paul Verhoeven, and I had made this movie, I probably would have won the fricking festival with it,” he laughs. “Because everyone would be like, ‘Oh my God, it’s genius.'”
On the other hand, Snyder says he had expected a more sophisticated response from the media in Berlin and was surprised by how many people were unable to transcend the “simple knee-jerk politics of the movie”. In the same way that Dawn of the Dead was a “movie that loves that it’s a zombie movie”, 300 is “a genre movie that knows it’s a graphic novel", he says. "It’s very particular. It’s on the edge of being camp. It rides the line.” Asking what it really means, he argues, is to miss the point. “It is a movie for people that love movies. It’s a movie on steroids.”
As for his personal politics, he believes a director’s job is to “get out of the way of the movie as much as you can”, especially when it is an adaptation like 300. But for the record, he did not vote for George Bush. Nor, he says, recalling a question by a journalist earlier in the day, was the film funded with the Iraq war in mind.
“I told him, ‘Look, first of all this movie was made not by people looking at Time magazine but much more by people looking at Us Weekly’,” he quips. “Baghdad is not on anyone’s mind in Hollywood. Even though they might come out and do a fundraiser – and I’m sure they will get rid of Bush in their own way - they’re hypocrites, because it’s about style. Celebrity rules the day.”
From the beginning, says Snyder, his primary intention was to translate Miller’s graphic novel about the clash between King Leonidas and 300 Spartans and Xerxes and his massive invading Persian army as faithfully as possible. “I looked at Frank’s book and said, ‘This is awesome. If I can make this into a film, if I can make these pictures come to life, I could maybe make an experience that’s unique.’”
Along the way, people tried to make him compromise on its content – they wanted less sex, less violence, more clothes – but that was not the movie he wanted to make. “My feeling is if it’s not sexy and f****** violent and f****** cool, then why go sit in the theatre? I look at the screen and half the time I'm like, ‘I’m going to fall a-f******-sleep. Somebody’s going to have to kill somebody. Or f**** somebody.’ It should kick you in the face.”
300 certainly does its best to achieve this. Shot entirely indoors against blue screens in Montreal (Snyder had initially thought of doing it on big sets, like Lemony Snicket or The City of Lost Children, but says it would have been impractical and expensive), in just 60 days, the film is a visually-arresting mix of live action and computer- generated imagery that unfurls like a comic book geek’s wet dream. Gerard Butler’s Leonidus and his hard-bodied, semi-naked Spartans strut around like the Chippendales by way of Leni Riefenstahl, while the battle scenes offer a beautifully choreographed dance of death, with much limb-lopping, head-chopping, ripping of flesh and spurting of blood.
The film’s militaristic heroes are brutal and suicidal. They fight in the name of democracy and to defend their way of life, but what a way of life it is. As Snyder shows in the film’s early scenes, they think nothing of beating their children and throwing babies with birth defects off a cliff – arguably an early form of eugenics. This is the tricky part of the movie, but it is also what makes it interesting. We see the action through Spartan eyes, but how far are we supposed to empathise with them? People looking for contemporary parallels have often not been unable to decide whether Xerxes or Leonidus is George Bush. As Snyder himself admits, the film’s morality is “crazy” and “weird”.
“It is not intended for you to believe that you are a Spartan in the movie,” he claims. “I think if you take the perspective of being a Spartan, then you are a very hard individual. But, on the other hand, that is sort of the gift of cinema, that maybe you get a perspective that you don’t normally take.”
Whatever you think of 300, it is hard not to agree that Snyder has made something unique and bold. The charge of fascism is a myopic evaluation that over-simplifies what the film actually does. It is troubling and uncomfortable, for sure. But that only makes it more thought provoking. It will be interesting to see what Snyder now does with his adaptation of Alan Moore’s political super-hero comic book, Watchmen. Previous attempts to get the project off the ground, with directors including Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass, have come to nothing. Snyder, however, is confident that his film will go ahead, and that it will do the notoriously film-unfriendly Moore justice.
“I really honestly think that my take is the most true to the graphic novel,” he says. “We’ve set the movie in 1985, we want to shoot the Black Freighter [a comic book within the Watchmen universe], we’re trying to do the whole thing. Even if the Black Freighter ends up as a special edition on the DVD, it’s still awesome. My feeling is if you don’t do it right, then don’t do it. It’s too cool. And it means too much to me to mess it up.” I believe him.
This article first appeared in The Scotsman.
Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2014