Luca, Zack Snyder’s chow-labrador cross, is going bananas. It’s early morning in rural Pasadena and the air is filled with growls. When a bear ambled past the other day, Luca didn’t bat an eyelid. But the appearance of the gardener (who apparently comes every day) means he needs considerable restraint.
So it was while wrestling this “big, muscly, silly dog” that Snyder answered questions set for him by Guardian readers – and a few colleagues – yelling amiably over the din.
Snyder started his career in 2004 with Dawn of the Dead, his remake of George A Romero’s 1978 classic, screened at the Cannes film festival that year; next week sees the release of Army of the Dead, in which a gang attempt to rob the vault of a Las Vegas casino before the city is nuked on account of its zombie pandemic.
Dave Bautista, left, and Ella Purnell in Army of the Dead. Photograph: Clay Enos/AP
In the years between these stylish splatterfests, Synder has become one of the most successful directors of the modern age – and earned a reputation as one of the most polarising – through films such as Watchmen, Sucker Punch, 300 and his work in the DC Universe.
As well as producing Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad and Aquaman, Snyder wrote and directed three films for DC: Man of Steel in 2013, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and, finally, Justice League.
Snyder quit production on that final film in 2017 after the death of his daughter – and clashes with the studio over his vision. He was replaced by Joss Whedon who radically reimagined his work – and delivered a badly reviewed flop. A fan lobbying campaign then prompted Warner to finish and release the so-called Snyder cut, a four-hour corker that became one of the unlikely hits of lockdown.
Author, World War Z
What can you tell us about the zombie threat in Army of the Dead? Are they fast? Slow? Smart? Dumb? Magic? Musical? In short, what are we up against?
There are two classes of zombies. There’s the classic shamblers: they’ll get you, but you have to fall down first. But I really wanted to evolve the zombies, so there’s this subset we call the Alphas. They’re like pack animals, wolves or lions; they communicate with one another. The main zombie, Zeus, is always barking at them and they seem to respond to that. They’re very fast, super-strong, have no fear and you can only kill them by shooting him in the head. So it’s bad news for the humans. And it seems like there’s some zombie loving going on and we might end up with some zombie children if everything goes correctly. Fingers crossed!
The Zombie Research Society
How do you view the zombies featured in your films: purely monsters, supernaturally undead, biologically infected or do they perhaps represent some political or social class?
They’re not just the undead. They’re not destroying their environment. They’re not ambitious. They’re not fucking each other over. They’re a replacement for the human race more than a threat to it. In our movie, humans are the ones that kind of blow it.
Did the production delays offer an opportunity to re-imagine or update the depiction of the living dead, or perhaps the story itself, based on real-world events?
The movie was pretty much 90% completed when the pandemic struck. I didn’t want to change any of it because I love the way that we had imagined what a pandemic would be like. It was interesting to see what we had imagined the response to a worldwide zombie plague might be, and then see the response to a worldwide health emergency.
I get it now. The zombies are the vaccinated people (“They organise, they are more intelligent than you think”). The casino bank-robbing gang are the remaining anti-vaxxers. Bring it on!
Absolutely! I love that superimposition. You could probably do the exact opposite argument if you wanted. It just depends which side is more dominant in your mind.
I hope the vaccinated people are winning. I wanted to be vaccinated immediately. I would have done a trial, any time. Even my friends were like, wow, you’re really aggressive. I’m like, I am very aggressive. Very aggressively ready to get vaccinated and not die. In LA County, which was a disaster during Covid, we should be at 80% vaccinated next month. I tell friends of mine living abroad: just come here, you get vaccinated immediately. They don’t care. They’ll vaccinate anybody. You don’t need ID. They’ll vaccinate my dog.
Tig Notaro, who plays Marianne Peters in Army of the Dead. Photograph: Dave Safley/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock
Actor, Army of the Dead
How does one write, produce, camera operate, DP and direct a nearly $100m-budget zombie action heist film and manoeuvre a hyper technical green screen shoot while still being cool as a cucumber?
If that was the impression I gave Tig, then I’m winning. She made the whole thing super-enjoyable, so the smile might’ve been because of her. My wife, who is my producer, is on set 24/7 making me look good when I’m just being not that. From a tech standpoint, I’m surrounded by amazing geniuses who understand a lot of the crazy stuff I’m asking. I’m not great at time management but if you’re really, truly interested in something at a level that is sort of unquenchable, you get it done.
Author, The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World From Scratch
If an apocalypse did happen, what one possession would you rush to recover and protect?
A book or a gun is really the question. Are you a survivor or are you a philosopher? Both have merit. Do you go for a machete or a Walt Whitman? I suppose it’s Whitman in the end. It has to win. Is the apocalypse worth it, if not? I guess you could always grab a gun and write at home afterward, but that’s a lot of pressure. Or commit verse to memory. I suppose what we learn from the zombie apocalypse is that we should all be the custodians of poetry.
What would be your top tip for surviving an apocalypse?
Clean water – make that a priority. You’re going to have to scavenge for food, but water is problematic if you don’t have it.
Dave Bautista in 2019. The actor plays Scott Ward in Army of the Dead. Photograph: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic
Actor, Army of the Dead
Did you always have a desire to capture images? Were you interested in art or photography before films?
Yeah. I fancied myself an artist. I went to art school in London and I wanted to be a painter. My teacher said to me, “You know, your paintings are really cinematic.” It might’ve been a way of saying my paintings were bad, but I took it as a compliment.
Other than fiscal, what were the advantages of shooting Justice League in the UK?
The amazing crews I got to work with. An English friend told me that when I went to London the crew would sometimes call me “Governor”. And he said that would probably mean they were calling me a cunt. I like to think that I won them over, though.
When I was here for art college, I lived in a flat in Hammersmith by the Charing Cross hospital. I had a little yorkshire terrier I would walk in Margravine cemetery. I was eating a lot of baked beans on toast; starving to death and trying to be a painter. Everyone was smoking cigarettes, your jeans had paint all over them, going out at night. Good times.
And then I lived a very different kind of life when I was in England for Justice League. My address was The White House, Chipperfield. Real country living. I do love the English countryside, though. It’s very primordial, it feels really ancient.
There was one big beech tree in Chipperfield Common and I would go there and take portraits underneath it with my Leica monochrome. It had really kind of heavy boughs and inside it was this dark area, ambient and beautiful.
It’s said your movies have a stylish flair to them, so is your own dress style important to you in real life?
On Army of the Dead I had an outfit I would wear every day. These actual surplus BDUs [combat trousers] from Vietnam, which are hard to find now. Then there’s this company called MadeWorn, whose clothes have holes in them and are more expensive than they probably should be. And I had a kind of thin neckscarf.
When I was in London shooting Justice League I had all these suits made and wore a tie everyday. But on Army … because I was operating the camera and being the DP as well as director, I needed pockets.
I like to be dressed in a philosophically creative way, whatever that means. I wear Hanes V-neck T-shirts and I have a stack of them. I’m not like: I’ll just put a shirt on and not think about. I’m very conscious about what I’m wearing. I’ve thought about it really hard; too hard for a Hanes T-shirt.
Actor, Dawn of the Dead
Sarah Polley, who starred in Snyder’s first film, Dawn of the Dead. Photograph: Reed Saxon/AP
A lot of people see a rightwing political undercurrent in some of your films. Where do you stand politically and has that changed over the years? (Bonus hint: Don’t evade the question. Love you!)
I vote Democrat! I’m a true lover of individual rights. I’ve always been a super-strong advocate of women’s rights and a woman’s right to choose, and I’ve always been surrounded by powerful women. And, of course, I’m a huge advocate for the rights of all ethnicities and every walk of life. I would say I’m a pretty liberal guy. I want to make sure everyone’s heard and everyone feels included. I don’t have a rightwing political agenda. People see what they want to see. For me, that was not certainly the point.
What’s your response to Martin Scorsese’s (and others’) criticism of superhero movies?
Oh, it’s fair. Martin Scorsese is a genius. If you’re really good at something, commenting on that world is completely within your rights. And it doesn’t diminish my respect for him. I’m certain he wasn’t talking about my movies [laughs]. He might’ve been, but I like to think he wasn’t. He meant the other ones.
If you had been in charge of the Marvel series, what would you have done differently?
Nothing. I could have changed it so it would have maybe made less money or been less beloved. But for what they’ve created – I don’t know that there is a better way to do it.
Ciarán Hinds, who played Steppenwolf in Justice League. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Actor, Justice League
Which part of the filming process do you enjoy the most: preparation, shooting or post-production?
I do love shooting. The physical part on set is really fun, a little bit like an athletic endeavour. You’re all pulling together. But there’s a moment when you actually see the movie coming together in post-production that is pretty satisfying.
I think your DC films affect people in positions of power when they are on their day off and enjoying a movie which can make life better for the rest of us. Do you ever slip in ethical scenes deliberately to try to shape a better world?
Superheroes are heroes. They’re going to rescue a cat from a tree. To walk an old lady across the road. But the interesting thing is the shades. [Screenwriter] Chris Terrio and I talked a lot about how we superimposed Batman and Superman on society. We tried not to be judgmental in our morality, because that’s dangerous. When you strike a position and don’t have another perspective on the same event, it can be a slippery slope. When you’re doing something in which you can find lessons and hide lessons, it’s fundamentally important to be careful to not just have one point of view. Because people go into a movie like Justice League on the side of the Justice League. You tend to feel they’re right. They’re not called the Fascist League.
Throughout your movies, especially the ones from the DC Universe, you include a lot of visual cues and references to Christianity. Is this intentional?
Yeah. I think the philosophical Christian identity of the west lives a lot through those DC characters. Superman personifies a lot of those same qualities we see in the mythological story of Christ, in his death and rebirth. Sometimes, it’s easier to evoke those things through imagery.
Snyder on the set of Justice League, with Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Photograph: Clay Enos/AP
From the outside, it seems like the production of Justice League was a nightmare. What’s your biggest takeaway from the experience?
I did learn a lot. Even before we shot it, the studio were worried, saying it was too dark and how are you going to put more jokes into this thing? You realise that you are in a big machine and if you want to say particular things as an individual or as an artist, to be philosophical and muck about, it can get you.
The why of doing it is the most important thing. Are you creating a piece of commerce? Do you care? If the objective is simply to make money you have one set of rules. And if the other is to provoke or to inspire or challenge, then that’s a slightly different set of criteria. The two can certainly meet, but you have to be wide-eyed about the consequences of both. Because you can be the greatest film-maker in the world, but if no one sees your movie …
Do you ever just want to do a quiet little indie film about a farmer, or a guy riding an old bicycle?
Absolutely. I wrote this small movie we’re trying to do. No crew, no money, shooting in South America, two guys, no visual effects, really. Yes, it has a murderer in it. But it’s more Blood Meridian than Saturday morning cartoons.
Did any of the artists you worked with on music videos have any suggestions for the concept of the video?
They all did. I mean, I would write a treatment, but they all had notes on it. A lot of times everyone was pretty cool. With Morrissey, it didn’t look as if he had any ideas, but he knew what he didn’t want to do.
What’s your favourite shot in your filmography? What’s the best scene you’ve directed?
The mirror shot from Sucker Punch was pretty fun.
And for scene: documenting Dr Manhattan’s origins story in Watchmen. With the Philip Glass music and everything. That was cool.
Do you ever wonder what your legacy might be?
The challenge is people having preconceived ideas about genre movies. They say: “Oh, I’m not really into zombie movies.” I go, “You should check it out! Guys, there’s a lot of fun to be had!” People don’t expect genre movies to be smart. I hope we could make a dent in that a little bit.
Army of the Dead is on Netflix from 21 May.
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