Zack Snyder’s Superhero Life
There are many ways to kill people. The director Zack Snyder knows this better than anyone. His characters have been felled by pistols, shotguns, chain saws, exploding propane tanks, and human teeth. And that was just in his first film, a 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. This morning in mid-December, Snyder, an energetic 50-year-old with a leading man’s blue eyes and angled jaw, is trying to inflict mayhem with a more unlikely weapon: a badminton racket.
The shot he’s working on is known as a kill. “Technically, with a kill, your opponent shouldn’t have a chance,” he explains. His trainer, Alistair Casey, who also coaches Olympic contenders in the sport, starts hitting birdies across the net. Snyder leaps into the air and whacks them back, groaning with agony when his shots hit the net. “Don’t put so much testosterone into it,” Casey advises. Soon the floor is littered with birdies, some of them in tatters. Snyder has had quite a workout. “I get 3 miles of running out of this,” he says, smiling through his sweat.
Snyder travels twice a week to the San Gabriel Valley Badminton Club, not far from his home in Pasadena, Calif. He says he needs to be in good shape to do his job properly. “The way I interact with actors has always been very physical.” Snyder often personally demonstrates his highly choreographed fight moves on-set. He contorts his face and strikes a menacing pose to give an example of what he means. Amy Adams, a frequent presence in Snyder’s canon, confirms Snyder’s take. “You’re doing stuff like jumping in water and falling, and he’s just so encouraging,” she says. “You want to hear him say, ‘Awesome!’—if you don’t hear the ‘awesome,’ you’re, like, ‘Uh-oh.’ ” The director requires his actors, who tend to wear tights on-screen, to be in top condition and frequently joins them in what his crew members call “crazy workouts.” Snyder wants to make sure they live up to his “body aesthetic.”
Perhaps the best example of Snyder’s style is 300, his 2006 adaptation of comic book artist Frank Miller’s ultraviolent tale about a small group of Spartan warriors who hack up hundreds of Persians in the Peloponnesian War. There are slow-mo decapitations, gorgeously filmed impalements, and an athletic bedroom scene involving King Leonidas of Sparta and his hard-bodied Queen Gorgo. Snyder’s 2009 film of Watchmen, Alan Moore’s hallowed graphic novel, set a new standard for superhero sadism. When its heroes slugged the bad guys, bones snapped, and blood sprayed. “You’re, like, ‘Holy s---!’ ” Snyder says. “ ‘That’s legit. That’s what happens in real life when you fight a guy and you’re a superhero.’ ”
Snyder even created a killer Superman in Man of Steel, his 2013 reboot of the Warner Bros. character. In it, Superman, played by British heartthrob Henry Cavill, snaps General Zod’s neck in the final battle sequence. (According to Adams, who played Lois Lane, Cavill woke up at 3 a.m. every morning to work out before filming.) Some fans howled, but Snyder knows how to get people into theaters. His six movies have made a total of $1.6 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Media.
Warner, in the midst of a rough two-year box-office run, has for this reason given Snyder a lead role in the DC Comics cosmos. He’s the director of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, out on March 25, and an executive producer of Suicide Squad, set for release in August, about a group of supervillains. Snyder is also producing a Wonder Woman movie, which will open in June 2017. Meanwhile, he starts shooting the first of two Justice League movies in April, featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. It’s an all-star team the studio hopes will be as popular as Marvel Entertainment’s multibillion-dollar Avengers franchise.
Snyder, who drives the same Aston Martin model that James Bond piloted in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, talks about creating superhero films that aren’t products but “a mythological, beautiful, personal movie tapestry.” He argues that Warner’s decision to turn its DC characters over to visionary directors such as Christopher Nolan, the auteur responsible for the popular Dark Knight trilogy, and, well, himself, results in better products. “When you go see any Martin Scorsese movie or Quentin Tarantino movie, you don’t know what the f--- is going to happen,” he says. “You just don’t know, because that individual is capable of anything. There’s a madman driving the boat. And I mean that in the best possible way.”
Snyder works in an old warehouselike space on the Warner lot in Burbank that once housed teams of artists who painted backdrops of cities, forests, and deserts. With the advent of computer-generated imagery, their numbers dwindled. The studio was getting ready to gut the space last year when Snyder claimed it for his own production company, Cruel & Unusual Films, which he runs with his wife, Deborah. “They were just going to turn it into office space and destroy it,” Snyder says. “I was, like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Do not destroy it. Guys, this is the most awesome place in the world!’ ”
Warner turned it over to him, and now he toils in a chamber big enough for a basketball court. Adams says co-workers refer to it as Snyder’s own Fortress of Solitude. There’s a set of weight machines in the center where he gets buff four times a week and an area where he lounges with colleagues on a white sofa and chairs beside a statue of a pale headless horse. A Superman figurine commands a coffee table. Similarly posed models of Batman and Wonder Woman keep watch over the room along with a full-size winged angel from Snyder’s 2011 film, Sucker Punch.
There are several human skulls on a circular desk where Snyder works on his iMac. “I don’t know why,” he says. “I just like skulls.” Six axes lean against the nearby wall. “I just like axes,” he says innocently. “They are cool. I have axes at home that I cut wood with, but these are my special ones.”
Perhaps the most striking thing in the space is a whiteboard big enough to fill an entire wall. It’s been mostly wiped clean, but Snyder says it was recently covered with action sequences for the Justice League movie he starts filming in London in April. He can raise or lower the board with a button. “Everyone freaks out whenever I do that,” Snyder says. “They’re, like, ‘What is this? It’s like the Bat Cave in here.’ ”
An assistant delivers a late-afternoon eggnog latte with an extra shot of espresso, and Snyder takes a seat on the sofa. He’s wearing a white flowered shirt, a gray vest, jeans, and fashionably weathered lace-up boots. It’s been a long day—badminton in the morning and then a four-hour photo shoot—but he’s eager to talk about his movies and their inspiration.
Snyder grew up in Greenwich, Conn. His mother was a painter and a photographer; his father was head of human resources at American Can and a sports fanatic like his son. The family belonged to the Christian Science Church, whose members believe that sin and illness are nothing but illusions. Snyder attended the Daycroft School, a Christian Science school in Greenwich, and a summer camp run by the church in Maine. “It was pretty hard-core,” he says.
Snyder’s religious upbringing made him receptive to books and movies with sacred themes. He was overwhelmed by Star Wars when his mother took him to see it in 1977. The Force reminded him of the heavenly powers Christian Scientists believe in. The same year, his mother gave him a movie camera, and he started making short stop-action films.
Snyder, who’s dyslexic, struggled in school. But he excelled at sports, and he was a star on campus because of the ambitious movies he made featuring large casts of his blue-blazered classmates. When he needed to film an arrest, Snyder called the Greenwich Police Department and asked for a cop car. The department provided one. He also rented a small crane to get a proper overhead shot.
Snyder spent a year studying painting at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London and then transferred to the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, where one classmate was Michael Bay, future purveyor of cinematic mayhem.
Another classmate, Larry Fong, who’d later work as Snyder’s cinematographer on 300 and Watchmen, recalls how the budding director made a World War I movie, digging trenches behind the house he was living in, renting uniforms for his actors, and simulating rain with a garden hose. “That was my first time working with him,” Fong says. “I realized he goes above and beyond.” Snyder’s landlord had a fit when he discovered what the students had done to his property. By then the film was done. Snyder’s professor loved it.
After getting his degree in 1989, Snyder became a busy commercial director with clients such as Budweiser and Nike. It wasn’t a bad life. He bought his first Aston Martin, a used model, for $28,000. “It had a lot of miles on it, but I just had to have it,” he says. He purchased the turn-of-the century Pasadena residence of the late architect Charles Greene and spent four years doing “a museum-quality restoration.”
He also met Deborah, then an executive at a New York agency, who hired him to film a Lady Foot Locker ad in 1996. Snyder thought she was cute, but he was married at the time, and Deborah was seeing somebody. Six years later, she hired him to make a Soft & Dri commercial in New Zealand, and they happily discovered they were both single.
At the time, Snyder had six children, four with his former wife and two with another woman whom he hadn’t married. But “love was in the air,” as Deborah puts it, and they wed in 2004 at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Park Avenue in New York. They’ve since restored a 1960s redwood house in Pasadena, designed by architect Mortimer Matthews, where they live with their two adopted children. The names of all eight children are tattooed up and down Snyder’s arms.
“He’s such a true artist,” Deborah says of her husband. “If you ever go to a restaurant where there’s parchment paper or a napkin, he’s constantly drawing sketches of people. In between movies, he’s picking up his video camera and shooting things around the house. He can’t help himself.”
In 2004, Universal Pictures released Snyder’s first movie, Dawn of the Dead, which was a surprise hit. He leveraged that success to persuade Warner to let him make 300, which he conceived as part Alexander and part The Matrix. He shot the movie in Montreal in front of a blue screen to give it the look of a comic book come to life. He put his almost entirely male cast, led by Gerard Butler as Spartan King Leonidas, on a strict bodybuilding and dietary regimen, joining them in their workouts and eating the same low-carb fare. “The proof is in the end product,” says Damon Caro, the stunt coordinator on all Snyder’s movies. “Everybody looked amazing.”
300 made $456 million internationally and generated a lot of press. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denounced it as an insult to his people and filed a formal complaint with the United Nations. Reporters wanted to know if Snyder meant the movie to be a condemnation of the Bush administration’s War on Terror or an endorsement. Snyder wouldn’t say.
Warner was so pleased with the movie’s success it bought Snyder a $350,000 Aston Martin Vanquish. “I was, like, huh?” Snyder recalls. “They don’t really do that in Hollywood anymore.” The studio also offered him a production deal. “We realized Zack was a guy that we wanted to have around making movies for us for a long time,” says Greg Silverman, head of worldwide production at Warner.
Not all of Snyder’s subsequent movies were quite as lucrative. Watchmen, a dark DC superhero film, earned more than $100 million domestically, but it was followed by Sucker Punch, a 2011 flop about a mental patient who fantasizes she’s a member of a group of prostitutes who battle orcs, zombie soldiers, and giant samurai. “If this is where Snyder’s imagination goes when he’s free to create his own material, maybe he’s better off sticking to adaptations,” Variety wrote in a withering review. Snyder says the movie failed because Warner refused to make a “hard-core” version with an R rating. Silverman half-concedes the point. “Obviously, it didn’t connect with the audiences,” he says. “Zack may be right.”
After Sucker Punch, Snyder needed a hit, and he had one two years later with Man of Steel, which placed Superman in the same forbidding world inhabited by Batman in Nolan’s Dark Knight films. This was no coincidence—Nolan co-wrote the movie. Initially, Deborah didn’t think her husband should make it. “I said to Zack, ‘I just think this is the biggest mistake,’ ” she recalls. Ultimately, the Snyders signed on, Zack as director and Deborah as a producer.
Snyder cast Cavill as Superman and made sure he looked as smashing as any of 300’s Spartans. The movie ended up making $668 million internationally and led to the sequel, Batman v Superman. Snyder brought Cavill back to reprise his performance as a gloomy Superman, but he surprised many by casting Ben Affleck as Gotham City’s Dark Knight.
Some fear that Affleck, a recent tabloid fixture, may not be credible in the role. Snyder disagrees. “Not to be drinking my own Kool-Aid, but I think Ben is a pretty good Batman,” he says. “I never liked a small Batman. Ben’s all of 6-foot-4, and in the boots, he’s like 6-foot-6.” Affleck will also portray Snyder’s kind of Bruce Wayne, a stylish guy in his 40s who lives in a Mies van der Rohe house, has a Mapplethorpe in his bedroom, and drives a green 1957 Aston Martin. It’s the director’s own car.
Meanwhile, Snyder is spending late nights in his cavernous office working on the upcoming Justice League movie. He’s also thinking about making films that aren’t comic book adaptations. Sort of. One of these days, he’d like to make one about George Washington in the style of 300. He has a picture in his office of the Revolutionary War hero crossing the icy Delaware on his way to decimate the British in the Battle of Trenton. “We were talking about it,” Snyder says. “The first thing we asked was, well, how are we going to make it look? I pointed at this painting. It looks like 300. It’s not that hard.”
(Corrects Batman v Superman title in the 27th paragraph.)