Sucker Punch: An Interview With Zack Snyder

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By Evan Schwartz

Twelve years since its release, the ever-polarizing SUCKER PUNCH lives on as one of Zack Snyder’s most audacious works. Being his only film not based on source material, it reads as a personal protest against the institution of the Hollywood action blockbuster. The blissful action, skimpy outfits, and invigorating needledrops are woven into the fabric of a project so idiosyncratic, it’s surprising it was even made. In advance of its screening at IFC Center on Friday, August 4 and Saturday, August 6 as part of the midnight series "The Red Eye," I spoke with Zack Snyder about the film, its reception, and his directorial approach.

Evan Schwartz: I really appreciate you doing this. On a personal note, SUCKER PUNCH really carried me through some dark times and I don't think I've ever sobbed harder to a movie before in my life.

Zack Snyder: Wow, that's kind. It was a very polarizing film.

ES: It sure was. I feel like you can't make something so audacious without alienating a few people.

ZS: To be frank, the people I've run across who've come to me and said ‘SUCKER PUNCH is my favorite movie’ are normally angsty teenage girls. It's like a Morrissey song or something.

ES: That's what I've noticed as well with this film. I often think of Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies when I think of this film.

ZS: Interesting.

ES: I feel that just in the sense that at the end of Titicut Follies, they're meant to perform for the hospital staff and SUCKER PUNCH is almost that, but in the idiom of a Hollywood blockbuster. What research did you do on these kinds of hospitals, and where did the idea of the hospital as a brothel come about?

ZS: I was influenced by the movie Frances. It's about Frances Farmer and how she was this famous actress who got lobotomized and put into a mental institution and was raped in there. I saw it in 1982, so that would make me a sophomore in high school. At the same time, All That Jazz was a big influence on me. So it's like All That Jazz and Frances had a baby and in some ways it was me, and in other ways it was this idea that just sort of started to percolate. That's why I think it's set in this ambiguous sort of late 1950s, early 1960s world. All bets are off as far as the rules of engagement at a mental institution. Once you're checked in you're crazy; your rights are gone. You don't have any say.

ES: Anything you say will make you sound crazy.

ZS: Yeah. It's almost worse than being in jail in a lot of ways.

Brazil was a big influence on the movie as well. I'd say those three movies really - Brazil, Frances, and All That Jazz really were the main influences of the movie. I've never gotten around to doing the director's cut. I still plan to at some point. But in the original ending when Babydoll is in the chair in the basement with Blue - she's already been lobotomized - when the cop shines the light on her, the set breaks apart and she stands up and she sings a song on stage.

ES: No way.

ZS: Yeah. She sings, “Ooh, Child, things are gonna get easier.” Blondie, and all the people that have been killed, join in and it's the idea that in a weird way, even though she's lobotomized, she's kind of stuck in this infinite loop of euphoric victory. It's weirdly not optimistic and optimistic at the same time. That's kind of what the tone was at the end. We tested it and the studio thought it was too weird, so we changed it.

The voiceover was written by Richard Bach. He and I kicked it around. The original version doesn't have any voiceover, because it was meant to be more interpretive, you know?

ES: I think that ending is really interesting, because there's such a distinct choice to not show her face after the lobotomy in the theatrical cut.

ZS: The way it worked was like this: you've never seen your face until the cop puts the flashlight on her. And then the flashlight is the spotlight, and we built this elaborate set that broke apart and then she was on this stage and was singing. You'll get to see it at some point, I'm sure. I hope.

ES: I would love that. What were some of the most frustrating studio notes you received?

ZS: It's a very self-reflexive film. It was a comment about where I felt like the state of movies were. It was right after Watchmen, which I felt was deconstructive. That's the interesting thing to me. It's like my track record. Like, look, I deconstructed this film. I feel like Dawn of the Dead is a deconstructionist film, that deconstructs the genre and is self-aware of the genre. I thought I couldn't make Dawn of the Dead as a straight remake because the movie is social commentary and so I wanted to make a comment on the comment, you know what I mean?

And then I made 300, which I’d been working on because I'm a big Frank Miller fan. I'm a Dark Knight Returns fan and 300 was the book I could get my hands on. I wanted to do Sin City, I wanted to do Dark Knight Returns and I love 300 so I made it as a love letter to Frank Miller.

In concert with that was Watchmen. Watchmen to me is like the ultimate deconstructionist comic book. Superheroes have sexual anxiety. They’re all agoraphobic and incestuous and insane and addicted to violence.

I always said when I was making Man of Steel - you have to know the rules in order so you can break them. Well, I broke them first, and then I made a movie. It was the wrong order, but it's fine.

But when I went to make Sucker Punch, I was so genre self-aware. Sweetpea says, “What the fuck is this? This is meant to turn the people on?” - which is a reference to the movie itself. She says, “I get the helpless mental patient, but lobotomized vegetable; that's not sexy.”

And then she says, “You’ve got to change the ending. Maybe a dance number at the end - a song - people wanna be tapping their toes and singing on the way out, you know? It's better for the scores.” I took out the thing about the dance number at the end, because we had taken the dance number out, but there was that whole exchange between her and Gorsky - this self-aware, self-reflexive ‘audience observing the movie,’ and yet it's talking directly to them about what they wanna see. They wanna see the girls, they don't wanna see the girls empowered. They wanna see them in sexy outfits. That was the whole thing to me; I always thought it was interesting when people would review the movie and say it's exploitative. It's like an anti-war movie that gets the war too good.

ES: I think it's clear what you're doing straight from the Warner Brothers logo being put on the curtain at the beginning.

ZS: Yeah. I feel like the main criticism of the film was that it was too exploitative. People took the movie as if the girls fighting and all that stuff was the movie. I found that slightly disheartening.

ES: I don't want this to sound backhanded, but I feel like the action in this movie is almost like a means to an end, and it carries less tension than in a linear action film when you're there in the action.

ZS: A hundred percent.

ES: And I think this is the strength of the film; it's more about the bliss of the action in the moment than the tension of overcoming the obstacle. Did that offer you more freedom in conceiving the action?

ZS: Yes, because the action was always dance-metaphor, right? And so the dance doesn't necessarily have the same tension as a heist normally, but it's in some ways a heist film too - they have to collect all the objects; that’s part of the genre. They have this mission where they have to collect these talismans and those talismans together equal the escape. For me, when I was working on the action sequences with Damon Caro, I was always like, “No, no. It should be more blissful. It should be more lyrical than tense.” I'm not that concerned with the peril than I am with the bliss of the in-mind empowerment of what Babydoll is doing in the moment. The dance is her power. Her sexual power, her athletic power, her everything.

Everything that's empowered about the way she moves, that is seductive, that is the destroyer of worlds - she's fully in it. So when she's doing the action sequences, I wanted her to be unbeatable. I know in some ways it goes against the concept of action. It only fails in the final action sequence where Jenna gets stabbed - it’s the only time she's vulnerable. And even then she's able to kind of kick it back in a little bit with the combo of music. I was fascinated by this idea of music and movement and spectacle being the ultimate drug that is impossible to snap out of. Even just the “Love is the Drug” sequence, where Oscar Isaac and Carla Gugino do their little dance number - it’s the most fun sequence in the movie because it's literally a day in the life. It's really setting the stage for the hierarchies of the place, which was a really fun way to render it. That's kind of what they're seeing when Baby Doll's dancing normally.

ES: The Love is the Drug sequence is amazing, but I consider it to be a violent spectacle - something that you almost shouldn't enjoy because Oscar Isaac is so evil.

ZS: Yeah. A hundred percent. That's the whole thing. That's kind of the point of the movie - the seduction of imagery. It's propagandizing in some ways what I would consider a pretty lonesome sad guy who preys on the mentally ill. The girls needed to be lifted up. These mental patients have zero value to anyone, right? But in the world of their minds, even though they work in a brothel, they're incredibly valuable and incredibly talented and fierce. And then the layer deeper, when Babydoll is dancing and she has to remove herself from the exploitation of what she's doing to seduce these scummy characters, they're one step more powerful. All of it is compounded as you move away from the reality of just being the victim of this bad orderly at a mental institution, being fucked in the basement of this mental institution with no agency to protect yourself.

ES: Yeah, I think you even express that through the scene where Jenna Malone dies. Her sendoff when the train explodes is so spectacular. It’s stunning to look at.

ZS: It's all about perspective, right? You can imagine the reality of dying. That's in the brothel reality, not even in the mental institution reality. As it steps back, it gets darker and darker in a weird way. The reason I wanted John Hamm to do his character is it felt like, in a weird way, he's also a liberator. Even though he's the instrument of destruction, he's also the one that locks Babydoll into the loop where she's free.

ES: Let's pretend that I'm Emily Browning. I'm about to enter the mental hospital. What direction would you give me before the camera rolls?

ZS: Okay, so we're gonna pull you out of the car, right? So you're asleep, you didn't know where you were going, right? You were sedated and you have been driven up to this building and I think, at first, the thing to play is disorientation.

You don't know where you are, but I think that I would love, if you can, as you get pulled out of the car, if you can begin to realize that and let the audience feel that your first reaction is just straight terror because of the iconography that you know and that we all know, of the ‘worse than prison concept,’ right?

So you are about to go get everything that is you removed. Anything that you think is you personally, the thing that defines the way you are as an individual, your perspective on the world, that's gonna be erased. And so that's where the horror comes from. You are also, don't forget, a generational, obedient child in the end who doesn't believe that the harm that comes to you will be like… you trust, though that trust has been broken. You still have to lay back on the system that enslaves you to continue. At some point, you're gonna have to become compliant and be the good girl that you've been, you know, that's what you have to do—you've been taught that your whole life. Once you've screamed and gotten that out of your system, now you have to walk down the hall and go meet your guy and obey, because that's really the only thing you can do. But your knee jerk reaction before that happens is terror.

I love Emily. She's such a great vessel for this. She has such a beautiful voice. It was incredible to work with her. The only thing I brought her was like, “let's teach you to fight a little bit,” you know?

ES: Yeah. I mean, you can just see it in her eyes. And that fucking split diopter shot when she enters the hospital and you can see the terror in her eyes, it's gorgeous. Her expressions are so powerful.

ZS: When they're breaking out of the institution and she has her speech about - “It's not me, it's you,” to Sweetpea. I really feel like that one speech always gets me, you know? It's so beautifully rendered. This idea of self-sacrifice is always in every movie, you know? Like, “I'll die, you escape.” And that's basically the speech. But the way it's so subtle and so clean - I just always loved it.

ES: That ending narration fills me with emotion. “It’s you. You have all the tools you need. Now fight.” It’s so generous and such a gorgeous thing to see in such a dark movie.

ZS: Yeah. Because in the end it’s an affirmation, you know?