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It’s hard to believe there was a time when we were traversing the globe and visiting movie sets, interviewing talent and entering buildings without masks, but let’s take a trip back in time and remember what that was like. To be specific, let’s jump back to October 2nd, 2019 and touch down on the East Coast, making our way to the oceanside resort known as Atlantic City, New Jersey. Casinos, gambling, nightclubs, boardwalks and…zombies?
Holed up among the high-rise buildings and right on the edge of the beach sits the New Orleans-themed Showboat Hotel, which was not only a relatively inexpensive getaway for tourists, but was doubling as a movie set for director Zack Snyder’s first new feature since his initial run on Warner Bros. Justice League before it was hijacked, recut and dumped in theaters.
Dealing with family tragedy and the wound of losing the fight in his vision for the superhero team-up, Snyder found solace in a familiar place; the place where his feature-filmmaking journey began: Zombies. Snyder, along with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold, concocted the post zombie-apocalyptic heist actioner, ARMY OF THE DEAD, which brings together a diverse ensemble cast to do exactly what the title implies; fight zombies.
Much has changed since October 2nd, 2019, including a real-life pandemic that’s changed the world over and, for Snyder, a redemption of sorts for his troubled experience on Justice League. Within a year of this set visit, Snyder was given the opportunity to complete the film he set out to make for the DCEU, and just a month ago saw its release on HBO Max. I don’t know if that shows how fast time flies or how time drags, but one thing is certain; Zack is back.
For my part, visiting the set was worthwhile just to speak to the man himself. Snyder had gone dark since Justice League was released initially and no one had really spoken to him outside of a Snydercon event that took place at the director’s alma mater, The Art Center College of Design. Even there he was mum on specific details about the Justice League fall out, as well as what he may get up to next. But, the cat’s now out of the bag and it’s a giant zombified tiger at that. While we’ve all now seen Zack’s vision for Justice League, at that point in time it wasn’t a done deal, let alone an announced project or even a fathomable possibility. So, in meeting with Snyder, we were kind of nabbing a moment to see what was really going on with the reclusive filmmaker.
Paul Shirey on the set of Army of the Dead in Atlantic City, NJ, October 2nd, 2019 – photography by Clay Enos
After a day of wandering the mock casino floor of The Showboat, which looked like a warzone, scattered with cards, chips, dust, debris, bullet shells, bodies and blood, we made our way to lunch, which was in a makeshift tent. After filling our plates and settling in, wondering what the rest of the day had in store for us, we were greeted nonchalantly by a man sitting down amongst us, wearing a tattered white t-shirt, set badge dangling around his neck, a plate full of greens and a chiseled, gruff face. This is Zack Snyder.
The visionary voice behind some of the biggest, boldest, darkest and destructive franchise films of the last sixteen years, often ahead of their time, underappreciated, loathed, loved, worshipped, hated and picked apart time and again. From Dawn of the Dead to 300 to Watchmen to Suckerpunch to Man of Steel to Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, (the real) Justice League and now Army of the Dead, Snyder has delivered some of the most amazing and viscerally-thrilling works that always seem to rub some folks the wrong way, while filling others with exactly what they need. Perhaps that’s the mark of a true artist…
What surprised me most about Zack (and his wife and longtime producing partner Debbie Snyder) was the down-to-Earth earnestness he exudes, which is something that speaks to his films as well. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they are absolutely the work of one man’s vision and Snyder speaks in that exact voice; calm, affable, passionate and conflicted. While we witnessed Zack at work on set, calling the shots, laughing, directing and even, at one point, firing off blanks from an M4 as an example of what he wants to his cast/crew, this was our moment to finally hear the man out and we were all ears. Well, in between bites of lunch.
Because I know the Snyder fans out there want to hear as much as they can, here’s the entirety of our lunch conversation, which plays even better when you consider how things would play out within the next few years after it was conducted.
Q: What did it mean to find a place you could shoot at?
ZACK: It was super hard. You can imagine that Vegas isn’t shutting down their entire floor for a studio. Here at the Showboat it’s so hard to shut the power off. Casinos aren’t designed to have the lights switched off. Literally, they didn’t know where the switches were. It was crazy. I was like, ‘Can you guys shut the lights off?’ and they were like, ‘What?’ The lights hadn’t been off for 20 years. You can imagine that in a bigger casino that has people in it that, that would’ve been problematic. But, anyway, it’s worked out really great. And it’s kinda fun being in Atlantic City.
Q: You weren’t originally at Showboat, right? You were at Atlantic? Is this a better venue, or?
ZACK: We were still shooting a bunch over there, but with the casino floor itself had a lot of construction going on and it ended up not having the length and breadth that we had here. It needs a big scale, so it’s worked out. It’s funny that the two casinos happen to be kinda close to each other. The Trump was also a possibility, but it didn’t work out.
Q: It’s been 15 years since Dawn of the Dead. Has it been fun to return to the zombie genre?
ZACK: It’s been, well, when we did Dawn it was slightly genre-busting movie in that I was a fan of the original and so didn’t want to remake the movie exactly, but certainly wanted to hit the tropes and all the sort of different aspects of a zombie movie that make it fun and or scary and or, y’know, social commentary-whatever you want to say about the genre. Those were all things that I was super into. But, the movie itself, I wanted to be careful not to destroy the original movie-not destroy, but y’know when you remake something exactly there can be some confusion later about where the ideas come from and how they’re formed and stuff like that. So, I was trying as best I could to homage the movie, y’know. It was more like reference to the original than it was a straight remake, which I find kind of a fun area to be in. And, with this movie it’s a full genre exploration, whether it be like-the movie really was inspired by movies like Escape From New York, or Aliens-Cameron’s Aliens, Robocop-y’know, that world. It’s very much a genre deconstruction in the sense that I love all the tropes, so I’m constantly trying to subvert the tropes by having them not finish as they would. So, you give them a ‘this is what would normally happen’ until you get all the energy moving in the direction of what the trope and how the trope works in the genre and then you have to, at the last second, subvert it, so that it does something else and kind of links up with another one. So, in that way I think the movie has been slightly complicated in the rendering of that tone, that idea. It’s been really fun and rewarding and really cool.
Y’know, we have the different kind of zombie types in the movie. Even in the very first conceptualizing of the movie there was gonna be these sort of evolved zombies. I thought it would be cool if there was a way to have a little bit of sympathy for the bad guy, if you will. It’s always cool when the monster-when you feel a little bit conflicted about what’s happening to the monster, right? But, that’s really hard with a straight shambler, normal zombies-it’s hard to have sympathy. In a weird way, even the guys who kill them seem like they’re doing them a favor a little bit. And, so I thought, if we were able to create this other class of zombie that was semi-conscious…we treat them kind of like wolves, like a dog. Not necessarily fully realized where they talk or anything, but they can organize. Zeus, y’know, he rides a horse (laughter) He has a staff and he’s probably the smartest of all of them. Whether he has hopes or dreams, I’m not sure (laughter). Our humans are like-they give zero fucks about his world. It’s kind of a fun relationship between him and the team. That was a fun thing to think about. Because the film, at its heart, is the relationship between Dave [Bautista] and his daughter, trying to mend their relationship throughout the course of the movie. She shouldn’t have been on the mission but she kinda tricked him into it. So, there’s this really small relationship movie about a father who abandoned his child and is trying to make it right. On top of that is pure genre mayhem insanity.
Q: And you went to the digital side…
ZACK: I did indeed.
Q: What’s that been like? How has it changed production?
ZACK: It’s been awesome, I can say that. Jared at Red Camera about two years ago gave me one of his monstros cameras to mess around with. So, I’ve been shooting with it for quite a while. And, when the movie came up, I talked to him and told him I wanted to shoot it in these crazy, low-light scenarios and would that be a thing that you-and the camera you gave me and the experiments I’ve done with it are really-it’s kind of the right tool. And also, I just felt like if I was gonna shoot the movie myself, I wanted a manageable tool. I mean, look, I was a cameraman for commercials for ten years and I shot exclusively on film and never even close to this. But, I will say that the sort of organic nature of the photography and the way I approached it has been a really fun photographic journey, I guess you could say. I haven’t felt nostalgic and remorseful over my lack of motion picture film, though I’m still a huge advocate of that format.
Q: Do you find it more efficient?
ZACK: It’s more efficient. It’s just different, y’know? A sort of different palate. We were shooting-the whole movie is wide open and don’t ever stop to put on a lens. We just shot the shit out of everything. When we shoot outside it’s all wide open all the time. So, the guys are like “yikes”. But, my camera assistants have done an amazing job. The movie’s way more in focus than I thought it was gonna be.
*proceeds to show images from the phone*
ZACK: I like operating [the camera]. [Inaudible] has done every movie since Watchmen with me and he’s the A camera operator and I’m the B camera operator. It’s been fun to shoot.
Q: You’re coming off a decade of more doing big superhero films and now you’re back doing a zombie genre pic. What does it mean to you coming from that to this now?
ZACK: Yeah, it’s fun. Y’know, we were talking about the process of making a big, giant superhero movie and then your relationship to the photographic process, even the actors and the way the camera’s working. It grows-You grow further and further away from it. Even though, I’d still draw the drawings and draw the shots, but they’re getting made further away. And that’s kind of true of all aspects of the movie. And I think for this, for me, it’s just 100 percent an organic experience where I can take hold of it as a filmmaking process, as a writing process, photographically, as a director, all the things…I find it-it’s a joy to get up and work on. There’s no real politics, there’s no real anything, just make the movie as cool as you can, that’s it. In that way, it’s super refreshing; inspiring.
Q: Deb was saying Netflix has giving you way more freedom to just make your movie…
ZACK: Yeah, collaborative, supportive. There’s been no, like-not to say that they just don’t care…they’re incredibly passionate about it, out of their minds as far as the dailies and way we’re approaching the movie. They’re not asking me…well, let’s put it this way: They’re very comfortable with the movie that I proposed to them and that’s a cool and great experience. It’s been an amazing relationship thus far.
Q: We still haven’t seen the version of Justice League that you intended…
Q: What’s your thoughts on that? Is there a point where you want people to focus more on what you’re doing now or what you’re going to do?
ZACK: Look, this is how I feel about it; of course I want everyone like, ‘look, I made this movie, let’s talk about it, that’s what I want, yes, there’s this new thing I made’. Hundred percent, I feel that way. But, I will say that I don’t really separate-the work to me is sort of a singular thing and sort of the process is a singular thing. Is there a relationship between this movie and my other films? Of course there is. And like, in the filmography is there a hole? Yeah, there is. That’s just a fact. And so, to have a conversation that fans and/or people who are interested in cinema and stuff be interested in what that is? I don’t know that there’s a time limit on that sort of interest. I sort of see them as two different things. I kind of feel like anyone who’s interested in that movie-whatever that movie was supposed to be and then what I’m doing now. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m pretty sure that someone who’s interested in that will go see this movie. I don’t think there’s a lot of people who are like, ‘No, no, I just want to know about Justice League and that’s it and I don’t care about what else he does.’ I don’t think that’s a thing.
So, I guess for me, I find that the people who are supportive of that aspect of whatever Justice League they’re interested in and the movie we’re making now, I feel like the relationship is only that, I made a movie and now I‘m making another movie. And so, someone that’s a fan of that, there’s a lot in this movie that they can get into and think is cool, but I don’t think it diminishes and is not meant to diminish their interest in- -Let’s put it this way, I think a lot of people in fandom have sacrificed a lot as far as maintaining their interest in that movie and I don’t want to like, not honor the commitment that people have to that and the interest they have in that, because I find it, just personally as a filmmaker and as an artist, whatever, like, incredibly cool and it makes me happy that there’s that much caring about a thing that they don’t even know what it is. So, I find that really awesome. Do I want to drag those people forward with me into the future? Of course. I definitely don’t want anyone to get this impression that I’m saying like, ‘Move on, forget about it!’ Because I think that dishonors the work that so many people have done in fandom and there’s a lot of money that’s been raised and a lot of strong relationships that have been forged out of this, whatever that is, that struggle and I don’t want to dishonor it-
DEB SNYDER: And it’s been super amazing to me how a movement which could be seen as ‘oh, we want this thing’ could create so much awareness for suicide prevention and so much money. It’s super humbling and it’s been really touching to us.
ZACK: Incredible, yeah, yeah.
DEB SNYDER: I think that fans are not only showing support for Zack’s art, but something very personal to us. It’s meant a lot to us.
Q: Do you have hope that they’ll get what they want?
ZACK: Look, as far as I know, it is what it is, but that doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination that it’s a completely dead subject. Every now and then something will come out or some piece of information will be shared and there’s an evolution. The truth is, y’know-I have faith in the sort of universe-it will be what it will be-so, if that were ever to happen, that’s great. But, I’m here now and shooting this and happy to do it.
Q: But, you feel the fans, right?
ZACK: A hundred percent. A hundred percent. Y’know, it has a pop culture aspect to it that I find interesting as well. This sort of Snyder Cut concept has become like a-
Q: Rob Liefeld just published a comic that has “Release The Snyder Cut” said by one of the characters…
ZACK: This is what I’m talking about.
Q: At NYCC they have a billboard in times square…
ZACK: Like I say, I can’t not say that’s awesome. You just can’t.
Q: You ever thought about just calling Ryan Reynolds and asking him to leak the film?
ZACK: (laughing) Ryan’s a good guy probably to do it.
Q: It’s Ryan that did it. He’ll take the bullet for it.
ZACK: What are ya gonna do? What’s anyone gonna do to Ryan? He doesn’t care! (laughter) Zero fucks given (laughter). Good idea.
Ah, if only we could have time traveled from now to back then. Could you imagine the look on Zack’s face if ‘future me’ could show him his own cut of Justice League from two years later? Army of the Dead blasts its way onto Netflix on May 21st, 2021.