Features and Columns · Movies

6 Filmmaking Tips From Zack Snyder

We explore the filmmaking lessons we can learn from the work and wisdom of Zack Snyder.
Zack Snyder filmmaking
By  · Published on March 23rd, 2016

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Zack Snyder.

Whether or not you like the movies that Zack Snyder makes, there’s no denying that he’s been a great success in the industry, not just in terms of his ability to get incredibly well-paying gigs ‐ like his latest, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — regardless of the performance of his previous works but also in terms of how much control he manages to wield with his projects, in spite of sometimes making people mad, from the executives all the way down to the viewers.

So, if you’re looking for tips on how to be a filmmaker like Snyder even if you don’t want to necessarily make films like Snyder’s, the six pieces of advice collected here are worth following.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Zack Snyder

1. Start with commercials

Snyder is really into creative freedom and artistic integrity, which is interesting because he comes from such a literally commercial background. After graduating from the industrial-minded Art Center College of Design, he worked for many years shooting ads and corporate promos, many of them for cars and beer. It helped him hone his skills as a director but also made him accomplished enough to get to the point where he could do his movies his own way.

In one of our own first interviews with anyone, back in 2007, Snyder told us of the benefit to that background:

“I’ve been shooting commercials for, you know, 15 years. Three a frickin’ month in the old days. But I think the way it prepared me is, you know, in commercials every single job is a production problem. It’s a hundred and eighty degrees different from the problem that you just faced the week before. So when we did ‘300,’ it was the same problem over and over. You know, like how the fuck do you make this landscape look real? And how do you make this fuckin’ cool? With a commercial every single day is different, and every project and every shot is different. And in that way, I think its awesome training ground for a director to hone his skills with problem-solving. Because that is your job as a director, you know, to solve problems.”

And continue doing them. Snyder probably doesn’t need to keep making commercials now, but for a number of years, he found it vital to maintaining his overall career, for financial security. Here’s what he said during a roundtable talk for Ad Age also back in 2007:

“In advertising, you get into a groove, let’s get some boards, conference calls. The feature business doesn’t really care about your time. You’re on an endless time continuum. I don’t know how they think we’re paying the rent. [‘Dawn of the Dead’] cost me. It’s such a great honor we’re letting you direct this movie, and a year later it’s like, ‘Holy shit! What am I doing? My kids are going to starve if I don’t get this thing done!'”

2. Just do it

In the below interview with the UK’s FILMCLUB, Snyder is asked for his top three filmmaking tips (at the 3:00 mark), and he keeps his response rather simple. “Write a small story” is one. “Then you just need to shoot it,” he says. It’s just a matter of getting the people together to do it.

He is primarily addressing young people starting out, but the general easy-as-that mentality probably works for a lot of directors in Hollywood, too. In the Ad Age roundtable, he makes filmmaking sound effortless, referring to his experience on 300: “You stand in front of a blue screen, film the actors, put some crap behind it … Anything is possible now, with the right amount of money and time.”

Snyder is also into just doing something himself if nobody else can get it right. He told the New York Times in 2011 that if he hires someone who isn’t doing a good job, he’ll take over without confrontation. And it’s not just on set. “It can be doing anything,” he said. “It could be a bad gardener, and he’s not mowing the grass that great. I’ll just mow it myself.”

And as he notes in the video below on how to become a superhero movie director, if you can’t find a comic book to adapt, just draw your own and then adapt that.

3. Have it your way

His third tip to FILMCLUB may not be as easy for everyone in the business: “Whatever your way of telling it, you just have to do it that way.” He’s said some variation of this in many interviews and discussions. In the Ad Age talk, he says, “Everyone has their set of instincts, their own point of view. That’s why I want to watch something, to see someone else’s point of view.”

In the same piece, he admits he continually made Universal mad because he stuck to his own vision on Dawn of the Dead. Fortunately he wasn’t fired, it did well and he kept being able to follow his instincts because, as he says, that’s the job of a director. And it’s not just about ignoring the studio but also the fans. Here’s a statement he made to Times Online about staying focused with his take on Watchmen:

“In the end, all the director has is a point of view. If you give up your point of view, then you might as well make the movie by asking everyone what they want and no one wants to see something like that, although I think that unfortunately, you do see a lot of those movies. If you get to control what you see, then it’s like playing a video game, and I think for me, in a motion picture experience, I want the director to push things around and be in control.”

And here’s his direct advice to young filmmakers via E! Online last fall:

“I really think the best movies, the most creative and fun stuff is the stuff that comes out of the individual, of the personality. Those are my favorite movies, the ones where I feel like I can feel the filmmaker. I think that’s what it’s about. To me, it’s about finding that individual voice that’s transcendent,” he said. “That’s what I would say to someone who wants to do it. Find out that thing in you that’s driving you to want to do it, and just really try and focus on that, and make that your prism you sort of put everything through.”

You can find more directly from Snyder’s mouth in this video from WonderCon 2009:

And if you want your wife to produce your movies, then make that a deal breaker like it is for the Snyders, Zack and Deborah. Plus, he told the New York Times it’s good for your marriage not to be gone for months on a shoot away from your spouse.

4. Keep it real

While making Man of Steel, Snyder joked a lot about how it was his most realistic movie, which he admitted sounds weird since it’s about Superman. Snyder acknowledges how even with the most fantastical stories and in spite of any unnatural visual aesthetic he employs in their telling, “there’s always a stylized reality.”

That line is specifically from an interview with The A.V. Club promoting 2010’s Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. Even an animated fantasy adventure film involving an owl society has to be grounded with a certain level of believability. But that’s not any weirder than any movie needing to seem real on some level.

He continues in the interview:

“I’m incredibly intrigued by the irony of reality in a motion picture. Part of it for me was that I knew I’d have owls talking in the movie. So we could make the world with the rules we want. There are talking owls with technology ‐ they made helmets, for God’s sake! And they have this mythic culture, so to me, there’s an interesting irony in the fact that you could render a real-world that feels like there are laws of physics and consequences and all those things, but with owls. I think the fun of that, in this movie anyway, 30 minutes into the movie, the fact that they’re owls is not a big deal.”

5. Throw things

Directing is a stressful job, and for some ill-tempered filmmakers throwing things is probably a result of that. But for Snyder, it’s important to get that physical activity going early so it’s a stress reliever not an outlet of anger.

“Not at people, just for fun,” he explains about his throwing things advice in a list of his golden rules of filmmaking for MovieMaker. “On the set this means: Football, tennis ball, rock, ball of tape ‐ basically any object, it doesn’t matter. Then throw: To a person, at an orange cone, into a distant trash can… again, doesn’t matter. At least for me, any version of throwing shit makes even the shortest break relaxing.”

Other rules on that list involve respect, endurance, passion, storyboarding, and why he shoots on film.

6. Seek out other filmmakers’ tips

Snyder has been working for a long time, and he knows what he’s doing (whether we like what he’s doing or not), but when he took on Batman v Superman, he still needed to seek out advice and approval from his peers and mentors.

He asked Christopher Nolan, who’d previously done three Batman movies and also worked on Man of Steel, for his blessing. Nolan, apparently having difficulty letting go, according to an Empire interview with Snyder, just sort of reminded him that these are just comic book movies and not to get too personally attached to the material. “We don’t own these characters,” he said. “When you’re done making Batman movies, someone else will [make them].”

And Snyder also reportedly met with his old collaborator Frank Miller on Batman v Superman because of its obvious influence from Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. What advice he may have received is unknown, but it seems at least some of the discussion (via Comic Book Resources) was about how the new movie honors but is quite different from the comic book and how there’s still room for a straight adaptation in the future.

Years back, in the Ad Age discussion, he shared some good advice he got from his old schoolmate Tarsem Singh, director of the Snyder-like Immortals: ”Tarsem told me, know that if you make a movie, there’s a really good chance that you’ll only make one movie, so you just better be happy with it. If you don’t then you’re doing it for the wrong reason.”

Snyder has always prized friendships like those he has with Nolan, Miller, Tarsem and other classmates and collaborators like his regular DP, Larry Fong, who he also met at Art Center, and his maintenance of relationships is as vital as any tips he can get from them. As he says in that interview with FILMCLUB, you need people to gather around you to get a film made in the first place.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.