Interviews · Movies

Interview: Director Zack Snyder talks ‘300’

In this interview from February 2007, director Zack Snyder sits down one-on-one for the first time with Film School Rejects to discuss 300.
A Conversation with Zack Snyder about 300 - Leonidas Look
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on February 14th, 2007

Published in 2007 prior to the release of 300, this conversation with director Zack Snyder may appear to be conducted by a young journalist stumbling his way through it. That’s because this particular article is a record of the first time a studio filmmaker was generous enough to give 15-minutes to Film School Rejects for an interview. We will always remember it fondly.

If you aren’t excited about the upcoming film 300, then you may want to check your pulse. If you haven’t heard of 300, then get out from underneath your rock, and check out the trailer. Now that you are prepared, we can talk some serious 300 game. The film is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300, which tells the tale of 300 Spartans and their battle against a million Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C, a turning point in the early days of democracy. It stars Gerard Butler (Phantom of the Opera, Beowulf & Grendel) and is Directed by Zack Snyder, who remade George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in 2004. In preparation for the film’s release on March 9, I had a chance to sit down and talk with the man at the helm, director Zack Snyder and chat about 300, how it stacks up to Sin City and some upcoming projects of note.

Neil Miller: How do  you feel about the film, now that it is done and ready to be released? Did it come out the way you intended?

Zack Snyder: Um… I think it did. Actually I am very pleased with what I got. You know, I went on a long journey, and when you leave you don’t anticipate the ending. And it was only, I think, now that we’ve reached the ending that I look back and I go gosh, you know we did it. We kept our eye on the prize. And that is pretty, pretty monumental in some ways. I don’t know if I expected it to, to be honest.

You have talked about the fact that you made a movie that you’d like to see. And a lot of movies in this genre, such as Troy or Alexander seemed to be these big studio driven flicks. How did you get Warner Brothers to sign off on you making your movie?

Ah, you know what. I don’t know what I did. But for some reason, they had some confidence in me that I, uh… that I was very excited about… that they said, you know what they trusted me to make them a cool movie. And maybe it was that trust in me that made me work extra hard. They’ve been nothing but great.

One of the things that stick out about the film is that it is almost all digital, almost completely shot in front of a bluescreen. At what point did you say “we have to do this with a blue screen” instead of shooting on location?

You know what, it happened I think early on because I knew that there was no way we could make those Frank [Miller] Frames outside. It was just going to be impossible to try and find those times of day that looked like that or that landscape that looked like that. It just didn’t exist in the real world. And so, that was really an early decision to say, “you know we’ve gotta make this… I gotta make this world that doesn’t exist except for in Frank’s head. So we’ve gotta go make it, we can’t find it.”

So would you say that was your goal for the film? To make Frank’s vision kind of come alive?

Yeah. Absolutely. In fact, that certainly was uh, I wanted to make Frank’s vision come alive and I feel like when I watch it that I get that. You know, after Frank saw the movie he said “you know, it’s the movie I wanted to see when I was young. When I saw my original 300 Spartans, this is the movie I wanted to see.” So that’s cool. It made me feel good.

And the film does certainly seems to be an extension of Frank’s novel, but what is different about the film than the graphic novel itself?

Um, there is a small difference in the storyline. We added a thing with the Queen back home in Sparta. And, um, I would say that’s the major difference. I would say that other than that it is pretty much 90% the graphic novel.

The film does seem to capture the graphic novel quite well, at least from what we can see in the trailer. It also feels like a “visual feast” of sorts. But what do you think will surprise audiences about 300?

I think that what’s surprising about 300 is that it’s not just a visual feast, it’s actually a thing… you know, people have come up to me and said “you know, I cried at the end of 300.” I’m like, that’s awesome. You know, and that’s what I would hope for. I want the movie… look… it’s a romp, you know. One of the things I’ve said is that, you know, it’s hard to go and see a movie that’s made for adults that’s fun. I think that, like, when people make that R-Rated movie 90% of the time it’s either like horrific or depressing. And I wanted to do a movie that when you walked out you were like “Fuck! That was awesome!” And like, you wanna kick some ass.

And I’d say the trailer is definitely something that is getting people pumped up. Now, the soundtrack in the trailer is Nine Inch Nails. Is the rest of the soundtrack at all similar to that?

I would say that the soundtrack that Tyler [Bates] created is both modern and ancient at the same time. And it is a hard balance to strike, and he walks a razor’s edge with it but I think he really does pull it off. He has been working on the movie as long as I have and I sat down in front of him and said, “Hey, make some music for this fucker.” And what he did was, you know, he really has been part of the process. And so he has evolved his sound with the film as it evolved. And he was able to create orchestral stuff that feels big and giant and epic but also these sort of guitar, kind of modern things that also makes the movie modern in its own way without pulling you out of the movie and making you go “what is this? Why do I hear fuckin’ rock and roll music?” He was able to do that, I think.

Let’s talk a little bit about Gerard Butler. We’ve talked about some of these other epics with these big stars in them. And Gerard is known in America, but he’s no Brad Pitt. What made him the choice to play Leonidas?

You know, when I first met Gerry we met in this coffee shop and he was immediately insane, in a good way. He stood up and he ranted around the coffee shop. He posed, he had the book with him. He had is own copy of it and he was like, “Look at this. This is awesome. I want to be like this.” And when I left I said, “Wow, that guy is… he’s the King.” You know, he’s the guy. And I went home to my wife who is one of the producers of the movie and I said, “Baby, I met Gerry and I think he’s the guy.” And she said, “Oh really, that’s exciting.” And he had to do a little song and dance for the studio, but not too much. He promised Alan Horn that he would get buff, get ripped up and that he’d quit smoking and he did. So that was kinda good.

Was there ever anyone else in consideration for that role? Did the studio ever say that you had to get someone bigger?

You know, after I met Gerry, honestly I stopped looking.

Now, you’ve talked about your years spent making commercials and how much traveling you were able to do. How do you think that prepared you to make the jump into feature films?

You know, I still make commercials. I just made a Gatorade commercial a few weeks ago in Buenos Aires. 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 an 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. To figure them out. Anyway, that’s the way I do it.

Wow, you seem like a busy guy. Do you thrive off of doing that, moving from project to project?

You know, I do I guess. I hate to sit still and I hate not to have something to work on. It’s hard for me not to. That way, you know commercials certainly keep me busy and feature films haven’t disappointed me either. Let me tell ya, they’re pretty hardcore.

Yeah, definitely. Now I guess I would be letting down the fanboy sections of our readers if I didn’t ask about Watchmen. So what’s the latest update there?

Yeah, you know Watchmen is definitely the number one thing on my radar right now. I don’t have anything else that I am even honestly vaguely interested in, and working on other than Watchmen. I said to the Studio, I said: “Listen, this is the coolest fuckin’ thing there is, and if we don’t do this right then…” Whenever they ask me to change it I say, you know what nevermind. And they’re like “Ok, ok, ok…” It’s just one of those things that I feel really passionate about and I want to make sure it’s as good as it could possibly be. So we’re working on it, you know. We’ve been talking about shooting in the summer. Hopefully, soon I’ll be able to tell you about some actors. I’ve been talking to a bunch of actors and soon we’ll be able to say who they are.

So no real vacation for you, just right into the next thing?

No vacation. No way.

Also, another project to which you’ve been attached is Rainbow Six. Do you see that in the future?

Yeah, you know Kurt and I wrote a draft of Rainbox Six, a version of it. And Paramount has it, and I don’t think they are going to do anything with it right now. They just kinda, for whatever reason Clancy has gone to the back burner for them. So yeah, I’m all Watchmen right now.

Now, with 300 do you think that you’ve set a standard for your films going forward? Does your next film have to be as visually impressive or can you change gears?

I would hope that my… what do you call it? I guess I would hope that my aesthetic is consistent. I don’t know about more spectacular, but certainly more specific. And I would hope that every shot is good. That even if I’m shooting a shot in the city that it’s as cool as I shot I did in Thermopylae. I like that kind of thing, so I’m attracted to it.

Now, what else should people know about 300 that they haven’t gotten yet through the trailer, or the marketing campaign?

I think the big thing for me about 300 is that you know. And the important thing is that… I’ll say it one more time. It’s a fun movie experience, you know. People, you know. Whatever they want to say about it. It’s a sword and sandals epic, it’s a war movie… all that stuff. The truth is that in the end I really just wanted to make a movie that is a ride. And it’s awesome when you walk out of it, and it’s satisfying and you saw something that you haven’t seen.

Was it as much a ride to make it as it will be for everyone who sees it?

Absolutely, it was. Especially the shooting. It was a grueling, non-stop freak out, you know. Every day you’d get there and work all day, you’d go home, go to sleep and wake up and go right back and do it again. No rest, no fuckin’ downtime. Just fuckin’ hardcore all the way.

What was your biggest challenge during the shoot?

I think that the physicality was the hardest thing. You know, we were all playing hurt, but we were all happy to do it. Around here it was like football season because we were all broken and just trying to hang in there.

You mentioned how Frank was impressed by the film. What kind of involvement did he have with the production?

Frank was involved in the sense that I used his book as a bible for the movie. But early on he said to me “Look, man, this is your movie. And I’m here for you but in the end it’s up to you to make it good or not.” And he was busy with Sin City, so he really kinda let me just go and do it.

And not to dwell on Sin City, because I’m sure people will be eternally comparing the two films, but what makes 300 different than Sin City besides the fact that they were both born from graphic novels?

I think that if you look at the trailer as an example you can sort of see the visual difference. I think it is pretty visually different from Sin City. And think that because it’s a single story and it’s a single historical story it’s much more… in some ways its more like a movie, you know than Sin City. I loved Sin City, don’t get me wrong but it’s more of a movie experience.

Now do you see yourself ever getting away from the action/superhero genre?

Yeah, I could. If the right project came along. Again, you know it’s like you said before, I really just want to make movies that I want to see. If I’m attracted to the movie and thought, “Yeah, that’d be a cool movie to see,” then I’d be happy to make it.

Thankfully for the rest of us, the movies that Zack Snyder would like to see are films that we would like to see as well. If this film comes out to be half as cool as the man behind it, we are in for a treat for certain…

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)