On a characteristically frigid day in British Columbia last November, I received a guided tour of Zack Snyder’s brain. Its contents were spread out among the many soundstages and production offices at Vancouver Film Studios, where the director of 300 and Watchmen was nearing the end of principal photography on his latest epic, Sucker Punch. The film, a sprawling action/fantasy musical(!) about a girl who retreats into an alternate reality while waiting to be lobotomized, is the first of Snyder’s live-action works based not on a popular comic book or a previously released film. Rather, it’s an extravagant paean to everything that has ever influenced, inspired, or interested him as an artist since, well, ever.
“40 years of stuff that you like, all smushed together and turned into a single thing” is how Snyder described Sucker Punch, chatting between takes of a scene in which Babydoll (Emily Browning), clad in a skimpy schoolgirl outfit, tussles with a pair of undead German World War I soldiers. It might be called Snyder’s first “original work,” but it faithfully adheres to his established (and enormously successful) formula of taking something familiar — in this case, bits and pieces of tropes and tableaus from assorted comic books, anime, and films ranging from Excalibur to Moulin Rouge — and enhancing it, the directorial equivalent of donning a pair of 3D glasses. “It’s things that I’ve always felt like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool,’ and you sort of see a glimpse of it in a movie, but no one really takes it all the way,” explained Snyder. “In all of these fantasy sequences, we try to just go, ‘Oh no, that would be cooler if it was just all the way crazy.’”
The concept for the film sprang in part from Snyder’s desire to be freed from the boundaries inherent to comic book adaptations, with their pre-fab storyboards and built-in (and often unforgiving) audiences. But Snyder’s famous penchant for CGI spectacle and elaborate production design is still very much intact. “Everything is very stylized,” remarked Snyder’s producer wife, Deborah. “Everything is shot inside, nothing is shot exterior. It is a heightened sense of reality, all of it.”
Navigating Snyder’s “all the way crazy” digital dreamscape of orcs, dragons, knights, mechas, samurai warriors, and robots are, fittingly enough, a quintet of attractive young women, each dressed in variants of popular sexy Halloween costumes. “One of Zack’s earlier requests of me was to refresh these female archetypes — schoolgirl, warrior, nurse, belly dancer, French maid — and to layer up the usual details of these personas with cool, grungy, broken-down, war-torn warrior textures,” recalled Sucker Punch costume designer Michael Wilkinson, who relished “letting my imagination go wild” with the characters, all of whom experience several different (and presumably sexy) levels of reality throughout the film. In addition to Browning’s Babydoll, there’s Jena Malone’s Rocket (the nurse), Abbie Cornish’s Sweet Pea (the warrior), Jamie Chung’s Amber (the maid), and Vanessa Hudgens’ Blondie (the belly dancer). Treading that lucrative line between empowerment and exploitation, each girl gets to perform her own individual burlesque routine in between fight sequences. (Malone seemed particularly excited about her “crazy dead zombie robot nurse dance,” which she described as “awesome.”)
The burlesque routines are set within the confines of a brothel, presided over by Carla Gugino‘s Madam Gorski. Similar to The Wizard of Oz, each character in the fantasy portion of the film has a waking-life equivalent. Gugino’s is Dr. Gorski, a psychiatrist at the mental asylum where Browning’s character resides before taking her dreamy sojourn. “I’ve never done anything like this,” said the actress, who also worked with Snyder on Watchmen. “It’s fascinating.”
I’ll be back with more in-depth interviews with cast and crew from the set of Sucker Punch in the near future. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a quote from Wilkinson which sums up the film’s ethos quite succinctly: “There’s this beautiful slow-motion shot of bullets falling to the ground next to Blondie’s thigh-high, customized boots,” he raved. “It’s like, bullets and high heels, that’s my kind of movie.”
Sucker Punch opens March 25, 2011. A new trailer for the film is slated to debut today at 5pm Pacific over at Apple.com.
Below is a brand-new image from the film, featuring Babydoll: