VANCOUVER – Walking through the various sets and art departments and rehearsal spaces in use for the movie “Sucker Punch,” Deb Snyder giving us the majority of the tour with well-orchestrated appearances from the various department heads and director Zack Snyder himself, one thing quickly became apparent to me: no matter how hard they all tried to explain the film to me, this was not going to be a movie that would ever be easily summed up.
I’ve known Zack Snyder since the post-production period on “300,” when I visited his offices in Burbank to watch some early footage that he’d finished, and he has always struck me as a guy who finds it frankly amazing that he gets to do what he does for a studio with some real muscle behind him helping him realize his imagination. As we looked at some of the first finished scene from that film, I laughed several times, incredulous at what I was seeing, and the more I reacted, the more animated Zack got talking about how and why he used the various tricks in his bag.
For “Watchmen,” I visited the Vancouver sets that were built for the film, and it remains one of the most impressive physical builds I’ve ever seen. I got the feeling that was an important part of the publicity for that film after all the press about the greenscreens on “300,” the way they built that world in a computer. And walking around those sets with Snyder, as he basically described the way they took the inside of Dave Gibbons’ head and turned it into a physical location that was several square city blocks wide, what I felt was his strongest attribute came into focus: his total immersion in whatever it is he’s making.
Directors in general have to build these bubbles for themselves while they’re working so they can keep their focus on the daily magic trick that is bringing a movie to life. With something like “Watchmen,” Snyder had a strong foundation to work from, something that everyone could refer to as a common starting point, and so Snyder’s whole world was that book and the things it suggested to him for the entire time he was working on it. With “Sucker Punch,” he was writing something personal, something that he created, and so the focus was very different. For the first time, Snyder was able to start with a completely blank canvass.
When I showed up to Vancouver for the set along with a small group of fellow journalists, I wasn’t surprised that Deb Snyder was our guide for the day. Deb is Zack’s wife as well as his producer, and they’re a formidable team. Along with Wesley Coller, Deb is sort of the daily facilitator for Zack’s work, and no one makes a more persuasive case for what it is that Zack’s trying to accomplish with each project. She was the one who immediately set the tenor for our conversation, ongoing throughout the day, about what, exactly, “Sucker Punch” is.
Zack is an extremely visual thinker, so it makes sense that for him, a film about the powerful escape mechanism of the imagination would be something where he builds a film out of outsized fantastic images that seemingly have nothing in common. The film is basically the story of Babydoll, a girl on the verge of womanhood whose world is destroyed in front of her just before she’s sent to Lennox House, an asylum, to be broken. She has an early break with reality, imagining the asylum to be an upscale brothel instead, her fellow inmates imagined instead as prisoners of an entirely different sort. And then, within that false world, already an escape, Babydoll begins to imagine even more elaborate alternate worlds, all tied together by a quest to find various totems that will set her free from all her fantasies and her reality as well.
As we met with Michael Wilkinson and looked as his costuming work, at the way he would echo various ideas through each level of reality, constantly working to build character into the costumes, and as we walked through the spaces designed by Rick Carter, including the main gymnasium/theater set, and as we walked past entire sequences laid out in storyboard, the scale of the film felt daunting. “Sucker Punch” is wildly ambitious, and it’s the sort of big gesture filmmaking that will no doubt hotly divide people before they even step foot in a theater.
One of my favorite details of the entire day was something uber-nerdy. One of Zack’s favorite films is “Excalibur,” the John Boorman take on Arthurian legends, and if you know that film, you know how distinctive and bizarre the armor in the movie is. When they went to design the armor for this film, WIlkinson started searching various UK services for armor they could rent or buy to use in the film, and he found the place where all the “Excalibur” armor ended up, all of it still intact, and they ended up bringing in the “Excalibur” armor and using that as the base to start with in personalizing the gear worn by the girls in the medieval dream in the film. It’s not really recognizable now, but just knowing that they were using that armor from that film is one of those things that makes this a more personal effort from Snyder in every way.
This is a seriously girly movie, by design, and the cast was all introduced to us over the course of the day. Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone, who play sisters in the film, also sat together for their interview, and there was a very immediate dynamic evident between them. Cornish is a tall, sturdy, imposing presence, and Malone has a much more coiled and reserved energy. As a result, it felt like Cornish was the older sister, almost daring someone in the room to be impolite with Malone, ready to take care of anyone who tried. Jamie Chung and Vanessa Hudgens each came in to speak with us alone, and with each of them, the first impression was of a tangible pride in what they were doing. These girls were all going through extreme physical training to keep themselves ready for the demands of the shoot, and they were all invested with this barely in-check physical energy. As the voice of experience in the female cast, Carla Gugino was also impressive, and had a lot to say about returning to work with Snyder in the wake of “Watchmen.” We’ll have those interviews for you as a separate piece.
Like “Watchmen,” this is a physical shoot, with much of the movie actually built. This is the middle-ground between what he did in “300” and the all-real aesthetic of “Watchmen,” though, since there are some outrageous things they’re trying to pull off. We walked through a train car that is part of the high-tech SF robot segment of the film, and we talked about the incredible fight sequence that he was staging there. The plan for shooting was so specific, so carefully laid out, that the train car had been built with various pieces and panels missing to accommodate the eventual camera moves through the space and the stunt work that had to happen. Looking at finished scenes on that set now, I’m blown away by how every minute detail was built in from the start in Zack’s vision of things.
Watching someone shoot a film like this, where each shot is so carefully designed, is rarely a case of watching a whole sequence play out uninterrupted. As it was on the “Scott Pilgrim” set, what we actually saw shoot amounted to probably three seconds of total image in the final film. It was on one of the stages, and it was a shot looking up at Abbie Cornish, Emily Browning, Jena Malone, and Jamie Chung as they jumped out of a helicopter. We spent an hour or so watching them repeat the same short move, then watch and discuss what they did with Zack, then do it again. The most notable thing about watching them work was realizing just how comfortable the cast had gotten with the visually arresting costumes they all wore, which were both revealing and vaguely threatening. Jamie Chung in particular seemed utterly at ease while wearing a pair of chaps that left little to the imagination. It’s a workplace environment that is surreal in the casually overwhelming visual nature of it, where you know every day you’ve got to go to work, dress in outrageous fetish gear, and fight dragons and undead soldiers and robots and Samurai giants. Ho hum, right?
Because of the access we were given, this is no single report. We’ve got several individual interviews as well as a further preview of the story to the film. I’ll say this much about “Sucker Punch,” though: as much as I left the set still confused about exactly how all of these things were going to work together, I also left convinced that Snyder is a guy who will always be interesting, but who will occasionally hit some very rarified company because he aims high. He’s not trying to just keep you occupied for two hours on a Friday night with something you’ll forget as soon as you drive home. He’s trying to get inside your head with these pictures he paints. He believes in the Big Image, the Grand Gesture, and it is a genuine thrill to step onto a set where someone’s dreaming as big as this.
We’ll have more on “Sucker Punch,” including our chats with the girls, on Thursday, so check back for that.
“Sucker Punch” opens in theaters and in IMAX on March 25, 2011.