- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Matthias Schweighöfer was feeling the pressure. It was his first day on Army of the Dead, and he’d just met Zack Snyder, a director he’d long admired. Now he had to deliver his most challenging scene and prove casting him had been the right choice.
“It was a 10-minute scene in the original version. It was huge,” says Schweighöfer of a monologue he delivered to co-stars Dave Bautista and Ana de la Reguera as they tried to recruit his safe-cracking character, Ludwig Deiter, for a zombie-infested heist.
It was a big moment for the Schweighöfer, who spent part of his childhood behind the Iron Curtain and had dreamed of coming to America to make movies. Though he was nervous, something soon clicked.
“There was one moment where I knew, ‘OK, I’m in this film,'” recalls Schweighöfer. “It’s when Dave touches the blueprint, and I say, ‘Take your sausage fingers away, Mr. Big Hand.’ Dave started laughing. Zack started laughing. And I knew, ‘OK, welcome to the show.'”
When Army of the Dead debuted in May, Dieter became a favorite with audiences. Now, just five months later, Schweighöfer is back on screens with the rom-com heist prequel Army of Thieves, this time as both star and director after impressing Zack Snyder and producing partner Deborah Snyder with his enthusiasm and boyish charm.
“I think he finally puts to rest that the Germans don’t have charm, and that the Germans don’t tell jokes and that we can’t poke fun at ourselves,” says fellow German Hans Zimmer, who scored Army of Thieves.
In Germany, Schweighöfer has established himself as a hitmaker with successes such as 2015 comedy The Manny and 2013 rom-com The Breakup Man. But breaking into America felt like another world.
“It always felt far away, like somewhere on another planet to reach the universe of Zack and Debbie Snyder,” says Schweighöfer.
There’s a touching moment in Army of Thieves when Schweighöfer’s hero, Sebastian, explains his past as a nerdy boy who dreamed of another life — one of cracking safes and dashing around the globe under the name Ludwig Dieter.
Schweighöfer had his own dreams as a kid. Rather than safe-cracking, he was obsessed with American movies. He grew up in East Germany behind the Berlin Wall, watching Russian-German television and not knowing much about the West. At 9, the Wall fell, and he saw his first American film, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The screening at an old movie theater in Frankfurt blew his mind, particularly as he wasn’t sure what was real given how little information he’d had about the West.
“When the Wall came down, and I saw E.T., I thought, ‘Fuck me, big time. There are aliens in the world? And there are spaceships? And they are on the planet? What the fuck is going on?'” he recalls thinking. “I was really like, ‘If this is the West, I want to live there.'”
He was hooked on Hollywood, devouring Steven Spielberg movies and TV shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Who’s The Boss? and The Wonder Years. His parents, Gitta and Michael, were both theater actors. They split up when he was 3 but brought up their son in a creative environment, with Schweighöfer’s mother teaching theater and giving him his first shot at directing as a teenager at her school.
As Schweighöfer eventually gained prominence in Germany, he watched from the other side of the world, admiring Snyder’s work. As fate would have it, Army of the Dead was the opportunity that would take Schweighöfer into their universe.
“We were having a little bit of a hard time casting that role,” Zack Snyder says of Dieter. “We looked at a whole bunch of different people and a whole bunch of different concepts.”
The team briefly considered reconceiving Dieter as a woman due to the casting challenges.
“Then we got Matthias’ read, out of the blue, and it all was exactly right,” says Zack Snyder. “Matthias himself kind of made the character, and then we were writing the character for him and shaped it around him.”
Before filming began, the Army of the Dead cast took part in training camp with former Navy SEALs. The SEALs decided Schweighöfer did not need to train with a gun — Unlike co-stars Bautista and Omari Hardwick — because Dieter was so different than the rest of the hard-nosed characters. This helped unlock the character for the actor.
“I thought, ‘I can be loud when everyone is quiet. I can destroy stuff.’ I started to do everything different,” says the actor. “It was the same here on Army of Thieves. I had this huge playground, and I was allowed to do childish stuff.”
Zack Snyder was surprised by one character choice that became a trademark: Dieter’s scream.
“I didn’t expect it. Nobody did,” says the Army of the Dead filmmaker. “He just let out that amazing scream, and suddenly we realized that would be a signature.”
Once filming got underway on Army of the Dead, Netflix executives started seeing the dailies, and it became apparent that Dieter would be a breakout. Meanwhile, the Snyders had been tasked with dreaming up ways to expand the Army universe, with Netflix international head David Kosse asking for something that could play globally.
“Everyone was really enamored [with Dieter], and we started talking, ‘What about Dieter?'” recalls Deborah Snyder, who invited Schweighöfer to coffee while filming in Albuquerque, N.M., to have an early discussion on the idea.
Next, Zack Snyder got to work with co-writer Shay Hatten, conceiving Army of Thieves as The Italian Job but with their trademark style (plus some zombie references).
Schweighöfer had recently broken into the thriller genre with the Amazon series You Are Wanted and was eager to explore new types of directing vehicles. He quickly put his hat in the ring for Army of Thieves. But the Snyders were unfamiliar with his work as a filmmaker. So, they asked around about his experience and watched You Are Wanted, which helped convince them he was their choice. Netflix’s Kosse was also a fan, as the two men had previously worked together on a project.
“We hugged. Debbie and Zack were like, ‘What’s going on now? What did we miss?'” Schweighöfer recalls of a meeting in which Kosse gave him a warm greeting. “After that, it moved so fast. We got the green light, and Zack called me and said, ‘Do you want to direct?'”
Schweighöfer spent time with Zack Snyder and screenwriter Hatten before heading back to Germany. Two months later, he received the first draft and got to work. He assembled an international cast, with Netflix encouraging him and the Snyders to pick actors that would appeal to different territories, such as France’s Jonathan Cohen, who was tapped to play the Interpol agent hunting down the team of thieves.
By that point, Army of the Dead had just begun screening for test audiences, and the Snyders were pleased to see their instincts about Dieter were right.
“We knew he was going to be a favorite,” says produce Deborah Snyder. “When we tested the film, he scored the top favorite character.”
As Army of Thieves geared up to shoot in Prague, the coronavirus pandemic upended the world and saw productions leave the city left and right. Army remained, with Schweighöfer completing the entire project during COVID.
“This bubble we created was a really happy bubble,” says the filmmaker.
In order to balance acting and directing duties, Schweighöfer and cinematographer Bernhard Jasper were extra prepared each day. They planned the scenes out so that Schweighöfer’s own closeups would come last so he could compartmentalize the acting and directing.
“Everything is storyboarded. Everything is crystal clear from the very first day,” says Schweighöfer.
When he’s acting in a scene, he likes the actors to forget he’s their director. If he wants to adjust something, he can do so by his own performance.
“I don’t like to have a big ego as a director. I know what I can do to get the best out of all of the actors I work with,” says the filmmaker.
Despite Thieves containing the most ambitious action sequences of his career as a director, Schweighöfer was most nervous about the banter-heavy van scenes with his heist crew, played by Nathalie Emmanuel, Guz Khan, Ruby O. Fee and Stuart Martin.
“You have to be very complementary to all of these people to get the best out of them,” says the filmmaker. “We did stuff in the van, I can remember, getting into this tiny space with all these people and [capturing] the rhythms. That was one thing where I thought, ‘If we fuck that up, I cannot call Debbie and say, ‘We need another shooting day on this van scene.'”
If a star like Tom Cruise gets injured on a Mission: Impossible movie, it shuts down and costs the production millions of dollars. That’s doubly true if a star-director gets injured. So for stunts — including being thrown out of a van and a chase scene on a bike — Schweighöfer leaned heavily on three stunt doubles, something his producers appreciated.
“I really liked it because it gave me some freedom to say, ‘No, I will not do these stunts,'” says the filmmaker, who was discouraged from doing too much. “Everyone was like, ‘Thank you so much.'”
For the Snyders, Army of Thieves came at a particularly busy time. They were finishing up additional photography on Army of the Dead in order to insert comedian Tig Notaro into the film. They were also completing Zack Snyder’s Justice League, including shooting an additional scene. And coronavirus meant they could not travel to the Thieves set, which was a challenge for the filmmakers, who like to be hands-on producers.
“I would watch dailies. I talked to Matthias almost every day,” says Deborah Snyder, who credits their bond from Army of the Dead with making the remote relationship work.
When filming wrapped, Schweighöfer hunkered down at his home with editor Alex Banner, who suggested cutting the film without any music.
“The first three or four versions of the film, they were silent. It was just acting,” says Schweighöfer. “I realized these two hours, they really work. And it was a very interesting process for me to understand. If a scene or a film works without music, the film can only be better.”
When Zimmer volunteered to score the film, it checked off a bucket list item for Schweighöfer.
“When he delivered music the first time, I really cried,” says Schweighöfer. “I think for one week, I was running through the kitchen of my house. I was like, ‘Hans Zimmer said yes to the film! He’s composing the film!’ My girlfriend and the kids, after a while, they started running through the house. ‘My dad is working with Hans Zimmer! That’s fantastic!'”
For the Oscar-winning Zimmer, who grew up in a small village outside Frankfurt, he found a kindred soul in Schweighöfer, who couldn’t quite believe that a boy from East Germany was making a film on this scale for one of Hollywood’s biggest producing duos.
“You absolutely feel that he has that respect,” says Zimmer. “It’s everything we’ve always dreamed of, and it’s possible to actually come from nowhere and do this.”
One of the first things viewers may do after watching Army of Thieves is put on Army of the Dead to rewatch Dieter’s final moments. There’s something ambiguous about the way Zack Snyder edited it that begs the question, is Dieter really gone?
Schweighöfer holds out hope.
“I watched the film again, and I said, ‘No. Maybe, there is a chance.’ Then I called Zack. ‘Zack, can we talk about the death scene in Army of the Dead?’ and he said, ‘No. We will not talk about this. But maybe there is a chance. I will let you know when there is a chance.'”
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
The Tragedy of Macbeth
The Last Duel