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You could say Deborah Snyder was bitten by the filmmaking bug on the set of 2004’s Dawn of the Dead.
The producer was working in commercials, but would often visit her then-fiancé (now husband) Zack Snyder on the Toronto set of his zombie film. She found herself hanging out in the edit bay and sharing opinions, even pushing back against a plea to censor a naked woman in the DVD version to ensure it could get into Wal-Mart stores.
“I was like, ‘What?! This is atrocious! It’s not gratuitous,” Snyder recalls with a laugh, acknowledging the team may have wondered why she was speaking up given that she had no official role on the production.
Seventeen years later, Snyder is a veteran film producer of projects such as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. And on Friday, she helps Zack Snyder return to his zombie roots with Netflix’s Army of the Dead, which hits around 600 theaters before arriving on the streaming service May 21.
Army of the Dead sees Dave Bautista’s Scott lead a rag-tag team into a zombie-infested casino to retrieve $200 million stored in its vault. It’s the start of a franchise for Netflix, which has an anime prequel in the works, as well as a film prequel, Army of Thieves, already in postproduction.
After taking on increasingly sprawling DC films, the Snyders aimed to make Army of the Dead a more intimate production. Zack Snyder served as his own cinematographer and operated one of the cameras. The duo reduced the number of people on set, and Zack Snyder discouraged the use of director’s chairs (unless people really needed them) because the philosophy was that only those working on a specific scene should be on set at a given time.
As the Snyders launch a new franchise with Army of the Dead, they may have said goodbye to another with Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The four-hour film hit HBO Max in March and restored the director’s intention for the 2017 film he left following a family tragedy. So far, there’s been no public indication from WarnerMedia that more SnyderVerse is forthcoming.
While streaming services do not share ratings, they sometimes perform victory laps after the debut of a big project. HBO Max noted after the Dec. 25 release of Wonder Woman 1984 that nearly half of its retail subscribers had watched the movie on its premiere day. With Zack Snyder’s Justice League, there was no such announcement from the WarnerMedia-owned streamer.
While Snyder acknowledges she was hoping for a press release touting numbers, she maintains that in the end, the film was about giving fans closure on Justice League and the universe Zack Snyder had spent nearly a decade building.
In a conversation with THR, Snyder dives into all this and more, including replacing an actor on Army of the Dead and the rom-com heist nature of Army of Thieves.
This movie has been in the works for a long time and yet has a pretty irresistible logline. Are you surprised it took so long to get made?
Zack came up with the idea right after Dawn. The script was originally written by Joby Harold. It was a great script, but it was developed with the eye that another director was going to be doing it. At the time, a lot of these movies were made for a lower budget. Or you had a movie like World War Z, which had so much spectacle. The original script fell in between. Oddly enough, Warner Bros. said it was too much money. They didn’t want to spend it. Legendary said, “We’ll pay the extra money,” and we said no. Which is interesting, producers saying, “Yeah maybe this isn’t the right time.” We felt the movie was not a lower-budget movie and it didn’t have the spectacle to compete with something like a World War Z. So we just put a pin in it, always thinking we’d come back to it.
Then after spending all these years playing with superheroes, we were talking about, “What do we do next?” And Zack was like, “I always loved that idea, but the way the script was, I didn’t spend as much time developing it with an eye toward directing it, so I’d love to rewrite it.” We found this amazing writer, Shay Hatton, and Zack and he clicked and they wrote it together. The movie had such big scope and scale, but Zack wanted it to be very intimate in terms of how he shot it. The DC movies got bigger and bigger and the feeling was you couldn’t move because it had to be this big, gargantuan machine. Zack wanted the flexibility to be spontaneous and also the intimacy of being close to the camera.
Netflix has doubled down on this, with an anime series and a prequel feature. We don’t know when the prequel comes out, but you’ve already wrapped, so it will be at some point not too far off, I imagine?
I think they were loving what they saw, but it was a bold move to develop these other projects. Everyone talks about doing those things, but you don’t want it to be four years later when they come out.
I don’t know when [the prequel] is coming out either, but we are in post and we are getting pretty close. We have some work to do that will continue into the summer, but what’s interesting about that film is it takes place in our world. The zombie pandemic is happening in America, and it’s causing instability in the banking and financial institutions so they are consolidating some of the money and this team goes together. It’s a heist movie, with very few zombies in it. It’s really a romantic comedy, heist movie, which is super fun.
As a producer, how did you facilitate the idea of Army of the Dead being a more intimate production?
The locations are massive, to create the impression of a Vegas that’s destroyed. The biggest challenge was it’s post-apocalyptic. We couldn’t go to Vegas in a casino and shoot, because we had to destroy it, which is why Atlantic City was great, because there’s a bunch of vacant casinos sitting there. But in terms of making it intimate, it’s about your methodology and how you crew up. And also the messaging with your team, your line producer. We were constantly telling the department heads, “Listen, we are going to have less people in the art department. We don’t want all these people standing around on set.” As the movies get bigger, you have a lot of people that are just around. We can do it with fewer. Zack was the DP and also operated the B camera. It was always he and John [Clothier], who did A camera, they would cross shoot it.
Zack — there were three roles he was filling there. Having that start at the top and trickle down, every department started to feel they had more contact with him. For the actors, to have Zack in the heat with a camera on his shoulder right next to them, they felt like he was in the trenches with them. It wasn’t like, “Let’s go back to video village.” We had no chairs. Zack didn’t allow director’s chairs. I had a chair, because I was like, “I need to sit at my computer and do some work.” But I carried my own chair with me, around. Because (if you have chairs) then you need guys to manage the director’s chairs. He’s like, “I just want people — if they are not there to work, I don’t need them on set.” So that was kind of the mentality. Not in a mean way — I think it was refreshing for everyone. Because people felt valued. People were busy, and they liked that everything was more directly communicated rather than [through] lots of layers.
Some of the Army vibe felt like the Joker scene you all shot for Justice League, which was a more intimate set, too, with Zack serving as DP.
I don’t think he’ll ever go back. I don’t know how he’d go back to having another DP because the way he thinks about things, he storyboards every shot.
James Gunn wrote Dawn of the Dead, and helped make Dave Bautista an in-demand actor with Guardians of the Galaxy. Was that connection a nice touchstone for you and Zack, or was it purely coincidental?
Zack had been talking to Dave about another project at one point. We were doing this, and we were trying to figure out the right person to play Scott. For Zack and me, the duality of the role, to have this guy who can go out and kill zombies, rescue people, [was important]. We’ve seen him in a comedic role, people know him from wrestling. But to see this softer side of him, to see that he’s also such a gifted actor, I think people are going to be surprised, and that was really exciting for us when we looked at him for that part. It was coincidental that he was in James’ movie.
You replaced comedian Chris D’Elia with Tig Notaro after he was accused of sexual misconduct. Once that decision is made, how much work is it to get Notaro into a film that had basically completed shooting?
It’s so daunting. And let’s couple that with an actual pandemic that we are dealing with. We shot for 14 days to get Tig in the movie. Had it not been the pandemic, we probably would have brought the whole cast in and reshot scenes with everybody. But we didn’t have that luxury. We were trying to keep it small. We were trying to keep it safe. The studios were just making deals with all the unions of what the rules of going back to filming would be. As one of the first, we were very conservative in our approach, so we decided to shoot it all against greenscreen. Thank God Marcus [Taormina], our visual effects supervisor, is amazing. We sat with him and Zack and figured it out. Every shot had a methodology, and we figured out what we would shoot against greenscreen. We built the rooftop set and then Ana [de la Reguera] came back for one scene. We did want a comedian, and John Papsidera, our casting agent, had the idea of Tig. Immediately we were all like, “Oh my God, that’s such a great idea.” The weird thing is, she got to see the movie. How often do you get to decide you want to be a part of something and it’s already made? The big joke was, it was only her for 14 days. She was like, “I felt like I was the star of the movie and then I realized I was out of focus in a lot of the scenes.”
It all was pretty seamless in the final product.
Even though we erased the other actor, the way the camera moves, the way the lighting is interacting, there were so many technical considerations. It was probably one of the most difficult things I’d ever shot just in terms of how technical it was. There was very little wiggle room. We had people on set compositing it to mock it up as we went so we could make sure we were doing it right. Zack always likes cutting at the same time [as filming]. We rarely have additional photography, because he has so much coverage and he has it storyboarded, so we know what it is. He’ll see the scene cut before we break down a set so if he wants to add something, he usually does during the body of the shoot. With this, it could have been a great take performance-wise, but it had to match up technically with the handheld camera and all the other things. So it was challenging.
As a producer, one way you can gauge success is box office numbers. But with streaming, you might not ever know how many people watched your movie. After Justice League came out, I was hoping for one of those press releases saying it broke a ratings record or something like that.
Yeah! So was I, by the way.
How are you adjusting to that lack of transparency as you dive into streaming, first with Justice League and now with Army of the Dead?
It’s about telling stories and getting your stories to as many people as possible. Yes, there might be an excitement about how it does. Everyone is a little competitive, but they are taking chances on films that would not be getting made. The studios are so focused on big IP and tentpoles, but there is a lot of other content the streamers are getting made that wouldn’t get made if it wasn’t for them. In my experience, the creative freedom and support along the way – not a fight, support — for the director’s vision, has been really great. In terms of the box office, yeah, it’s good to know, but you usually know if people like it or not.
HBO — it’s interesting that they haven’t reported the numbers, but there have been a bunch of articles saying how massive Justice League has been. For us, it wasn’t about that. It was about completing Zack’s vision. Something that because of our tragedy turned into something really ugly and distorted, and having a chance to set it right. The love from the fans for that film and for Zack’s vision and to be able to complete that vision was the why of it for us. That’s been an amazing experience to see people enjoy it and the love. We had been developing this world and Zack’s version of that world for over ten years. It was kind of a weird ending, or lack of ending. So for us, it was a nice way to get closure and also for people to see what it was meant to be.
Army of the Dead is in theaters Friday and on Netflix May 21.
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