A version of this story first appeared in the April 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Zack Snyder is sweating. It has nothing to do with the enormous stakes riding on Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice following Warner Bros.’ lackluster 2015. There’s simply no air-conditioning running on this hot February afternoon in the open-space loft office in Burbank that he shares with his wife and producing partner, Deborah Snyder. Just a few feet away from Zack’s desk is a complete gym that the buff, tattooed director uses throughout the day when he’s not on set (the equally toned Deb prefers yoga classes off-site).
Admittedly, the pair, who together run the six-employee Cruel & Unusual Films, has found little time to exercise in the run-up to the March 25 release of Batman v. Superman, which Zack, 50, directed and Deb, 46, produced. As the keepers of the DC universe, they have a Wonder Woman spinoff in production and start filming Justice League in April in London (Zack is directing the latter as well as the 2019 sequel). The couple also is producing an Aquaman spinoff and are executive producing Suicide Squad (out Aug. 8) as well as Flash, Green Lantern and Cyborg spinoffs. They already were deeply enmeshed in Warner Bros.’ DC vortex given that Zack directed and Deb produced 2013’s Man of Steel and 2009’s Watchmen. But all eyes are on the $250 million Batman v. Superman, which will relaunch the Batman franchise after Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and usher in Warner Bros.’ new DC era. The Snyders, who first met when Deb hired Zack to direct a Reebok commercial for the 1996 Olympics, are familiar with chaos. Together, they are raising eight children ages 3 to 22 — four from Zack’s previous marriage and two from his previous relationship — as well as two labs that they bring on location.
The duo sat down with THR to discuss why the PG-13 Batman v. Superman will get an R-rated DVD (no, nothing to do with Deadpool), how DC/Marvel comparisons are like pitting Downton Abbey against Mr. Selfridge and criticism that the movie’s tone is too serious.
Does it worry you when a movie like Deadpool breaks the comic book movie mold and does so well?
ZACK It doesn’t worry us because that’s what we do every time, so I think that I’m excited that a movie like that could do so well. Look at a movie like Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight. That’s a $500 million domestic movie. It’s about the way the movie’s made. No one goes to a movie and generalizes it in such a giant way that the movies are being generalized now. You could say Dark Knight is too serious. But it’s a great movie. A lot of the early stuff on Deadpool, everyone was like, “Oh, it’s too silly” or “too violent.” But apparently, that was the valve that needed to be turned and released. That’s encouraging to me because I love the idea that the individual filmmaker point of view is the thing that people want.
What was the mindset behind the film being PG-13 in theaters but R-rated on DVD?
DEB Online, everyone’s like, “Oh, they’re doing an R-rated in reaction to Deadpool,” and you’re like (laughing), “We didn’t just shoot it last week, and we also didn’t edit it last week.”
ZACK The why of that is [the DVD version] is a half-hour longer, and some of that additional material is some of the stuff we took out for the rating. I was like, “Cool, I can put it back in for the director’s cut.” There was nothing by design. This was the material I just put back in, and then when [the MPAA] looked at it again, they were like, “Oh, now the movie’s rated R.” And, by the way, it’s not a hard R. There’s no nudity. There’s a little bit of violence. It just tips the scale.
What’s the Warner Bros. philosophy in handling the DC cinematic universe?
DEB Zack and [DC chief creative officer] Geoff Johns have outlined a timeline of where everybody is based off of, where our characters go in Justice League. So there’s a framework. But it’s filmmaker-driven, in that we want to hire directors who still have a point of view and that have latitude because we don’t want all the movies to feel the same. David Ayer has a certain tone and feel to what he brought to Suicide Squad, as does Patty [Jenkins] to Wonder Woman. They have freedom to tell their story in the way that it needs to be told.
ZACK Batman v. Superman was always a steppingstone for Justice League, and it was a way to bring the worlds together without being too jarring. Once you say Batman and Superman exist in the same universe, you’re also saying that Wonder Woman can exist in that world and Flash and Cyborg and Aquaman. Our philosophy, though, is it’s filmmaker-driven. A lot of it comes from the idea of “do unto others.” How would I feel if I was told, “Listen, this is your movie, but shoot it like we say”? It’s not fun and cool, and I don’t think you get the best work from everybody. To understand that, there is a bigger storyline, and let’s all support that and not blow up the entire universe because you have an idea that you think is awesome but doesn’t make sense with the bigger thing.
Why are you producing some of the DC movies and executive producing others?
DEB We just can’t physically be everywhere. It’s hard enough that Wonder Woman is shooting and we’ve been finishing [Batman v. Superman], so [producer] Chuck Roven is over there. We’re prepping Justice League [to begin production in April]. But on all the DC movies, we look at dailies and any budget calls and cost reports, and we’re involved in every step of the way with any decision-making, casting.
Was there ever a mandate for a universal tone for all the movies?
ZACK The mandate is that we try and make the best movies we can. If you’re making a Flash movie with Ezra Miller, it’s like millennial Flash. It’s going to be a little lighter than making a World War I epic with this feminist icon like Wonder Woman. The films do live in a united universe. I feel like the danger is — and I think that the studio would acknowledge this — when you start to mimic things like tone. Then, when you go to the movie, you pretty much know the experience you’re going to have.
DEB Then it loses a point of view and starts to feel like it’s made by a committee.
Fair or unfair, there’s always the comparison between DC and Marvel. Does that annoy you?
ZACK No. You have these two giant comic book powers, and it would make sense that they would in some ways be compared to each other. It’s like comparing Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge. Like Star Wars and Star Trek. Those are things that you could compare, but no one ever does. Those [DC versus Marvel] conversations are fun for the Internet. But in truth, it represents such a small group of people who are actually versed in the difference between DC and Marvel. The average moviegoer doesn’t know. Like my dad would be, “Is Spider-Man ever going to be in any of your films?”
Warner Bros. needs this film to be a giant hit. How much pressure are you feeling?
ZACK There’s pressure, but it’s different if you’re in a traditional business where markets can be shaped. When you make a movie, there’s no rules. There’s no way other than your instincts. For me, it’s like you feel the pressure, but it’s pressure you can’t do anything about.
DEB I think there’s an added pressure because of the characters. They have such a rich history. I felt a personal responsibility to get Wonder Woman right. We’re seeing her for the first time [in film]. She’s such a symbol of women’s roles. She’ll be 75 years old this year, and in every decade she’s existed, she has reflected women of the times. I think it’s only fitting that now, especially with a lot of talk about gender equality, that she really has her rightful place on the silver screen.
Box office-wise, what’s the number that makes Warner Bros. happy?
ZACK I don’t know. The more people see it, the better. The business is very important to us, and in the end, it is a business. But we deal with the nitty-gritty. You know, that third extra should have black socks on, not white socks. This cutlery should be less shiny. That sort of minutia are the things we can control. [But] pop culture is a liquid and amorphous thing that’s hard to judge and/or predict. You try and just supply all the things that I get excited about as a movie fan, comic book fan, fan of drama. If we’ve done our jobs, then the pressure is a little bit less because it becomes about the storm outside these walls and how it gobbles it up or rejects it.
Who else is part of the DC brain trust?
ZACK Chuck, our partner.
DEB Richard Suckle is producing some of these. On our end, Wesley Coller is an executive producer who works on all the things that we work on. He’s part of our inner family. Geoff Johns is just super valuable, and I think Zack and Geoff really have worked out a lot of the creative ideas as to where the characters are going. Geoff [ensures] we’re doing things that are true to the canon because he knows everything about these characters. And Jon Berg is our executive on all the films, and then obviously Greg [Silverman] was our executive when we first came to Warner Bros., so we’ve always worked with Greg.
Given all your involvements, do you have time to develop anything outside of this?
ZACK We have The Last Photograph that I’ve been working on for a long time. It’s a small, sort of weird project about a war photographer in Afghanistan. I have been working on The Fountainhead. I’ve always felt like The Fountainhead was such a thesis on the creative process and what it is to create something. Warner Bros. owns [Ayn Rand’s] script and I’ve just been working on that a little bit.
There were rumors that you locked Batman v. Superman five months ago but then edited it based on feedback of the second trailer. Is that true?
DEB No. When we had a locked picture, we didn’t change anything. We’ve been working on the 3D. We did the 3D conversion after the movie was done.
How do you respond to the criticism that the film is too serious?
ZACK I would go back to the Dark Knight argument and say, “Is that a bad thing? What does that mean?” By the way, the most serious movies I’ve made in the past always have irony in them. I just gave it the weight that it deserves as far as the mythological conformation. But it’s still a guy in a red and blue suit fighting a guy in a black suit. I mean, they’re in costumes. The movie is fun, and Batman fights Superman. If you can’t have fun there, then something’s kind of wrong with you.
Directors used to sleep with their leading lady. Now it seems like every successful director is married to his producing partner. Thoughts on this shift?
ZACK The old Hollywood version was incredibly sexist, a romanticized Vincent van Gogh version of the muse. And then the grown-up version has come all the way around to Debbie going, “Listen, these are the things you need to get done to make our machine work.” The muse becomes the chairman of the board in a weird way. Debbie keeps me sane. If I was single, I would just live at the stage and then go to the gym and sleep.
DEB We try to keep it as normal as possible and the same as home. And not only do we have each other, but we also travel now with this community, these people that have been with us for most of our movies.