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It was very early on a Monday morning in November when director Zack Snyder and his wife and producing partner, Deborah Snyder, received a call from their agent. Let’s be a bit more precise: It was 7 a.m. But more importantly, it was the day after the second anniversary of the release of Justice League, the DC superhero movie that Snyder was forced to exit due to a family emergency, which was then substantially reshot and retooled by replacement director Joss Whedon.
In the time since its release, something unusual happened: A growing movement of fans, rallied by the hashtag #ReleasetheSnyderCut, had called, agitated, petitioned — even bought a Times Square billboard and chartered a plane to fly a banner over Comic-Con — for Snyder’s version to be released. And on the film’s second anniversary, the hashtag had its biggest day ever — with even the movie’s stars Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck adding their voices on Twitter.
So here, the morning after, was their agent saying that Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures, was acknowledging the movement, and more importantly, was willing to accede. “This is real. People out there want it. Would you guys ever consider doing something?” was what Emmerich was asking, Zack Snyder recalls.
The answer to Emmerich’s question, a whispered-about secret for months, was revealed Wednesday when Snyder confirmed, at the end of an online screening of his 2013 movie, Man of Steel, that his version of Justice League was indeed real. And that it will be coming to HBO Max, the WarnerMedia digital streaming service launching May 27, and is expected to debut in 2021.
It is currently unclear what form Snyder’s Justice League will take. Whether it will be released as an almost four-hour director’s cut or split into six “chapters” has yet to be decided, but the Snyders are now in the midst of reassembling much of their original postproduction crew to score, cut, add new and finish old visual effects, and, yes, maybe bring back many of the actors to record additional dialogue.
Also unclear is the cost of the endeavor. One source has pegged the effort in the $20 million range, although another source says that figure could be closer to $30 million. The parties involved had no comment.
“It will be an entirely new thing, and, especially talking to those who have seen the released movie, a new experience apart from that movie,” Snyder tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting that, to this day, he has not watched the version released in theaters.
“You probably saw one-fourth of what I did,” the director notes, basing his judgment on what has been shared with him of Whedon’s version.
Before Emmerich came calling, says Snyder, “I always thought it was a thing that in 20 years, maybe somebody would do a documentary and I could lend them the footage, little snippets of a cut no one has ever seen.”
But, adds Deborah, “With the new platform and streaming services, you can have something like this. You can’t release something like this theatrically, but you could with a streaming service. It’s an opportunity that wasn’t there two years ago, to be honest.”
It is a very unlikely development, and the latest twist for a movie that has, like the Man of Steel himself, seen death and rebirth.
Snyder was in a unique position when he shot Justice League in 2016. Warner Bros. had entrusted its universe of DC characters to one filmmaker — him — and he had been building toward a great onscreen team-up, though not without some bumps in the road. He began with Man of Steel, which grossed $668 million worldwide, then followed up with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the 2016 blockbuster that polarized fans with its dark take on the iconic titular heroes and took in $873 million globally.
In January 2017, Snyder had what he considered his optimal version of Justice League, almost four hours long, although he knew it was something the studio would not release. Warners wanted a cut in the two-hour range, and he delivered a rough version with an approximate two-hour, 20-minute running time. That was the first cut the studio saw. Both sides agreed that there was much work still to be done before the November release, but tragedy struck the Snyders when their daughter, Autumn, died by suicide. A month and a half later, Snyder officially stepped away and Whedon was brought in.
League opened Nov. 17 to weak reviews and sluggish box office, eventually taking in $658 million worldwide. However, almost immediately a movement was born. Fans unhappy with the film created the now-infamous hashtag. A Change.org petition for Warners to release Snyder’s version had already garnered over 100,000 signatures less than five days after the movie’s release.
Forget that the version that fans wanted technically didn’t exist. What did exist was a semi-unfinished work, with no visual effects, no postproduction. One person who had seen that version described it like a car with no panels, just a drivetrain and some seats. And it sat on a hard drive in the Snyders’ house. “When we left the movie, I just took the drive of the cut on it,” says Snyder. “I honestly never thought it would be anything.”
In the year following their daughter’s death, the Snyders closed circles around their family as they tried to heal from the tragedy. “The first year was about the milestones and the holidays,” recalls Deborah. “Now, it’s not those but other moments, like songs that trigger memories, that hit me unexpectedly.”
Adds the director: “As a family, as a couple, I think we have grown in a way that has made us stronger. We’re doing our best. You really can’t hope for more.”
The duo also became involved in suicide-prevention charity work and plotted a return to movies with Army of the Dead. Meanwhile, #ReleasetheSnyderCut became more organized and visible, gaining mainstream media attention. Snyder fed into the movement by occasionally teasing images from his movie or storyboards on social media, in some ways only stoking the hot embers. And he saw some of the seeds he planted in his movies, especially in his castings of Gadot as Wonder Woman and Momoa as Aquaman, grow into gardens as the spinoffs became pop culture phenomenons and billion-dollar hits.
It was on the two-year anniversary, however, that the zenith was reached and the hashtag became a top worldwide trend. “#ReleasetheSnyderCut is the most-tweeted hashtag about a movie that WB has ever made, but it’s a movie they’ve never released,” says Snyder. “It’s a weird stat but it’s cool.”
After the Saturday morning phone call, the Snyders began to move puzzle pieces into place. “We had to figure out what it meant to finish it, and how do you pull it off?” recalls Deborah.
The couple put together a presentation and, in early February, invited a select group of executives from Warner Bros., HBO Max and DC to their house in Pasadena to screen Snyder’s little-seen version that was shown in black and white. The number of execs in the room — there were more than a dozen in attendance, ranging from Warners’ Emmerich, Carolyn Blackwood and Walter Hamada to HBO Max’s Kevin Reilly, Sarah Aubrey and Sandra Dewey to DC’s Jim Lee — showed the importance of the potentially extensive undertaking. Heads of physical production and business affairs were there to assess what needed to be done and how much it would cost. At his presentation after the screening, Snyder outlined ideas for not just releasing the cut but the concept of episodes and cliffhangers.
The executives left the meeting pumped. The Snyder Cut was real. Except then it almost wasn’t.
The novel coronavirus struck, and Hollywood all but shut down in mid-March. Says Deborah, “People thought, ‘It won’t be possible to ramp up, and that maybe this should go on the back burner.’ But we said, ‘No, this is the right time’ because our visual effects houses that rely on so much are running out of work, so now is the time to be doing this.” It also helped that many of those post facilities had held on to the original assets.
Snyder also spent April and this month reaching out to the sizable cast, giving a heads-up on the new development and letting them know their services may be needed. (The first person called: Ray Fisher, who played Cyborg. “He was like, ‘You’re kidding me, right?'” recalls the director.)
There is no schedule going forward at this stage for the project as talks are now beginning with postproduction houses, which also gives HBO Max plenty of time to find the best way to present this version of Justice League. Snyder is at the same time in postproduciton on Army of the Dead, his zombie thriller for Netflix that is also to debut in 2021.
For the Snyders, the chance to revisit the movie also brings the prospect for closure on a project they were forced to let go. “This movie was the culmination of a hero’s journey that all these characters went on,” says Deborah. “And the idea was always to build them up to be the heroes people expected them to be.”
And while the cut will contain the many elements Snyder has teased over time (yes, expect Darkseid), the duo also relish adding a fair amount of character development: “What’s so lovely about this is that we get to explore these characters in ways that you’re not able to in a shorter theatrical version.”
The Snyders know that fan power is what led to the Snyder Cut becoming a reality. “Clearly this wouldn’t be happening without them,” says the director. He also credits Warners for living up to its old reputation as the filmmaker’s studio.
Adds Snyder, “This return to that pedigree and to let my singular vision of my movie be realized, in this format, in this length, is unprecedented and a brave move.”
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