Zack Snyder on Male Moviegoers and His Subversive Sucker Punch: 'We Are the People in the Brothel'
Clicking and unclicking his pen with nervous energy as he spoke, director Zack Snyder took Movieline back to the first smattering of ideas that ran through his brain when the concept for the girl-power action fantasy Sucker Punch first took root: Lobotomies. Planet of the Apes. Loss of self. The magic of music. And perhaps the most important takeaway of all from Friday's PG-13, pop culture-mashing fever dream: the idea that, simmering beneath the film's fantastical burlesque numbers and bloodthirsty rampages is a subversive desire to turn the tables on the very moviegoers who least expect it.
Sucker Punch follows Babydoll (Emily Browning), a troubled young patient in a '60s-era mental ward who attempts to thwart an impending lobotomy by escaping into a musical fantasy world -- and then an action fantasy world -- with four fellow inmates (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung). You can be sure that no other film in the history of forever will ever ask its cast to dance in Louboutins and false eyelashes one moment and hack 'n' slash their way through armies of orcs, robot samurai and undead Nazis the next, all to the tune of hard-charging, anachronistic cover versions of songs by Bjork, Jefferson Airplane, and The Pixies.
Whether or not audiences will enjoy being Sucker Punch-ed, so to speak, remains to be seen. But credit Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya for adding complex layers to a film whose very appeal proves its ultimate point. Below, Snyder talks influences, editing around his message, and more.
There are so many ideas and influences packed into Sucker Punch, in terms of both story and aesthetic. What were the initial ideas that inspired you when you first began thinking of the film?
I guess the very first idea we had was this idea that you could use one single song as a vehicle to get in and out of these fantasy sequences. Music has that ability to be a magical thing, and I was like, maybe music is the vehicle that transports us to that other world. Then from there Steve [Shibuya] and I started talking: say we use that as the mechanism; what's the why of it? And we started building backwards from there. I think the whole mental institution stuff appeared because I really pondered, pretty intensely, what is the credible threat? What is the why, what are they against? What world are they in, what waits for our heroine if she fails? I guess that's where the idea of the lobotomy started. I was doing this research -- and when I saw Planet of the Apes for the first time, there was a scene where Chuck Heston finds his buddy, and he's like, "They took out his brain!" And I was young. I was like, "Wow, that's intense."
A fate worse than death.
Yeah, it's a fate worse than death. And that was really when I said, "OK. The worst possible scenario I can think of is that the 'you' has been removed from you." A lobotomy, I guess, is how they do that. And that then took us down a whole other road.
Was it always such a female-centric project?
You know, it was. I had drawn this drawing of this sort of Babydoll character a long time ago, maybe I was in college. So I always wanted to do something with that character. Our company logo is basically Babydoll. It actually even became more girl-centric when I said okay, they're inside an insane asylum and the insane asylum's a brothel. Part of the reason for that was because I love the idea, and I know it sounds heady, where the girls are performing in a brothel. Someone asked me, "Why are they dressed so provocatively? Why would you dress them like that in their fighting sequences?" The girls are in a brothel performing for men because men are the audience, so when they go into the action sequences, that's us -- we, the viewer in the theater. We are the people in the brothel who want the girls to perform for us. We want them in those costumes -- I didn't put them in those costumes.
That brings up another gender-specific question: Is Sucker Punch an empowering movie for women or is it intended more for men?
In a weird way... I took out "Love is a Drug" and put it in the credit sequence. If you get the DVD it's in the movie, you'll see it in the film where it was intended. The reason I liked it, but was afraid that teenage boys wouldn't get it, was because it sets up this super fun world where they're singing and dancing -- and yeah, you feel like there's prostitution going on but it also feels kind of fun and cool. And then at the very end of the sequence you see Babydoll crying. These girls are upset, and you're like, "What?" I love the idea that it's this beautiful world of titillation and it's fun and has musical numbers, but in the end people suffer for that.
It's a gilded cage for the women.
Exactly, and it's not without consequence. It felt like the fun of it was so fun that people would miss that, that it would just seem fun. And I couldn't do that.
And the viewers who'd miss the point the most would primarily be the male audience?
Yeah, they'd be like, "Why are they so upset? It's awesome to be a whore!" And I'm like, no, that's not the point. So that's why I moved it to the very end.
The point being that these young women are taking back the submissive, fetishized female archetypes.
Well in the end, I hope that's what happens. In the end, you put them in those costumes and now they're using them against you -- that's basically what Baby does to Blue in a lot of ways. The metaphor there is he puts her in that role and she starts knocking the dominoes over that lead to his destruction.
Within the story of Sucker Punch there are three separate worlds, but even in the base reality of the insane asylum, which is set in the '60s, we hear anachronistic contemporary rock covers.
Yes -- the rules are off.
So then, how do you make sure that sort of pop mash-up anachronism is not jarring to your audience?
It's hard, and I guess that's why the whole of it is stylized. That's why also, the movie begins with someone on stage and the curtain opens, and you think, "OK, it's a show." It's completely bizarro-land anyway. That's why from the beginning I never wanted to do a "real" [movie] -- like, oh, here's the handheld, we're in a real insane asylum and it feels like Girl, Interrupted or something. There's that version of the movie, you can imagine, but I don't like that because I feel like it's all bullsh*t. I don't want to say to the audience that one part of the dream world is more dreamlike than another. That's kind of what that's saying; even the dream world you see as reality is something you can manipulate and change.
You make a point to include a call-to-arms voice-over address spoken by one of the characters: "Who is it that chooses our steps in the dance, who drives us mad, lashes us with whips and crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible?" Who exactly is that message intended for?
The idea of her telling the story, in a weird way, that moment is not gender specific although it can be in ways. It doesn't have to be. You learn a lesson about yourself, hopefully. And I was also afraid that you'd get to the end of the movie and get to that dark, dark place, and I wanted when you come out of it instead of being paralyzed by it and just observing, that there'd be some teeny bit of reflection in that last minute. And I didn't want it to be preachy or anything, but I wanted to say, "Look -- you can feel this. It's okay."
Sucker Punch is in theaters this Friday.