Filmmaker Zack Snyder doesn’t believe in restraint. In his debut feature, 2004’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, a zombie girl whose face has partially fallen off bites a man’s neck. In 300, his 2007 adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, the camera lingers on a head as it is severed from the body of a soldier. And when Watchmen—his eagerly awaited screen version of Alan Moore’s landmark 1986 comic about a group of crime fighters investigating the death of one of their own—hits theaters in March, Snyder promises as much sex and violence and as many fetishistic camera tricks as he can fit into two hours and 37 minutes.
“I like when it goes all the way,” the heavily tattooed director explains just before Christmas, sitting in the production office he shares with his third wife and producing partner, Deborah Snyder, on the Warner Bros. lot. “And to me, a severed head spinning in the air is kind of funny. I get a laugh from that.”
While filming 300, Snyder encouraged star Gerard Butler to act with extreme energy. “We’d try takes that were so ridiculous, and I’d think, That was just too much,” Butler recalls. “And Zack would say, ‘That’s awesome; that’s the one.’ Being bold is what the audience loves, and Zack’s not going to give them under-the-top.”
With all sorts of media competing for viewers, Snyder very cannily realizes why he has to push the limits. “Everyone has a pretty great television now, and you’d better f—ing give them a reason to get up off their sofa and go to the movies,” he says. But, unsurprisingly, the first thing Warner Bros.’ top execs said when they saw Watchmen was “‘Too violent, too sexy, too long,’” recounts Snyder. “I say that’s the reason to go see it.”
For almost a year, however, it was unclear whether audiences would even have that chance. In February 2008, 20th Century Fox, which at one point was set to produce Watchmen, claimed it still owned distribution rights to the movie and sued Warner Bros. This January, after a much reported-on court battle, the studios finally reached a confidential settlement, ensuring the film would make it into theaters on schedule.
Even while the legal war raged, though, Snyder wasn’t overly concerned. “What’s the worst that could happen? They’ll shelve the movie?” he asked, adding that such action would anger fanboys, the geeks who analyze sci-fi, fantasy and superhero trailers and rabble-rouse on the Internet. “They’ll tear the studio down!”
Watchmen, though, is sure to transcend the fanboy demographic. The original text, which, like the film, is set in a dark and violent 1985—when, inexplicably, Richard Nixon is still president—is widely considered to be one of the best graphic novels of all time; it is the only one included on Time magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923 (the year Time was founded). And judging by the half-hour teaser that Warner Bros. made available to the media, Snyder’s take, which retains the book’s menacing political overtones, is as sleek and chic as movies get these days. The credit sequence alone is astonishing in its eerie art direction.
“He’s done much more than slavishly adapt the graphic novel,” says Dave Gibbons, the comic’s original illustrator, who consulted on the film. “There’s a real visual authority.”
Snyder, a 43-year-old graduate of California Institute of the Arts who got his start making commercials, is one part fanboy, one part stylish visionary. His office is filled with memorabilia from his films as well as more macabre items, like a saber-toothed tiger skull he bought at a store in New York. “You can get a human femur there, if you’re into that sort of thing,” he says.
His first inclination was to pass on Watchmen, which stars Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Goode. But in the end, Snyder, a big fan of the comic—which, he recalls, “pretty much blew me away when I first read it” in the late Eighties—decided it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “It’d be like if George Lucas called and said, ‘Can you make a Star Wars movie for me?’” he says. “I would just not be able to say no.”
Though he’s now working on an animated film about owls, Snyder has yet to make a movie that his six children—two with an ex-girlfriend and four from his second marriage—can enjoy. He wonders what, in 15 years, they’ll make of his work, but that hasn’t stopped him from developing a movie called Sucker Punch, about an abused teen whose stepfather commits her to an insane asylum, where she’s given a lobotomy. She imagines the institution is a brothel with a cabaret. “It’s a bit like Moulin Rouge! with machine guns,” Snyder says without a hint of irony. “Whatever that means.”