Guardian tag rings true as Zack keeps it in the family
Zack Snyder and his wife Deborah Johnson tell Evan Fanning why their latest film won't terrify children
For Zack Snyder, filmmaking is very much a family affair. The director of 300 and Watchmen is publicising his new movie and, as is the case in most of his working life, he has his wife Deborah Johnson alongside him.
It helps that she has produced both his phenomenally successful movies to date, co-founded his production company and even gave him one of his first big breaks when, while working as an advertising executive, she hired him to direct a Reebok commercial.
These days, Snyder is regarded as one of cinema's most influential directors; the man who took two "unfilmable" graphic novels and turned them in to box-office gold. As a result he is now thrown front and centre of the promotional circuit. It seems to be wearing him down. Jet lag is kicking in and while discussing his latest project, the 3D animation Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole which is based on the books by Kathryn Lasky, he sips from two cups of coffee in order to inject some life into the proceedings.
Snyder, 44, looks and sounds like he should be waxing his surfboard in Malibu rather than producing movies which generate hundreds of millions of dollars. While he is dressed in a T-shirt, it is his wife next to him, three years his junior, dressed in a sharp black suit who looks every bit the Hollywood mogul.
When the two first worked together, Snyder was married and Johnson was in a long-term relationship. Several years later they reunited in another commercial and their circumstances had changed. Snyder's marriage had ended (though he has four children from that marriage and two from a previous relationship) and while working with each other in New Zealand they got together and were married two years later.
When Snyder was working on his remake of Dawn of the Dead, his first cinematic venture, which made more than $100m at the box office, Johnson flew every weekend from her home in New York to see him. Shortly afterwards, they formed their production company.
Their commitment to family is such that even Snyder's decision to make Legends of the Guardian was motivated by his youngest child. "I made the movie for Jed who was seven." Unfortunately making a movie takes time, especially when it's a 3D animated adventure epic. "He was seven when we started making the movie and now he's 10, so he
grew up on the movie," Snyder says. "But they were great focus groups along the way," his wife interjects.
In an over-populated 3D animated market Legend of the Guardians stands out as an entirely different kind of story. "Our movie is more like Narnia or Star Wars than it is like Shrek," Snyder says. "It's hard to find an animated movie that is in the same world as our movie, except for maybe Watership Down or something like that. For me it was an adventure movie I was going after. That had to be the front of the movie, as opposed to something like Shrek where the comedy is at the front."
At times brutal, the film is certainly not for faint-hearted children, although Snyder feels that kids are accustomed to seeing the laws of nature first-hand. "Someone asked me the other day about my movie being all about the brutal reality of nature. The truth is, your kids are watching much more intense stuff on Animal Planet. You just have to watch Meerkat Manor and you're exposed to some pretty rough nature. We've whitewashed nature into a much more hygienic format."
It does, however, contain many action scenes which borrow a little from the slow-motion battles of 300, Snyder's 2007 adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel which has become one of the most parodied and imitated films of recent years. I guess if anyone is going to do it, it might as well be Snyder.
"It does surprise me [that 300 has had such a legacy] he says. "I'm happy, but it's surprising that it really has stayed around in a crazy way. It's definitely interesting that it's found its place in pop culture and stayed there. Truthfully, when we made the movie we were making the boutique fanboy movie which we thought would be fun for a small crowd."
"It was a struggle to get it made," his wife says. "It was right after Troy and Alexander and everyone said to us 'we have sword and sandals fatigue'. That's what they said."
The fatigue didn't last and 300's success, and the subsequent acclaim poured over Watchmen, has opened new doors for the duo. Snyder has just been brought on board to direct the new Christoper Nolan-produced Superman. "I'm super-excited about Superman. The truth is I'm a big fan of the character and I'm really excited to go into that world."
With all that work there must be little time to relax in the Snyder-Johnson household. Where, you must wonder, does their professional life end and their personal life begin. Do they continue to tackle work matter when they are home? "We do," Johnson says, "but there are also times where we're like 'we're shutting the door'."
And then they depart. Off to the next set of interview, but standing side-by-side, as usual.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is showing