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June 13, 2013

‘Man of Steel’: Zack Snyder tries reconstruction for Superman

Posted in: Movies

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"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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Henry Cavill, left, Zack Snyder and Kevin Costner on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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Zack Snyder, left, and Amy Adams on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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Kevin Costner, left, and Zack Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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Henry Cavill, left, and Zack Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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Producer Christopher Nolan, left, and director Zack Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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Director Zack Snyder, left, and producers Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

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"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“Man of Steel” began its ascent toward pop-culture immortality during fall 2010 inside a pressurized cabin in the skies between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. A fitting start for the relaunch of a comic book property inextricably linked with the exclamations “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!”

Christopher Nolan, the force behind the multibillion-dollar “Dark Knight” movie franchise, and his producing partner wife, Emma Thomas, were sharing a corporate jet with Zack Snyder, the action stylist behind the 2009 sci-fi superhero drama “Watchmen,” and his producer wife, Deborah Snyder. Both couples were on the way back to L.A. from Las Vegas’ CinemaCon, where they had previewed new films.

[FOR THE RECORD,  10:06 a.m. PDT June 19: An article in the June 16 Calendar section about Zack Snyder, director of the movie “Man of Steel,” said a conversation between Snyder and producer-director Christopher Nolan took place in fall 2010 on the way back from Las Vegas’ CinemaCon. The conversation took place that spring. In 2010, CinemaCon was known as ShoWest; the convention did not change its name to CinemaCon until 2011.]

Left unspoken during the getting-to-know-you rap session at 30,000 feet: Nolan had just taken charge as producer of Warner Bros.’ splashy Superman reboot. It was his first time godfathering someone else’s movie into production.

"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Zack Snyder says he was “scared” when asked to direct “Man of Steel.” (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Days after landing, the three-time Oscar nominee made Snyder an offer almost too good to refuse. Would he consider directing “Man of Steel”?

Initially, he blanched. “I was scared,” Snyder admitted recently in his office on the Warner Bros. lot.

PHOTOS: 50 ‘Man of Steel’ images

Scattered around the room, movie props from his films including a pile of human skulls, a stuffed beaver and a Spartan helmet from the director’s breakthrough swords-and-sandals epic “300” provided silent testimonial to his institutional familiarity with fantasy and mayhem.

“Can I honor this guy correctly?” he recalled wondering of Superman. “Am I going to tear him apart because I can’t help myself?”

Snyder, after all, is the alt-action ace who intended “Watchmen” as a “deconstruction of the mythology” of comic books. That film skewered tropes of superheroism through a cadre of masked marvels who variously suffer from god complexes, alcoholism, even erectile dysfunction.

On the set of “Watchmen,” Snyder infamously told this paper: “We’re killing the comic-book movie, ending it. This is the last comic-book movie, for good or bad.”

But after a bumpy career patch, with his animated thriller “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” and his 2011 anime-inspired action fantasy “Sucker Punch” indifferently received by fans domestically and mauled by critics, “Man of Steel” arrived in theaters this weekend as one of the popcorn movie season’s hottest tickets. It is 2013’s most-storied intellectual property outside “The Great Gatsby.”

On track to earn around $90 million over the course of its opening three days, according to pre-release tracking surveys, the $225-million superhero creation myth — written by “Dark Knight” screenwriter David S. Goyer, who shares a “story by” credit with Nolan — treats the Last Son of Krypton with a seriousness of intent and cinematic grandeur not unlike the Nolan-ified Batman films.

Moreover, with its darkly beautiful depictions of chaos and overall epic quality, early reviews have noted that “Man of Steel” could likely restore credibility to Superman (on the heels of director Bryan Singer’s nostalgic, overly talk-y 2006 “Superman Returns”) in much the same way Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy fundamentally shifted the paradigm for Batman after an era when George Clooney’s nippled Batsuit turned the franchise into a laughingstock.

Amy Adams as Lois Lane, left, and Henry Cavill as Superman in "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Amy Adams as Lois Lane, left, and Henry Cavill as Superman in “Man of Steel.” (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Starring British heartthrob Henry Cavill (of the 2011 mythical action romp “Immortals” and Showtime’s “The Tudors”) as Clark Kent and featuring a cast of dramatic heavy hitters (including Russell Crowe as Superman’s birth father, Jor-El, Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Michael Shannon as super-nemesis General Zod), the movie modernizes Superman, showing the corollary conflict between great power, great responsibility and what it will take to one day “stand proud in front of the human race” as ingrained in young Clark by his adoptive Kansan dad (Kevin Costner).

And in addition to providing a lucrative new franchise at a time when Warner Bros. is suffering from empty-nest syndrome — Nolan concluded his Batman trilogy last year and the “Harry Potter” film series ran out of J.K. Rowling books to adapt — “Man of Steel” appears set to restore Snyder, 47, as an A-list director.

But to accomplish that feat, he first had to learn to stop worrying and love the comic book movie again.

PHOTOS: 75 images of Superman

“You want to justify it with all this stuff: ‘Oh, he represents mythology.’ Or, ‘There are Christ-like influences.’ All that is in there,” the laid-back director said, breaking into a smile. “But I guess when you lay it bare, you go, ‘I do love that thing! I don’t want to see it destroyed.’ The truth is, it’s OK to want Superman to be awesome. That answer — I just like Superman — is enough.”

To hear it from Nolan, Snyder’s efforts at genre sabotage were hardly a liability. When it came to resurrecting the granddaddy of all comic book heroes, the “Dark Knight” filmmaker saw Snyder’s track record of punking caped crusaders as a professional asset rather than a drawback.

“Somebody who had put so much time and effort into deconstructing the superhero mythology in a way is ideally positioned to reconstruct it,” said Nolan. “Zack being able to see through the iconography to the human being underneath — or, in this case, to the alien underneath — he’s able to really be faithful to the spirit of David’s original pitch: Let’s understand this guy. Letting the audience access his personality, his psychology, his struggles.”

Producer Christopher Nolan, left, and director Zack Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Producer Christopher Nolan, left, says Snyder was “ideally positioned” to direct “Man of Steel.” (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

But first, Zack and Deborah Snyder had to be persuaded the project was a good match. Nothing in the director’s edgy filmography — filled, as it is, with schoolgirl ninja assassins (in “Sucker Punch”), a bloodthirsty, possibly gay god-king (in “300”) and, in “Watchmen’s” case, a giant radioactive super-being with a free-swinging phallus — suggests that it’s simpatico with a comic book lodestar associated closely with “truth, justice and the American way.”

“It was the goody-two-shoes-ness of it all,” explained Deborah, who has produced or executive produced all of her husband’s movies. “[Superman] has this squeaky image. And you couldn’t relate to his super side either. So there was nothing to grab onto.”

An emissary from Nolan’s Syncopy Inc. was dispatched to the Snyder household at 7 a.m. one morning, where he sat in the driveway while the couple pored over Goyer and Nolan’s screenplay.

"Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder in New York on June 10, 2013. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“Man of Steel” director Zack Snyder says he saw his breakthrough hit, “300,” as “slightly ironic.” (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The director considered his past hits and misses adapting comic book fare: his $65-million “300” was blown up for the big screen from Frank Miller’s 1998 limited series and went on to earn $456 million globally, spawning a Snyder-produced sequel, “300: Rise of an Empire,” due out next year.

QUIZ: How well do you know the Man of Steel?

“I always thought ‘300’ was a slightly ironic movie,” Snyder said. “Even though people don’t view it that way, it’s ridiculous. I enjoyed the ridiculousness of it. I embraced it.”

“Watchmen,” based on Alan Moore’s epochal serialized comic series of the same name, stands as a continuation of Snyder’s efforts to deconstruct the comic-book genre; it grossed $185 million in worldwide box office. But with a $130-million production budget and costing tens of millions more to advertise and distribute, the moody sci-fi drama divided critics and was considered a misfire for Warner Bros.

Arising out of an original concept by Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya, meanwhile, “Sucker Punch” wears its steampunk, anime and chopsocky movie influences on its sleeve but fizzled at the multiplex and represents Snyder’s most outright flop.

“‘Sucker Punch’ was the last chapter in that self-reflexive deconstruction of all the genres that I loved,” the director said. “It was misunderstood to where I was like, ‘OK, am I just doing this wrong?’”

Superman at 75: 10 key comic covers

He recalled the inner conversation that had governed his movie choices up until “Man of Steel”: “I’m fighting those things that I’m naturally good at. ‘Don’t make a summer blockbuster. The cool kid doesn’t want to be good at that stuff! I want to tear it all apart!’”

Nolan’s overture happened to arrive at a come-to-Jesus moment for Snyder. “When I got my teeth into it, this was the perfect thing right now,” he said. “After deconstructing the mythology, I started to fall back in love with it.”

Henry Cavill, left, and Zack Snyder on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Henry Cavill, left, says Snyder’s “peppy energy” helped during the “grueling” shoot. (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

After eight months of script development — during which Cavill’s musculature was chiseled into Superman-worthy proportions via 20 weeks of killer workouts and the “S” on his chest was updated from a recent comic-book story line as an extraterrestrial glyph meaning “hope” — Snyder spent 125 days shooting “Man of Steel” and 16 more months fine-tuning the movie in post-production.

Deborah Snyder proudly points out that “Man of Steel” required no reshoots or additional photography, thanks largely to her husband’s pre-production ritual of sketching every shot of the movie in notebooks before the cameras roll.

“It’s all-consuming, exhausting,” she said. “It takes months. That’s when he’s really making the movie.”

Putting in 15 hours a day for more than 10 months on set took its toll on Cavill, who recalls the production as “exhausting.” But the British actor credits Snyder’s playfulness and singularity of focus with helping maintain his stamina even in moments of doubt or fatigue.

“This was a rather grueling shoot,” Cavill said. “So when you’re thinking, ‘Do I really have to do this? I don’t see the point,’ [Snyder’s] peppy energy will remind you that you do, absolutely, and you’re here to work. And if he’s working as many hours as the rest of us, if not more, then so can we.”

Henry Cavill, left, Zack Snyder and Kevin Costner on the set of "Man of Steel." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Henry Cavill, left, Zack Snyder and Kevin Costner on the set of “Man of Steel.” (Clay Enos / Warner Bros.)

Although speculation has ranged across social media and the blogosphere that Nolan may have back-seat-directed “Man of Steel,” the British filmmaker denies micro-managing Snyder in any way, describing his primary role as a creative enabler.

“I know as a director on a huge movie, you don’t always see the wood for the trees,” Nolan said. “I tried to be a voice of objectivity for Zack because I couldn’t be with him there on set. I was shooting ‘Dark Knight Rises’ at the same time. And I wouldn’t have wanted to be on his set anyways. He knows how to direct his movie. I was the guardian of the story, keeping it to the original conception of how we saw it.”

Days before the movie’s release on more than 4,200 screens — with reports circulating that Warner Bros. has already reupped Goyer and Snyder and fast-tracked a “Man of Steel” sequel — the director paused to consider his own hero’s journey.

“Chris making the decision to hire me, us making this giant movie, him away on ‘Dark Knight Rises’ — he bore a lot of the responsibility,” Snyder said. “And, in a weird way, I had a lot of the fun.”

— Chris Lee | Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

Nicole Sperling contributed to this report.

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