The Kent farm, Kansas, 2011 — first thing: Something pretty serious has happened. There is a Dodge pick-up nose down in the Kent kitchen. The result, likely, of someone having hurled it at the picturesque farmhouse — until recently a Rockwell-charming homestead modelled on a nearby family home the owners were understandably reluctant to have destroyed, no matter how much Zack Snyder wanted to put it in his Superman movie. A lifetime’s belongings — dusty heirlooms, clothes, crockery, comic books, pictures of a young Clark alongside his ma and pa — have been pulverised into rubble. lt’s as if a tornado has swept through on its way to Oz. In truth, despite the purpose-grown cornfields, this isn’t Kansas. This is Naperville, Chicago, baking in a (still young and healthy) late summer sun. And these are the scars of a superpowered dust-up.
A few miles down the road, Smallville has also fallen victim to this super-squabble Debris is strewn across the main street — most noticeably jet engine parts. The Tarmac is pockmarked with angry craters The 7-Eleven is no more. The Sears shattered. Snyder was keen on some real-world relevance to Clark Kent’s hometown: between the big-city chain stores there are foreclosure signs.
Plano offered certain advantages in playing Smallville It is within commuting distance of Chicago, which will provide exteriors for Metropolis. And, rather advantageously, a recent train crash (where’s Superman when you need him?) knocked out two blocks of the rural town. The production has built two entire streets on this empty ‘lot’, to be demolished again. The townsfolk couldn’t be more delighted Man Of Steel has rolled by: the council has officially rechristened Plano as Smallville for two weeks, and the mayor has been cast as the bank manager. There appears to be a hero-shaped dent in the vault door. Faora was testing her strength...
Producer Deborah Snyder, a tour guide as pretty and talkative as Lois Lane, draws to a halt and surveys the street’s tableau of destruction with a thoughtful tilt of the head. “We’ve been blowing a lot of stuff up,” she reflects.
Whatever impression you might have of the reinvention of this stalwart of the superhero canon; how it will play tough where Richard Donner plied romance and comedy, and Bryan Singer sang golden arias to DC’s heavyweight. How today’s Man Of Tomorrow will trim the comic from the comic-book and follow The Dark Knight’s lead into the shadows. Whatever realism has been newly applied to Superman, they are still blowing a hell of a lot of shit up. The bathwater may have been tossed, but Snyder is still holding tightly to the baby.
“In the end, Superman is Superman!” proclaims the 47 year-old director. He has the exuberance of a travelling preacher, peppering his sermons with “awesomes” or “super-cools” — the gospel according to St. Geek.
“When you talk about superhero action movies, there is Batman of course, and I think that Chris (Nolan) laid a lot of important groundwork. And there are the Marvel movies... I don’t mean it as an insult, Iron Man and Hulk are strong superheroes, but we’ve never had a superhero movie where everyone can go, ‘Yeah, I understand the why of the whole thing.’ Superman is a character who deciphers the why of superheroes.”
Man Of Steel isn’t less of a superhero movie. Snyder means for it to be the most superheroic film ever made. “What is the mythology of superheroes? ” he demands from his pulpit. “The answer is Superman. And that is awesome.”
Burbank, post-production, 2013 — a year-and-a-half later: Zack Snyder is literally holding the baby. “Family responsibilities,” he apologises. His and Deborah’s new arrival is being gently swapped between parental laps while they discuss their other newborn, currently receiving its coat of special effects. With the help of seven different effects houses including Weta Digital, their bonny, bouncing Superman is taking flight.
“The magic of post is you almost make the movie twice,” enthuses Snyder. “You’re like, ‘Oh my Lord, I didn’t know it was going to be that awesome.” Deborah Snyder definitely prefers post. “Shooting is always more stressful,” she sighs. Man Of Steel has been epic. She does a quick tally in her head, counting the days. “You know, this is the longest gestation we have ever had on a movie. And we are still not done.” Time enough for a new Snyder to enter the world.
Both filmmakers know the proof will finally be in the watching, but there are rumblings about the breakfast counters of rival studios that Man Of Steel is turning out very well indeed. Plans are being hatched, they say. Warner Bros.’ long-term view has been revised to embrace this new vision, just as the Dark Knight films resisted the commodification of Marvel. Whether we get a Justice League, they say, depends on Man Of Steel. If we do, they say, Zack Snyder will be asked to direct.
“I have a hard time having perspective,” Snyder admits modestly. “But I have to say that it is everything that I could have hoped for. Touch wood that I am not insane, but it feels really good.”
The final running time is something like two hours ten, and this is it. “The movie is the director’s cut,” he insists.
“l’m definitely proud of the film,” says producer Charles Roven, more shared DNA with the Dark Knight films, which he also produced. When you’re dealing with Superman, he appreciates, you’re dealing with a brand somewhere between Coca-Cola and Christ. That ‘S’ emblazoned on his chest is in the top five most known symbols in the world. Snyder’s heard it’s top two. Theirs is a film, Roven hopes, for both the lifelong fans and those who don’t relate. “But the audience has to tell us how they feel.”
Of course, the fan jury is still out, waiting to be convinced. Once, Snyder was one of the favoured few — the Jacksons, the del Toros, the elusive Nolans — geek-proof after his biting revitalisation of the zombie genre, Dawn Of The Dead; his half-crazed, smash-hit synthesis of Frank Miller’s satire of Spartan machismo, 300; and his still surprisingly redolent feel for the unpeeling of genre in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. He was voted fan-favourite at Comic-con 2009, thrilling the crowds with his effusions of nerd speak. Everything was awesome. Give him a crack at Kal-El right then and they would have been singing to the rafters of Hall H. That was before his unwise, unpronounceable diversion into animated owl epic The Guardians Of Ga’Hoole, and the Bay-like smear of digital excess in Sucker Punch.
With its dreamy glaze of hot chicks slamming samurai bosses, his last film was the nerd-orgasm applied too literally — Freudian green-screen. Taking it personally, the faceless rabble-rousers soured to Snyder. When Christopher Nolan announced him the man for Man Of Steel, the latest attempt at giving life to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s stellar immigrant, the result was the internet-wide equivalent of a builder’s frown.
“For me it is like, ‘Whatever.’” Snyder doesn’t sound bitter, more philosophical. “I don’t know what they really want, so it is impossible to really take that with anything but a grain of salt. Otherwise you would do nothing. They want the underwear! ‘Do you really?’”
Snyder grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. An all-American boy, his ma was a painter and photographer, his pa an executive recruiter. He summered in Maine, studied fine art, and made the football team. He was quarterback. “Football players have their own little scripts,” he says, sensing the link to directing. “You run that way and you run this way.” He’s still sportsman good-looking. When he had the chance, he’d join Henry Cavill in the gym. See who could do the most pull-ups. Before shooting he gets down to three per cent body fat. Influenced by the fantasy art of Frank Frazetta, he claims he has “always been obsessed with the potential of humanity’s physicality”.
Smallville, a saloon, 2011 — shortly before lunch: Zack Snyder’s father has the same easy smile as his son. He has joined Empire’s tour of the production, curious as to how the press will cover his son’s movie. You can see where the charm comes from. And the fitness — even in his eighties he is in fine fettle. Good genes, he says. Ed Snyder is a proud man. “l’ve been to every set,” he boasts. “Even though I was initially cautious about him becoming a filmmaker, I have tried to encourage him.” He glances out the window to the devastated street. Look what my son can do...
The Battle Of Smallville is the first major conflict in the movie. Clark Kent’s adopted hometown is under siege from his Kryptonian cousins Zod and Faora, determined to lay waste to what he holds most dear. “It’s a Western face-oil,” is Snyder’s interpretation. “They care very little for Smallville’s iconographic status. We’re being really hard on the town: this battle needed to be dangerous.” The sequence will require a nine-day shoot.
Everything about Superman feels preordained. Characters, locations, the very look and sensibility of the mythology come encased in aspic as hard to shatter as Batman’s world is pliable. Whatever Snyder and crew’s intentions to both “pull apart” and “respect” the mythology, Smallville will always be Smallville. Their answer is to cover the film in the “shroud of the modem world”. That is why we are here in a real town. Place the fantastic in the everyday, and he becomes more fantastic. “Everything had to be based on something real,” iterates Deborah Snyder. “That is our mantra.”
Yet Metropolis isn’t based on New York. “I put it on the Eastern seaboard, but not Manhattan,” says Snyder sounding godlike. “lt’s a Metropolis with its own history, police force, and buildings.” The Daily Planet has relocated from the standard Art Deco edifice to the clean, modernist lines of a Mies van der Rohe. “I imagined they moved there in the early ’60s,” laughs Snyder. He plans to tinker with Chicago’s skyline.
However real this world will feel, it is not quite the real world. Man Of Steel is happening right now, but not right here. Snyder has shot with a handheld urgency (“not Bourne urgent”), but with a grainy stock, slow motion and a lens-flared, sun-warmed gorgeousness part J.J. Abrams channelling Spielberg, part Snyder’s own background in advertising: Ridley Scott-riffs to promote Nokia, Gatorade and Corona beer. “in a weird way it is also the DC world,” he says eagerly. “I have been making references to the DC universe, just to let you know that world is out there.” He won’t say where. That’s for the fans to figure out.
Burbank, post-production, 2013 — a year-and-a-half-and-a-bit later: Snyder likes to describe Superman as the “Rosetta Stone of superheroes”. The thought came from Watchmen. “l realised every one of those characters had a bit of Superman in them,” he explains. No comic-book artist working in the genre, Watchmen’s Dave Gibbons included, can get away from Superman. “He is the root of everything in the genre,” Snyder exalts again. The ne plus ultra of ne plus ultras.
People forget Snyder made Watchmen. What’s more, he made a credible, at times extraordinary, version of something considered untouchable. Snyder’s more recent Ultimate Cut (assembled during pre-production on Man Of Steel), stretching out to three-and-a-half hours, further reinforces the coke-black comedy and superhero dissembling of the graphic novel. The notably blue Doctor Manhattan being the nihilistic extension of what it might be like to possess Superman’s powers — the slow erosion of humanity. Doesn’t this make Snyder the perfect choice for Man Of Steel? If you’ve broken the genre into its clockwork pieces, you learn what makes it tick.
“I was really glad I could do it in that order.” Snyder means Watchmen first, Man Of Steel afterwards. “The irony of Superman is that it is not ironic. The irony of Watchmen is that the whole thing is ironic.” He laughs ruefully. When he made Watchmen, Warner didn’t get it. They thought he was making something “franchisable, like a summer blockbuster”. Right beneath their noses, he was subverting Hollywood’s cash-cow genre. It was a film ahead of its time. How relevant, how vital Watchmen seems after Avengers Assemble. And, with more irony still, Snyder is now in charge of the most franchisable summer blockbuster of them all — for Warner. “I feel I am at a place now where I really want to celebrate superhero culture,” he says.
Things have come full circle. There is much of Watchmen’s noir aesthetic in Nolan’s Batman series (itself a subversion). Aren’t those gravel-voiced night-prowlers Rorschach and Nolan’s Dark Knight two sides of the same coin? And now Nolan is curating Snyder’s Man Of Steel. Even so, Snyder remains Clark Kent to Nolan’s isolationist Bruce Wayne. “This is not the operatic style that Chris used with Batman,” he asserts. “This is entirely different. It can be gritty and real, but you have got to be optimistic.” Everyone describes Man Of Steel as “hopeful”. “The thing about Batman,” says Snyder, “is that he is a normal man.”
The cellar of the Kent barn, 2011 — earlier that day: Resembling a giant Art Nouveau hood ornament emblazoned with the Superman symbol, Kal’s ship has been stowed out of sight by Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent. Teardrop-shaped, its bronze surface is marked with curvilinear impressions; motifs that will be carried through to the Kryptonian armour worn by Russell Crowe’s Jor-El, Michael Shannon’s General Zod and Antje Traue’s frosty Faora. Look closely, and they’re there, too, in Superman’s suit. The symbols —“glyphs” — are a family crest. Zod has his own. Once more, the determination is not to relinquish the science-fiction of Superman rather than hardwire it with logic. Things can’t just be super. They need to be super-real.
Take our hero’s sweeping scarlet cape that billows so fetchingly in the wind. By The Incredibles’ iconoclastic costumier Edna Mode’s reckoning, highly liable to snag on a missile fin. But Krypton, Deborah Snyder argues, is a cape society. “Zack wanted capes throughout, and for that to feel integrated and functional.” They actually held emergency meetings about the necessity of pants. “We tried working with the underpants, we really did,” laughs Deborah Snyder, “but we just couldn’t make it work.” There remains an homage to the pants in the belt detail, but it was more important the look should link directly back to Krypton.
Once they finish shooting in Plano and Chicago, they will head to Vancouver to create Krypton on green-screens — the film’s only concession to the artifice of Sucker Punch. Even then they will travel to a glacier in northern Canada to locate their Fortress Of Solitude. Krypton, surprisingly, came to Snyder easily. “I know where we are headed,” he says. “I like big world-building exercises.” The only rule — it shouldn’t feel made up.
What resembled a giant Christmas-tree decoration in the Donner universe now has its own language and social structure Borrowing the tenets of Aldous Huxley, Kryptonian society is genetically engineered into warrior class, scientist class and worker class. Floating robots serve the privileged. The walls are adorned with Kryptonian maxims, there for fans to crack. An impossibly large and ancient sun is about to consume them all.
Back on Earth, in Plano nee Smallville, in a warehouse just beyond the railway tracks, is an unmistakable sight. An actor, muscles like boulders, is pulling poses for an FX team sampling data to be translated into a digital double: so he can leap and bound, untethered by gravity. So he can fly. The suit is a deeper blue, but here stands Superman. Henry Cavill has become immune to the inevitable stares. Deborah Snyder follows Empire’s gaze. “He had this gravitas,” she recalls of the audition. “He wasn’t overly saccharine. He was just enough. We knew immediately.”
Los Angeles, post-production, 2013 — a year-and-a-half-and-a-bit-nwre later: Among his many duties prior to release, Snyder has been putting the finishing touches to the 3D conversion. Once a poisonous phrase, the technology has come on in leaps and bounds. “It is just my humble opinion,” he chances, “but it is better than native now.”
They had talked about whether to shoot in 3D, but then he met up with a conversion team, it took one test shot and he was sold. “By the way, we like to think that the 3D is just another way of seeing the movie,” he says. “It is not Superman 3D, it is Man Of Steel, available in 3D.” Snyder wanted to shoot the story and nothing else — Superman doesn’t need another dimension. It’s an optional extra.
They are headed along a trajectory towards release at what feels like the speed of sound. The moment of truth awaits. Can Superman beat Batman? Can Snyder better Nolan? How much will be enough? “I’II be watching the figures,” says Roven, “but the fan response is important. That’s what you make it for.” No-one, but no-one, is willing to discuss sequels, or offshoots, or team-ups. There is no public DC iteration of Marvel’s many phases. It’s as if it is bad karma to look to the future, although Snyder does relent a little. “We didn’t design the movie like Batman,” as in a trilogy, “but I don’t think anybody would say that you design a Superman movie as a one-off.”
Smallville, Main Street, 2011 — dusk: Defying gravity, a helicopter lifts into the air; white-knuckle stuntmen in military fatigues line its sides, Apocalypse Now – cool as it transcribes a perfect arc out of sight of Empire’s craning neck. We’re going again, Snyder has decreed. The chopper — representing the (futile?) military intervention in the Zod versus Superman contretemps — will circle Smallville to land in a blizzard of dust, with the troops, weapons shouldered, leaping off seconds before touchdown. It takes 15 minutes to reset each shot.
Snyder’s HQ has been temporarily stationed in a bowling alley. After a long day’s shooting he looks spent. There’s a sigh at the end of his sentences, but the smile never flags. “We’re still working on storyboards,” notes Deborah Snyder with a concerned glance at her weary husband. “It’s a seven-day week. A big movie.” Snyder maps his movies out literally by the frame. Then before each day begins he gets together with his cast and stuntmen to videotape the day’s action with cardboard boxes for props. By the time they shoot, everyone knows exactly what they are doing. “It allows him to focus on telling the story,” says Deborah Snyder. “I am slightly biased, but it is really a unique style. Everyone is so invested.”
Snyder never stops shooting. When between movies he catalogues family life with his video camera. And 200 million bucks notwithstanding, Man Of Steel could be a home movie. As well as the visit from good-luck charm Snyder Sr., Eli Snyder (Zack and Deborah’s son) plays a bully who takes on Clark Jr. The unit photographer went to college with Deborah, and the chief stunt co-ordinator spoke at their wedding. But it is about more than just personnel. This is a personal movie. “I think it’s a super-personal movie,” agrees Snyder, “It is a hand-made movie, shot on film. And, at its core, it is a small film.”
Two legacies, Kryptonian and Kent, will vie for the soul of Clark or Kal-El. Lois Lane will offer a real connection. Love will play a key role. “You can do all these fights and awesome visual effects,” says Snyder, “but if you can really stay with that kind of thought, you are going to make it work.” To be the ultimate superhero movie takes heart.
With the throb of rotor blades, Snyder springs out of his chair, rushing to make an infinitesimal adjustment to the camera placement seconds before the chopper enters the shot. This is day 23 out of 121. Who does he think he is, Superman?