In Appreciation - Deborah Snyder - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
16Nov/170

In Appreciation – Deborah Snyder

Say hello to the driving force behind the most fiercely debated mainstream blockbusters of the 21st century. (image source)

Cinematic partnerships have been the foundation of onscreen legend.  Bogie and Bacall, Astaire and Rogers, Powell and Loy - all performers who found a partner that bring out the best in each other and find ways to push their already considerable talents to new levels.  Partnerships behind the camera sometimes result in similar transcendence with pairs like Scorsese and Schrader, Tarantino and Menke, or - one of my recent favorites - director Tom Ford and musician Abel Korzeniowski.

With Justice League on the horizon, I wanted to take some time to write about one of my other favorite pairings where one half gets too much attention and the other a bare minimum.  To the former, Zack Snyder - the latter, Deborah Snyder.  Zack's films are the most challenging big budget extravaganzas being made today and, ever since I learned Deborah produced all Zack's films since 300, I've had this nagging sensation that the easily excitable Zack has only been able to reach his full potential because of Deborah.

Put simply - there is no Zack Snyder without Deborah Snyder.  Zack gets most of the attention but it's Deborah's work behind the camera putting the correct pieces in play that makes Zack's films click.  Broadly, this makes her an excellent producer.  Specifically, the shift in quality between Zack's first and second films, Dawn of the Dead and 300, along with details about her increased involvement in the creative process in-between those films, point to how important she is to their production company - Cruel and Unusual Films - as well as her growing influence on the industry overall.

The modern-day McCabe and Mrs. Miller, minus the murder and opium, but sharing an appreciation of Leonard Cohen. (image source)

The basic pieces of Zack's style are there in Dawn of the Dead, Zack's only film without Deborah as a credited producer.  There's his use of speed ramping, color desaturation, insecure men worshiping tools of war, solid complex roles for women, and so on.  But as much as I enjoy Dawn of the Dead it doesn't quite gel.  There's a restlessness to the action that tapers off in choppy pacing, and for every great scene aimed at consumerism (the Richard Cheese "Down with the Sickness" montage) there are others that feel like generic splatterfests (the end credits Disturbed "Down with the Sickness" montage.)  The lack of cohesion is hinted at in this soundbite from star Sarah Polley, "He's like a little kid and he's just completely ridiculous most of the time."  Understandable, given that it was Zack's first film, but it also hints that he needs a grounding force to focus his talent.

If Deborah had much to do with Dawn of the Dead outside the bit of work Cruel and Unusual Films put in, it's difficult to find and there's few thoughts from her about the film.  This is not the case with 300, which is a staggering leap forward in confidence with its more elaborate speed ramping action scenes, striking compositions, complicated critique of wartime propaganda, and exciting musical score. You could attribute this to Zack being more comfortable behind the camera, but that's only part of the story.  Deborah was working on 300 with Zack before it was in full production, and she helped him create a combination test shoot plus commercial to give potential backers a taste of what 300 might be like.  Thanks to Deborah's efforts in focusing Zack's vision early on, they received the backing needed to make 300, and the pair have gone on to create the most hotly debated films of the 21st century.

Aside from her efforts with Zack's films behind-the-scenes, Deborah's stepped out in front of the camera more often to provide her perspective.  There's acres of typical press junket stuff, but what fascinates me the most is her involvement and response to thoughts on Sucker Punch - starting with this interview with Zack and Deborah on Collider.  You get to see how much of a grounding influence she is on Zack's exuberance.  Zack starts off the interview on a tear about his dreams and what they mean for the film, starting to break it down in its entirety, before Deborah comes in and puts a kibosh on the grand explanation with a simple, "They steal the fire." In this and other interviews she's straight to the point in a way I admire deeply, cutting through Zack's self-deprecating sense of humor to offer clear and concise answers about "what it all means."

Deborah's solo interviews are great fun, especially when they go into the possibilities of new visual languages. (image source)

This is where her film school knowledge comes in handy.  The two have developed an easy shorthand, discussing what the vision is on and off the set, and asking artists to condense their work into easy soundbites isn't a minor task.  Since she has an understanding of the technical aspects of film production with her schooling, combined with her advertising experience in getting to the point, her comments pierce through metaphor to get at the technical or emotional experience she wants to clarify.  Take this long response in the same Collider interview:

"I think at the end of the day it’s about, when things are so bad, where do you go, what do you do to escape that, how do you cope with that? A lot of times you’ll visualize somewhere else, you want to be somewhere else and I think Baby Doll finds strength, like she goes to a different place and actually each time she seems to get a little bit more strength and a little bit more strength."

She's refreshingly metaphor-free describing the central thread of a film whose primary action setpieces take place entirely in metaphorical realms.  There's no dilly-dallying around with vague and often useless expressions like "relatable."  That thread came through sharply for me in Sucker Punch and, while I'm more pessimistic about the film, her optimism that audiences would understand the human need to cope with pain is important.  I don't believe that was misplaced, and Deborah amusingly sticks to her guns with little patience for folks who only want to focus on the "sexiness" of Sucker PunchThis brief interview from Comic Con is a great example.  While she doesn't say much vocally, the "what fresh hell is this" dead stare after the interviewer says, "It's a sexy idea" is my everything.

It's when she's alone, giving interviews away from the con or junket crowd, that see how awed she is by the grand possibilities of film.  Again with Collider - technically she's fascinated by how digital doubles can be used, but it's the emotional burst toward the end with respect to virtual reality that I adore.  The interviewer's excitement comes from being onstage with Billy Joel, Deborah is wowed by being in a shipwreck and seeing this whale coming soaring over her vision.  I understand the appeal of the interviewer's example, but the possibilities of virtual reality as a storytelling medium posited by Deborah is the sort of stuff that makes me want to overcome my fear of sensory overload to get even a whiff of that majesty.

Deborah's Collider interview also draws the most direct line between her sense of awe and what that influenced in Zack's direction - such as this gorgeous moment of sublime contemplation in Man of Steel.

My hunch, and why acknowledging Deborah's work is so important, is that her biggest legacy on the film industry will be outside of her partnership with Zack.  She has worked on the need to have more diverse voices behind the camera, hiring Patty Jenkins to direct Wonder Woman and casting Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman for Batman v Superman.  Heck, she was able to get Lena Headey back for 300: Rise of an Empire as Deborah recognized the importance of Lena's work in 300, and also because Deborah worked with Zack to make sure Lena got the opportunity to fight this time (Zack, correctly, "That was non-negotiable.")

Regardless of how you feel about the Marvel vs. DC debate when it comes to film (and Deborah has another spectacular non-verbal response about that in this interview), it's unquestionable that Deborah has used her position to push for greater diversity in front of and behind the camera with DC products than their counterparts.  If nothing else, there is no doubt her love of a more proactive Lois Lane led to a personal favorite moment - Lois blasting her way out of Zod's ship in Man of Steel.  But in the years to come, especially with our cultural moment seeking to wrest power from abusive men and give less represented voices a chance, I hope her work is recognized as the quietly trailblazing artistic and commercial triumph it is.  Speaking as a fellow self-described Type A who's also worked through immense pain, I urge you all to consider who is putting in the work behind the work.  You might find someone as admirable, diligent, and transformative as Deborah.

Note: those familiar with the Snyders are aware of the tragic loss of their daughter Autumn earlier this year.  I didn't want to touch on this in the piece for two reasons.  The first is selfish and why I'm writing this note a couple of days after completing my first draft.  I have a history with suicide that I did not want to dwell on writing this appreciation of Deborah.  The second reason is I did not want to be so callous in assuming what effect the tragic loss of Autumn will have on Deborah or Zack.  Deborah's shining example of what can be done to change the industry creatively and professionally is the most important thing I would like you to take from this, but I can't deny how much my heart aches for Deborah and Zack.

Posted by Andrew

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