For those of you titillated by the recent advertising push for Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch" – with its series of trailers and one-sheets featuring gorgeous young actresses attired in skin-tight, cleavage-bearing outfits – I feel it's only fair to warn you of the fact that you won't be seeing much more skin than that in the actual film – i.e., don't go in expecting any gratuitous boob shots.
Because despite what Warner Bros.' libido-targeted marketing campaign and Snyder's past R-rated history might suggest, the film has in fact been stamped with a relatively mild PG-13. It's a classification all the more unlikely considering that the film's central characters are a group of young prostitutes attempting to escape the confines of a bordello, a premise that positively screams "R" but one which Snyder claims he never intended to steer into hardcore territory.
"I made the movie with the intention of it being PG-13 – I just had no idea how far you'd have to go to keep it PG-13”, said Snyder, speaking recently during a roundtable discussion for the film's Los Angeles press tour. It was a task that proved far harder than he and wife/producing partner Deborah (who joined her husband for the interview) could have imagined, as it took five trips to the MPAA before they were finally able to secure the rating they'd been aiming for.
"I thought they could be prostitutes as long as you didn't see them actually having sex”, he continued. "‘Taken' [the 2009 Liam Neeson action film] was the PG-13 movie that made us go, ‘wow, we're gonna be fine.' Because they're like giving those girls…like, heroin needles hanging out of their arms, and they're in the back of this construction site being taken advantage of, if you will. So I was like, ‘our movie is fine!' Ours is a fantasy, so I don't know how they could come down that hard on it. But they came down pretty hard on us, I think.”
Given the film's steep $85 million price tag, not to mention the disappointing box-office performance of Snyder's last R-rated film Watchmen, it would seem a smart commercial move on the filmmaker's part (not to mention the studio's) to make sure the film was released with the less audience-restrictive PG-13 rating. However, if those financial considerations ever were a part of the decision-making process the director never acknowledged it during the roundtable, instead maintaining that the choice was based both on not wanting to release an "R”-rated film that barely lived up to the rating, in addition to a belief that emphasizing the more "adult" elements in the story would detract from the film's core message.
"When we were struggling with it, I was like, ‘I can't have this movie be rated-R, personally I can't!'" said the youthful-looking Snyder (he's actually 45), who spoke at a machine-gun clip throughout. "This'll be the worst ‘R' ever, in history, right? Cause it's ‘R' for like leering, and weirdness. Which is like a bad ‘R'. That's like a movie…if I went to it and saw it, I'd say ‘where's my R-rated shit?' Debbie will tell ya, I can make an R-rated movie if I have to. If I wanna make an R-rated movie, it's gonna be rated ‘R'. You know? I'm adamant about that… [but in this case] I was afraid the idea would get lost in the sex and violence."
The process of bringing Sucker Punch to the screen was a decade-long journey that began long before Snyder became the A-list Hollywood powerhouse he is today. Using his idea of a woman who uses her imagination to enter fantastical worlds as a launching pad, Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya – a friend he met many years ago while attending the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA – began hatching out a script with the intention of, according to Shibuya, creating a film where there would be "no limitations on the action.”
"[Zack] wanted to really create this action movie that was kind of unparalleled, and [where] we could basically do anything that we wanted to do”, said Shibuya, who with his slow, deliberate speech patterns and laid-back demeanor came off as Snyder's polar opposite. "He had this idea of this girl going into this institution, and a couple of these big ideas that were just so strange, but wonderful if we could make [them] work. And he had the title, too: ‘Sucker Punch'.”
Ah, yes. The title.
"The title really doesn't…you don't walk out of the film and go, ‘ok, that makes sense'”, Shibuya admitted. "It was just more of a feeling. [But] by the time we finished writing the script, it made sense for the film.”
So is there any way to describe what the title does mean without being too cryptic? Snyder gave it his best shot.
"There [are] two sucker punches [in] the movie, I think”, Snyder attempted. "The first one is that if you have pre-conceived ideas about what you think the movie is, or what the idea is, or how movies are put together and all of that…then that's kind of what the ‘Sucker Punch' is all about. And then on the other hand, I think the literal translation of the title is that there's a device in the movie that acts like a sucker punch – that literally is a sucker punch, if you will. And it takes the story in a circle.”
Indeed, "Sucker Punch" is anything but a straightforward action film, featuring as it does three separate levels of reality – the "real world" (still highly stylized) of the mental asylum into which the main character known as Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is thrown by her depraved stepfather; the "fantasy world" of the bordello, in which Baby Doll is portrayed as a high-class prostitute enslaved by the abusive Blue (Oscar Isaac); and a third level in which she imagines herself and the group of four other prostitutes who hatch an escape plan with her as highly-trained commandos, fighting their way through multiple worlds that incorporate elements of fantasy (i.e. fire-breathing dragons), science-fiction (murderous robots), and even real-life armed conflicts (WWI-era fighter planes).
"We wanted it to be kind of like a puzzle. Kind of like you go into this institution, and then suddenly you're in this crazy kind of brothel place”, said Shibuya. "But you know, everything in there is a reflection of the institution…everything in the brothel was happening in the institution at the same time, [to] some degree. It's kind of [Baby Doll's] take on this world that she creates in her head…We wanted to kind of create this puzzle, that in the end you can kinda look back and see like, ‘ok, that's what was going on there.'”
Underscoring the rich visual world(s) dreamed up by Snyder and Shibuya is a soundtrack that utilizes popular songs to complement the thematic and visual landscape at key moments in the film. Among these are selections as diverse as Bjork's "Army of Me”, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by the Eurythmics, and "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane. The songs were chosen by music supervisor Marius De Vries, who later came together with composer Tyler Bates – who has scored all of Snyder's films save for Owls of Ga'hoole - to work on how the score and soundtrack would best complement each other. The process ended up taking the two in an unexpected direction.
"My role initially was to take care of the majority of the score elements and help the songs transition seamlessly in and out”, Bates told us as he and De Vries sat down for an unexpected chat. "But what ended up happening was over time, the songs and the score just began bleeding into one another so much that we both worked on the majority of everything. And the way the songs were working in the film, compared to how Zack maybe initially described it, how a song would play more in real time. The [songs are] now expand[ed] into a score that is reminiscent of songs sometimes and playing in the consciousness of the characters [i.e. in the same way most people sometimes keep a song ‘playing' in their heads for an extended period of time]."
Given the importance of the theme of female empowerment playing throughout the film, the two also thought it best to record covers replacing the male vocalists in some of the chosen songs with female singers. These included Alison Mosshart of The Kills replacing John Lennon ("Tomorrow Never Dies”); Skin (aka Deborah Dyer) of Brit band Skunk Anansie replacing Iggy Pop ("Search and Destroy”); and the film's own Emily Browning replacing Morrissey on The Smiths track "Asleep" (Browning also performed two other covers on the soundtrack).
"I think one of the strong architectural decisions we made is in terms of the female voice telling the story through song in each of the four big action sequences, and in many cases telling the story of a song where the iconic original performance is a very strong male performance”, said De Vries. "Obviously that doesn't hold through all of them, because the Bjork thing is her original vocal, but that is, to begin with, an extremely empowered and strong female vocal performance…You know, just finding female voices with enough authority and panache and just cultural presence to come out from under the shadow of those performances, and to make this about songs which both comment on the tone of the scene and also help navigate us across the sort of boundaries of these individual worlds which are part of Emily's imagination.”
Speaking of boundaries, the premise of Sucker Punch certainly skirts the line that separates full-blooded, overtly commercial entertainment from more daring works of cinematic imagination. Given that, and given that this is the first film Snyder has directed based off one of his own ideas as opposed to a pre-existing source, I was curious to know whether he felt more pressure this time around for the film to do well.
"Yes and no”, he answered. "'Sucker Punch'…has become abstracted to me as far as like my idea goes, right? Like the, ‘oh, I thought of that!' That was a long time ago. And so through the process of making the movie, just like I did with ‘Watchmen' or ‘300' or any of the movies I've made, once I sort of say like, ‘this is the movie I'm making', it really becomes personal anyway. In some ways I feel more personal about ‘Watchmen' than anything else. Even more maybe than ‘Sucker Punch', just because it's a thing that I loved for so long, you know?...Look, I want people to love the movie, and I think it's a fun ride, but on the other hand…I feel the same pressure, I'd say, [as] I'd feel with anything.”
In other words, pressure is pressure; although since there's obviously no built-in fan base that he and the studio can count on to show up opening weekend – like they could, say, for "Watchmen" – the film is clearly a more risky proposition than anything Snyder has previously directed. It's a chance that Warner Bros. was clearly willing to take on the top-shelf director, who is admittedly something of a brand unto himself at this point.
"Ten years ago, he could not have made this film”, Shibuya pointed out. "He gets better and better. And he had to do all those other films, get the power he needed in Hollywood for a studio to read this script and go ‘ok, go for it', you know? Because I think if it wasn't Zack, and this script landed on someone's table, they would just [be] like, you know…'What is this? This is insane, man!' And I don't know if [the studio] really got it either when they read it the first time. But I think they trusted Zack so they said ‘ok, let's go for it.'”
Will the risk pay off? We won't have to wait long to find out – the film opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.