Jena Malone is practicing her musical number. Abbie Cornish and Jamie Chung are preparing to fight crazy-looking soldiers in a German trench during World War I. Emily Browning is going to attack a huge red dragon. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of Sucker Punch.
It’s November 24th, 2009 and I’m on a plane leaving Vancouver bound for Los Angeles. I spent all day yesterday on the set of writer-director Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch and came away extremely impressed by the vision and scope of his 5th feature film. While his previous two films (300 and Watchmen) have been both applauded and derided by how they reflect the source material, Sucker Punch is Snyder’s first foray into having complete freedom to tell a story without having to work within the confines of a pre-established universe. And while I loved his last two films, I feel like this is the one that’s going to really capture everything Snyder has learned over the past several years. The movie looks fiercely original and unlike anything Hollywood has ever released. It features an almost all girl cast and they’re fighting as hard as the men of 300.
Like the Watchmen set visit, Snyder gave us a ton of freedom on set and let us see everything he has in store for audiences on March 25th. For a complete report of my experience, hit the jump.
While I didn’t know much going in, I walked away thinking Sucker Punch could easily be Snyder’s biggest film to date. Also, it’s completely unencumbered by any sort of restriction since so much of the film takes place in the mind of Emily Browning (Baby Doll). If you’re not familiar with Sucker Punch, I suggest watching this trailer before going any further:
“Sucker Punch is an epic action fantasy that takes us into the vivid imagination of a young girl whose dream world provides the ultimate escape from her darker reality. Unrestrained by the boundaries of time and place, she is free to go where her mind takes her, and her incredible adventures blur the lines between what’s real and what is imaginary.
She has been locked away against her will, but Babydoll (Emily Browning) has not lost her will to survive. Determined to fight for her freedom, she urges four other young girls—the outspoken Rocket (Jena Malone), the street-smart Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), the fiercely loyal Amber (Jamie Chung) and the reluctant Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish)—to band together and try to escape their terrible fate at the hands of their captors, Blue (Oscar Isaac), Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino) and the High Roller (Jon Hamm).
Led by Baby Doll, the girls engage in fantastical warfare against everything from samurais to serpents, with a virtual arsenal at their disposal. Together, they must decide what they are willing to sacrifice in order to stay alive. But with the help of a Wise Man (Scott Glenn), their unbelievable journey—if they succeed—will set them free.”
When you go on a set visit, you never know how the day will play out. Sometimes you arrive on set early in the morning and you’re waiting for hours to get started. Other times you arrive and you’re immediately interviewing the cast or watching filming.
Thankfully, we arrived on set around 9:30 in the morning and for almost the entire day we were interviewing key production people, watching filming, getting shown early footage from the movie, or speaking with the cast. While we were on set for ten hours, I don’t think we stood around waiting for more than a few minutes at any given point. This isn’t the norm and everyone working on Sucker Punch made our visit one hell of an experience.
Since many of you might not have the time to read a full report or you just might not care about everything I did, here’s the most important thing I want to tell you: if you are a fan of Zack Snyder’s three previous films, Sucker Punch is going to ram its figurative fist in your face with how cool it is. The film is loaded with action. You get to see hot women in amazing costumes and kicking ass. Plus the film is from the mind of Zack Snyder, so you’re going to get plenty of slow motion shots and astonishing unbroken takes.
As I said, this film is completely original and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so cool. Most films move along in a certain way. You get a big action scene to start a movie, you get another in the middle, and you end with the biggest set piece. Along the way our protagonist meets someone who changes their view, or their best friend ends up being the villain. Almost every Hollywood movie follows a similar structure. And that’s why you should be so excited for Sucker Punch. This is a film that will move at its own pace, obey its own rules, and it’ll show what Zack Snyder can do in many different realities when he is only limited by the scope of his imagination. And based on the production artwork we saw and the designs for the big action set pieces, the man has plenty of amazing ideas that we have never seen in any of his previous films.
When we first got to the soundstages, we put our stuff down in a specially prepared interview room that’s loaded with early artwork. The walls are filled with preproduction images and we get to see what the girls look like in costume. The room is near Zack Snyder’s office and it’s also near all the production rooms that are filled with images and info on the movie. If you wanted to know the secrets of Sucker Punch, this one hallway reveals it all.
After a short conversation with Debbie Snyder (Zack’s wife and the producer of the film), we walk to a hallway which features the entire movie in pictures. It’s very similar to what they did on Watchmen, except this hallway is not behind a locked door. As we walk down the walkway, Debbie Snyder explains each sequence and what they are going for. We learn the film will have four major action set pieces and they’re each going to be between ten and fifteen minutes. While some movies feature action that seems to happen for no reason, Zack Snyder has designed each scene to correlate with something happening in the real world. When Baby Doll is dealing with something in the asylum, she escapes in her mind by producing a vivid fantasy so she doesn’t have to deal with what’s really going on.
The thing to remember about Sucker Punch is a lot of the film exists in the mind of Baby Doll, so while a normal movie might have to justify why a twelve foot Samurai solider exists, or how a dragon plays into a film, this movie doesn’t have to explain anything and that freedom is what makes this movie feel so fresh and exciting.
Since I really don’t want to spoil all the twist and turns I learned on set, I’ll just say the girls are trying to locate four objects: a map, fire, a knife, and a key. These are the four items they need to steal and each item exists in its own original universe. That’s why as you watch footage from the film in the trailers and TV spots, everything looks so different. In each universe they’re up against different monsters or environments.
After learning about the various things they will fight, we were given a tour of some of the stages. The first thing we learned was Sucker Punch is using four soundstages and as soon as they wrap on something, the stage is ripped apart for the next set. This is done to save money as the more stages you rent, the more expensive it is.
The first set we got to see were some sex rooms in a brothel. One room was red and the other was green. But more important than the color or what might go on in the rooms (hint: it’s sex), this was our first glimpse at how all the different layers of the film play off one another. For example, in the green room, we saw a huge dragon in the wallpaper. While the dragon doesn’t exist in this reality, it’s a way of showing the audience how the real-world crosses over into the fantasy-world. Also, based on what we saw, this is going to be a movie that will be amazing on repeat viewings as the production has put in plenty of nods to other realities in each one. There will be plenty of Easter Eggs for those paying attention.
From the brothel rooms we walked to where second unit was filming an insert shot of a gun in a desk. Before they started rolling, they showed us what was filmed the previous day and it involved Baby Doll’s stepfather in his study. In the footage, he’s pacing back and forth upset about something. He’s holding a document in his hand and there is lighting in the window behind him. Finally, he walks behind the desk and that’s where the insert shot will be put in showing the gun. While I don’t know where scene fits into the movie, later in the day I found out the room has many things that might have influenced Baby Doll’s fantasies. For example, the bookcase has a number of World War One books. There is something about dragons in the room. It’s another reason this film could work great on repeat viewings.
After this, we walked over to where first unit was filming and finally ran into Zack Snyder sitting behind the monitors. The scene he was shooting was part of the German trench battle during the WWI fantasy and sitting near Snyder was Emily Browning. When we first arrived, Snyder talked to us about what they were going for and we got to watch a few takes of the girls trying to break into a bunker. The scene showed Abbie Cornish, Jamie Chung, and Jena Malone taking on a few German soldiers. On take after take we saw the girls firing machine guns and kicking ass. I immediately thought this is a girl’s version of 300 and men and women are both going to love this.
While I could have watched the girls kick ass for hours, we were told we’d get to see some footage from the sequence cut together, so we happily walked to editor William Hoy’s office.
While the footage featured plenty of green screen and zero finished effects, I could easily see what Zack Snyder was going for and it looked mind-blowing. Not only did we see Cornish and Malone smack the life out of some German soldiers, we saw some amazing slow motion shots that will make audiences freak out. One shot, which I will not spoil, featured a weapon being thrown across a long distance in slow motion. If you saw 300 and Watchmen, you sort of know what to expect, but it was still jaw-dropping. Also, I could not believe how stunning the sequence looked even though it was just being filmed and all of the effects were in-camera. Some movies don’t look this good even after the effects have been added in post-production.
As I said before, the thing about Sucker Punch is how it’s not just an action movie. It’s a mixture of diverse, electrifying elements under one roof. With that in mind, we come to our next stop: the musical number.
During Sucker Punch, the film is going to jump between the asylum, the fantasy world, and the brothel. And in the brothel, we’re going to see some of the girls perform short musical numbers. None of them are that long, but it’s another example of how the film is kicking the conventional action movie in the face.
Anytime you’re going to try and do a carefully choreographed scene involving many extras, a band, and background dancers, you’ve got to rehearse. So when we arrived on the soundstage, we saw Jena Malone and the background dancers working on their moves in anticipation of filming later on in the evening.
The first thing I noticed was how great the stage looked. From our vantage point, it looked like a real club. As we walked around, we got to see Malone practice her dance and we also got to see how the dance number plays into the rest of the film. For some reason Baby Doll thinks of Jena’s character as a nurse, and at the end of the number all the other dancers are holding giant syringes. While I don’t know how it plays together, everything in Sucker Punch is layered together and all of the fantasies mesh together.
The other thing to mention about the Brothel soundstage is it’s the same stage as the Lennox House – which is the asylum where the girls live. So while the location is different, you can sort of tell it’s the same location and another fragment of Baby Doll’s mind. Unlike some films that try and hide what is going on, Sucker Punch tells you the entire time Baby Doll is dealing with the world around her by making up elaborate fantasies to shield her from the pain.
Costumes, Production Design, and Props
For some of you, getting to speak with the production designer or the costume designer would be the highlight of the trip, so to make it nice and easy, here’s the links to the audio of what they said (Rick Carter and Michael Wilkinson). They both talked about coming to the project, what it’s like to work for Zack Snyder, the challenges of the movie, what was the hardest part, and a whole lot more.
But there is one thing I want to share: At the costume department, we got to see photos of what the girls wear in the different parts of the film. By now you’ve likely seen the trailers and you will understand when I simply say, “Wow.”. We also learned the film takes place over five or six days and not everyone had a costume for all six days (or at least they didn’t on the board…).
While I thought the costumes were impressive and I learned a lot about production design, I always love going to the prop department. Thankfully, Sucker Punch didn’t disappoint as we got to see and hold many of the “hero” props. In the room we passed around a special gold lighter with a dragon on it (from the dragon/fire fantasy), Baby Doll’s 24 inch sword with a special engraving that spells out the entire movie, Baby Doll’s gun with a number of charms hanging off the bottom, Baby Doll’s sister’s bunny, jetpacks, all the guns they are using, orc weapons, German soldier weapons, and everything else that anyone uses in the film. It was literally a treasure trove of props that any movie memorabilia collector would love to own.
Interviews with the Cast
Like every movie set I have been on, you eventually get to speak with the cast. As you can read by clicking the links at the bottom of this article, the cast was great to speak with and they all talked about how hard they had to work to prepare for this movie and how much fun they were having. Even though the cast and crew were all working long hours day after day, they all seemed fresh and excited when talking about the film. If their energy and excitement is any indication, their real life chemistry is going to look great on screen.
Something that Zack and Debbie Snyder did on Watchmen which really impressed me was how they didn’t try to hide anything. They showed us pre-viz, they explained how they wanted to film certain sequences, and they let us behind the curtain to show us the challenges of making a movie.
And like Watchmen, they were open on Sucker Punch.
Eventually, our group made out way to a screening room and Debbie Snyder showed us a ton of pre-viz on the “Samurai sequence” where Baby Doll has to fight on her own and take on a twelve foot samurai warrior. Since they aren’t filming the sequence until January 2010, they are still figuring out how to shoot it and what moves she will do. But after getting to watch the green screen stunt team’s practice attempts and the pre-viz, I can tell you Baby Doll is going to plunge her sword into a sensitive place. If it comes together like we were shown, it’s going to look awesome on a movie screen.
Another pre-viz sequence we saw involved a dragon. While they are still figuring out the sequence, I think there might be two dragons in this part of the movie, a baby and an adult. Also, there seems to be a medieval castle in this fantasy. I was once again awed at how Snyder will get to explore so many settings within one movie.
But while all the pre-viz looked great, the highlight was the last bit of footage, which takes place on a train. According to Debbie Snyder, they are going to try and shoot an extremely long take that features more action than you can possibly imagine. Thanks to the magic of technology, they are going to move in and out of the train, up and down walls, and all around the actors…in one long continuous take! While the sequence is still being put together, if this ends up happening, it may end up alongside Goodfellas‘ restaurant scene as one of the all-time-great long-takes. It’ll also blow away what Zack did on 300 with Gerard Butler and that long-take that moves in and out of slow motion.
The purpose of the sequence is for the girls to reach one end of the train to stop a bomb. But whatever the reason for the action, it’s clear this is more about the camera shot than anything else, and I couldn’t be more excited. This one shot impressed me more than anything I have seen in a long time. Hopefully it came together in the final film.
Jena Malone Films Her Dance Number
After a little break and some food, we eventually made our way back to the stage where the production was getting ready to film the first dance number of Sucker Punch. Every day this week the plan is to film each actress doing her dance number. No dance sequence are filming for more than a day, which should tell you that none of the numbers are going to take up much of the film’s runtime. If I had to guess, each one is are thirty seconds to one minute in length.
As you can hopefully tell from the craziness of this set report, Sucker Punch is going to be unlike anything you’ve ever seen on a movie screen. While the production was still figuring a few things out on set, I could see all the time and energy that had been put into layering this film with tons of spectacular extras that this is going to be something special when it gets released in 2011. It’s also going to be a film that rewards you for repeat viewings.
Ultimately, if you’re a fan of Zack Snyder – especially Zack Snyder’s action sequences – you’re going to absolutely love what he has in store for Sucker Punch.
For more coverage from our Sucker Punch set visit: