Zack Snyder’s Rough and Tumble Ride With ‘Justice League’

Even superhero movies can have dual identities.

To most filmgoers, “Justice League” is just another misbegotten comic-book adaptation that came and went in 2017 — one in which DC heroes like Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) united to battle an intergalactic foe.

But to genre fans, “Justice League” is laden with notorious history: the director Zack Snyder exited the project during postproduction, leaving it to be completed by Joss Whedon (“The Avengers”), who had come on to help rewrite it. The result was an unsatisfying attempt by Warner Brothers to kick-start its own Marvel-style franchise.

Snyder occupies a singular space in the blockbuster business. After breakthrough films like “Dawn of the Dead” (2004) and “300” (2007), he has been both praised and pilloried for unapologetically bombastic superhero opuses like “Watchmen” (2009), “Man of Steel” (2013) and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” — his big, brutal dust-up between those two characters, which grossed $873 million worldwide in 2016 yet still ended up a critical and commercial disappointment.

The making of “Justice League” coincided with a tragic period in Snyder’s life; his daughter Autumn died by suicide in March 2017, and his family was mourning her while he tried to finish the film.

It would be understandable if Snyder had chosen to disown and disregard “Justice League” entirely, but he did not. His fans and cast members promoted online petitions and a hashtag, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, encouraging him to put forward his own edit of the movie. Eventually, Snyder acknowledged that such a project existed — not a finished version of the film but a rough assembly that Warner Brothers gave him a budget of about $70 million to complete. HBO Max (which, like Warner Brothers, is owned by WarnerMedia) will release this four-hour film, now called “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” on Thursday.

On a Sunday afternoon this month, Snyder, dressed in a basic white T-shirt that exposed his heavily tattooed forearms, was relaxing at his home in Los Angeles as he spoke in a video interview. In mid-conversation, his 10-year-old daughter, Sage, barnstormed through the room to fiddle with her father’s iPad settings, and he playfully shooed her away.

Snyder, 55, is both self-serious and self-aware, sometimes puffing up his own accomplishments and tearing them down in the same breath. He knows that whether his “Justice League” cut is celebrated or panned like the original, it helps burnish his professional standing either way.

Riffing on the exorbitant running time of the film, he said facetiously, “It’s like ‘The Irishman,’ but with action. You could say that. That’s a fine review. You could also say it’s the ‘Godfather’ of superhero movies. That’s another fine review.”

More sincerely, he spoke of the strange satisfaction at getting to release the Snyder Cut and the toll it had taken on him. “It’s in some ways fun to surf the wave of a cultural phenomenon,” he said. “In other ways it’s terrifying and horrible.”

He spoke further about the making of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” the circumstances that led up to it and whether audiences still want to see his grandiose take on these enduring characters. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Was there a point, going back to “Batman v Superman,” when you realized you were on thin ice with Warner Brothers?

There was a definitely a shift in confidence that they had, and I think that kept multiplying as we went along. They had this giant I.P. [intellectual property] and their confidence in my point of view had eroded.

Was it a warning sign when the studio brought in Joss Whedon for rewrites?

It was a bit of a red flag. They were like, We think punching up the humor and doing some more fun stuff will be great. I was like, Hmm, I’m happy to shoot a scene if you guys have a good idea. We kicked around a bunch of different writers and they had come in with Joss. He’s a talented writer, no two ways about it. But I really didn’t see the point. And then when I was like, I’m done, I can’t do this, I feel like they were volunteering Joss as the de facto finisher.

You left “Justice League” of your own volition?

Absolutely. The decision to leave was 100 percent mine. I knew the fight that I was in for with them. And my family needed me, and I needed them. I was in a struggle at home, and then to go to my place of work and be in a second struggle there seemed like an outrageous thing to do to myself and my loved ones.

Did you worry about the long-term ramifications your departure might have for your standing with Warner Brothers or your career?

For sure. And the truth is, I was in such a place of desperation, I didn’t care. You know what? Good riddance to “Justice League.” I was like, Guys, really? You’re going to give me a hard time? Let’s go. I’ll fight you right now. [Laughs.] I was not in the mood for that kind of thing. I felt like we had done a great job, and the movie was done, even the two-hour-and-20-minute version that the studio had knocked me down to.

How did you end up with a director’s cut of the film?

Almost every movie I’ve ever made has a director’s cut. When I said, OK, I’m done, I [told] one of the editors I worked with [Carlos Castillón]: Put it together as best you can, and give it to me. A bunch of my inner-circle buddies who worked on the movie always talked about, Oh, maybe we just drop a thumb drive somewhere and let a “fan” [he makes air quotes] find it. And I was like, that’s funny but I think it’s better if it just lives as this thing that no one will ever see. I’ve lost my appetite for the fight.

Were you dropping hints to its existence in the hopes that it would eventually be released?

It was more just me having fun on [the social network] Vero with my fans. Did I think there would ever be a version of this where the fans’ rallying cry got so loud that a big company like WarnerMedia would consider this as an option? Absolutely not. I thought maybe in 10 years, there might be a DVD version where they might go, Hey, maybe it’s worth a couple dollars if we spruce up the Snyder cut.

And now the same media company you clashed with on “Justice League” — under different management — is letting you put out your version of it.

I appreciate that, I really do. This movie wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for HBO Max; I’m eternally grateful for them. And the viewing experience is still at a hugely high quality. It’s really up to your TV. It’s in the same aspect ratio as “First Cow.” Those two movies share some common DNA, I think. [Laughs.] I really did like “First Cow,” actually. I would love that in a double feature, “First Cow” and the Snyder cut of “Justice League.”

Do you see the DC heroes on a grand level, like characters from Wagner or “Lord of the Rings”?

It’s obvious I take these characters and their mythology really seriously. I want them to be fully realized as characters, existing in that world. I don’t think that it’s cool to have fun at their expense. And there was a vision that we had, a complete universe, fully fleshed out, that we really wanted to take all the way.

Was that to draw an intentional contrast with what Marvel is doing in its movies?

I knew it before “BvS,” when we made “Man of Steel.” Marvel is doing something else. They’re doing, at the highest level, this popular action-comedy with a heart. And they have that nailed. An effort to duplicate that is insanity because they’re so good at it. What DC had was mythology at an epic level, and we were going to take them on this amazing journey. Frankly, I was the only one saying that.

The release of your “Justice League” brings back some painful memories, but aren’t you savoring it a bit, too?

Only in the sense that it’s three years later, and here I am releasing a four-hour version of the movie. It really shows that the consumer is not wrong in a lot of ways. “They can’t handle anything over two hours, they’re going to lose their minds.” They were underestimated, the audience themselves.

How long did you want the theatrical cut of “Justice League” to be?

My point of view is that the movie should be about 20 minutes longer each time. “BvS” should be 20 minutes longer than “Man of Steel,” and “Justice League” should be about 20 minutes longer than “BvS.” I thought the movie should be a little closer to three hours when I initially went into it. I know that it’s indulgent. The truth is there’s probably about 10 Snyder cuts — there’s a longer version than the four-hour version. There’s a three-hour version. A two-hour and 20. I think I showed the studio two hours and 40 minutes. And then I showed them subsequent cuts of two hours and 30 minutes, and two hours and 28 minutes, and two hours and 22 minutes.

How did you end up with enough footage for a four-hour movie?

I do it on every movie. I tend to shoot a lot, but it’s really carefully done. It’s not like we’re just running a second camera. Everything is very methodically thought out. When I sit down to draw the movie, the movie is different than the movie the studio wants or that anybody knows about.

Why did you bring back some of your actors to shoot a new finale?

I added it because this was going to be the last movie I make for the DCU and to have this entire cinematic universe without Batman and Joker meeting up just felt weird. Jared [Leto] and I had a bunch of conversations about it. I had mentioned it to Ben and I was like, Ben, let’s just do it at my house. I could shoot it in the backyard. Don’t tell the studio and I’m not going to pay you guys. I’m just going to shoot it myself.

Is that what you ended up doing?

No, what happened is it worked out and we were able to do it for real. And then I called the rest of those cast members and said, Hey, would you guys be down to come around and do it.

The actor Ray Fisher raised complaints, alleging that Whedon was abusive to him on the “Justice League” reshoots, which led to an investigation by WarnerMedia and other actors coming forward with accounts of similar experiences with Whedon. Were you aware this was happening?

Not at the time. The last thing they wanted to do was call me, complaining about them having a hard time shooting. But in retrospect, do I feel bad that they had to go through that? I do. These guys are my friends, and they’re amazing actors, and they’re strong people. I want them to be taken care of and in a healthy situation. I wasn’t there, so your opinion on it is probably is as good as mine.

Why did you end the movie with, essentially, a cliffhanger teasing another movie that’s never going to come?

The ask was for my version of the movie.

Had you gotten to make further ‘Justice League’ movies, what would have happened in them?

It’s the fall of Earth, when Superman succumbs to anti-life. And then sending Flash back in time to change one element so that doesn’t happen. And then the big battle where we beat him. When [the villain] Darkseid comes to Earth, in the movie that you’ll never see, the armies of Earth all unite again, as they did before. This time there would be aircraft carriers and Special Forces guys, all the armies of the world would come together, as well as [Aquaman’s fellow] Atlanteans rising out of the ocean and the Themyscirans [Wonder Woman’s compatriots] coming off their island. That was our big finale. But it’s a long drum roll and guitar solo to get there.

Since “Justice League,” there have been other DC movies, like “Aquaman” and “Shazam!”, that have gotten more enthusiastic reviews and made more money. Does that sting for you, that your films didn’t achieve that?

I couldn’t be happier. It doesn’t sting for me at all. Those movies are cool, and they’re really well-made and excellent. But “BvS,” love it or hate it, it’s probably the most mentioned movie in hashtags and references. It’s the closest thing to a cult film that could exist at this level of pop culture. Am I a provocateur? A little bit. Is my job to make some pop-culture piece of candy that you eat and forget about the next day? Nah. I would rather [expletive] you up in a movie than make it nice and pretty for everybody. Let’s be frank, there’s no cult of “Aquaman.” Jason is a force of nature, and by all means, I want there to be 100 “Aquaman” movies because he’s an awesome guy. But it’s not controversial. And I have purposely, because I love it, made the movies difficult.

Is it possible that the zeitgeist just didn’t embrace your interpretation of these characters?

It could be. And that’s fine, too. I don’t have a dog in the hunt. When I made “Watchmen,” it’s deconstructionist. It’s a movie that pokes holes in your heroes. And “BvS” is the same thing. It’s meant to say, Oh, Batman’s drunk and taking painkillers and he’s sleeping with some anonymous girl. He’s a broken person. He dresses up as a bat and he goes out at night and he beats people up. He has issues. I do think the movie came along at a point where everyone was like, oh, we don’t want that Batman. We want Batman to be the warrior-monk who’s cool. And I personally am fine with that.

When you see what Marvel is doing in its movies, do you ever think, I should be doing more of that?

No, not at all. I don’t know how to hit a ball any different than I hit it. A director has one skill — your point of view. That’s all you have. If you’re trying to imitate another way of making a movie, then you’re on a slippery slope.

Even though the DC movies have retained your principal cast members like Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa, they’re moving away from story lines that your films set up and the sense of a shared universe they established. Do you feel like they’re dismantling your legacy?

They are 100 percent moving away. They consider the theatrical cut of “Justice League” as canon. That’s their decision. I wish them all the best, and I hope the whole thing is a giant blockbuster on top of blockbuster on top of blockbuster. The stars of those movies are my friends, and I want them to be prosperous, and I want people to love it.

You’ve been making comic-book adaptations for some 15 years. Are you done with that genre entirely? Do you feel you need to get away from it for a while?

I don’t think about it in those terms. It was nice to go do “Army of the Dead” [a coming zombie action movie for Netflix]. They were completely supportive, and it was an incredible, cathartic re-immersion into that relationship. I’m trying to put together this movie called “Horse Latitudes,” a super-microbudget movie that I’m going to go shoot with my buddies in South America. It’s about a man’s journey into his past and how does death shape you? Am I ready to make a movie like that? I think so.

Are you still planning an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”?

“Fountainhead” right now is on the back burner, and I don’t know how that movie gets made, at least not right away. We need a less divided country and a little more liberal government to make that movie, so people don’t react to it in a certain way.

Meaning, if it had come out in the last few years, it would have struck the wrong tone?

I think so. But we’ll see. I’m in no rush.

Do you think your “Justice League” has broader implications for the film industry and the lengths that studios will continue to go to cater to audiences?

This is a social experiment. For millions of people, it’s, Oh, look a giant superhero movie — I guess that’s cool. But then for a large portion of my fans, it comes custom-made. [As a viewer] you have the perception, more than ever, that the movie was made singularly for you as you watch it. It’s the culmination of this entire experience: I fought and used the hashtag #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, and it’s in my world, in my computer, on my TV, in my house. I don’t think anybody can quantify what that means yet.

What will you do when it’s finally released?

I have to go to the dentist on the 18th. That’s how my day’s going to be.

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