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Snyder finds success, promise with visceral ‘300’

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, March 21, 2007

By 2005, the state of the film project “Watchmen” – based on Alan Moore’s mammoth 400-page graphic novel – was in disarray. Once sought by former Monty Pythonite and “Brazil” director Terry Gilliam, the project had gone through a series of directors, studios and screenplay incarnations. Though it was most recently attached to Darren Aronofsky, the “Requiem for a Dream” director decided to bow out due to scheduling conflicts. It seemed as though “Watchmen” was doomed to development hell, and a screen version of Moore’s masterpiece would never see the light of day.

Then, in 2006, a young and relatively unknown filmmaker named Zack Snyder became attached to “Watchmen,” when Warner Bros. confirmed that he would be, at last, the man who would bring the project to cinematic life. This caused more than a little bit of consternation, especially among fans – Moore’s work, unlike Frank Miller’s (the graphic novelist behind “Sin City” and “300”) has been notoriously difficult to translate to the screen, as evidenced by a mediocre production of “From Hell” and an abysmal remake of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” So it was perplexing that Warner entrusted one of its most valuable properties to a young, obscure filmmaker whose only directorial credit was 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead.”

Then “300” was released and fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. A violent, stirring and impressive adaptation of Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, “300” was clearly the work of a director with style and panache, whose energetically faithful take on Miller’s work used state-of-the-art special effects and amazing camerawork to tell its story. “Watchmen” appears to be in good hands.

Snyder himself seems to be an overnight success, having become an A-list director in only three films. The 41-year-old director, who hails from Green Bay, Wisc., attended Art Center College of Design at Pasadena, Calif., before going on to study visual art at Heatherlies School in London.

His first work was the straight-to-video short “Playground” in 1990, which features Michael Jordan in a fantasy about a high school student who gets some tips and encouragement from the NBA star. He also directed the music video “Tomorrow” for former The Smiths singer Morrissey.

Yet it was 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead,” his directorial debut, that really launched Snyder’s career. A remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 classic of the same name, the film was released to critical and commercial acclaim. Snyder was quickly established on the Hollywood block, opening the way for him to direct “300,” which was put into production in the wake of other graphic novel successes like “Sin City” and “V for Vendetta.” Like Robert Rodriguez on “Sin City,” Snyder sought to make a very faithful adaptation, though he fleshes out characterization and plot, which stretches a relatively brief narrative into a full-length motion picture.

“300” has proven to be an evolutionary film, with eye-popping visual effects and a mastery of cinematic technique. Such mastery will be necessary for the sprawling, complex “Watchmen” and fans are cautiously enthused. The opening weekend gross of “300,” which topped 70 million, no doubt secured Snyder’s next project – at least financially.

Snyder’s approach to source material is to try to remain as faithful as possible, though he cites different influences than might be expected. For instance, he said of “Watchmen,” “I’m looking to make a movie that looks more like “Taxi Driver” than “Dick Tracy.” He also pays homage to other films in other places (particularly a Vietnam scene that features “Ride of the Valkyries,” not unlike “Apocalypse Now”). Such keen awareness is much of what makes Snyder so appealing as a director, since his aesthetic evokes cinema history.

In any case, Snyder has quickly become one of Hollywood’s darlings, though the success (or failure) of “Watchmen” will do much to determine the future of the director’s career. Yet it is clear from “300” that he is a talented filmmaker with a clear vision – two ingredients that hint at great potential. “300” may have prepared Snyder for glory, but the future will decide if he reaches the next level.