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Zack Snyder’s Next Cut: No Capes Allowed

After the chaos and controversy of his DC movies, the polarizing director is giving outer space a try with Netflix’s 'Rebel Moon.'

Zack Snyder was going through a Fortnite phase. What started as a bonding activity with one of his sons had spiraled into a solitary obsession, with the 57-year-old filmmaker sneaking off any chance he had to play the world-building video game. 

One night, about a year ago, his wife and producing partner, Deborah Snyder, woke to find him not in their bed, but logged on to his console. It was 3 o’clock in the morning, the last straw. Soon after, Deborah bought her husband some clay and tools, and suggested, “Why don’t you just make something?” 

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And that, long story short, is how Hollywood’s most divisive film director got into pottery. 

“It’s a compulsion,” Snyder admits on a balmy November day at his compound in the hills above Pasadena. He’s sitting in his home office, a modernist cube that also contains a screening room, an editing bay and a gym. Steps away is the pottery studio Snyder recently constructed on the property for his new hobby. Not far from that, near the pickleball court, is his family’s sprawling dwelling, a midcentury glass-and-concrete structure that bears more than a passing resemblance to Bruce Wayne’s house in Snyder’s 2016 film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

THR Cover 33 Zach Snyder
Zack Snyder on the November 29, 2023, cover of The Hollywood Reporter Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia

Snyder’s compulsion to mold — and pull apart — has made him one of the most argued-about directors of the past couple of decades. To some, he was the savior of the DC superhero universe. To others, he was its destroyer. But his latest film, Rebel Moon, is something of a departure from his career trajectory up till now, a shift in genres, if not necessarily in tone or ambition, and perhaps a refreshing change of pace from the controversy magnets he was making in the 2010s. For one thing, his new film contains not a single comic book character for him to darkly reimagine. Instead, it’s a big-budget space epic about a group of outlaw rebels on a remote planetoid who battle an evil empire. Think Star Wars, only grittier, more violent, sexier and R-rated (at least in the negotiated director’s cut, but more on that later).

Ironically, Rebel Moon arrives on Netflix on Dec. 22, the very same date that Snyder’s former home, Warner Bros., will be releasing Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Snyder had nothing to do with that sequel, but technically it’s the final film in the so-called SnyderVerse, the constellation of DC comic book-inspired pictures — some of which Snyder directed, some of which he produced, most featuring actors he initially cast, like Henry Cavill in 2013’s Man of Steel, and Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa in the original 2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — that all carry Snyder’s inimitable underglaze. 

Zack Snyder
Zack Snyder Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia

Snyder is not the sort of filmmaker who’s feted at film festivals, or even the sort whose movies sparkle at the box office on the Fourth of July weekend. His operatic, bombastic pictures are blunt instruments, not precision, clockwork devices, which is part of what makes them so contentious. But boy, do they have their fans, an army of them who have at times weaponized social media in his defense in ways that have been known to cow even hardened studio executives. (Specifically, the ones at Warner Bros. who, in 2020, three years after Justice League tanked at the box office, capitulated to fan demand and gave Snyder $80 million to reshape his own director’s cut.)

“I never looked at it as the job, ‘Oh, I’m the architect of DC. I need to create entertainment for DC that sells toys and that is for the masses and fun for everyone,’” he says of his Warner Bros. years. “I didn’t care [about that]. I liked Batman, I liked Superman, I wanted to make something cool. You picked the wrong guy if you wanted a product.”

And the guy Netflix picked to make a sci-fi fantasy epic? What to expect from him? Judging from a visit to the set, he’s molding a whole new world. One conspicuously lacking Kryptonian orphans or billionaires brooding under cowls.

• • •

Exactly one year ago, in November 2022, Snyder was on a soundstage at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, directing a climactic battle sequence. Two of his lead actors — Sofia Boutella, who plays reluctant rebel leader Kora, and Ed Skrein, starring as Noble, a cruel admiral in the evil empire — are standing on a platform, whacking each other with light sticks. The platform, surrounded by green curtains that will later be digitally filled with a futuristic landscape, is slanted, making it tricky for the actors to keep their balance. In one take, Boutella accidentally smacks Skrein in the forehead. Snyder calls for a break. 

The two-part Rebel Moon is a massive double production that Netflix says cost $165 million — although that figure seems like science fiction when you consider that Snyder’s salary alone is said to be in the eight-figure range. It’s based on an idea Snyder first had in film school in the 1980s, imagining a space-set Magnificent Seven or Seven Samurai. Decades later, when he was in postproduction on Man of Steel, he pitched a reworked version of Moon as a Star Wars story to Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy. 

“I thought that Star Wars was in a vulnerable state, so I thought I had a chance,” he recalls of that 2012 meeting. Snyder wanted it to be R-rated — he wants everything to be R-rated — but it quickly became moot. Six months later, Disney announced it was purchasing Lucasfilm, and Snyder knew any chance he had was dead. 

He was bummed, but Deborah was overjoyed. “She never wanted this to go to Lucasfilm,” Snyder recalls. “‘You think you have a hard time with DC? You think you’re mad at them because they won’t let you do what you want? What do you think Star Wars is going to be?’ When it fell apart, she was like, ‘This is the best thing that could have happened to you.’”

The project morphed into a TV show for a while, a “Game of Thrones in space,” as Snyder partnered with Eric Newman, who had produced his very first movie (Universal’s 2004 remake of zombie thriller Dawn of the Dead, for which he was paid $225,000). Each episode was going to focus on the recruitment of one character into a band of rebels to take on an evil galactic empire. Then the project changed again, back to a feature, this time with an almost 200-page script about a group of outlaws and peasants led by a fearless female protagonist who rise up to protect their peaceful moon settlement from a tyrannical regent.

Zack Snyder
Zack Snyder Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia

After some negotiations on length, Netflix greenlit the project as a two-parter. Snyder was originally expected to make it PG-13, but after another round of back-and-forths, it was agreed that the movie would have an additional cut: lengthier, sexier, more violent and R-rated. Scott Stuber, Netflix’s film chairman, who presided over Snyder’s making of Dawn of the Dead in the early 2000s at Universal and had worked with Snyder on his 2021 zombie palette cleanser for Netflix, Army of the Dead, saw a filmmaker unchanged; even two decades apart, Snyder remained the same energetic man he was starting out.

“There had been ups and downs in his life and career, but the thing that I love is his boyish enthusiasm,” Stuber says. “When he’s got a camera and when he’s talking about what he’s doing, he is passionate and in love with the chance to tell a story. And that is infectious.” 

The film shot partially in Santa Clarita, where the production built a full-scale village and a giant wheat field. But here at Sunset Gower, it’s a more retro kind of spectacle, like being on an old-school movie backlot. A bunch of grips push a full-size spaceship down a lane. A couple of actors in costume with laser-blast wounds wander by sipping sodas.

On this day, Snyder was up early, dealing with kid stuff; his 11-year-old daughter has an ear infection. And the family has a new puppy. The director is a bit bleary-eyed and yawning, but that won’t last. When shooting starts, he becomes laser-focused. 

“One more,” Snyder shouts at Boutella and Skrein as they continue whacking each other with light sticks. “More violent!” In a take or two, Skrein is all bulging eyes and frothing mouth. 

Soon, something else will shake Snyder even wider awake. As he’s directing the scene, news travels around the set that Warner Bros. has announced new leaders for its DC Universe: James Gunn and Peter Safran. 

Snyder worked with Gunn when they were both starting out in their film careers — Gunn wrote Dawn of the Dead — but the two ended up following very different paths. In fact, Gunn, who helmed the Guardians of the Galaxy movies for Marvel, became pretty much the anti-Snyder; while Snyder went on to explore the dark, tortured coils of Clark Kent’s sunny soul, Gunn shot poppy, soundtrack-laden, feel-good sci-fi flicks that made outer space look like a blast. 

“I called him and said I wish all the best for him,” Snyder would later say about Gunn moving into his old Fortress of Solitude. “I told him I wanted it to work.”

• • •

From the start, Snyder was something of a rule-breaker. He grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, where his dad was an executive recruiter and his mom an artist. School was tough for Snyder, who is dyslexic. His mother nurtured his artistic side, buying him his first film camera. He used it to shoot an unflattering commentary on his high school’s administration. He ended up getting expelled for it — his first cinematic controversy.

After graduating from art and film schools, he landed in the world of music videos — he directed for ZZ Top and Morrissey — and then began cranking out commercials, where he met future wife Deborah, who was then a music producer. (The couple have been married for 19 years and have seven children and stepchildren from previous marriages and relationships, ranging in age from 11 to 30.)

Zack Snyder
Zack Snyder Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia

In the early 2000s, he landed his first feature directing gig with S.W.A.T., an action movie set up at Sony, loosely based on the 1970s TV series. He wanted to make — what else? — an R-rated movie. The studio wanted PG-13. So he quit. He was sure his career was over before it started. “Your first movie, you shouldn’t quit,” he advises future filmmakers. 

But of course, his career was anything but over. He ended up getting hired for the R-rated remake of Dawn of the Dead, which became a hit and garnered positive reviews. And that success landed him the director’s chair on 300, the film that changed everything for Snyder, branding him Hollywood’s hot new visualist. The $60 million 2007 feature, based on a Frank Miller graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, was highly stylized, with digital backgrounds and desaturated hues, filled with bloody slow-motion sword slashing and eye-dazzling abs. 

The Sunday of 300’s opening weekend, Snyder was shooting a commercial for Miller Lite when he got a surprise phone call. Tom Cruise was on the line. The superstar actor had no connection to the movie or Warner Bros., but a year earlier had invited Snyder for breakfast at his Beverly Hills home after being blown away by the 300 trailer and wanting to pick his brain about making the film. Now, Cruise was calling to congratulate him on the box office numbers: It had grossed $70.8 million, then a March box office record.

A few minutes later, Snyder’s phone rang again. This time it was Warners boss Alan Horn, who also wanted to relay the numbers.

“I was like, ‘Oh, Tom already told me,’” Snyder recalls.

Feeling cocky with a hit under his belt, Snyder chose for his next project an adaptation that pretty much everyone else in Hollywood had written off as unfilmable: Watchmen, the seminal graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that acclaimed filmmakers from Terry Gilliam to Darren Aronofsky had tried and failed to make since the 1980s. Snyder at least got his 2009 adaptation on the screen, once again showing off his singular visual style, but it ended up grossing a disappointing $185 million from a $120 million budget. His next two movies — 2010’s animated Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and 2011’s Sucker Punch — didn’t fare too well at the box office, either. 

Still, Watchmen caught the attention of a powerful ally: Christopher Nolan.

“I’ve always believed Watchmen was ahead of its time,” Nolan offers in an email. “The idea of a superhero team, which it so brilliantly subverts, wasn’t yet a thing in movies. It would have been fascinating to see it released post-Avengers.”

(Snyder feels both of Hollywood and apart from it. He calls Nolan his only close director friend, and the two catch up on the phone about once a month. And in the summer, Snyder got an early peek at Nolan’s Oppenheimer when the filmmaker screened it at the Universal City Imax for a select group of filmmakers, which also included Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Phillips and Denis Villeneuve.)

Snyder (left), Michiel Huisman and Sofia Boutella on the Rebel Moon set.
Snyder (left), Michiel Huisman and Sofia Boutella on the Rebel Moon set. Courtesy of Clay Enos/Netflix

At the time, of course, Nolan was coming off of directing a trilogy of wildly successful Batman movies — the Dark Knight films — and was now tasked by Warners with relaunching another DC comic book hero: the one in the blue tights and red cape. It wasn’t the first time Snyder had been approached with a Superman project — like a slew of other hot Hollywood directors, he’d previously been considered by Warner Bros. in its perennial quest for a reboot — but Nolan’s more grounded take on the character clearly appealed to Snyder. He signed on to direct Man of Steel, beginning his decade-long odyssey through the DC universe. 

Sure, some fans were jolted by Man of Steel’s off-putting climax, when Superman snaps Zod’s neck, committing murder for the first time in the character’s cinematic history. But no matter. Warners seemed all in on Snyder’s darker vision for the franchise, positioning its DC movies as the antithesis of the softer superhero rivals at Disney-owned Marvel. After the $200 million film grossed $670 million worldwide, Snyder’s stock at Warners was up, up and away. He was going to make more movies and oversee spinoffs. They would be tales of life and death, of man and gods. It was modern mythology, and Snyder saw himself as a Hollywood Prometheus. 

Alas, the gods had other plans. Only about half of Snyder’s grand ambitions came to pass. Wonder Woman, produced by Snyder and his wife and directed by Patty Jenkins, grossed $821 million worldwide and was a pop culture phenomenon. Aquaman, directed by James Wan, grossed $1 billion. But Snyder’s own movies didn’t go quite as planned. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ended up costing so much — $250 million — its $874 million grosses were considered a disappointment. Just as painful for Snyder, the film was savaged by reviewers (“Dreary, overproduced and underbaked,” opined The Washington Post). 

“That’s when I was at my most vulnerable,” he says now.

And then there was Justice League, which was supposed to be a zenith of Snyder’s directorial career but ended up being the nadir. At some point during postproduction on the ambitious superhero ensemble, Warners began to lose faith in Snyder’s instincts, pushing him to pivot toward a more Marvel-ous tone and approach. Snyder pushed back, fighting to keep his darker vision. But then, at the height of the battle, Snyder’s 20-year-old daughter, Autumn, took her own life. Unsurprisingly, Snyder and his wife lost their will to fight and stepped back from the movie to focus on their family. The studio brought in Joss Whedon, who had directed Marvel’s first $2 billion-grossing Avengers film, to finish cutting Justice League.

“We cared deeply about what we were doing,” Snyder says of the back-and-forth over the Justice League cut. “We weren’t trying to make an Avengers movie. We weren’t. We didn’t know how, quite frankly. They brought someone in that did. I’ve never seen the [Whedon version], but it wasn’t the answer.”

Justice League — the Whedon Cut — was released in November 2017, making $661.3 million worldwide. On paper, not a bad number. But again, relative to its $300 million budget, a disaster. “It took a toll,” says Deborah of their time with DC and Warners. “It was amazing to come up with a new Superman, and to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen for the first time. There are so many amazing moments. Then, at the end, there were so many heartbreaking moments.”

Snyder directing Gal Gadot on the set of 2017’s Justice League, a film over which he would eventually lose control.
Snyder directing Gal Gadot on the set of 2017’s Justice League, a film over which he would eventually lose control. Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection

• • •

In 2019, on her first day on the job as chairwoman and CEO of Warner Bros., Ann Sarnoff entered her office to find dozens of bouquets and fruit baskets. Her heart melted at what she assumed was the generosity of Hollywood, welcoming the seasoned TV executive to the role of overseeing all Warners divisions.

Then she opened the first card and it said, “Welcome to Warner Bros., now release the Snyder Cut.” 

She opened a second card. It had a similar message. “One after another after another,” recounts Snyder, who says Sarnoff told him this story. “She didn’t even know what it was. She wasn’t even aware of the saga. When she told me the story, she was like, ‘This is the job? Managing this? I didn’t know it was a thing.’ Now it was the thing.”

At first, the Snyder Cut was assumed to be just a rumor. Nobody knew for sure if he possessed an unfinished version of Justice League, one that was said to be far better than what was released. Nevertheless, the hashtag #ReleasetheSnyderCut began popping up online, eventually congealing into something like an organized movement. They put up a billboard in Times Square. They hired a plane with a banner to fly over the Warners lot, timed so that execs would see it at lunch. 

The myth, of course, turned out to be real. Snyder did indeed have a cut, which he made clear when he teased images of film canisters on social media, sending his legions of fans into a frenzy. More confirmation came from actor friends like Aquaman’s Momoa, who publicly insisted they had seen snippets. 

At times, the fan revolt went decidedly overboard; some studio execs, like Walter Hamada and Geoff Johns, were viciously intimidated. Security was upped on the lot. But the Snyder Army also had a heart. After the death of Snyder’s daughter, they launched a campaign to boost awareness and funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, raising more than $1 million.

“I’m not going to comment on the details of whether they are good or bad, whether they are toxic or bullying,” says Snyder. “That’s in every chat room. It’s what comes with the internet. But I do know that the work they did on some level was good. I can say for a fact that they did good. That is undeniable.”

There’s been some question about how real Snyder’s Army actually was — a report in Rolling Stone claimed that a sizable chunk of the online Snyder Cut traffic was generated by bots.

“The truth is? It doesn’t matter. The movie got made,” Snyder responds. “If they were smart enough to employ bots in this thing, then they won. That movie has no business existing — and it does.”

A camera is never far from reach for Snyder, who snaps photos on his sets. The shots include bodies of fallen Spartans from 300, Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Watchmen, and Carla Gugino in Sucker Punch.
A camera is never far from reach for Snyder, who snaps photos on his sets. The shots include bodies of fallen Spartans from 300, Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Watchmen, and Carla Gugino in Sucker Punch. Zack Snyder

Bots or not, the Snyder Army pressured the studio to fork over $80 million so that Snyder could release his cut of the film. Of course, it didn’t hurt his case that Warners was then launching HBO Max and sorely needed buzzy content to pull in subscribers. Indeed, the studio’s desperation may have encouraged Snyder to go even further than he was empowered to, reshooting major scenes and adding new storylines and material. 

“He was trying to reclaim Justice League,” scoffs one executive of that time. 

• • •

Back on his compound overlooking Pasadena, Snyder is preparing for the launch of a brand new sort of SnyderVerse. Only this time, he notes, he’ll control its IP. After Rebel Moon premieres in December, the second part will arrive on Netflix in April. In between, there will be a graphic novel, a podcast and a photo book. Then, fingers crossed, a third film.

As for the superhero universe he’s left behind, he doesn’t sound nostalgic. “We’ve been on the treadmill — it has not evolved. I don’t have the excitement for it that I used to have,” he says of the genre before giving a tour of his new pottery studio, where row upon row of his creations — mugs and bowls, mostly, plus some bunnies for his 12-year old daughter — line the shelves. (He says he has a secret plan to make 100 mugs and sell them at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. He’s not joking.)

Henry Cavill left, as Superman, with Snyder on the set of 2013’s Man of Steel
Henry Cavill (left), as Superman, with Snyder on the set of 2013’s Man of Steel. Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

He’s kept in touch with some old pals from the DC world. He occasionally talks to Ezra Miller, lending support to the actor he cast as The Flash throughout their recent mental health and legal challenges. “[They] did a great job in that Flash movie,” Snyder says. “It’s very difficult to play against yourself.”

He’s also in touch with Ray Fisher, the unknown he hired to play Cyborg in Justice League (who later accused Whedon of racism on the set). Fisher, who has a part in Rebel Moon as an insurgent leader, says of his director: “He’s weathered the storm in a way not many people could or get to do.”

And he’s been dismayed to see Amber Heard suffer online abuse amid controversy over her divorce from Johnny Depp.

“I just don’t get it,” says Snyder. “If other people don’t like her, I don’t know what to say. I would work with her in a second.”

But Snyder says that chapter of his life is now closed, and it would be difficult to coax him to reopen it. If his buddy Gunn called and invited him back to DC, he might consider doing a Dark Knight Returns adaptation (but only “a true representation of the graphic novel”). If Marvel rang, he might think for a beat about a Daredevil and Elektra movie — maybe adapting Frank Miller’s Elektra Lives Again (“But that’s it,” he insists). What about Star Wars? (“Nah, I don’t think so,” he says. “Those guys have a handle on the brand.”)

For now, he says, he’s entirely focused on the new universe he’s molding on a distant, remote moon, where nobody wears Spandex or flies without a spaceship. And he’s busy expanding his own real-world SnyderVerse that is his family – he became a grandfather last year.

“In the end,” he says of his chaotic DC years, “it could not have gone any other way.” 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.