Zack Snyder has made a talking animal film. You’ve seen them before; some have resulted in catastrophic results and others failed at being cinematic and were stuck at simply being cartoons. Snyder knew the trickiness involved with making such a concept work, but he managed to do it. This is a serious adventure film. Yes, there are the owl jokes, but tonally it’s surprisingly dark and similar to those 80′s kids movies (Labyrinth, Gremlins, etc.) that made you feel both excitement and fright.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is and isn’t what you expect from a Snyder film. It isn’t in a sense that it doesn’t have many body parts flying off or glorious amounts of blood. Where it is similar is in most aspects: it’s epic in scope, nearly every shot is a money shot, and the action has got Snyder’s stamp all over it.
I recently spoke with Snyder about the world of animated owls, Terminator references, and why Toy Story isn’t for kids.
Were there any reservations for you to jump into not just the animated world, but a film about talking animals? It’s tricky and most come off as more so cartoons than actual films.
For me, I said to everybody I don’t know how to make a cartoon. I can make the cool adventure movie with fighting owls with them having a culture. But I guess I did. I mean, I was a fan of Watership Down. I thought that was a cool movie that was intense and I could make something like that. I just tried to reassure everyone that what I wasn’t going to make was a cartoon, and that was the hardest thing to communicate to the studio that owls talk, they fight, get moon blinked, and everything else that happens, but it’s not going to be a cartoon. It’s going to be real-ish, whatever that is. I know it’s talking animals, but you know what I mean.
With that convincing, was it similar to what you went through on say, Watchmen? Where you were trying to get them to make a 3 hour anti-superhero film and here you had to convince them about a serious owl film.
It was a different kind of convincing, but it was similar. I just said to them, “I hope you’re comfortable with this idea. If you don’t want me to make this movie it’s no sweat off my back. This isn’t my Citizen Kane or anything, but I am passionate about it and I do wanna do it.”
Did they always want what you went for tonally?
Did they want it in a sense that they would’ve preferred that I did something like… One hundred percent, but on the other hand, they were supportive of whatever you wanna call it, my vision. I guess, they felt like with me they knew what they were going to get a little bit. You never know, but I may have had an idea for something different.
Seriousness usually isn’t associated with this type of genre, what was the idea behind bringing that to the film?
For me, I just felt like the experience that I had, as a kid at the movies where it’s the most richest and vibrant experiences, which are rare, was stuff like Star Wars and Watership Down. Kids are even familiar now with the formula of children films, so in some ways, I wanted to slightly subvert this film for kids where their shit got taken seriously and where their experience wasn’t a joke or looked down on, but still done in their language.
Is this the movie I would’ve made for an adult? No. At the same time, is it the movie from their point of view that deals with issues that movies for them usually don’t? For instance, I love Toy Story. These films aren’t really for kids. They’re emotionally not for kids. If you’re a nine year old the relationship between Buzz and Woody are complex in a way that is not fun. If you look at Up, which is another one of my favorite movies, if you talk to kids about it kids don’t like that movie that much. I mean, I love it and I think the movie is awesome (laughs).
For me, I was trying to make a film in their language. This is going to sound weird, but it’s a serious film in that world. It’s Lord of the Rings for kids in the way that you can’t make a Lord of the Rings for kids. All the things that make Lord of the Rings awesome you couldn’t do [in a kids film]. My feeling was if you do a Lord of the Rings film for kids, it’s a talking owl movie. You know, it wears a disguise a little bit; it’s in the trappings of a kids movie, but then it ends up taking you on another adventure that maybe you didn’t expect. There are some things in it that stretch you a bit emotionally and thematically. It’d be like if you redid the Napoleon wars, but instead of hiring real actors all the kids played the parts. In some ways, that’s not a movie for an adult but it’s hopefully transcendent of what they’re used to.
It’s been my experience seeing kids watch the film it’s really immersive and fun. The kids I’ve seen it with definitely sense that there’s, I feel like they know it’s more than they normally get when it comes to this [type of] subject matter.
The film really felt like something out of the eighties with stuff like Gremlins and Black Cauldron where it’s a bit intense for kids, but in an okay way.
One hundred percent, I mean, that’s exactly right. Those movies like Gremlins, they’re kind of scary. I don’t want people to run and scream from the theater, but at the same time I want them to feel tense.
Live action and animation filmmaking both involve very different type of sensibilities. Was there any challenge in that specific transition?
It was pretty intense, I gotta say. When I went in I said, “Listen guys, I don’t know how to make an animated movie. I sat down with the animators and said I’ve always dealt with these big FX shots and this is how I treated in the past, and you gotta help me with your process,” and everyone was completely generous with me with the learning curve and communicating how to do what I wanted to do. The language we ended up with we almost ended up treating the movie almost exactly like a live action movie. I shot a lot with my video camera, which factors. All the action scenes I shot with my video camera and my stuntmen, and those ended up becoming the shots.
Halfway through the process I sort of caught up to them, but there was this cool learning time for both the animators learning how I made a live action movie and I was learning how they made an animated film. I think the style kind of reflects that with the cinematic action quality and that sort of shooting style of me saying, “If this was a real set, I’d shoot it like this.” We sort of blocked the movie that way and shot it how I would’ve made it in live action.