After his remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and adaptations of Frank Miller’s 300 and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, director Zack Snyder was chomping at the bit to tackle a piece of original material. And Sucker Punch is original, to say the very least.
In a nutshell, Sucker Punch is: sexy ladies firing guns, swinging swords, punching and high-kicking whilst battling dragons, leaping out of airplanes and, yes, singing and dancing. It’s part action, part fantasy with a little bit of musical thrown in for good measure, an adrenaline-infused feast for the senses.
Emily Browning stars as Baby Doll, a troubled young girl sent to a Vermont mental institution and slated for a lobotomy in the 1960s. She befriends and plots an escape with four fellow inmates - Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jamie Chung) and sisters Rocket (Jena Malone) and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish). Fueled by imagination (and possibly a little mental instability) the girls embark on a series of fantasy world adventures, getting a little help along the way from the Wise Man (Scott Glenn) as they prep for battle against bad guys High Roller (Jon Hamm) and Blue (Oscar Isaac). Carla Gugino co-stars as Madam Gorski, whose motives as both a psychiatrist at the Lennox House Asylum and the madam of the brothel aren’t always black and white.
We spent a day on the Vancouver set of Sucker Punch last winter where we spoke with Snyder and the cast, viewed some early footage and watched lingerie-clad ladies leap from a helicopter. Not bad for a day’s work.
The biggest challenge for Sucker Punch has always been explaining what it’s all about. Even after a day on set, we’re still a bit fuzzy. Snyder said this was his first challenge when pitching the idea to Warner Bros. “When it’s an idea that no one’s ever seen -- five girls go on crazy adventures, and they’re really in a brothel, but they’re really in an insane asylum -- it’s a big deal to get other people to finally say, ‘Yeah, sure, okay.’ So I cut together a little trailer to show them what it could be like.”
Snyder’s persistence ultimately won over the bigwigs at WB and the director was finally able to develop a project all his own. “I love adapting things and making those pictures real,” Snyder said, “but I felt like I was ready to not have anyone to report to other than myself.”
While the initial idea for Sucker Punch was Snyder’s, the writer/director’s collaborative nature allowed the cast members to contribute to the creative process.
“I think he’s mastered the art of collaboration,” adds Jena Malone. “He makes you feel like nothing is set in stone and that you’re still finding it together.”
“Zack knows exactly what he wants and he’s also incredibly collaborative and open to what we want to try,” says Gugino, who previously worked with Snyder on Watchmen. “We have a real shorthand and we know how we work.”
Gugino’s Madam Gorski plays a crucial (and complicated) part in the story. “My character brings Baby Doll into these worlds,” the actress explains. “As the choreographer, I play these certain pieces of music to her that sort of transport her to this magical place. I am also a psychiatrist in the insane asylum in the 1960’s. Dr. Gorski is Eastern European, Polish. And then in the alternate world, Madam Gorski is a dominatrix/choreographer/madam of a brothel. I just like to put those sentences together and make you think, ‘What could that be?’ The truth is that she really does care about these girls. It’s definitely a tough-love situation.”
“There’s four action worlds,” explains Cornish. “It’s just Em [Browning] in the first one, so she has a crazy amount of work to do in that. And then in the second and third, it is all five. And in the final sequence, it’s the four of us minus Vanessa.”
As Blondie, Hudgens says she got to explore radically different sides of her character in the real world versus the fantasy world. “In the brothel Blondie is a bit ditzy, kind of a follower. But in the alternate universe, she turns into this complete bad-ass with no fear. So I got to play with both dynamics.”
During 300’s pre-production, the level of prep and training Snyder imposed on the infamously wax-chested, muscled cast was legendarily brutal. Just because his cast this time wielded a bit less testosterone, Snyder didn’t hold back, subjecting the girls to an intensive camp under the supervision of Navy Seal trainers prior to production. “The girls have trained so hard and they’ve done such a great job. They’re all crazy individuals, every single one of them.”
“The first day I walked in the girls had posted on the wall, ‘find the beast,’” laughs Hudgens, who admits that Blondie is a far cry from High School Musical’s Gabriella. “Slowly through the training process, we all found our beast. Now my body just craves it. If I don’t work out, it’s like I go crazy. The testosterone builds up inside me and I don’t know what to do.”
While the look of the sets and characters are constantly changing throughout Sucker Punch, Snyder says the tone is dark throughout. “Whether it’s in the insane asylum or the brothel or they’re on these adventures, everything is dangerous and everyone is emotionally trying to find their way,” says the director. “The adventures are all metaphors for what’s happening emotionally when the event is happening.”
“It’s been really interesting because we’ve had days where we would be in the brothel shooting a scene that is quite intense,” says Hudgens, “tears are flying all over the place, and then we would have to switch into our fighting costumes, and run through trenches and shoot guns.”
The movie’s architecture ranges from the simple, sterile Lennox Asylum to tall gothic steeples and elegant Japanese pagodas of the fantasy world. There are fire-breathing dragons, World War I bombers and velvet draped brothels. John Boorman’s Excalibur and Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge are cited as influences on the look and feel of the fantasy worlds.
As the crew readies the next shot on set, Snyder enthusiastically offers a brief look at some early footage from the film. “This is called Baby's First Dance,” he says before dimming the lights. On screen Emily Browning’s Baby Doll, dressed in a schoolgirl uniform and pigtails, stands timidly in front of Carla Gugino’s Madam Gorski. “Where are you right now?” barks Gugino through a thick Polish accent. She turns on Bjork’s “Army of Me” and urges Baby Doll to let go. “If you do not dance, you have no purpose,” says Gorski. Snyder stops the footage and explains that this is the scene that will lead us into the fantasy worlds.
Next up are few short action scenes from the fantasy worlds. In the World War I sequence, the girls storm a bunker. Cornish, Malone and Hudgens fire weapons, kick, punch and stab the German soldiers at a breakneck page. Bullets and blood fly every which way. Far from the Disney world of her past, Hudgens’s Blondie mows down enemies with a machine gun like a bodacious lady Rambo.
“They’re fighting these exotic World War I steampunk Huns,” explains Snyder. “They don’t trust each other and don’t really work that well together yet. In the end they’re able to persevere and to pull it off. That brings them closer together for the next one and the next one.”
The last bit of footage Snyder shows off is a sexy belly dance sequence performed by Ms. Hudgens. “Each one of the girls has their own dance,” says Snyder.
Before we finished out our day on set, we got a chance to view one of the film’s action sequences unfold right before our eyes. On a large soundstage with a green screen backdrop, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone and Vanessa Hudgens get ready to jump out of a military helicopter onto a large padded mat below. The words “Cherry Bomb” are written across the side of the copter.
Jena Malone tells Snyder she’d like to make a war cry when she jumps out on the next take, demonstrating with a shrieking “Ahhhh!” Snyder smiles and gives his approval. After four takes, the director is satisfied and ready to move on. The girls, dressed in their trademark military chic meets Victoria’s Secret getups, bid farewell to press as the eyes of every male in the room follow them out the door.
Sucker Punch opens nationwide March 25, 2011. You can check out the first of four Sucker Punch motion comics today on Apple.com.