For more than a year, Zack Snyder has been talking, hinting, intimating, suggesting and previewing material from his forthcoming film, 'Sucker Punch.' From the early images and footage shown to the public, it looks like the most epic pastiche imaginable of cinematic and pop culture influences, featuring mecha straight out of Japanese animation, monsters born from the Middle Earth of 'The Lord of the Rings,' military battles inspired by 'Saving Private Ryan' -- the list goes on and on. But according to the cast and crew, including Snyder himself, the film was truly a series of firsts from start to finish.

Cinematical visited the set of the film in December 2009, where Snyder was preparing a sequence in which his leading ladies, played by Emily Browning, Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish and Vanessa Hudgens, leap from a helicopter ... on a Vancouver soundstage, of course. The 'copter was stationary, and the actresses were jumping only a few feet onto cushioned mats. After having tackled 'Watchmen' and '300,' Snyder is no stranger to big action, but said that this film was a markedly different challenge nonetheless. "I think that it's a big deal," Snyder said in between takes. "I love adapting things and I love making those pictures real, but I felt like I was ready to not have anyone to [judge] whether the canon was correctly represented -- other than myself."

Following in the footsteps of his fellow Warner Brothers adoptee Christopher Nolan, Snyder used the box office muscle of his previous efforts to fund a pet project, not just a self-generated work but one that was completely original – created and conceived from the ground up by Snyder himself. Despite those visible influences listed above (and a host of others not yet revealed), Snyder said that he was merely channeling the material that inspired him, not attempting to pay homage, borrow or reference it in any direct way. "When you distill something down, it goes beyond, "Oh, I like these movies," he observed. "It becomes just how pop culture has sort of digested these images and things like that."

"So I'm sort of using myself as the filter of some kind," he explained. "When we went to write it we never even went like, oh, should we do like, 'Lord of the Rings' here and 'Excalibur' there. It was more just those influences were in us and we went, oh, that would be cool."

As suggested above, Snyder populated his cast with a collection of actresses who, to say the very least, weren't previously known for taking on the kind of physical challenges his film would present. Vanessa Hudgens, who plays Blondie (although she's still a brunette), is most familiar to audiences as the star of the 'High School Musical' movie series, but she said it was strictly the script, not the obvious difference in material that made her want to join 'Sucker Punch.' "It wasn't necessarily wanting to do something different, it was just this was such an interesting project," she said while sitting comfortably in her civilian clothes two days after her last day of shooting. "I read the script and was dumbfounded – I did not know what I'd just read, and I've never been so invested in a script. Just having the opportunity to work with these great girls and just do things that not a lot of people get to do, was the opportunity of a lifetime. I mean, I can't think of any other movie where a girl gets to shoot a 50 caliber gun, you know?"

Hudgens beamed when asked what the experience was like. "It's so exhilarating," she said simply. "This is an actor's playground, this movie; I mean, we get to do some extremely dramatic scenes, we get to be complete bad asses and fight, we get to be extremely sexy in these burlesque shows, and just play with every single aspect of everything. Being in a mental institute, and being with these girls has been so much fun because they bring so much just playing off of one another has been incredible."

Although earlier in the day, Deborah Snyder offered a detailed plot synopsis for the film, this was the first time we were starting to get a sense of the eclecticism, if not flat-out weirdness of Snyder's multilayered vision for 'Sucker Punch.' Offering a few more details both about her character and those of her co-stars, Hudgens distinguished between the film's many layers of reality. "Blondie in the brothel is kind of a follower; she sticks by Sweet Pea's character and kind of looks up to her to know that she can get by if she sticks around the strongest girl. [But] in the action world she takes the initiative - she's extremely fearless, and is very strong. My fighting style is based off of Muay Thai, which is a powerful, force-driven fighting skill, and it's a lot of fun."

One thing that Hudgens was very comfortable with, however, was the film's musical numbers, the details of which we were not shown. "In the burlesque show, I get to do a belly dance," she revealed. "I definitely felt more at home on the stage. The belly dance is also a dance that I've always loved and have been so interested in as well, so it was just kind of my element. I got up there and just really got to work it, and it was so much fun. I mean, the stage is my home."

Even if in the film Hudgens' character looks up to Sweet Pea, played by Abbie Cornish, and Hudgens' stage experience created the opposite experience behind the scenes, Cornish indicated that the entire ensemble supported each other throughout the production, whether they were trading blows, bullets or burlesque numbers. "We had this week where each night it was everyone's dances back to back," she said. "It was an amazing week. We were all here every day even though we didn't have to be, just to be there for each other. It was the most beautiful thing to see. I was the last one up, so I got to see Jena [Malone] go through the whole process and then Vanessa and Jamie [Chung]. It really was the most beautiful thing, to see these girls I love so much work so hard towards something and then rehearse it up to the point where it was technically ready - and then get transformed head to toe."

Jena Malone agreed that it was a singular experience. "The burlesque numbers have been the most terrifying thing I've done in this film, the most terrifying and the most thrilling," she explained. "It's a spectacle, a huge space with back-up dancers, the most beautiful sets and the most beautiful lighting. I mean I'll never get to do that again. I'm not going to go and do a Broadway dance theater piece. It would probably be something with song or spoken word, and it was just crazy to be a character in dance."

Both actresses admitted a big part of the appeal of 'Sucker Punch' was getting the chance to explore some impulses they'd previously only flirted with, if they had any experience with them at all. "I don't even think I knew what it was going to be like when I came in," Malone indicated. "I knew it was something that I couldn't comprehend, which is really exciting. I knew that it was going to be physically very challenging, and I'm not a very physical person. So I knew it was going to be very hard to overcome that and become more of a physical person. But I had no idea what to expect, and there are still surprises everyday."

Cornish added, "I'm not the best singer but I have always had an interest in martial arts. My mom was the national karate champion of Australia so I kind of grew up with that. I've always loved dance and I danced for a few years as a kid, and so for me it really sparked a whole bunch of interests."

Another one of the film's stars, Carla Gugino, previously worked with Snyder on 'Watchmen,' so she was familiar with his working methods, making her a sort of mentor to the younger actresses. In the film, appropriately enough, she also is sort of their den mother, but Gugino said that there was almost as much pressure creating a character from scratch as staying faithful to an iconic pre-existing character like Silk Spectre, the one she played in her previous collaboration with Snyder.

"It's really freeing," she revealed. "That being said, what's also been really challenging about this as opposed to 'Watchmen' is 'Watchmen' there was always a bible for us to refer to; in this one, there was a lot that was suggested on the page that we really just discovered. There were huge amounts that we all found while shooting and so it was more fly by the seat of our pants in that regard, which is both really exciting and also scary."

As an actress who has worked in Hollywood for almost two decades, Gugino didn't take lightly Warner Brothers' faith in bankrolling an original project. "I love Warner Brothers so much for making this movie, because it isn't a typical big studio movie," she said. "I think it is in the sense that it will be super entertaining and sexy and the action will be unbelievable and I think that it has an emotional core that people don't really expect, all of that stuff. [But] having done this for so long, any time I read anything that has a specific vision... I was just jumping up and down when I read it."

"When they were doing 'Watchmen' and they said, 'visionary director Zack Snyder,' I was like, very few people can you actually put that up there and not have it be lip service but actually have it be real. He really is, and so to have one person's vision, to have that support and not have all those cooks in the kitchen is really exciting."

What Gugino thinks might be the film's biggest legacy is its impact on audiences, both male and female. "It's going to be out of control," she gushed. "With these girls, are you kidding? Because they're all so gorgeous obviously but they're also so strong and great in the movie, I think it will rock a new generation of boys for the obvious reasons, but also I think it will be really empowering for girls."

Snyder, meanwhile, suggested that the key to his creative freedom wasn't merely making himself indispensable to the studio, as he did with his previous films, but offering them something that took chances while also offering up some more recognizable kinds of thrills. "Their biggest thing was about whether they felt like it was too obscure, too strange," he admitted. "And I get that, I understand why. So it kind of changed a little bit, but I mean, I think that especially when it's an idea that no one's ever seen, it's a big deal to get other people to finally say, "Yeah, sure, okay, let's put this on the schedule."

"It was a bit of a struggle," he confided. "It is original and it is actiony and the girls are amazing and the setting is sexy. But on the other hand, with all that in it, it's also kind of easy."
Sucker Punch
PG-13 2011
Based on 29 critics

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