Let’s Unpack Zack Snyder’s Ugly, Mean-Spirited Terry Gilliam Slam

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Being Zack Snyder sounds like a pretty sweet gig. He is, after all, a fabulously wealthy and commercially successful director who convinced Warner Brothers to hand him the keys to the DC kingdom. His entrance into it, Man of Steel , was the fifth-highest-grossing movie of last year, and his production company is releasing a sequel to his monster 2007 hit 300 — all of this in spite of the fact that his movies are borderline unwatchable. And yet, given the opportunity, the filmmaker just can’t resist taking the piss out of Terry Gilliam, which is one more reason why Zack Snyder is terrible.

Not that it was impossible to feel sympathy for Snyder in this situation, before he opened his mouth. Here’s the background: in 2009, Warner Brothers released Snyder’s adaptation of Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen, a project that had languished in development hell for the better part of two decades as various filmmakers tried to crack the difficult source material. One of those filmmakers was Terry Gilliam, the visionary director of Brazil, 12 Monkeys, and The Fisher King, who made two attempts at adapting the book, in 1989 and 1996, before abandoning it as unfilmable. Because of the specificity of his style and the brilliance of his work at the time, the Gilliam Watchmen is one of those amazing hypothetical adaptations, like Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness or Harold Ramis’ A Confederacy of Dunces, that will only exist in the minds of rabid cinephiles — where, of course, they come out perfectly.

And all was well and good until super-producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, The Matrix), who would have produced the Gilliam version, gave an interview last week about exactly what it would have been — and he was apparently not a fan of the Snyder film. “Oh God,” Silver said. “I mean, Zack came at it the right way but was too much of a slave to the material.” Gilliam’s would have been, according to Silver, “a MUCH much better movie,” though after a lengthy discussion of Gilliam’s vision, he grants, “I did like the movie, very much. Zack did great stuff in it!”

Well, in an interview with Huffington Post, Snyder strikes back. He insists “fans would have stormed the castle” over Gilliam’s proposed changes to the book’s ending, while his intentions were nothing but pure: “I love the graphic novel and I really love everything about the movie. I love the style. I just love the movie and it was a labor of love. And I made it because I knew that the studio would have made the movie anyway and they would have made it crazy. So, finally I made it to save it from the Terry Gilliams of this world.”

It’s that last line that’s sticking in film fans’ craws, and for good reason. The idea of a hacky, video-game-slo-mo-junkie schmuck like Snyder “saving” anything from a director of genuine style and intelligence is enough to make you book a flight to the coast, make your way to the set of whatever Superman story he’s currently ruining, and punch him dead in the face. Were Silver’s slams on Snyder’s Watchmen tacky? Definitely — after all, it’s easy to compare a theoretically great, unrealized movie to a film that had to go through the rigorous, difficult, and compromise-ridden process of actually, y’know, getting made.

But Silver is also a producer, an egotistical blowhard and 30-plus-year veteran of the fine art of slinging bullshit, Hollywood’s chief export. More importantly, Snyder would’ve been wise to fire back at Silver, the guy who came at him, rather than taking the opportunity to throw shade at Gilliam. His slams at the filmmaker don’t exactly hold up under scrutiny; his dogma of absolute fidelity to comic book source material sure isn’t apparent in Man of Steel (or, for that matter, Watchmen), and as for his insistence that “I would not have grabbed something from out of the air and said, ‘Oh, here’s a cool ending’ just because it’s cool” — um, has this guy seen Sucker Punch?

When it comes down to it, Snyder’s mean-spirited jabs at Gilliam say more about himself than they do about Gilliam, or Silver, or Watchmen. Terry Gilliam, as you may have noticed, isn’t exactly helming mega-budget tentpole movies these days; The Zero Theorem, his first feature since 2009’s unsuccessful The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus five years back, doesn’t even have an American distributor yet, and his next project, an umpteenth attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, has mostly been met with a chorus of smirks and “Yeah, right”s.

But Gilliam has the one thing Snyder just can’t get, no matter how hard he tries or how much of Warner’s money he spends: critical respect. Even when he fails (which is more and more often these days), Gilliam is still an artist; even when he succeeds, Snyder is still a JV Chris Nolan. Maybe it gave some relief to Snyder’s battered ego for him to throw a few punches at Gilliam, but it doesn’t make him look any better; it makes him look like a spoiled rich-kid asshole, throwing the art-class outcast into a nearby locker, just for funsies.