Even with the most original, thoughtful and unprecedented plotline at the ready, a film isn't worth much if its visuals aren't in the same league as its story. Thankfully, when it comes to Sucker Punch, director Zack Snyder isn't slouching in the visual department — and a huge amount of that success owes its thanks to the work of Rick Carter.
Carter is the production designer on Sucker Punch, which arrives in theaters in just a few short weeks. The film tells the story of Baby Doll (Emily Browning), a troubled young girl sent to live in a mental institution following an unexpected tragedy. There, she's set to receive a lobotomy, and as a means of spiritual escape, she flees to an alternate reality where the asylum is actually a brothel. Within that world, Baby Doll plunges even further into a series of disparate universes containing various manners of brutal battles and monstrous mayhem, and if she can defeat them all, she'll be set free.
Creating the visual world — or worlds, we should say — of Sucker Punch is not an enviable task. Or perhaps it is. When we visited the Vancouver set of Sucker Punch in 2009, Carter — who counts Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron as his previous collaborators — told us the very nature of Sucker Punch lends itself to a tremendous amount of visual freedom.
"I think Zack is the freest mind of anybody I've ever encountered," Carter said. "And the thing that I picked up very early on from our very first meeting that's really been a turn-on for me — they ask you what your special talents are, this thing with your job, and so mine's turn-ons, tune-ins and trip-outs. And I like to think that's something that I've been able to do and I really enjoy doing. And Zack has a mind that is beyond where my generation comes from. And I find that to be not only refreshing, but I think it's a whole new way of looking at movies."
Officially, Carter serves as the production designer on Sucker Punch. But in asking him to outright explain his position, Carter's answer is refreshingly honest.
"I'm the production designer, but I don't know what I do," he admitted. "I've never known what I've done. I'm very serious. I get into the situation, and it's a blank slate to me. I listen to what the director says to me and I've been very fortunate because it's only been Spielberg, Zemeckis, Cameron and now Zack. So I'm not playing to a corporate idea where they're saying, 'You're not sending the right message here.' What I'm trying to get at is, we discover things. And out of those discoveries come designs and a lot of wonderful craftsman have come and made all these sets actually happen."
One such set is the theater in which the film's many dance sequences take place. Throughout Sucker Punch, four of the five leading ladies (excluding Baby Doll) are tasked with performing a sultry dance, slithering along the stage in various forms that express their particular strengths. But the way Carter and his team designed it, the theater — indeed, all the rooms contained within the brothel — also serve as rooms within the mental institution. The two levels of reality share the same physical space, and Carter's job is to redesign these areas in subtle and overt ways to reflect Baby Doll's confused psyche.
Carter points to the theater as a prime example of the ever-changing nature of his job as a production designer. In conversations with Snyder, Carter learned that the theater was supposed to look like a gymnasium. But through the freedom of the work, Carter discovered something else entirely.
"When you actually see this theater, and there's another version of this that we filmed prior to [the set visit] when it was part of the mental institution, it's described as a 'gymnasium.' I missed a gymnasium by a mile," he said. "I mean, I didn't even come close to a gymnasium and it's because we discovered something else along the way. And what we discovered, and maybe it was my instigation partially, but what we discovered there was very real, and once you hit something everyone goes, 'Ah, that's it!'"
Freedom of expression is a critical part of Carter's job, and likewise, it's an essential ingredient for Snyder as well. When we spoke with Oscar Isaac on the Sucker Punch set, he described Snyder's philosophy as "The best idea wins." That guiding principle seemingly falls on Carter as well, who says he never tries to rein Snyder in when his ideas are a bit out there.
"I just don't take that role, because then I would be like his dad, the wrong dad in 1967. I just don't look at it that way," Carter said. "If I think that something is not making full sense to me, like if he's going way out with something, then I'll ask, 'What does that relate to?' And when you get two things going, and then maybe three, you see what actually works. And that's the thing I discovered with him — he'll go way out."
Having worked with some of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Carter was asked to measure Snyder's process against, say, James Cameron's — specifically, is Cameron more concerned with the functionality of design whereas Snyder focuses more on the feel of the design?
"Well, I think yes and no. And I think that's why my job is to make sure you have both. Because if for Jim, you're absolutely right, the engineer part of his brain is going to be, 'Okay, this has got to make sense to me.' … However, he'll readily admit, 'If it's cool, it's cool.' And I'm the one who gets to draw that line and say when it's fine and when it's not. You can put everyone through Hell, and then I can say, 'It's a movie, I love it.' He will do that, too, and it's — how do you balance that? Because that's why each job is different and each director is different. Especially if they're directors who really have a big, strong vision. Zack also cares how it functions but I think the emotional quality of it is a primary place, too."
That said, Snyder is different from the other directors that Carter has worked with in at least one crucial way: his age. Snyder is of a different generation than Cameron, Spielberg and Zemeckis, with his tastes falling more in line with what the currently dominant generation of fandom is interested in. Those tastes are very clearly reflected in Sucker Punch.
"Zack is of his time. And so all the things that you guys spend your attention on in the fantasy elements, that's where he is, too," Carter said. "So that's what he's reflecting. It would be like the Beatles in the '60s, they weren't just making it up — they were — but they were reflecting their times. So, I actually look at this and I don't want to make it sound too heady, but it's pretty heady, where he's going. I mean, he's just going, 'Okay, no comic book, no nothing.' It's just, 'Here it is. Here's how I look at the world.' That's the way I look at it and I think it's pretty great, because as a person who's entering into a whole new phase of his expressions, I think that what he's doing is he's just reflecting where his mind goes, but it's oriented to all these things that you've seen or that are part of that concoction that are the vessels and the ways you go out and how you escape."
But it's not enough that Snyder has all these wild visions in his head. He needs someone who can extract those visions. That's where Carter and his team come in, and according to the so-called production designer, the vision that fans will see in Sucker Punch is a decisive one.
"The difference between art and illustration is that illustration is just a visual that's just conforming to the narrative of the words and trying to show you what you already know or can see in another form. The art is when you can only see it that way. And believe me, I think that Sucker Punch, you can only get it by seeing the movie. Nothing that any of us say can convey it. ... It's seriously one of those films that you just have to see it and then we'll all go, 'That was Sucker Punch'."
Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch arrives in theaters on March 25.