Incarnations of the script for Rebel Moon originated 20 years ago for writer, director, producer, and cinematographer Zack Snyder, the filmmaker behind 300, Man of Steel, and Army of the Dead.
“When I was in college, I was in this class where we had to take a story and set it in another environment as a pitch concept. And I thought, “What about Dirty Dozen… in space?” I remember saying that to my teacher and he said, “Yeah, for sure, but how do you land something like that?”” says Zack Snyder, who wrote the final draft of the screenplay with Kurt Johnstad & Shay Hatten from his original story.
“It’s easy to say, but it takes a lot of world-building basically. The imagination part wasn’t that difficult, but the notion of it was so ambitious, it was an outrageous concept for a student. But nevertheless, I felt it. It was one of those things I knew I could do and I always felt it was possible.”
“It’s been really exciting for us to work on something that’s wholly original after working on so many known IPs for so many years. You’re no longer beholden to anything. I can’t imagine Zack going back to just directing after this. It’s in his blood to hold a camera — when explosions are going off, he’s right there. There’s an intimacy it creates with actors and with everyone else on set. I can’t imagine him wanting to work any other way,” says producer Deborah Snyder.
“This has always been one of those ideas that’s been kicking around the ether in some form as long as I’ve been working with Zack. It’s one of ways we do things over at Stone Quarry — we don’t have a thousand irons in the fire, we have a group of things we’re passionate about and we believe every single one of them has a place and a time so we can make exactly the version of the film we want to make,” says producer Wesley Coller.
“There’s going to be amazing action, spectacle, world-building and everything you’d expect from a Zack Snyder film. But at its heart, Rebel Moon is a hero’s journey. It’s a story about redemption and having you care about these characters’ journeys is what matters most,” says Deborah Snyder.
When a peaceful settlement on a moon in the furthest reaches of the universe finds itself threatened by the armies of the tyrannical Regent Balisarius, Kora (Sofia Boutella), a mysterious stranger living among the villagers, becomes their best hope for survival. Tasked with finding trained fighters who will unite with her in making an impossible stand against the Motherworld, Kora assembles a small band of warriors — outsiders, insurgents, peasants, and orphans of war from different worlds who share a common need for redemption and revenge. As the shadow of an entire Realm bears down on the unlikeliest of moons, a new army of heroes is formed.
A Conversation with writer, director, producer, & cinematographer Zack Snyder
It seems like a challenge that has stuck with you throughout your entire career.
Yeah. I would argue that we’ve been doing that pretty much on every movie since, as far as the ambition goes. Even with this one it’s: “Let’s make just two movies back to back because it’s too epic to do in one film. Oh, and let’s do an extended cut that we’re going to shoot different scenes for.” Stuff that people just don’t do. It’s the spirit of Rebel Moon, it’s always been there and I think that’s why this story has stuck around for so long.
The story has all of the hallmarks of a Zack Snyder film — chief among them being the assembly of a team of unlikely or reluctant heroes. What were some of the other big concepts or themes that drove the creation of this story?
I’ve always loved an underdog story. I love it when the bad guys underestimate the good guys or when the bad guys have their preconceived ideas about what is possible for the good guys to achieve, and therefore have a crisis of imagination that enables the good guys to go beyond. Something I always keep in mind when crafting these ideas is that I always want the audience to be afraid for our heroes, but in the end, the good guys are always tenacious, creative, and always willing to risk everything. They’re scrappy and creative. And I think that theme has been a constant throughout all our movies.
For a big sprawling space opera like Rebel Moon specifically, the real central themes are the few against many, good versus evil, impossible odds, and there’s a love story inside of it, of course. In that way I really wanted it to be elemental and kind of Joseph Campbellian in its simplicity — at its core it’s mythologically simple — but the complexities are layered over it like a giant onion with overarching political stories that affect these different communities, including the one at the heart of our movie [the farming community on Veldt]. So the story of Rebel Moon really supports this vast mythological other world, but we’ve concentrated on this really simple community that comes in contact with that giant world.
Fans of yours certainly know that film franchises like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings were hugely influential for you as an artist. What was it about those stories that inspired you?
The most inspiring thing about those projects for me is the sheer ambition and the vision necessary to take something so mythological and turn it into a cinematic experience. How do you start with a blank piece of paper and have that end up being The Lord of the Rings? It’s the way that the mythology is transported to the screen, the mechanism, that has always been inspiring to me. So to have an idea for this bespoke mythology, and to have these other large-scale stories that have gone before us — I can’t imagine beginning or building this world without them.
The main difference being, of course, that Rebel Moon is an entirely original story that doesn’t blend genres so much as it creates a new subset of one. I definitely like to think of it as a science-fantasy film as opposed to hardcore science fiction. Sci-fi tends to become really abstracted by the science itself, and while this does take place in a world with crazier scientific advances than our world, our story gets to the mythological root of those things in a way that just allows it to be.
I took a lot of inspiration from the tone of Heavy Metal. If you’re familiar with that magazine, there’s a recklessness and abandon to the creative imagery that that publication advocated. And that sense of abandon and ambition really sparked for me creatively when I was growing up. It said anything’s possible. The images in those pages were insane, and for me, it just pushed what was possible visually in any sort of cinematic presentation. And just the weirdo audacity of the storytelling — those guys didn’t give a shit, they just came to blow my mind and that’s all they wanted to do.
I really loved that approach. So when we were building this mythological world of Rebel Moon, we used science-fantasy as a touchstone to find our footing. This story isn’t hard science-fiction — in a way, rooting it in science-fiction would be too limiting — it’s based on a myth that’s meant to transport you to another reality. And within that reality, you’re in a closed loop with its own rules.
Heavy Metal feels like an incredibly apt visual and spiritual comparison. Tell me about the visual approach you took in creating this world, especially as the film’s cinematographer and one of its writers.
Well, we could do a whole discussion on the lensing and the giant lens-building expedition alone. The lenses were custom-built by Zero Optic from Noctilux and Summilux’s Leica series for a look that was completely distinct. The process was very much an experiment. I really wanted an old-school anamorphic look, but at the same time have a practical lighting concept just on a very large scale. Everything turned out incredibly sculpted and manipulated for the camera — even just designing the giant light for Mara [a red gaseous planet that Veldt revolves around] as seen from the village, or building all the practical lighting into the sets and spaceships as much as I could — all of it was an exhaustive process of blocking, pre-blocking, and imagining where everyone would be so I could place the lights inside the sets so that the environments looked larger than life.
As for the planets and moons and settings themselves, the evolution of those designs was very much in service to the action. Kurt and Shay and I would say, “Okay, who is the character we’re meeting? What do they need to do? And where have we been?” Visually, we didn’t want to repeat the planets. Each one had to feel unique and mythologically we wanted to introduce the audience to a new environmental experience with each character we met. So it was quite satisfying to be able to come to a new place and say, “Okay, this is cool. I haven’t seen this before.” Veldt had an earthy feel to it, whereas the Imperium was pure diesel punk. Then you go from Daggus, which was this dark, steamy industrial world, to Neu-Wodi, a place that feels like something out of a Western.
By now, the world knows that this is just the first film in a two-part epic. What are your hopes for this film and how it’ll set up Part Two?
My hopes are that because we were able to do two films, that we’re able to really invest in the characters for the first film so that the audience gets to really understand why they’re fighting for the villagers of Veldt.
Production design: building the planets, moons, cities, and spaceships of rebel moon
Snyder sketched more than 4,000 drawings of the entire world of Rebel Moon himself. They served as
visual touchstones for the art, production, and VFX departments to work from as they brought everything to life.
The heavy lift of the production design was split between two veteran designers — Stephen Swain (1917, House of the Dragon, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and Stefan Dechant (Pacific Rim: Uprising, Kong: Skull Island, Sucker Punch) — with Swain responsible for conceptualizing the sets and Dechant responsible for actualizing the concepts and overseeing builds.
“This universe needed to feel grounded and real. We didn’t want to make a movie that only had LCD
screens behind us. We wanted to be out outside and on 360 sets as much as possible. And aesthetically,
we wanted to lean into this idea of retrofuturism — featuring technologies that don’t yet exist, yet
incorporating ideas and aesthetics of technologies that have long since passed. There’s a timelessness
to this design that allows the audience to come in and access the story from wherever they might be, coming with their own history and their own interests.” — Stefan Dechant
VFX supervisors Marcus Taormina (Army of the Dead, Bird Box) and John “DJ” Desjardin (The Flash, Godzilla vs. Kong) advocated for Building as many of the sets out as practically as possible to make the thousands of VFX shots in Rebel moon look as seamless as possible to never take the viewer out of the world for even a moment.