Sucker Punch - Emily Browning, Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish and director Zack Snyder
Emily Browning, Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish and director Zack Snyder in the castle courtyard © 2011 Warner Bros

Zack Snyder has done it again, writing, producing and directing a totally unique and dark fantasy. His new movie Sucker Punch tells the story of Babydoll (Emily Browning), who has been placed in Lennox House for the Mentally Insane, with just a few days before she is to be given a lobotomy. Using her vivid imagination to escape her surroundings, she visualizes a world in which she and four of her fellow inmates (played by Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, Jena Malone and Jamie Chung) are the heroes, fighting everything from samurais to serpents.

Zack and his Deborah, also a producer on the movie, spoke of their unusual motion picture.

How would you describe Sucker Punch?

Sucker Punch - Director Zack Snyder
Director Zack Snyder during the filming © 2011 Warner Bros

Zack: Sucker Punch is a movie about escape, both literal and figurative. It shows how the mind can create an almost impenetrable barricade against the real world, and to what lengths we’re willing to go, what sacrifices we’re willing to make, to get out of a difficult situation.

[The film] was an evolution for me. I’m inspired by fantasy art and magazines like Heavy Metal. It’s sort of a mash-up between those influences, as well as Twilight Zone and the writings of Richard Bach. I’d written a short story a while ago, which included a character named Babydoll. As I worked on it further, that idea evolves and expanded, and took on a life of its own.

Sucker Punch - Emily Browning
Babydoll (Emily Browning) gets to kickass © 2011 Warner Bros

Deborah: It was so liberating for Zack to create something for which there were no preconceived expectations. This movie could be whatever he wanted it to be, and even though the story changed over time, at its center it has always been about this young woman, Babydoll, who is faced with so much adversity that she retreats into these fantastical worlds in her mind in order to cope with what’s going on around her.

In so doing, she finds great strength within. She’s a survivor.

What was it about Emily that made her right for the role of Babydoll?

Zack: Babydoll symbolizes that transition between thinking like a child and thinking like an adult, when your perception of the world changes. She is a warrior, both delicate and strong at the same moment, and Emily really personified everything I had envisioned about Babydoll. She has this mystic, timeless, almost unquantifiable look and completely brought the character to life for me.

Your casting is great – we know who these girls are but they’re not giant stars. Why did you pick who you did for the five girls?

Sucker Punch - Jena Malone, Emily Browning and Abbie Cornish
Rocket (Jena Malone), Babydoll (Emily Browning) and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) © 2011 Warner Bros

Zack: Even when I see the girls now, after we’ve shot the film, maybe it’s because this is based on original material, the girls now have personified those characters for me in my mind. If I think back to when I was forming the idea, now I picture those girls. The line between the girls’ characters in the movie and who they are to me in real life is [the same]. I’m all messed up.

Deborah: The chemistry that each of these five women had with each other was really obvious, both on and off the set. That’s something you can’t make up; it’s just something magical that happens. And in a film like this, where the characters have to create an unbreakable bond with each other, that magic really has to be there. We were so lucky that they each had such devotion to the project and to each other, and I think it really shows in the film.

Did they surprise you, because you really put them through a lot, they worked out for months? How did you know they could handle it?

Sucker Punch - Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish and Vanessa Hudgens
Rocket (Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) © 2011 Warner Bros

Zack: Honestly, we talked a lot in the casting process that I wanted them to do the stunts themselves. I feel like they all looked at it like, ‘This is a mountain I’m going to climb. And I don’t want anyone to say that I couldn’t get it done.’ And I feel like they each came with that kind of intensity to their roles.

I think that it also pays off in the drama in the movie, in the sense that they had been suffering together in the gym and then when they actually go to these scenes where they’re supposed to be a cohesive group of girls that know each other and have seen each other suffer, that’s real, they did go through some kind of trial, and I think that that was fun to see in the scene.

Can you talk a little about the concept of using the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane asylum in the fantasies?

Sucker Punch - Emily Browning, Carla Gugino, Jamie Chung and Abbie Cornish
Babydoll (Emily Browning), Dr Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), Amber (Jamie Chung) and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) © 2011 Warner Bros

Deborah: If you’re paying close attention, you can see, for example, that an archway that we used in the Lennox House appears as an archway in the dragon fantasy sequence, and again in the brothel. For the WW1 fantasy, we start out in a burned-out cathedral, which mimics the shape of the asylum.

Babydoll’s fantasy world draws from the real world, so when she first enters the theatre in the institution and she sees these typical community theatre flats – a train, a castle, a charred landscape, a Japanese pagoda – they trigger the fantastical places of her imagination. But they’re twisted in the way that only happens when you dream, where things get combined in your head and are not always in the right place.

Zack: Finding the beauty in the harsh world of the asylum was especially important because, for me, the beauty of this film is perhaps its most interesting contradiction – a bleak story that is nevertheless visually arresting.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.