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The Road to ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’: Director of Photography Fabian Wagner on Making ‘The Snyder Cut’

March 16, 2021Ben MK

Behind every great director is a great cinematographer. It's a principle that applies to almost all filmmakers, from Steven Spielberg to Christopher Nolan, and for Zack Snyder — who hand-picked cinematographer Fabian Wagner to help him helm Justice League — the same also holds true. Now, after four years of rumors and fan speculation, the definitive cut of Snyder's superhero magnum opus is at long last a reality — and the result is every bit as satisfying as moviegoers could have hoped for.

I caught up with Fabian Wagner to chat about Zack Snyder's Justice League, his favorite scenes, and how his experience working on Game of Thrones prepared him for the challenge.

One of the most immediately noticeable differences between The Snyder Cut and the theatrical cut is the aspect ratio. Can you tell me a bit about that and perhaps the rationale behind it?

Wagner: It was an interesting experience for me, because when I first met Zack I just assumed — without having seen Man of Steel and BvS — that we would shoot 2.39 widescreen. And then Zack mentioned the 4:3 version and I, in the beginning, was a little bit taken aback. But very quickly I realized what a great idea that is. We have some big, big characters — big superheroes — and I thought it was a very interesting approach. As soon as I wrapped my head around it, I thought it was brilliant. And I think it really worked. It makes those big characters become even bigger and stronger. But Zack had always intended to do it this way. We shot the movie on Super 35, so we had shot all of that material anyway. It's just that it was letterboxed to 1.85 for the 2017 version.

Of course, you've worked a lot in the TV realm and are perhaps best known for your work on Game of Thrones, but you had never worked with Zack Snyder until Justice League. Did shooting Game of Thrones prepare you for working on a film of such massive scope as this?

Wagner: Obviously, Thrones was big-scale, so it certainly helped me in that respect. It also helped me in the respect that Zack is a huge fan of Game of Thrones, and that was probably one of the reasons why i actually did get this job. Zack is an amazing director with a very strong visual sense, so for a cinematographer it's like a dream to work with him. To bring that vision to life is amazing, and you see it a lot in the Zack Snyder version of Justice League. It has got the Zack Snyder touch.

I've always been a fan of his work since 300 and before, and also of Larry Fong, who's his usual cinematographer. I know Larry and I love Larry and the stuff that he does and the way that he does it. So it's big shoes to step into and a great challenge. Zack knows exactly what he wants and he's also very collaborative, and I'm someone who’s got a lot of ideas and I'm very outspoken about my ideas. So we had a constant collaborative dialogue going on about what we can and should do. That was really enjoyable for me and hopefully for him too.

Zack has said that he was able to shoot everything he wanted to shoot while also shooting what the studio wanted him to shoot. As one of the key collaborators in bringing his vision to life, are you able to elaborate on that and what that process was like for you?

Wagner: I just had a great time shooting with Zack. It was such an amazing year. I didn't expect to get the job, and when I got the phone call it was just incredible. It was one of the best shoots of my life and I had so much fun on it and did so many creative things on it. And, yes, we did shoot everything that Zack wanted. He's an incredible artist as well and not just a filmmaker. His drawings are pretty incredible. And so I always knew what film that Zack would make because I knew all the things that we had shot and I'd seen all [his] storyboards, and he had talked to me about how he wanted to edit it. So it's nice to now see that — the way it always should have been.

I believe you weren't involved in the reshoots for The Snyder Cut, but was there a certain sequence from the original shoot that remains a personal favorite of yours?

Wagner: They were all my favorites. Turning up on that set every day was like a dream come true. Working with Zack, working on a big studio picture of that scale — all of that was like a dream come true. But there are things that stand out. Shooting Batman on the gargoyle with the bat signal — for the kid in me, that was a cool day just to shoot that. I remember the day that we shot Aquaman walking down the pier and all the water going around him. Just as a setup, that was a cool day with all the special effects that we had and the water effects. To me, really, most days were special on that film.

What about the characters? Do you have a favorite one from this cut of the film?

Wagner: Batman was always my favorite superhero when I was younger. I do enjoy them all, but the one superhero that I didn't know that much about prior to this was Cyborg. I really enjoyed getting to know that character more. And what Ray [Fisher] did for that character and the backstory, I enjoyed that.

What kind of advice would you give to someone hoping to break into the industry as a cinematographer?

Wagner: You really have to be committed in this industry. It requires a lot of work, collaboration with people, consistency, sacrifices. But I think it's a great job opportunity. And if you have a love of filmmaking and a love for movies, it can be a great career for anyone. I've actually been mentoring and supporting anyone who wants to get into cinematography for a long time now by myself and also through organizations like the American Society of Cinematographers, where we have mentees that we work with. But I've just started a program called First Steps Cinematography, which is especially catered to anyone who wants to get into cinematography. I believe in all of that, and I'm hoping to push further. But, yes, I think hard work and commitment are the key things.

Last but not least, since there is a new Game of Thrones series in production, would you ever consider returning to that world?

Wagner: I would definitely think about it. It depends what happens. I'm not sure how it would work out time-wise, but certainly Game of Thrones was a big part of my life. It was a big part of my career. So absolutely, I would definitely consider it.

Zack Snyder's Justice League streams March 18th, exclusively on HBO Max and Crave Canada.

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