‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ Producer Deborah Snyder on Joss Whedon, DC Fans, and the ‘Joy’ of Closure
Deborah Snyder, the producer of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” and wife of Zack Snyder, opens up about the fraught journey to completing their four-hour superhero epic.
At the end of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a dedication appears onscreen. “For Autumn,” it reads as an elegiac cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” by the singer Allison Crowe, swells over the credits. It’s a valediction to the director’s adopted daughter, Autumn Snyder, who loved sci-fi and stories of superheroes and considered it her favorite song.
As the producer of the film—and as Zack’s wife and Autumn’s stepmother—Deborah Snyder had heard the recording several times before she and her husband sat down to watch the film, all four hours of it, for the first time all the way through. The Snyders had talked about Crowe’s version of the song endlessly during production over the last year. They’d seen the movie in chunks countless times by then, too. Up until just two weeks before its HBO Max debut, they were knee-deep in fine-tuning sound mixes and color grading for the different technical versions necessary for streaming.
But finally watching together the culmination of their work evoked feelings Snyder didn’t expect. Four years after the weight of Autumn’s death by suicide became too much to balance with the demands of a blockbuster movie set, here the couple sat watching an even grander version of the story they’d set out to tell—with Autumn’s name gracing the final frame. “It strikes you in this very visceral way,” Snyder remembers. Their film about gods and superheroes leveled by grief and stumbling toward emotional restoration can’t help but “resonate differently for us” now, she says. “We’ve gone on quite a journey personally.”
Snyder is speaking from her home office in Los Angeles, where Wonder Woman herself watches over her shoulder. (“It’s not a toy,” Snyder laughs, turning toward the Batman v Superman-era maquette by costume designer Michael Wilkinson.) When we speak, the “Snyder Cut” of Justice League is just nine days away from release—though an HBO Max glitch has just allowed a surprise early viewing to some who signed up for a night of live-action Tom & Jerry.
That such a surreal hiccup is barely a footnote in the story of the film’s road to the screen is a measure of how complicated it’s been. But Snyder seems unbothered: “I’m just excited for people to see it. This has been so many years in the making.”
It’s been 11 years in fact since the Snyders began working with Warner Bros. on developing and helming the DC Comics superhero universe, and four years since the theatrical release of Justice League. The movie that made it to theaters, dragged to the finish line via reshoots by The Avengers director Joss Whedon, came to be considered a “Frankensteinian” commercial and critical failure. Snyder watched the final product without her husband. “To see it be so different than the original intention for the film was just very difficult,” she remembers.
“It was difficult because you’re emotionally invested. That’s why I famously said to Zack, ‘Don’t ever see it,’” she says. “Because I think as a director even more so than as a producer, especially the way Zack makes films, it’s very personal.”
The couple had developed the film’s characters, cast them, poured years and “heart and soul” into them. It had become a round-the-clock passion. “We’re married, so there’s never like, oh, we stopped talking about it. It blurs into everyday life,” she says. “And then you shoot the whole thing and you can’t complete it.”
Walking away to focus on their five other children and their own grief for two years “was the right decision for us to make. But it was a difficult decision.” At the time, it seemed final. “When we left, we left. We weren’t, you know, checking in on it. No. They went and did what they needed to do.”
The Justice League set reportedly changed drastically after the Snyders’ departure. Ray Fisher, who plays the hero Cyborg in Justice League, was the first to speak up three years after the movie’s release, accusing Whedon of “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” behavior. (WarnerMedia conducted an “internal investigation” in 2020; it ended with the vague promise of “remedial action” being taken.)
Fisher’s accusations did not come as a surprise to Snyder—just before the movie’s release, she reported an “incident” to Warner Bros. involving Whedon and someone else on set. She can’t say who it involved or how it was “resolved in a way that the person was happy with.” But in the wake of a career-spanning reckoning for Whedon, with actors and writers he worked with in decades past following Fisher’s lead and speaking out about his alleged toxic on-set behavior, Snyder admits the influx of testimonials has been “upsetting.”
“I am always fighting to get more women on the sets. And as a business owner, it’s important to create an atmosphere that is safe and creative, you know?” she says. “People need to be accountable for their actions and I feel like that’s starting to happen. But I also think it takes a lot of bravery to come forward and to tell your story. I really respect Ray and all the people that have come forward because their truths are important. It’s a hard thing to do.”
Zack Snyder’s Justice League’s journey to the screen has been fraught with reports of toxic behavior, both on and off set. The fan-led social media campaign to restore the original, non-Whedon footage into a “Snyder Cut” gained unprecedented clout in the years after Justice League’s theatrical release. It demanded and, incredibly, successfully persuaded Warner Bros. to release the film as the Snyders intended—though often through controversial means.
Some of the most vocal personas behind the push to #ReleasetheSnyderCut amounted to online bullies, directing torrents of hostility toward film journalists and moviegoers who dared express distaste for any aspect of the DCEU, the Snyders’ style of moviemaking, or the toxicity itself. Snyder finds their behavior disappointing, in part because “I know what it’s like” to be on the receiving end of online attacks.
“After BvS, we had people that really loved the movie and really hated the movie, and sometimes it would be very personal,” she says. “You can not like something. You can have a disagreement about something. But it’s just the personal attacks and getting that way, it’s just not acceptable. I know there was a contingency of fans” whose behavior was out of control, she says. “But I don’t believe that was the majority.”
She points to Snyder fans’ good work for proof: they raised $500,000 and counting for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The campaign’s landing page features moving words about the late Autumn Snyder, penned by her sister Olivia: “Autumn was like the moon. Bold, mysterious, and beautiful. So unaware of the power and impact she had. But, surrounded by darkness.”
Restoring and expanding their vision for Justice League proved cathartic for the Snyders after losing so much, though grief is far from a straightforward journey. “It’s funny. As much as it helped to heal, it also brought up a lot,” Snyder recalls. “It was very emotional, the whole process.”
It wasn’t just the moviemaking itself, or the story about heroes learning to live again after unfathomable loss. “That was one thing that was healing,” she says. “But also, I think, to talk about her death publicly and to talk about mental health and suicide prevention—you can only hope that it touches someone.”
“It was a very difficult time in our family’s lives,” she says. She wants “other people to know that there’s help out there. Because I don’t know that we really knew. You’d think we would have, but we didn’t.”
“So in that way, I think doing something that’s good—it’s not gonna ever make her come back. But it kind of just, it’s something that…” She pauses, searching for words. “It’s something.”
Being a producer on Justice League at first meant the usual responsibilities: supporting the director and his vision. Budgeting. Negotiating casting deals with agents. Acting as a liaison with the studio. And steering the production toward being on time and on budget.
Reconstructing a movie that almost but never existed out of years-old footage, unfinished music and visual effects, disintegrating costumes, missing models, and a cast and crew now spread out over different projects across the world—all amid a global pandemic? “That was a whole other animal,” Snyder recalls.
Warner Bros. approached the Snyders about releasing their own version of the film on HBO Max months before a May 2020 announcement announced the movie to the world. For a time, that meant working on it in secret. “Because you don’t want people to get their hopes up if [Warner Bros.] didn’t do it.”
It took the film’s creatives and crew bending over backwards for the four-hour epic to get made. “Our visual effects supervisor was busy on another show,” Snyder says. “So in his spare time on the weekends or late at night, he’d come help us figure out what effects were done and what needed to be redone.”
Composer Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, had even less encouraging news: He’d never gotten very far on the score at all—and in fact had used some of what he did have on another film at some point. “So we had to start over,” Snyder says. “We had a bunch of themes and a couple of pieces, but we hadn’t orchestrated them.”
That came with its own obstacles: “We couldn’t do a whole orchestra at the same time” because of COVID and the filmmakers couldn’t travel to England to hear the score in person. Instead, the musicians separated into smaller groups and recorded one at a time while the filmmakers monitored the process via a live feed.
Whedon had discarded and reshot much of Zack Snyder’s original footage, but that proved a silver lining for the assembling of ZSJL. Only three days of additional photography were needed, for one scene Zack had hoped to shoot for years: a Batman/Joker scene.
It comes in the film’s epilogue, in another of Batman’s prescient hallucinations. In a post-apocalypse where Darkseid rules Earth, The Flash (Ezra Miller), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello), Queen Mera (Amber Heard), Cyborg, and the Clown Prince of Crime himself, reprised by Jared Leto, gather for what appears to be—of course—an uneasy alliance against a common foe: an evil Superman.
The scene, as short as it is, required a complicated shoot. It needed a lot of visual effects. The actors in the scene were scattered across the globe. “And we had a time crunch,” Snyder remembers. “So it was challenging. Ezra Miller was on Fantastic Beasts, so we had the crew shoot his part against green screen and Zack directed him via Zoom.”
The actors’ super-suits, meanwhile, had lost their luster. “They’re latex and they’d been sitting there for a couple of years and were disintegrating and falling apart. So we were patching them up on set and like, you know, these are things you don’t normally have to deal with as a producer,” Snyder laughs. “But as challenging as it was, it was exhilarating.”
To detractors, the movie’s four-hour runtime may seem excessive. But to Snyder, every minute is necessary. “In order for you to care about the characters at the end, you really have to understand who they are, what their struggles have been, what they’ve overcome, and what they’re still working on,” she says, “and we’re really able to do this in this version of the film.”
Finishing the film brought a feeling beyond catharsis. Snyder hated to “leave the characters hanging. Even though they finished the theatrical version, that really wasn’t the story we were trying to tell.”
“To get to the place that we were trying to get to and never thought we would be able to,” and to finish the film on their own terms and to dedicate it to Autumn, Snyder says, has brought “a certain sense of closure. There’s a certain sense of joy. But it’s more than just closure. It just feels really good.”
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.