Army of the Dead has become one of Netflix’s most-watched films since its release on May 21, 2021. A mix between a zombie flick and a heist movie, producer/director Zack Snyder skipped the CGI and brought the story to life through ambitious practical effects, even recreating the Las Vegas strip on a backlot in the New Mexico desert.
Misha Bukowski worked with Snyder on Army of the Dead as first assistant director and associate producer. She recently sat down with Team Wiretap to discuss the magic that happened behind the scenes, and the collaborative process of working on a Snyder film.
You’ve worked on several projects with Zack Snyder before Army of the Dead. How did your working relationship with him begin?
We first met on the set of Watchmen. It was earlier on in my career, so I wasn’t working directly with him as the first assistant director. He had brought the first AD he had on 300, who was also a Canadian like me. I wanted the job so badly, and was such a fan of the graphic novel. I knew some people in production, and worked every angle I could until I landed the job as second AD. The night when I found out I got it, I remember doing the biggest victory dance in my apartment.
What exactly is the role of first AD on a production?
The first AD’s role is slightly different depending on which director they are working for. The personality and directing style of the director drives your approach to the movie. Working with Zack is very collaborative, hands-on, and there are no egos involved. Doing a movie with him is always the best call to get. My role includes set management. So every day we get the set up and running, tell the technicians where to place big pieces of equipment (where they’ll be out of the way), determine which way we’ll be facing so the production assistants can put out tents and chairs, and then place the camera so when the director arrives, things are roughly in place.
Throughout the day, we’ll have conversations about time management. That’s because we’ve promised to the studio and producers what we can accomplish on a day-to-day basis. So I manage the daily schedule. As we’re shooting and hiccups come up, I’ll take a little time away from one scene and tell the director we have to rush through something else. Sometimes we have more time for another scene that clearly needs it. Or if there’s a motor-vehicle accident and we can’t shoot a scene, it has to move to another day. In prep, I’ve scheduled the whole movie but there are a lot of things in the air all the time. It’s like being the conductor of an orchestra or a great chef.
And Army of the Dead is the first time you were also a producer, correct?
In title, yes, but the intersection of first AD and producer is huge. I have an impact on how many days an actor may work and how much it will cost the production. I can compact or expand on that where needed. With location, if it’s somewhere expensive, like Times Square, you don’t want to drag the work out too long. So my AD and producer worlds intersect constantly.
Filming primarily took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico. How did you recreate the Las Vegas strip, nearly 700 miles away?
We designed our backlot so meticulously. We built the camp, and the wall of containers that you could actually walk through and out into our four square blocks of Las Vegas. The gang could actually walk from the camp, through the containers into Vegas, and down to the intersection in real-time. Our only indoor set was for the safe-cracking scene. Everyone was relieved to get inside from the 110-degree heat. Everything else was either a practical location in Albuquerque or on our backlot that we built. Every casino interior was in New Jersey, where we found shuttered casinos that we could fix to our liking.
The scene with the Alphas in the swimming pool was filmed at a shuttered hotel in Atlantic City, The Atlantic Club. It hasn’t been operational since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We made the pool look worse, of course, and added plastic to the windows so you couldn’t see that the boardwalk and the ocean were right there. When the Alpha King comes in with the Queen’s body, we really had to make sure you couldn’t see out of the windows.
Speaking of the Alpha Queen, how did you bring her decapitated head to life?
The animatronic Queen’s head was one of our big spends. It was completely robotic and had three puppeteers to control the face and eye movements. For a few scenes, we put her in a green suit on something we could push, like a dolly, and that way we could actually use her movements.
Was there a specific scene or element of the movie that was a challenge to pull off, but then also exceeded your expectations?
The thing that came out the best which I was really unsure of was the helicopter. It was too expensive to get this rig that could pick it up, turn it, and make it look like it was flying. It was also really expensive to put CG backgrounds in. So we raised the helicopter, went with the sky as the backdrop, and shook both the helicopter and the cameras. There’s a point where we look down at the ground, and it needs to be moving. So, we printed out a ground scape at the perspective of the helicopter’s flying height and had people run the scape underneath the camera. The helicopter scene was our greatest trick.
You mentioned that sometimes you have to change your schedule due to circumstances beyond your control. Did that happen during Army of the Dead?
Yes, the opening sequence with the convoy and the newly married couple happens at “magic hour.” So maybe you get two and a half hours of it per night. Zack didn’t want to light it artificially and shoot all night. We wanted the natural pink-orange-blue light. For 14 nights during production, I scheduled it so we would film during the day on our back lot, then leave our zombie-killing team to grab our military guys and the married couple. This included road closures, culminating in a night for the explosion.
We started filming in the spring, and it was monsoon season. I thought, “Monsoon season in the New Mexico desert? You’ve got to be kidding me. I didn’t plan for this.” For the first three nights wouldn’t you know it, at 4pm it would start to get cloudy. The winds would build, and then came the rain and lightning. If there’s lightning, we have these apps and if it’s within six miles, safety officers will send us into the trucks or something with tires. Nobody moves until no lightning strikes for 45 minutes.
We were wondering what the heck we were going to do. I talked to Zach and suggested dawn instead. We flipped the whole schedule four nights into filming to get up at 3am for a 3:30 call and catch the sunrise. All the permits and road closures had to change. Then we would go from there to our Vegas set with our regular team. It all worked out in the end. We shot that giant car crash and the zombie king escaping at four or five in the morning.
Craving more behind-the-scenes tidbits from Army of the Dead? Add Wiretap to Chrome today and watch it with exclusive comments from Misha Bukowski.
(This interview has been edited and condensed. Header and still images courtesy of Netflix. GIFs by Wiretap.)