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Last September, we learned Netflix was doubling down on Zack Snyder's undead casino heist film, Army of the Dead, with at least two spinoff projects. The first effort to come out of that expansion plan is Army of Thieves, a prequel centered around German safecracker, Ludwig Dieter. Matthias Schweighöfer is not only back in the role — he also directed the movie, which was penned by Army of the Dead co-writer, Shay Hatten.
Picking up shortly after the zombie outbreak in Las Vegas — shown peripherally via news reports on television — Army of Thieves finds Dieter (real name: Sebastian) plucked out of his humdrum existence as a bank teller by a crew of internationally wanted criminals looking to break into a trio of fabled vaults inspired by the operas in Richard Wagner's Ring cycle. The fourth and final vault, the Götterdämmerung, is the one featured in Army of the Dead.
"Dieter is kind of the gatekeeper of the mythology of the movie in a lot of ways. Of the Götterdämmerung, of the Ring cycle," Snyder, who serves as producer (he also conceived of the central story with Hatten), tells SYFY WIRE. "So suddenly, when we meet Dieter in Army [of the Dead], we really have the guy that's gonna unlock the mystery of the why. That really led us to say, 'Ok, it would be amazing to find out how he knows all of this.' That was kind of how it started. And also, just that Matthias was doing such an amazing job with this character that we were like, 'No one doesn't want to see another two hours of that guy.'"
"It was fantastic," echoes Schweighöfer. "It was a great journey and it was cool to bring Dieter back ... Every day on set and every day on prepping and doing post [production] on the film, it was just cool. It was one of the best things I ever did in my life."
Dieter's fellow fugitives include Gwendoline (Game of Thrones' Nathalie Emmanuel), an expert pickpocket, and Korina (Polar's Ruby O. Fee), a filterless hacker.
"I think everyone just really brought the person to the table. I think that just gave this movie so much heart and so much to connect to," Emmanuel says. "In preparation for this movie, it was important for me personally to deep dive into who Gwen is and where she came from. Even just down to where she was before she was in the scene. Literally three or five minutes before she walked into the room. What was she doing? What is she thinking about? That thing is what makes the characters really feel like people and connected."
"I've never played a role like that to really be funny in a way, but authentic," Fee adds. "Korina's so different to who I am and she's so tough and serious and through this seriousness, she's kind of funny. Just trying to make that feel natural for myself was a good big deal. Other than that, just to be a good, authentic tech nerd."
Guz Kahn (Turn up Charlie) and Stuart Martin (Jamestown) round out the crew as getaway driver, Rolph, and action hero wannabe, Brad Cage, respectively. The gang is feverishly hunted by Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), an Interpol agent with a score to settle after Cage shot him in the ass once. During one of the movie's daring capers, Brad dons a Richard Nixon mask, although Snyder insists it's not a reference to one of his favorite comics that he ended up adapting in 2009: Watchmen.
"It's more of a Point Break reference than a Watchmen reference," he says.
"Though I found it an awesome Watchmen reference as well," Snyder jokes. "Anytime you see Richard Nixon, it's a Watchmen reference — even if you see him in a documentary or on the news. It's still a reference to my movie, which is weird because that happened before I made the movie."
Shot in Prague during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Army of Thieves took advantage of the innovative "Volume" technology originally developed for Jon Favreau's The Mandalorian on Disney+. The large and immersive LED screens were mainly utilized for driving sequences, although Emmanuel describes the experience as "quite nauseating."
"I'm not gonna lie, I constantly felt really sick and I had a lot of that to do," she continues. "Poor Matthias was like, 'I'm so sorry!' And I'm there at the wheel, sweating. It's actually so amazing what can be done. The technology is insane and it made it much easier for me to know what I was doing. When to turn the wheel and change gears … It definitely helped with that because so much of green screen work is imagination, which is also fun, but it really does help when you know what you're looking at."
As for shooting against the backdrop of a real-world viral outbreak, Fee explains that production was very "different" from what she was used to seeing on previous projects. "Everyone had to wear masks, we were testing every day, and we couldn't hang out together or bond as a group while going to restaurants or doing stuff. So, that was different, but we found our way and we also had times where we could rehearse so that was the time where we started bonding. We did boxing classes together."
"So much of acting is about finding connection with your other actors and also with the crew and the whole team," Emmanuel adds. "And so, the idea that you couldn't hang out and get to know each other in the usual way was really challenging. And then in a day-to-day life sense, we existed in this bubble that was the set and then our accommodations. At one point, because of how bad the cases were, we were even encouraged to not even go and do our grocery shopping. There's something really strange about only spending your life on a set and then in your home. There's something about not seeing every day life and not being around and feeling the energy of other people is strange. It was really strange."
The three seemingly impenetrable vaults could also be counted as characters in the film thanks to their intricately memorable designs. "I totally focused on the safes and I wanted to know how would it feel to have a dialogue with the safe or what if the safe is the antagonist?" Schweighöfer reveals. "Shay and Zack made it easy for us because we had these huge stories with the safes. We thought, 'Ok, if this is the story of the opera of the safe and this is the Ring Cycle, we have to honor the work and the safes have to look like dragons.' That's how we started to build these safes. Mythology. What if the safe would be a dragon?"
The vaults turned out so good-looking, in fact, that Snyder got a little jealous of how they made Army of the Dead's Götterdämmerung look boring in comparison. "I remember seeing the designs for the safes that he was building and was like, 'You know what? That's not cool. These safes are so good, they look so f—ing cool, that I'm made because my Götterdämmerung looks like a pile of crap compared to these awesome safes.'" he admits.
Hans Zimmer provided the score for Army of Thieves, making it his third major release of 2021 after No Time to Die and Dune. The German composer extraordinaire already had a working relationship with Snyder after composing the scores for two of the filmmaker's DCEU films: Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
"Listen, I had a call with Hans and we talked about him doing the movie and I was like, 'Hell yes,'" Snyder recalls. "Then I said, 'You know, if you and Matthias lock in hopefully on that call, I won't be able to understand anything because it will all be in German.' And then that happened. I don't know what was said, I did hear a lot of 'das ist verboten.'"
"What Hans did with Man of Steel was fantastic. It was amazing," Schweighöfer says. "The Superman theme, I will never forget that. And by the way, I will never forget our Zoom calls when Hans was always playing the Superman theme in these calls. I love him ... He's a huge fan of the Wagner operas. The interest on these operas for Hans was one of the choices to give Dieter a tune that feels like an opera. I will never forget the first 12 minutes Hans delivered because it was the Dieter character: adventurous, loving, going crazy, and yeah... thank Zack for bringing Hans to this film. It was a very important thing and it made the film way better, so that's cool."
Army of Thieves will crack the code to the Netflix vault on Oct. 29.