Famed filmmaker Zack Snyder is back with a prequel to the popular Army of the Dead movie, Army of Thieves (streaming on Netflix on Friday, Oct. 29), but he’s switching things up, handing over the director’s chair to Matthias Schweighöfer, one of the breakout stars of the original zombie action flick.
Schweighöfer, who directs in addition to playing the fan-favourite character Dieter in Army of Thieves, introduces us to the character when he was just a German bank teller with an affinity for breaking into safes.
At the outset of the movie, Dieter posts a video online about legendary safes designed by the locksmith Hans Wagner (Christian Steyer), which catches the attention of of Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) who enlists Dieter to join her crew of criminals, savvy Korina (Ruby O. Fee), rugged Brad (Stuart Martin) and the getaway man Rolph (Guz Khan).
This newly established crew travels across Europe trying to crack open a series of vaults known as the Ring Cycle, while French law-enforcement officials Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) and Beatrix (Noémie Nakai) are on their trail.
If you’re a fan of Snyder’s work and you’re waiting for some sort of zombie tie-in, all of this is happening while there is a “zombie pandemic” occurring in the U.S., but there are notably very few zombies in this movie.
What’s unique about this approach to a prequel is that it’s not really in the same genre as Snyder’s previous work. The general narrative of the story is like The Italian Job with a little bit of the Ocean's movies sprinkled in, while things also get heartfelt and romantic between Dieter and Gwendoline.
'It is about being in charge and in control'
Schweighöfer is an impressive actor with a lot of energy and it is certainly understandable that people really connect to his character, Dieter, who has this charming naivety.
What’s more impressive is that Schweighöfer was able to act in and direct this ambitious project.
“Sometimes as an actor, when you have a director, it's all about trust and let it go,” Schweighöfer explained. “So sometimes when you're not good with [letting] things go, it is about being in charge and in control.”
“I recognized when I started to direct and at the same time acting with great other actors, they don't see you as a director because they forget in that scene that you're the director, so they play with you, and you can guide them through the parts you want to do.”
While it worked for Schweighöfer, all of his cast members praised his work as both an actor and director of this movie.
“You never quite know how that process is going to be...but he's amazing,” Stuart Martin said. “He's so all over the whole project, with his passion and his sort of brilliant abilities as an actor, that you don't even notice the switch.”
“I think because he's such a brilliant actor, I found there were scenes that might only be these little three line scenes, and we got to work them, we got to really go into them and mess about with them and see what we could mine… He knows how your mind works, he knows where to push you and what he needs.”
Schweighöfer did take one piece advice from Snyder as he led the direction of this movie — “make it your film.” Schweighöfer shared that Snyder told him to “dream big,” but to not forget to talk to him, which Schweighöfer did throughout the directing process.
Dieter's 'disturbing' shriek explained
If there’s one thing that’s particularly signature in this Army of the Dead/Army of Thieves world is Schweighöfer’s laugh, or better described as a shriek, that all of his fellow cast mates were truly taken aback by.
Nathalie Emmanuel stressed that it is truly so loud when you’re physically next to him, and others echoed her sentiment.
"I think the technical definition from an auditory perspective is loud as shit," Guz Khan said.
Ruby O. Fee shared that this shriek even happens when Schweighöfer is not acting, sharing that it would also be heard on set when he was happy with the work of his fellow cast and crew.
When asked to explain this sound for himself, Schweighöfer revealed it actually started years ago.
“One of my best friends, he has the same laugh, like me, and we really laugh on a high pitched level,” he explained. “There was a film [where] I started to scream like Dieter,...and then Army of the Dead came and I thought, OK, that's the perfect moment to use that.”
“I have a very high pitched voice when I'm laughing. So it could be a bit disturbing.”
Dialogue not 'sanitized' by Hollywood
One thing that Army of Thieves does well is really create this international feel to the story as the characters move through Europe, including doing something that is more rare than it should be, having characters speaking in different languages and using vernacular that’s authentic to the characters.
“In terms of the vernacular that’s used, I think Hollywood can be kind of Hollywood sometimes,...in terms of the kind of dialogue and the specific things people say, and the way they say them,” Khan explained.
“But the fact that we were kind of hound by a guy whose first language is German, who was then speaking English not in a super finessed way, for me, is not only comedically great, but it's the reality of what people are… That feels natural and I think there's a lot of points in the movie where you're like, yeah that's natural conversation, as opposed to Hollywood, which can get a bit a bit sanitized sometimes.”
Comedy in front of the camera and behind the scenes
While this movie was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, in some ways impacting how the cast could interact, O. Fee revealed they were still very connected, even doing a seemingly odd exercise where they all moved around like animals to bond.
“There was a point where we were in the room and then our coach, he was like, ‘OK, all of you guys choose an animal for your role and then be the animal,’” Fee explained.
“Nathalie was like this jaguar or something...and I was like this little mouse and all of us were walking through the room as animals, which was very funny, but it made us really stick together.”
The behind the scenes information may also tip you off about the scripted humour in Army of Thieves. Emmanuel highlighted the particular hilarity that comes from Khan, an accomplished British comedian.
“When it comes to trying to find little inflections of comedy, even in a movie like this, which is like a mishmash of genres, vibes is such an important thing,” Khan said.
“It was a really strenuous working situation sometimes, not because it was difficult on set, but with COVID tests and constantly living in fear of ‘oh my god, what if somebody tests positive.’ Despite all of that, everybody really tried to keep the energy and the vibes up.”