Army of Thieves: Inside Zack Snyder’s Vision for a Whole Army of the Dead Universe

Zack and Deborah Snyder are creating a new shared universe and Army of Thieves is the first building block.

Matthias Schweighofer as Dieter in Army of Thieves
Photo: Stanislav Honzik/Netflix

Coming less than a year after its predecessor, Army of Thieves is a prequel to Zack Snyder’s recent Netflix hit zombie movie, Army of the Dead. But Thieves is not an action-horror hybrid like that earlier movie, which was directed and co-written by Snyder. Instead Thieves is a heist thriller (one based on a Snyder story and written by Shay Hatten, who worked on the first film’s screenplay) and set in the early days of Dead’s zombie pandemic. Hence the new film focuses on one character we met in the previous film and what he was up to before the zombies struck: Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), the savant-like safecracker hired in Dead to break open a vault at the center of that film’s storyline.

What makes it all the more interesting is that Snyder didn’t direct the movie either: Schweighöfer did. A director and producer in his native Germany as well as an actor, Schweighöfer finds himself helming his first major international production for streaming giant Netflix under the production banner of Zack and Deborah Snyder, who are coming off both the success of Army of the Dead and the massive publicity behind their restoration of Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

“I loved working with Zack on Army of the Dead,” Schweighöfer tells Den of Geek. “I loved Dieter, and it was so much fun to play this guy. [Getting] the offer from Zack to direct, I was like the luckiest boy in the world. We were allowed to have an origin story of this fantastic character… we ended up with this fantastic idea to have a heist movie with a romance aspect in it, and a lot of action.”

The Snyders’ longtime producing partner Wesley Coller concurs, saying, “It was exciting because as we started talking about doing this idea, Matthias came to us and said, ‘I would love to be considered to direct this. Obviously, we had the relationship with him as an actor. But we started getting more familiar with his work as a director and it just quickly became very clear to us that it would be a great fit to have him be the one to not only carry the character forward but also just the storytelling as a whole.”

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Snyder, unsurprisingly is also a fan of Schweighöfer’s previous work and was keen to pass the baton on this project.

“I know that as a director, he had an amazing team that he worked with and that his eye and his style was clearly there,” says Snyder. “So I encouraged him once we decided that he was the perfect guy, because no one knew Dieter as well as Matthias. Who could you get to tell Matthias what Dieter should do? Nobody. And then my job was to just say, ‘Do your thing, don’t be afraid and just go for it.’”

As Army of Thieves opens, Dieter is working a dead end job as a bank teller in a small German town and posting occasional videos online about his obsession with safe cracking. A mysterious woman named Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel of Game of Thrones and Fast and Furious fame) approaches him about joining her criminal crew to help find and open three reputedly impenetrable safes, each named after a segment of composer Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle based on Norse mythology.

Snyder says that the connection to the Ring Cycle and Norse mythology—which continues into Army of the Dead, in which the safe that needs cracking is the fourth of the same group and named Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods” or “Ragnarok”)—also acts as a metaphor for the apocalypse that is about to descend on modern humanity in Dead.

“I don’t want to completely blow it, because it all is part of this bigger idea,” Snyder explains, “but if you look at something like the central thing in Army of the Dead as the Götterdämmerung, and that concept that the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ is happening… if we are the gods of our world, our Ragnarok is literally happening with the zombie apocalypse. And even though it feels like it’s been contained, probably to Vegas [at the end of Dead], well, the gods of Norse mythology were pretty confident that they weren’t going to be destroyed either. There’s more to it, let’s just put it that way.”

The backdrop of the zombie apocalypse does indeed seem contained to the United States as Army of Thieves opens, with Dieter recruited by Gwendoline to join her small crew and begin their safecracking spree across Europe, as a pair of relentless Interpol agents track their movements and attempt to figure out their plans.

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While a heist thriller may seem like an odd choice as a prequel to a movie about a zombie Götterdämmerung, Zack says that the genre itself has its own special appeal. “The fact that [the heist movie] endures is the thing that makes it interesting,” the producer considers. “If you make a heist film, there’s certain elements that you almost have to include now, but we get to deconstruct the why of all those things and have fun. The audience knows they’re coming, but we can subvert them at the same time.”

While Army of Thieves itself sprang out of the creation of the character of Dieter, the idea of assembling a series of films that spun off from Snyder’s 2004 directing debut, Dawn of the Dead, has been around almost since that film was released more than 15 years ago. Indeed, Army of the Dead was once slated as its original follow-up.

“We had developed it, we had tried to get it made, but the budget was too big,” says Deborah Snyder. “So it kind of sat and then after Justice League, we were going to do it with Warner Bros. but they didn’t want to spend the money—it was a lot of visual effects to get it done. So Zack and I, having the relationship with [Netflix head of original films] Scott Stuber, went to Netflix, and they were so excited to have this and to see what it was.”

Zack says that although the initial idea was to do smaller follow-ups to Army of the Dead geared toward local audiences in Netflix’s international markets, the concept picked up enough steam, and the global response to Dead was strong enough, to turn it into a full-blown shared universe: the “Army-verse” as Zack calls it with a chuckle.

An animated prequel series called Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas is already in production, with Dead cast members Dave Bautista, Tig Notaro, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, and others reprising their roles from the movie.

“We get to unpack quite a bit in terms of how that team came together,” says Coller. “We also get to go down the rabbit hole of where this outbreak may have originated, what its origins are, the path that it took to Vegas, so I think there’s a lot of interesting ideas in terms of the camaraderie in the team building and who they are, while also getting to explore some of the zombie genre fun of the outbreak.”

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Deborah even interjects that “maybe even Area 51” is on the table in a potential spin-off. Down the line.

“Growing this as a franchise happened very organically,” says Coller. “The conversation quickly became, ‘Well, there’s a lot to learn about [Army of the Dead].’ What happened before? Where does all come from? And I think, to that point, our experience with being in a franchise world previously [with DC films] was helpful, because I think we could see the potential and we were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we can start to build that’… I think being able to do that now in an original space offered all these new exciting things, too, because there wasn’t canon and there wasn’t boxes to be checked or history with the property.”

Zack himself will helm the live-action sequel, titled Planet of the Dead, presumably after he directs his new sci-fi movie Rebel Moon. While the connection points between the animated series, the live-action Dead movies, and Army of Thieves are all there, Zack hints that they may link to each other in unexpected ways.

“[Army of Thieves] connects to the prequel animated series only in the same way that Army of the Dead connects to this,” Zack says. “I believe the animated series actually connects us more to what would be Army 2.” Zack adds that he and writer Shay Hatten “plant a lot of seeds” for Planet of the Dead in Lost Vegas, with time loops potentially in the mix, and even a chance that Dieter himself—who seemingly sacrificed himself at the end of Army of the Dead—could return.

“It’s just fun to expand these concepts, have them all connect and have that backstory make sense,” says Zack, who says the goal is to “let the fans really take apart the time loops and then maybe start to make some correlation between these characters and the gods of Norse mythology, and how they all meet their demise. These are things that you can start to play with, and as you get further down, you start to see how we are putting these together.”

Army of Thieves is now streaming on Netflix.

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