In 2006, Zack Snyder adapted Frank Miller’s “300” into the cinematic equivalent of an epic poem — a violent, visceral odyssey in which 300 Spartans squared off against countless Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. The film was a massive hit, made Snyder’s name as a visual stylist and inspired countless imitators. Now, seven years later, Snyder returns as a producer of its sequel, “300: Rise of an Empire,” a follow up which promises just as much style as sweeping action as the original.
Comic Book Resources joined a small group of press at Comic-Con International in San Diego following the film’s presentation in Hall H to talk with the filmmakers about the process of following the benchmark-setting original. Director Noam Murro and actors Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green and Rodrigo Santoro spoke at length about the process of revisiting this rich material, revealing how they breathed life into this myth and how they transformed moviemaking into cinematic mythology.
The first “300” had such a distinct visual style. How much did you want to honor that style and in what ways did you want to do something new?
Noam Murro: I think that the idea was very much like Zack had Frank Miller in the back of his head when he did “300.” This was very similar in that way in that I had “300” as a point of reference and the idea was always to take the DNA of that movie and being able to look back at it and use it as a reference and build upon it. There is enough “300” DNA in “Rise of an Empire,” but there is a lot of new stuff in it. That was the goal and the challenge. How do you keep enough of it and still create something very new.
For the cast, how did you first come onto the project and what kind of love and affection did you have for the Frank Miller novel and Zack Snyder’s movie?
Rodrigo Santoro: It was an honor to be asked to make another film such as that because we have all seen the first one. I loved it. I auditioned like everyone else, I think. Luckily enough, I got the gig. It’s an epic film.
Eva Green: It’s my first action film, so that was really cool. I’ve done serious films before when it was all pretty much in my head, so it was a challenge to be violent, cut people in half and kill lots of people. It was lots of fun.
Sullivan Stapleton: Well, for me, they thought that I looked like the guy that I played in the first one. Just kidding! I was part of the first one, and when I heard that they were doing a second one, I was very excited. Actually, in this one, there’s a little bit of the Xerxes backstory, so it was real cool to try to bring some humanity to this character, and I was really excited about it.
In the first movie, there are a lot of effects when it comes to the armies. Do you continue on that path or did you go more practical?
Murro: From a visual point of view and from a storytelling point of view, we kept the same methodology, if you will, of how to make this film in the sense that it was all done on green screen. A lot of the imagery is about creating these massive, epic scenes in post. We certainly kept that, but there was a very important character here which was the water, which was not ever created in the original “300” because it was all land battle. When you create and think operatically, you can’t control water unless you can control it later in post. So that was the challenge and it was also the opportunity — to take the water and operatically manipulate it to do what you want it to do stylistically and thematically, if you will. This is really what the wonder is — the sheer idea that this is all a naval movie that happens in the water. The complexity of telling a story on the water and navy battles was fantastic. We had the tools to do it now, which I don’t think six years ago you could, and that’s really the difference.
Were there water takes involved, or was it completely effects?
Murro: There was a little bit of underwater stuff. Some of it we did in London, and we were able to shoot some of it practically, but all the water, we shot it completely dry. I think the only water on set was things like this. We did it intentionally. Stylistically, it allows you to create a world that you haven’t quite seen before.
Eva, you’re so good at playing intimidating women. Where does your character, Artemisia, rank in terms of the sheer fear she inflicts on other people compared to your other characters?
Santoro: She scares the shit out of us.
Murro: All of us.
Green: Yeah! Watch out.
Stapleton: And also in the film.
Green: She’s so bad. I mean, it’s great because as an actress it’s hard to find strong roles. Most of the time, you’re offered the love interest or the boring girlfriend. Here, she is full-on the mission. She doesn’t do anything halfway. She’s an extreme character and completely obsessed with vengeance. I enjoy playing evil, but not one-dimensional evil characters. I like the ebbs and cracks in the armor. She’s ruthless and a badass.
Murro: She’s a badass, yeah. Also, the beauty of it is that there is a complexity there to her character, and unapologetically so. In a lot of roles, strong women feel like they need to apologize. Men don’t need to apologize for being ruthless, and women somehow do? That’s what’s so nice here. We talked about it from day one, about having a female role that is not apologetic. That’s pretty cool.
Sullivan, the original cast went through a grueling training regimen before filming “300.” Did you do that as well this time?
Stapleton: Nah. That’s why they cast me. I was already in shape. [Laughs] Of course, I did train. I went through hell. It was about ten weeks before we started shooting — they came out to Africa. I was working on another show so I’d leave that set and go to the gym. It was an hour and a half of swords. That was the warm-up. It’s not fun. After that, it was an hour and a half with weights. There were a couple of exercises that these trainers had made up and you would think that that was the workout. But that was the warm-up. And so, whenever we’d go to work out, it just went on and on and on. And then, when we were shooting, I was hoping to maintain this. I found out that having to maintain this meant that while everyone else was at lunch, I was in the gym. Also, Noam actually decided to work out as well.
Murro: You can see it on me.
Stapleton: It was good.
Rodrigo, you’re the only one here that’s done this twice, now. Was anything easier the second time around or was it even harder than the first time?
Santoro: Not eating ice cream. That was hard again. Harder this time. I kind of knew. I played the character before, but the interesting thing for me was, six years later, I got to revisit a character and look at some of his backstory and say, “How can I make this a fresh experience?” Now I know the process of working against blue screen, which is a very particular way of working. Again, it was challenging. The make-up was still a long process, and I was just trying to hold time to work out the little details and try to bring more and more humanity to Xerxes, because in the first movie you see him as the god king and in this one it’s like how he became the god king. What was behind it? That was an exciting part for me especially.
Zack Snyder and the original “300” set this trend of slowing down action sequences. Some have argued that happens too often and is too frequent. Is that something that you were mindful of when you were making this movie?
Murro: Look, I loved “300.” For me, I never felt that. This has a different trajectory in terms of fights and they’re very different. There are very distinct fighting styles and battles in this movie and they were designed to be that. There are five very distinct battles that are in the movie and they are specifically tailored both in the way that the fighting is happening, the action is happening, and weather/time/day/type. We were cautiously trying to create a rich palette, not only in the way that the movie looks but in the way it progresses from an action point of view and how you create interest that is not just repetitious.
How close is the story to the historical facts as far as the sea battles are concerned?
Murro: Generally speaking, we did our research, and Zack certainly did, and Kurt (Johnstad) did when they wrote it. But the beauty of this is a) a movie and b) a movie being told through a storyteller’s point of view. So like any good story, there’s going to be hyperbole and there’s going to be exaggeration. I think I’m going to get a couple of letters that are going to challenge the historical accuracy of this, but the liberating thing about doing a movie like that is that you’re not making a History Channel documentary. You’re telling a story based on history. There is certainly history there and it’s based on history, but like any good story, it takes off [on its own].
The trailer for this movie was one of the most popular trailers when it premiered online. It blew up all over the Internet, Twitter and YouTube. From a director’s point of view, did you have any creative control over what went into the trailer?
Murro: I saw the trailer. The Warner Bros. family is wonderful. It’s one of those things where you get the trailer and you look at it and you go, “I did this?” You need to know when to shut up. I looked at it before it came out, and it was just awesome. It was incredible. So there was nothing to say other than to go, “Okay, that’s great.” Then, when it broke, I didn’t quite understand the power of it until I saw it. There was no marketing behind it. It came out and all of a sudden exploded on the Internet. Somebody told me it was the most tweeted subject for four days or some crazy thing. I may exaggerate in my good old-fashioned way, but I think it really blew up. First of all, you understand the power of that on the one hand, and the second thing you understand is how many people are invested in the story and in the movie and the mythology and also how good it was.
For the actors, many of you are on social media — what was your reaction and what was your experience after the trailer premiered?
Stapleton: There was certainly a lot of interest on Facebook when it came out. My friends had found it and put it all over my page, so I returned the favor. There’s a post of myself in front of the blood drive, they called it. “I’m an Australian star,” I said, “who wants to go to the bloody beach.” That got quite a lot of hits.
Green: I’m not into social media. I’m like from another century. Two friends of mine saw the trailer. Maybe this is a question for my friend next to me.
Santoro: I’m probably from the same century, but I got emails with great feedback from friends and people that were like, “Did they shoot that back then? Six years ago? You look like that’s the same character.” I’m like, “Yeah, man. I got back into shape and we did it again. It’s looking awesome.” The response was really great. I was not surprised. I knew it was going to look great, but I was excited when I saw it. It looks really good.
Can you talk a little bit about the music choices that you made? What you carried over from the first film and what you have added?
Murro: There are two things here. There is an operatic quality to a movie like this that is at the heart of the music choices. There are a couple of components here. One is an ethnic component that is going to be dominating here, but also there’s a temporal issue, and there’s a dramatic thing. It’s a rock opera. It’s not going to be Verdi. It’s going to be something different. The heart of it is to give it a point of reference musically in a way that is ethnic but also give it tempo and feeling.
The first film was very much about mythmaking told through the eyes of a storyteller. How much does that theme run underneath this story?
Murro: That is at the heart of this. In that way, again, it’s close to “300” in that somebody is telling you the story. The histories are being told through somebody. In that way, it’s not just a linear exposition of the story but through somebody’s perspective, so it’s going to be subjective, and that’s the beauty of what that is. There was a conscious decision that was made writing the script, and also, obviously, shooting it. That is really the freedom that allows you to create something that is exciting because who knows what’s true? Nobody was there.
How much was Zack Snyder involved in the daily production? Obviously, he was off making “Man of Steel” and remapping the DC Universe.
Murro: In preproduction, the fact that he wrote it, the current film, he was pretty involved in that, I would say. Certainly, with that component, he was very involved. The great thing about working with Zack is, he’s a filmmaker, and at the time was a very busy filmmaker. It’s the greatest collaboration because it allows you to have an access to him or to his knowledge or his instinct or whatever you needed, and also he allows you to have the freedom or hands-off when you need that. That’s the best way. That’s all you can ask for. That was the nature of the collaboration and it was incredible.
Was Frank Miller on set and visiting with you guys as well?
Murro: No. Frank wasn’t part of that. Frank is God, so I don’t know how many times God comes to set.
What about the cast? Did you guys connect with any of the old cast and talk to them about their experiences or get any tips?
Stapleton: Vincent Regan came on as a guest on the show that I do and he told me some stories. He said, “You’re going to get hurt in the gym.” Vincent was one of the biggest success stories of all the guys training. He was apparently quite a lot bigger and I used him as the yardstick as far as his development. And then, Dave Wenham, I heard some stories from him as well, and then I got to work with him.
Did you use any of the same crew that worked on the first film?
Murro: Yes. We used some of the same crew obviously because it was shot in a different place. We kept some key people on. There was a completely different cinematographer, a different production designer, a different costume designer. But there were some people that we kept just because of their knowledge and the fact that we wanted to have a little bit of the DNA from the first one and their experience. Also, the good thing is they go, “Yeah, we’ve done that. Let’s do this now.” That allows you to understand how to push it sometimes. It was a strategic decision all around.