Frank Miller and Zack Snyder bringing “300” to the big screen makes me so happy I almost want to cry. When one of the biggest names in comics figuratively weds the director of the great modern zombie movie, and they decide to bring an child into this world together — everyone should be lining up to see the weird little mesmerizing freak in his crib.
From what I’ve just seen, this love child of theirs will be something truly refreshing for those of us tired of being disappointed by most current Hollywood fare. Monday night I was lucky enough to see some clips of the upcoming film during a private screening in New York City and got to hear Director Zack Snyder, Writer/Artist Frank Miller and actor Gerard Butler speak about their experiences and their passion for bringing this heroic story to us lucky geeks.
The first thing you notice about this film from seeing the images and listening to its creators is its strange position between our world, the past, and total fiction. Frank Miller repeatedly voiced his frustration with historical films that have been projected through a modern prism, with our Judeo-Christian views forced onto times and groups of people when those mental luxuries simply didn’t exist. To think that ancient warrior societies lived in the same cerebral space as we do is fundamentally flawed, and unfortunately it’s something that we’ve come to accept from most historical movies. “300” looks like it will soundly pummel that lazy logic we’ve been fed, and instead give us a stylized look through time and myth to a reality where brutality and freedom and honor actually had meaning. The whole thing seemed simultaneously familiar, but eerily otherworldly.
The clips they fed us were beautiful. These were canvases of slow motion rack focus blood splatter and freshly liberated limbs orbiting each other. A wall of bodies three stories tall. Striking scenes of composition and image that really pinch the old cortex. Even the two fanboys next to me, who had earlier been insulting one another for either not owning first prints of “Dark Knight Returns,” or not knowing enough about Zombie lore, found a common ground and maybe even shook hands after seeing the reel. Each segment was greeted with hearty applause and whooping sounds, and that impressed kind of whispering you hear when people are thinking, “I can’t believe I just saw that. I am a very lucky person.”
Below is a transcription of the questions and answers from this evening.
Do you think you’ve gone for a straight historical approach, or more of a fantasy approach?
Zack Snyder: Well you make a choice. When I chose to make the graphic novel into a movie I said “OK, it’s going to be that aesthetic” — the choices Frank made, the choices I made, and for the better, I think. Yes, there is certainly room for super accurate historical movies about Thermopylae, but I feel like what we’ve done is more about the soul of Thermopylae.
Frank Miller: If I may, doing an ultra-realist version of a battle that was never written down would be quite difficult. We based this on oral history, much imagined, much exaggerated. I think when I did my book I took a lot of liberties because I thought that the average hoplite, or Greek knight, would be carrying seventy five pounds of panoply, weaponry and such, and he would weight about one hundred and fifty pounds. So, you would see a bunch of little red caped beetles moving slowly across the desert, and you’d go to the next movie. [Laughs]
Gerard Butler: You know, when you get into the techniques of these battles — the Spartans fought the Athenians for twenty years — you get the feeling that the first couple lines always knew they were goners, they were going to die. You get the feeling that once they clash, they’re just kind of stuck there, and every now and again you’d get a spear through. To truly represent some of these battles would be a really long movie.
Miller: Well, you know what they say about watching a car wreck in slow motion — it’s more like a train wreck.
Snyder: I do like the idea between showing the hoplite [heavy infantryman] with his shield and his technique and Xerxes armies with their wicker. There was a certain technological superiority that the Spartans had, even though they were fewer in numbers, to feel that they had a different methodology of fighting, and when they came together you could see that contrast. Also, that society, those Spartans didn’t have any other job than that — just eat, workout and kill.
Just wanted to ask Frank how he thinks it came out?
Miller: (reaches over to shake Zack’s hand) Put her there, brother.
How many of the sets and locations were real, and how many were virtual? Also, was the actor playing Xerxes really that much bigger than Gerard?
Snyder: Yeah, he’s a freak of nature. [laughs] Actually, he’s just really far away, the way it’s shot. We had a rule of thumb where if you could touch it, we’d probably build it. If it were twenty feet away, you wouldn’t build it. So the ground was real, a lot of Sparta was real, but anything that went any distance away, we didn’t build. And Rodrigo [Santoro, who plays Xerxes] is a little shorter than you [Gerard], right? Like an inch shorter?
Snyder: So, there you go.
Frank, do you recommend other writers to basically sit back and influence movies?
Miller: I recommend for anybody who’s going to want to see something turn into a movie to work completely on the comic book, and make sure to hell that you own it. If you don’t own it, you don’t own dick. Then you can turn everything down as it comes around, and everybody says all the right things and all of that. You need to have these things trademarked, not copyrighted — copyrighting is meaningless. If
you absolutely own it, then you can enter the completely different level as a licensor, and you know how businesses work. They tend to favor people called “licensor” as opposed to someone called “artist”.
One of the striking things about the trailer is that the score is very modern, like the excellent Nine Inch Nails song there. Is that going to be throughout the whole movie, or is that just for the trailer?
Butler: The score here is the real score. Tyler Bates, who did the score, has basically been working on the film for a long time. We did a test shot two years ago, and an animatic before that, and he scored that, then he scored test shots, and he’s been working on the movie for a long time. I think that he’s really put in a conscious effort to support the visuals. You don’t want to counter the visuals so much
that you’re like “Oh cool, rock and roll, this is stupid,” but also where you’re not completely playing to the established rule to sword and sandals, whatever that means.
Miller: Just to pick up on that — you have to understand what Zack did here. He’s not following in the shoes of Cecil B. DeMille. This is a scary modern movie. This ain’t your father’s “300.” I love it for that. The music is one aspect of that whole thing.
Snyder: Well, I hope your dad likes it, though.
Did the importance of mythology to Navy SEALs have any impact on Frank writing or Zack directing?
Miller: [pause] Sure.
Miller: With the “300” that we’re seeing now, special ops galore. We see that same loyalty to your men. Also, we’re seeing things here that may seem antiquated, but we’re learning them again the hard way.
Snyder: Warrior culture is fascinating to me anyway. When you’re talking about Navy SEALs or tier one guys, you’re talking about warrior culture in any country that’s real. Your job is that, and it’s real. It fascinates me.
You did a lot of blue screen work with the fighting scenes, did that make it tougher than you expected?
Butler: Not so much for the fighting scenes, I think it actually made the fighting scenes easier. We were in a more controlled environment, so it didn’t really bother me for the fighting scenes, it was more for the dramatic scenes. Oftentimes you were playing against things that didn’t exist, like armies that weren’t there, attacking us, and there’s nobody there! Or me speaking to my own army that wasn’t there or looking at burning villages that didn’t exist, and then turning to my army to talk about the burning villages and there was nobody there! I spent a lot of time speaking with nobody and nothing.
What was great was that they had these look frames that they would have up around the set to give us an idea about the world that we were living in. Especially with Thermopylae, it was very complicated — where the cliffs were, where the water was, where their army would be, so that was kind of weird. Also, there’s the dryness to the performance area, because at the end of the day, you are standing on top of cardboard or rubber, and you’re not really there. Like for “Beowulf,” we were
filming in Iceland, and that was great at least for that. But it allows other elements into the performance that seem to perfectly suit this mood because nothing is quite normal or quite as it seems. It’s based on a graphic novel from a guy with a very scary mind [laughter], with quite an incredible story as well so you just have to trust that and what is going to be designed around you, and you have to learn a lot to use your imagination and then to pull that all back in.
Snyder: When we originally started talking about filming Thermopylae, the tech guys said to me that we could install in the roof of the sound stage this complicated series of receivers, then put this mini-GPS on the camera that calculates its height and tilt. Then we can build in CAD a 3D model of Thermopylae, and at any time we can do a real time comp of the actors, so I could look over at a monitor and say “Oh yeah, that’s perfect”. So they pitched this thing to me, and I said if I see this thing, I’m going to kill somebody. We basically ended up cheating every single part of it anyway, so the movie would’ve taken three times as long to shoot. We would’ve built a fake set and then have to shoot it for real. It’s crazy. And we saved millions of dollars, so that’s good.
Did the relative flatness of some CGI movies that we won’t talk about here influence you decisions at all?
Snyder: It’s ridiculous how long we’ve been developing this mythology and methodology. Thinking “How do we get this shot? How do you make it look like this? How are we going to get that rock? OK, we’ll build it.” And it went over and over like that. The only shot that was filmed outside was the horse battle at the end of battle one, that was all shot inside, but that one shot of them coming over the hill on the way down to Sparta was done outside because we couldn’t get the horses to run fast enough inside. So we built up a mound of dirt.
In terms of an artist choosing subject matter, what made you choose the “300?” Was it them sacrificing themselves? What was it?
Miller: I was six years old when I saw a movie called “The 300 Spartans” and towards the end of it I nudged my brother who was sitting next to me and asked, “Are the good guys losing?” and he said, “I don’t know, you better ask Dad.” We were very cool kids, so we were obviously sitting two rows in front of our parents. So, I scurried back to my dad and said, “Dad, are the good guys going to die?” [In a
deeper voice] “I’m afraid so, son.” And I went back and sat down, and everything about my creative life and everything I thought about heroes was changed forever. Heroes stopped being people who got medals and got applauded and got statues made of them, but all of a sudden they were people who did the right thing whether anybody knew it or not. So I sat on the story and became a comic book artist and waited and waited until I thought I was good enough to do it. Then I realized that day would never come and I’d become one of those idiots who tells everyone about this great story they’re not going to tell. I went to Germany and read all the books — I didn’t go to Germany, I went to Greece! [laughter] I went and read all the books and became quite an expert on the battle and proceeded to draw up the best damn
story I ever got my hands on.
Gerard, what drew you to this movie based on your previous acting experience, and what as filmmakers, drew you to Gerard? Was it his audition?
Butler: What audition?
Snyder: He just showed up!
Butler: I sang! I said listen to this. I sang a couple of notes and they said, “That is a Spartan king right there.”
Butler: I’m sorry, what was your question?
Why this movie?
Butler: I know it must seem strange me having done “Phantom of the Opera,” but I’d say I’m more the type of guy who be in something like this than in Phantom. When this came my way [Frank Miller drops his water bottle] it felt like something just…dropped. [laughter] It made sense. For me, I read the script, it was exceptional, and I knew this was going to be a very special film. After meeting Zack, I was even more excited about it. I got even more excited when I went in to meet [Producers] Mark [Canton] and Gianni [Nunnari], they showed me this trailer they had cut before they started filming and that blew me away. So, I had to be involved with this, there was no way I was going to miss it. I’m so glad this man gave me a chance, and I’ve only seen this for the first time today, so it’s a great birthday present for me.
Miller: Again with the birthday?
Did you go hoarse from screaming so much in the movie?
Butler: Well, I actually saw the trailer and I just seem to be screaming all the time, and I know there are people going, “Is that all he does?” I assure you, I don’t spend the whole movie screaming. The other thing is, I’ve screamed a lot in other films and my voice has gone, but strangely enough it never went in this. Maybe it’s because of the physicality and passion and that kind of belief like me, the stunt guys, the armies, the actors — for me it felt like I got into the physical and mental condition of a Leonidas. I felt like a fucking monster, basically. So screaming didn’t really hurt my throat.
Snyder: If you watch movie trailers, you’ll see that you can only whisper or yell. Those are your two options. Like people won’t go see a movie where they talk.
Miller: Let’s do a little exercise here, we’ll split the audience in two and we’ll give you spears and no shields. Then you can run at each other, and we’ll see how quiet you are.
You mentioned before that the story is viewed through the prism of an ancient mind. That said, I was wondering if there was any point if you wondered if you could make a new scene, like if this scene was fleshed out a little more and have Frank chalk something out?
Snyder: I should have done that to him, but he was too busy to draw me something. He drew me a couple of things and that was really cool. I think it was a challenge for us, because the book is so beautiful, and we’d have some dumb scene like the burning village and I’m like, “Aw, Jesus. How are we going to do this?” You get to the point where you feel like there’s an overall aesthetic to the film and I feel like it’s consistent throughout, and that Frank’s book is consistent throughout, so I think you do get to a point where you understand what is appropriate and what is not.
As a follow up, I wanted to ask Frank if you’re retrospectively thinking of new scenes with these adaptations of your books?
Miller: To answer that, I’d really have to be on the set. That’s when those things occur. That’s when actors come up with their magic. As far as the historical aspect, one thing I’m really tired of is seeing so called historical movies that put everything through a modern prism. The Spartans were of the Dorian culture, which was the oldest of Greeks, so all of our luxuries of modern morality, of Judaism and Christianity for instance, are creations of a future peoples. What we have here is an evocation of the time before all of that. It is necessarily bleak and severe because what we’re seeing is the birth pangs of what would become Western civilization.
Where did you draw from for the fight scenes?
Snyder: I could point to any panel in the book and say, “OK, this is the inspiration for this.” If you look at the book, there’s one frame in the initial clash where Leonidas is out in front and is kind of the head of this arrow of the phalanx. That’s really the inspiration for that scene. As far as the actual technical fighting, I work with these two guys and they’re good friends of mine and they’re just freaks. I guess you have to be friends with freaks.
Miller: Zack is being very generous, because the fight scenes in this movie are spectacular. Occasionally, there were some key images from the book that were used, but boy, I never used slow-mo like that.
With the string of comic book movies that have come out, what do you see as the direction for comic book movies in the future?
Snyder: There are very few movies that take from a graphic novel, but there are a lot that take from comic book characters. I would say any of the Batman, Superman, X-Men, Fantastic Four, they’re all character movies. Hollywood has reinvented their mythology or have used some of their different stories. You know, this should make everyone happy — knock all the sharp parts off, and here, take it, it’s great. It won’t hurt you. You can play with it and it won’t poke your eyes out. I think that’s the Hollywood idea, to give you something everyone can enjoy. I think when you make something from a graphic novel, you have a particular point of view and a particular setting, it’s going to offend some people, it’s going to be too violent, too sexy, too whatever. From my point of view, that’s funner to watch, and funner to do. In this case, being true to the source material gives this movie a point of view, and that’s cool movie making.
Miller: It all comes down to content. What’s in it is what matters. A graphic novel or comic book or movie, they’re all the same thing. Same with a novel. When people move something from one form to another are true to it, if there happens to be something good in it, that’s something precious happening. What I’ve experienced, in the two movies that I’ve been associated with, is that my work has been amplified by the work of these amazing crews and amazing casts. An actor does things with a scene or with a line that I couldn’t have imagined. Very creative, very intelligent people. When Truman Capote said actors are stupid, he proved he was not a director. It just comes down to content. As someone in a movie once said, you can’t polish a turd. If the source material isn’t very good to begin with, you’re going to get something lousy at the end. More and more people are holding on to the ownership of these things and following their own dreams, and in a way bypassing what has become a factory system in Hollywood to come up with new stuff that translates very well into film.
Butler: I just want to say, I love that point. It’s breaks my heart when you see the films right now that don’t do well and the ones that break box office records. I would hope this film would be successful essentially to encourage studios to make films that aren’t just banal action movies, but that are actually trying to be different, and artistic, and with a bit of strangeness to them. I feel like this is an incredible story anyway, but taken by Frank and turned into a brilliant film, you’ve really got something.
After this, Zack mentioned his next project is Watchmen, and that really got everyone talking. Is he only making one film? Had Terry Gilliam been consulted? There were many questions but no solid answers. However, after listening to Zack speak about “300” and his near sacred treatment of source material, the long talked about “Watchmen” film may finally be in very good hands.
While walking out of the theater, everyone was excited and animated and gesturing to each other. People were smiling and mimicking sprays of blood from non-existent wounds. I heard strangers talking about how great everything looked. It was infectious. I haven’t seen that kind of exit from a theater in a long time, and I can’t wait to see it again when we have total access to this great looking film.
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