The Reel King: Director Zack Snyder Talks "300"

This past weekend in Los Angeles, the cast and crew of "300" assembled to answer questions from the press. We've already brought you our interviews with actors Gerard Butler and Rodrigo Santoro. Now it's time for the man who was tasked with bringing Frank Miller's ground breaking graphic novel to the big screen, director and screenplay co-writer Zack Snyder.

As Snyder walked into the room, he introduced himself to the assembled reporters by asking, "Does anyone want a water? I'm up, so…" With laughs all around the room, the grilling began.

While some may point to the current political climate as reason enough for the epic story of "300" to be brought to life as a film, others will look at the failure of recent similar films such as "Troy" as a reason to not do it. As Snyder explained, in some ways that failure opened the door for "300's" unique presentation. "I think that was the thing that got the studio to say, 'Maybe, you know, this is the way to do it.' Maybe it was Frank saying, 'Hey, no one's going to make this graphic novel into a movie but Zack. I don't know why he wants to.' Frank's feeling was that he didn't know why anyone would want to make this book. It's one of his more obscure titles. The idea that someone said hey let's make '300' into a movie, I think he was surprised by it. He gave me his blessing. The third thing was the technology was available for us to make it this way."

One can't discount the effect comics and fantasy magazines have had on Snyder's unique vision, who recalled how one in particular affected him. "When I was a kid my mother used to buy me a magazine called 'Heavy Metal.' It's an adult illustrated fantasy magazine, but my mother did not realize that. She thought it was a cool publication that had comics in it. And I encouraged her to keep buying it. At the same time she would try to buy me 'Wolverine' or 'X-Men' or some classic comic books, but those didn't have a sense of dying in them, not like the 'Heavy Metal,' so I was pretty devout. Then when 'Dark Knight' and 'Watchmen' came out, it was what I needed to get back into the graphic novel world in a way that I was satisfied."

It was that exposure to the more sophisticated side of comics that ultimately got Snyder interested in adapting "300" for the silver screen. "I wanted to make any Frank Miller work that I could. I would always say, 'I want to make 'Sin City' into a movie. Oh, they just did it? Okay. I want to make 'Dark Knight' into a movie. Oh, they're gonna do that?' Som we would sit around and talk about '300' like film students and say, 'wouldn't it be cool if we made this shot?' Just for fun. Then Gianni Nunnari, the producer who owned the rights, called and said [affects an Italian accent], "I called Frank Meeeeler, he's very difficult, as you know, but he's going to give us the rights.'

"I said, 'give us the rights? What do you mean he's going to give us the rights? What do you mean by that?' He repeated Frank's going to let us do the movie – so, it was scary! The idea of making it was a thing that I really was passionate about."

It's been noted that "300" is not a historically precise tale of the very real Battle Of Thermoplyae, something that has more to do with Snyder staying true to Miller's version and less with his own personal politics. "Well, did Frank throw history out the window?" asked Snyder. "A little bit. I have shown the movie to historians. It's funny because Bethany Hughes, who's this historian, said to me, 'You know, it's more Spartan than anything I could do.  I can't be emotional with what I feel about the Spartans because I'm trying to give a historical reference. But the film you've made feels like it was made by Spartans.'

"People ask me, is it political? How do you feel about the politics in the movie? The one I try to always stress is that we are not the Spartans. It's fun to be with Spartans and go along with them, but you're not them. The first image is Spartans throwing their kids off a cliff, I hope you'd go 'okay that's a little rough.' They beat the kids constantly. It's an effort to sort of remind you that you're not Spartan. Like when they meet the three Greeks. You, what do you do?" [points to a reporter]

"I work for a magazine, what do you do?" [reporter asks back]

"I'm a movie director, what do you do? [asks a theoretical Spartan in the room] I kill!

"I want you to embrace the Spartans and I want you to be with them, but I feel it's important for people to remember that they are freaks in their own way."

To create those "freaks," Snyder had to transform the actors both mentally and physically for the film, a process that affected him as well. " The way we would work is we would talk about it beforehand and talk about what we wanted to do and then I would just watch for it in the performance. When we would get ready to go again I would say, "Look I know we talked about you being a little more shaky at this moment and I kind of didn't feel it in that last moment, just something to think about.

"On a movie like this, it's a physical job. I didn't sit down much. I operate a lot, too, maybe because I'm energetic or schizophrenic, I dunno what it is, but I do like to touch the camera and make the shots. In some ways it gets you closer to the actors. A lot of people think that distances you from the actors and I haven't found that at all. You can't go hide behind the monitor and then get up and yell 'Hey, do it better' and then go hide again. I think that's a shitty thing to do [laughs]. But that's the way it's done. But when you're just standing there holding a camera – it's heavy by the way – and you say 'It'd be cool if we did this okay?' It's a lot more urgent."

The lead actor, Gerard Butler, may not be well known to audiences, but Snyder doesn't see it as a downside. "Gerard's amazing and I feel like there's no one who could do it but him. Is it conscious to choose someone who's not a giant 'US' magazine star or a member of Hollywood royalty? Or is it just that we felt like the movie was the star in some ways and we wanted you to feel that and not get sucked out and say oh look, there's Brad in a loin cloth." [a reference to Brad Pitt in "Troy."]

With Snyder's obvious enthusiasm for the body of work produced by Frank Miller, one has to wonder if the two will collaborate again and Snyder explained, "That's certainly an option I would consider. We haven't talked about it, but we do have fun when we do talk and it could easily be a thing that we just haven't gotten around to talking about yet. He has really stressed to me as he has from the beginning, 'I'll do what you want me to do, but it's your movie. So go kill 'em.' Which in some ways makes it harder because he put the responsibility on me. Okay, don't fuck it up basically!"

That kind of support from Miller only made Snyder more enthusiastic and the director was even more proud of his work after Miller saw the film. "It was really great. When he saw the movie he said to me, 'Listen, I wrote this book because I saw a movie called '300 Spartans' when I was a young man, and when I saw your movie version of my book, I wish your movie was the one I'd seen.' That's awesome!"

Speaking of awesome, in every meaning of the word that is, Snyder is working on adapting the aforementioned "Watchmen" for the big screen. While there's a lot of controversy and skepticism from fans surrounding the project, the director hopes to have a sample of the film to show to fans soon. "I don't know if we'll get a shot done by Comic-Con [International In San Diego]. I'll go down there and have something to show I hope. The pressure is real, as real as can be. But the thing with 'Watchmen' is that there's this huge pressure from the fans, but I look at what I'm doing, what I'm planning to do, as something I think is cool and hopefully they'll agree."

As for progress on the film, Snyder explained that the budget is the biggest concer right now, finding one that is, as Synder said, palatable to everybody involved. "You know, it's a long movie," said Snyder. "You know we're trying to shoot the Black Freighter part as well, and no one has ever even talked about that. Whether that ends up as a DVD extra or a special release has yet to be seen, but I don't know. But that's what I've been working on. We'll know soon."

What Snyder does know is that much like with his previous film, the remake of "Dawn of the Dead," as well as "300," he'll be handling the storyboarding for "Watchmen," a process he explained, "With 'Watchmen' the cool thing is, 'Watchmen' is much more linear a story. If you look at the scenes, just for instance when Rorschach picks up the badge and looks up and fires his grappling gun and goes up to the thing and looks around the room, there's no reason not to shoot it like that. If you didn't shoot it that way, your ego got fucked up. 'I can do it better than this! Look, I'll do a low-angle and I'll dolly-in, look I'm cool!'

"Basically in my book I redraw the shooting frame because it's shaped differently than the comic, but I glue the comic page right next to it."

Changing gears back to the future DVD release of "300," there've been rumblings of a director's cut or altered version of the film, but Snyder denied those rumors. "I feel like the movie is very close to what I intended. There is no director's cut. There's behind the scenes, some historical thing, a picture thing where you see the graphic novel come to life. There are about three deleted scenes with Ephialtes that we cut just because it made the movie too long. And then there's this midget archers thing that we did. We did these crazy armless giants with these 'elfy' looking midgets riding on them and they're shooting at the Spartans. And then they chop their legs off and they fall down. There is this cool shot where this giant Spartan jumps on top of the giant and spears the elfy midget. It's kind of sad!"

What's not sad is the amount of violence and sex in the film, earning the film an "R" rating, and Snyder revealed that the studio didn't pressure him to tone down either. "I thought they would more than they did. From the beginning there was this discussion of whether the movie would be PG13 or R. Pretty early discussions. They asked, 'What are you thinking?' I said, 'In my mind, I don't know how this movie could be more 'R.' I don't know how to make it as a PG13 movie. I don't even know if I know what PG13 is. Even if I told you what I'm thinking, I'm sure it's an R.' So that's why they gave us a certain budget and a certain amount of time to do it. Even though they believed in that concept, it's a difficult thing in the marketplace. I was supported incredibly by WB in that they said, 'OK if it's an R rated movie, go do it. Here's the money, go do it. We support your vision. We think you're going to do something different, and that's the thing we want.'"

Snyder has two favorite scenes, which may not be apparent now, but he hopes will stand out in fans' minds once they see the film. "I have two favorite scenes. One is the apple eating scene." The apple eating scene refers to a moment after a massive battle between the Spartans and Persians which finds King Leonidas standing amongst piles and piles of dead Persians casually eating an apple and talking to his soldiers. "It pretty much sums the whole movie up in one scene! The attitude, the whole thing, it's wonderfully ridiculous," continued Snyder. "Also I do love Gerry's freelance shot. That long tracking shot." In this long, continuous scene, Leonidas makes mince meat of the advancing Persian hordes with a surprising amount of grace, despite the brutality of the moment. "I love it because it's super technical and also super raw and real. It's a hard thing to mix those two so it's lyrical. It's an opera, but it's violent."

Look for more coverage of the film "300" in the weeks ahead right here on CBR.  What did we think of the film? Don't miss the CBR Review of "300."

CBR's Arune Singh and Andy Khouri contributed to this article.

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