Prepare for glory

Category: 300 News | Posted by: maryp
Article Date: April 4, 2007 | Publication: The Sidney Morning Herald | Author: Staff
Publication/Article Link:smh.com.au

There's no hiding 300's comic-book genesis. There aren't any actual "KAPOWS!" or dialogue balloons in the screenplay. However, its voluptuous, portentous visuals, muscular good guys and leering and effete master villain are all transferred from Frank Miller's taut, punchy graphic novel.

We're with Sparta's 300 elite soldiers (circa 480 BC) - each equipped with the mandatory killer abs, slinky outfits and frontline manoeuvres of choreographic complexity - taking on Xerxes, king of Persia, and his army of thousands. The story is loosely based on the ancient scholar Herodotus's account of the Battle of Thermopylae, which tells how this heroic Spartan force, led by their king, Leonidas, held off the Persian invasion for days in central Greece.

The film has rhinos, elephants, a scary hit squad called the Immortals and portable theatrical staircases that enable Xerxes to make big, swishy entrances for any scene he's in, even those set on rocky Aegean beaches.

"Actually, it's all within the historical margin of error," says the film's director, Zack Snyder. "We started out to make ... entertainment. So we unashamedly dwell on things we find interesting. I mean, 300 is a unique piece but it's also your typical graphic novel: good and evil sharply delineated, lots of narrative momentum, not too much anxiety over political correctness.

"But we made sure we had an expert on the antiquities and on classical Greek literature vetting us for accuracy. But the nature of the graphic novel is to be bold, opinionated, both artistically and [via the] narrative."

But 300 is not a film to let the history books rob it of its shock and awe. These Spartans might look like Greek gods up to speed on Greco-Roman wrestling moves but the attitude is pure Blade Runner or RoboCop. They'll shoot their way out, or they'll die trying.

Leonidas, the Spartan king (Gerald Butler), has assembled his force to oppose Xerxes's efforts to crush the Greek city-states. The Spartan line in the sand is a geological bottleneck called the Hot Gates and for three days they held it, buying the Greeks time. Back then news of the resistance rallied city-states from Thebes to Athens. Now, it sems, it's modern moviegoers who get rallied.

"We were lucky because there was no blueprint for the sort of film we wanted to make," Snyder says. "There really wasn't a precedent for taking material that's best known in academic circles and giving it a Frank Miller perspective. Most movie audiences know Frank from movies like Sin City or Daredevil."

The novel approach to retelling history, and the subsequent box office success of 300, seems to be helping rescue a Hollywood genre-in-distress.

The sword-and-sandals epic - a grand but shaky Hollywood category - got its magic back with Gladiator's success in 2000. But no one since has matched Russell Crowe's crowd-pleasing moves in the Colosseum.

Brad Pitt (Troy), Colin Farrell (Alexander) and Orlando Bloom (Troy and Kingdom of Heaven) tried. But bloated production costs, like Troy's $US185 million ($227 million), made the task of achieving a box-office triumph an enormous task.

In contrast, 300 cost a comparatively thrifty $US60 million.

It was mostly shot on a Montreal sound stage with special effects added by Australia's Animal Logic. The effects enabled the film to be visually faithful to the lurid, pulpy look of Miller's graphic novel. The production, which leaned heavily on computer-generated effects, also cut the costs of Miller's big combat scenes.

"Computer effects are expensive but at least you can budget for them ahead of time," says 300 producer Mark Canton.

"To assemble the proverbial 'cast of thousands' isn't just expensive but a gamble. Weather, food poisoning, technical malfunction ... nothing is really in your control."

300 even got a grasp on actor salaries. Besides Butler, the cast includes London-born Lena Headey and Australia's David Wenham. Wenham plays a kingly confidante and adviser, Dilios, who retells the story to the audience as narrator. These are not the most expensive Hollywood stars.
The film certainly won the box-office battle. It took $US70 million in its first weekend in America; after its second weekend, its box office had doubled its production costs.

"We didn't set out to reinvent the sword-and-sandals epic but those other films [Troy, Kingdom of Heaven and Alexander] were coming out while we were under way so we had to think about what it meant for us," Snyder says.

"Frankly, I think the message we got from those films was that we were on the right track. If you're doing a classic tale, but one with Frank Miller's fingerprint on it, you're doing something different by definition.

"Even if the facts are the same, the tone is different."

But not all facts are equal after 2500 years. It falls to the on-set history expert, Victor Davis Hanson, to tie up some of the more contentious loose ends.

A tale of ancient times, with a bold, opinionated graphic novel perspective, is a bit of a juggling act. Hanson, a Stanford University classics professor and ancient warfare expert, says that "purists must remember 300 seeks to bring a comic book, not Herodotus, to the screen".

In the US, some reviewers loathed 300's macho posturing; others thought it was radical, visual and different.

The big issue confronting the film's producers, now that they have a hit on their hands, is whether there should be a sequel. But what does the 300 team do for a sequel when 300 is a stand-alone Miller title?

"If you've got any ideas, we're all ears," Canton says. "We've been thinking about this particular problem, not a bad one to have quite frankly, since the [industry] started telling us that this was going to be big."