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The Gore of Greece, Torn From a Comic

Category: 300 News
Article Date: November 26, 2006 | Publication: New York Times | Author: Robert Ito
Source: http://www.nytimes.com/

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THE story of “300” — the popular comic book mini-series and, soon, a film from Warner Brothers — began when Frank Miller, the series’s creator, was 6. The year was 1963, and “The 300 Spartans” was in theaters. In this telling of the battle of Thermopylae, Richard Egan played the Greek king Leonidas, who in 480 B.C. led 300 warriors in a doomed battle against the much larger Persian army, and David Farrar, regal in robes of purple and green, was the Persian king Xerxes. The film’s dialogue and staging may seem a bit quaint now. But the young Mr. Miller was stunned as he watched its climax, in which the few remaining Spartans are slaughtered in a hail of arrows.

“It was a shocker, because the heroes died,” Mr. Miller said in a recent telephone interview. “I was used to seeing Superman punch out planets. It was an epiphany to realize that the hero wasn’t necessarily the guy who won.”

As a young comic book artist and writer, Mr. Miller would return again and again to the concept of heroic, often seppuku-like sacrifice. In “The Dark Knight Returns,” which many credit with reinvigorating the Batman franchise, an aging Bruce Wayne goes out in a blaze of glory in an outmatched battle against his old pal Superman. In “Sin City” one hero shoots himself in the mouth to protect a loved one; another is executed by a corrupt system after ridding the world of not one but two cannibals.

“I tend to be drawn to characters who might die disgraced to the world, who technically lose whatever combat they’re in but win the moral victory,” Mr. Miller said.

Over the years the story of the famous confrontation at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. stuck in his mind. In the mid-’90s, Mr. Miller started work on what was to become “300.” He researched the battle, spoke with scholars and traveled to Greece, to the site of Leonidas’ last stand. He studied the armor and philosophies and fighting methods of the Spartans, and finally, working with the colorist Lynn Varley, created a series that in 1999 won three Eisners and two Harveys, awards considered among the comics industry’s most prestigious.

In delivering “300” to the screen in March, Warner Brothers will face the challenge of realizing Mr. Miller’s distinctive vision of the bloody battle while avoiding any sense that it is simply extending a series of Greek-theme epics that began with Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” and Oliver Stone’s “Alexander,” both released in 2004.

Zack Snyder, the 40-year-old director who is now completing postproduction work on “300,” is only too aware of the danger that some viewers might find it hard to distinguish his movie from its more star-driven predecessors, neither of which had a spectacular run at the box office. “I could see Hollywood not wanting to do it,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do it.”

Sitting in his office in an editing facility in Burbank, Mr. Snyder was surrounded by Spartan helmets, a shield peppered with puncture holes and, as a reminder of the precedents, swords from “Alexander” and “Troy.” “We got them from the Warner Brothers prop department,” he said, grabbing one, feeling its heft. “The ones from ‘Troy’ were better.”

To judge from excerpts Mr. Snyder screened this day, he and his co-writers, Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, have managed to evoke anything but a classic battle epic. The film’s high-flying acrobatics and over-the-top combat scenes remind one of Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers”; its fantastical computer-generated beasts evoke the “Lord of the Rings” series or “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.” As for the Persians, no tired robes and goofy hats here. These warriors sport chrome Kabuki-style masks and gold rings in their brows, noses and nipples. And then there are the pitched battles, with spears ramming through eye sockets and innards, all played out against a perpetually overcast sky.

All of this is perhaps truer to Mr. Miller’s work than to history. Mr. Miller says that while he strove for historical accuracy whenever possible, art won out in certain areas. The real Spartans, for instance, wore heavy body armor, clunky stuff that weighed about half as much as they did: handy in a pitched battle, but hardly sexy or eye-grabbing, certainly not for an action comic.

“My first versions of the soldiers looked like beetles,” he said. “They looked like they couldn’t move faster than two miles an hour.”

So Mr. Miller ditched the armor in favor of a more natural look. In his series, Leonidas and his warriors wear red capes and little else; when in battle, they cover their privates in what appear to be leather Speedos. “When you look at the ancient Greek vase paintings, you’ll see that soldiers are drawn nude, for the same reason I did,” Mr. Miller said.

For his part, Mr. Snyder, an admirer of Mr. Miller’s work, went to great lengths to reproduce the look and texture of the comic books. He photocopied the series, cut out all the frames, then glued favorites into notebooks, one per page. He would then sketch what he thought might happen before each frame, and what might happen immediately after. Voilà: instant storyboard. He pulled out a notebook to show how it was done. “So this frame is the shot,” he said, revealing a picture of the Spartans pushing an army of Persians off the edge of a cliff. “So now I have to figure out, how do I get there? And what happens next?”

Mr. Snyder began his push to make “300” after releasing his remake of the cult horror film “Dawn of the Dead” in 2004. The next year he created a test shot for the proposed film. It was three minutes long, he said, with “lots of killing.”

Mr. Miller recalled that he was not thrilled initially about the idea of a film adaptation of “300,” which he called the “crown jewel” of his career. “ ‘300’ means an awful lot to me, so to see it homogenized into something like ‘Troy,’ which manages to turn the Iliad inside out, would betray it,” he said. Mr. Miller was wowed by the test shot, however, and, after repeated prodding by Gianni Nunnari and Mark Canton, two of the film’s producers, Mr. Miller agreed to let the project proceed, while reserving the right to consult on the script.

Mr. Snyder remembers things a bit differently. “I think he gave it to us because he thought no one else was going to do it,” he said. “It seems unmakable, in some ways.” Whatever the reason, Mr. Snyder got the project, and preproduction began in the summer of 2005.

To mold his Spartans into fighting form Mr. Snyder enlisted Mark Twight, the author of “Extreme Alpinism” and founder of Gym Jones, an invitation-only workout center in Salt Lake City that is more torture chamber than Sports Club/L.A.: squats and dead lifts, not treadmill runs, supply the cardio. Under Mr. Twight’s tutelage, the actors and stunt people endured a two-and-a-half-month boot camp before the cameras rolled. The diet was brutal — meat, leaves and berries, Mr. Twight said — and the workouts even worse.

Vincent Regan, who plays a Spartan captain, dropped 40 pounds in 16 weeks; his dead lift jumped to 355 pounds from 205. In contrast to the relatively doughy physiques on display in “The 300 Spartans,” the warriors of “300” are ripped. “I told everyone, ‘You guys have got to be in crazy shape, in superhero shape,’ ” Mr. Snyder said. To inspire the troops, he had T-shirts made that read, “I died at Thermopylae.”

To recreate the appropriately gloomy backgrounds — Mr. Miller, it seems, never met an overcast day he didn’t like — he shot almost entirely against a blue screen, then added the settings and weather. To complete the vision of Mr. Miller’s shadowy world, digital effects people went for heavy contrast: the light areas really blown out, the dark areas very, very black.

Much of the zip in the action sequences was also achieved in postproduction: warriors leap and slash in slow motion, seemingly freeze in midair, then speedily dart away. The most visually stunning action sequences, however, had little to do with computer-generated images. Real actors staged the scenes of phalanx warfare, in which tightly formed troops lock shields, forming a nearly impenetrable wall. The Spartans would then thrust their spears out of the openings, or use their mass of shields to push back their enemies.

“It was row upon row of men pushing and shoving and slipping in the mud and stabbing with spears,” Mr. Miller said of the tactic. “It wasn’t one hero alone in a chaotic battle, swinging wildly. They were machines.”

In July Mr. Snyder went to San Diego to pitch his film at Comic-Con, the mecca of the comic book industry. The convention, which drew more than 100,000 fans this year, has become a bubbling cauldron of buzz: if you showcase something good, the news will spread to hundreds of blogs, chat rooms and fan sites the next day; anger the faithful, and you might as well slink back to the editing room.

Two of the film’s stars, Gerard Butler and David Wenham, attended the event, but the audiences really came to see the clips. Mr. Snyder created a special R-rated teaser for the event. Attendees saw scenes of mass carnage, a topless oracle and King Leonidas kicking a Persian emissary down a well. “All gore, all the time,” Mr. Snyder said. The crowd went nuts, compelling organizers to show the teaser three times.

Of course the big question is whether the film will attract an audience not already predisposed toward tales of brave warriors in capes. “The Frank Miller crowd, they’re there no matter what,” Mr. Snyder said. “The trick is getting the average moviegoer to go: ‘What the hell? That’s not normal. I’ve got to go see what that’s about.’ ”

 


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