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Ten Gets You 300

Category: 300 News
Article Date: January 5, 2007 | Publication: FilmStew.Com | Author: Daniel Robert Epstein
Source: http://www.filmstew.com/showArticle.aspx?ContentID=15299

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Despite the fat comments in Italy and some initial on-set snickers, there is absolutely no doubt that with 300, Gerard Butler claims his standing as an action star for the new millennium.

I was one of a number of online genre writers recently invited in Los Angeles and New York to view about 20 minutes of scenes from the upcoming movie 300 (Warner Bros., March 9th). I consider 300, which is the story of how an army of 300 Spartans was able to defeat 10,000 Persian soldiers in the year 480 B.C., to be graphic novel creator Frank Miller’s greatest work. From what I’ve seen, Zack Snyder’s film perfectly translates to the screen Miller’s art and Lynn Varley’s color palette. But besides the surprise of how amazing the footage is, the big shock was how Gerard Butler looked. He seemed slim and calm, which is in direct contrast to how Butler was when I visited the set of 300. At that time, they were just a few weeks from wrapping principal photography, with Butler still in full-on King Leonidas mode. When he sat down for the interview, he had a full beard and - even through his long sleeved coat - you could see his bulging, muscular arms. Normally, Butler speaks in soft tones, but in the spirit of Leonidas on this day, he barked out his answers as though he needed to speak as quickly as possibly in order to get back to killing Persians. Turns out that is essentially exactly what Butler needed to do, because after the interview he was back into the thick of a battle scene. And what battle scenes they are! In the past, many directors have commented that overseeing a multi-million dollar movie shoot is like commanding an army. But 300 director Snyder is truly the general of this army of Spartans.

I’ve visited numerous movie sets, but there is nothing quite like the visceral thrill of seeing 40 men in full battle trappings, slamming their swords and shields against one another. Warner Bros was nice enough to let us peek in on number of other sets, including one associated with the leader of the Persians (Xerxes, played by Rodrigo Santoro). But the biggest shake-up was how disturbingly real a giant wall of dead Persians looked. When I asked Butler about the kind of training regimen that was required for him to turn into a lean and mean Leonidas, he admitted that the spark was somewhat accidental. During a summer holiday in Italy before 300 pre-production began, people he didn’t even know would volunteer the opinion that he looked fat. “That made me think that I had a bit of work to do,” he recalls during his recent chat with FilmStew. “My frame’s always been pretty good since the days of Attila (2001) and I’ve been fortunate that I’ve done various jobs that have required me to work my body.” “But when I started training for this, I was probably at one of my lowest levels of fitness,” he adds. “So I felt like I had a mountain to climb. In fact, I did have a mountain to climb. I always work hard for my roles, but I think I trained harder for this than I did for any other role.” Butler also dedicated a great deal of time during the making of 300 to the examination of the original Miller comics. He says that he and Snyder deliberately tried to emulate some of the incredible Leonidas stances and positions depicted on the page.

“They are certain moments that if you read the comic book, they stick in your mind,” he explains. “But you’ve got to temper it. If you take certain things too far, it would just look ridiculous standing next to everybody else that you’re working with. It’s trying to find that fine line between believability and the comic book nature of the piece.” “It’s all hyper-real and real at the same time,” Butler observes. “I paid a lot of attention to trying to get the power of this thing which you really feel when you read the graphic novel, but then at the same time without making it stiff and lending the guy some more humanity.” “I think if you were to play him as severe as in the comic book - he almost kills his best friend and captain right at the start just for beating one of the soldiers - immediately you’d have an audience absolutely hating you.” Butler got more than his fair share of injuries from 300, although not quite as many as the number of the film's stark title. Ironically, he says some of that was again due to what he did before things got rolling. “I think I overdid my training at the start,” he admits. “That’s what I do; I dive into these things and I don’t always judge it very well, but I’m glad now. Anytime that I’m feeling like that, I imagine our king would be feeling that as well. Because I’m sure he’s had a few bumps and bruises in battles.”

“I got a scar on my knuckle from when I tried to spear somebody and ended up punching the shield,” he adds. “I’ve had a bunch of bruises: I pulled my hip flexor; I’ve got tendonitis on both my elbows and shoulders. I’ve gone through a lot in this film. After a couple months of that it really starts to take its toll, but to me, it’s all part of the experience.” Butler looks simply smashing in his leather cod piece, despite a rather inauspicious costuming debut. When he first tried the prop on, he was not only the first actor to do so, but also the first actor to do so with only the accessory of a pair of trainer’s black socks to go with it. “The crew was watching me walk past and I could see the smiles on their faces,” he recalls. “And I thought, ‘Is it going to be months of this?’ But the funny thing is, later on, they didn’t blink an eye. When you work so hard on your body and you’re proud of the way you look, I’m quite happy to show off.” “I’m quite happy to walk about pretty much naked any chance I get, because I know as soon as this movie finishes, I’ll never look like this again. So I might as well enjoy being seen [like this] while I have it.”

Except for two brief moments, the entirety of 300 was filmed in front of green screens on a Montreal sound stage. And unlike Butler’s experience on The Phantom of the Opera, where he had the luxury of retiring to his underground lair and the company of dancers and spectator extras, here it was along the lines of standing next to one fake rock and looking into the eyes of an army that isn’t there. “You’re talking to an army of 300 that might only be made up of about 10 guys,” he reveals. “Sometimes it’s 40 guys, but it just depends on the shot. What I’ve often learned as an actor is you don’t necessarily trust what you’re feeling inside because often when you’re performing, especially in this environment, it doesn’t feel as truthful as it does in other films. That makes it more interesting, because you have to go to different places.” “Sometimes I found myself doing a performance in theatre or film where in my head I thought it was just awful, but people later tell me it’s the best they have seen me do,” Butler continues. “So I’ve learned not to trust what is going on in my head. The other thing is in a movie, you do a performance and it feels one way, then you see it and it comes out so differently.” “It’s challenging and different and fresh, and doing it without the advantage of full sets makes it in some ways different, slightly to the left or right of what is real and what is normal. All that adds to the film’s slightly unnatural feel.” Given all this, it’s hard to think of a better preparatory routine than the one that Butler followed in Los Angeles for 300. In addition to about four hours of straight training every day with his own trainer and a Warner Bros. taskmaster, the actor spent two hours in a San Fernando Valley building with no air conditioning, practicing his sword fighting skills. “That was a good way to lose weight, because I sweated so much there,” he says. “But it’s taken its toll on my body I have to say. I really feel it. It’s as much mental endurance as physical endurance. And I also knew that when you take a look at the way Leonidas has to braid his hair [in the film], it requires a big body underneath that hair.” “No matter how strong I was, it wasn’t going to work if you saw a skinny body underneath this hair,” Butler insists. “So I knew I had to get big and strong for that as well.” Butler says that the stuntmen he worked with on 300 are the best he’s ever had the pleasure of collaborating with. A key element when you consider the weight of the sword and shield, and the fact that after twelve hours, even a cape starts to feel heavy.

“It’s not just in terms of the stuntmen’s incredible talent, but also in terms of how much they give you of their souls and how encouraging they are, how patient they are,” Butler explains. “I feel that I’m doing a pretty good job with the action in this film, but it’s due to this incredible training that they’ve given me.”

“However good I look on screen, they make me look ten times as good as I actually am,” he suggests. “When you watch the scenes back in playback, you’re like, ‘Holy sh*t, I look like a monster.’ I know I’m being pretty tough, but I know I’m not being that tough.” Although Butler did read a number of books on war, generals and the philosophies of ancient battle, he confesses much of his Leonidas research was done on-set on a daily basis, supported by the surprising accuracy of Miller’s comic book. “It’s finding that fine line between this man’s absolute brutality and that he’s a hero that pushes the definition of hero to the edge,” says Butler. “Sometimes you might feel that the Spartans are the bad guys because we kick so much ass the whole way through the movie. We’re not just killing them but we love it. This is what we were born and bred to do, and I really wanted to put that aspect into the movie.”

“But at the same time also remembering that we didn’t start the war. We were being attacked and now we are going to make it as bloody and as much fun as possible. Because this is what we live for.”

 


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