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HERE BY SPARTAN LAW WE LIE: THE STORY OF “300”
Article Date: February 8, 2007 | Publication: Warner Bros. | Author: Production Notes - Part 2
Gerard Butler became aware of the project during a meeting with Warner Bros. executives. “They said the word ‘300’ and I knew that there was something fresh and different about it,” he recalls, adding, “When I met with Zack Snyder, I knew this is a guy who understands the things you can’t explain about this story and what it would require. I could write six volumes about him and his talent, his intelligence, his passion, and his goodness as a person.”
Jeffrey Silver notes that Butler had qualities that made him perfect for the role of the Spartan king: “His charisma as a person and leadership qualities set a tone of camaraderie among the actors. He brought this team of Spartan actors together.”
Butler relished the opportunity to dive into research on this formidable culture. “Spartans are shown nothing but pain their whole lives to teach them endurance, to teach them fearlessness and to teach them to have no mercy against their opponents,” he says. “Everything about it requires a steeliness and a strength of character, from the way the men are trained to the way the women must surrender their children in the name of warfare.”
Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad adds, “There is fierce competition. This code of honor and duty and loyalty is beaten into them, and then it just evolves into what they do every day. It’s how they breathe…how they act and interact.”
A feared and revered military king of the Greek city-state of Sparta, Leonidas rules with the guidance and support of his queen, Gorgo. “Gorgo is, by all accounts, brilliant,” says Miller.
“She and Leonidas watch each other’s backs and she is a great contributor to his strategic thinking. There is a great depth of emotion and intellectual partnership between them. Spartan women are Spartan warriors just like the men. They send the men out first, but you’ll see in the movie that the women can play pretty tough, too.”
Born in the rugged north of England, Lena Headey possessed an innate strength and grace that proved essential to the role of Gorgo. “Lena is so tough and down to earth and strong.
And she’s beautiful, with such wisdom in her eyes,” says Butler. “Lena brought incredible charisma, intelligence and fire to Gorgo.”
Calling the film “a story of honor, fearlessness, passion, blood and faith,” Headey was ready to portray the Spartan Queen. Gorgo is not a prominent figure in Miller’s tale, so Headey had freedom in crafting the character, guided by her conversations with Snyder. “She’s a really strong character in the movie, just because of everything she goes through and is prepared to sacrifice,” Headey remarks. “She has already lost her husband, but to admit that would be too much, so she fights, with her heart, in the political arena. I see Gorgo as the heart and instinct of Sparta, and instinct usually guides us through to the right decision.”
All that Leonidas is, as a king and as a man, is brought to bear when a messenger rides into town with a warning that the army of a thousand conquered nations is, even then, marching towards Sparta. Xerxes, played by Rodrigo Santoro, has brought the ancient world to its knees mostly through sheer audacity. “He’s rich, he’s arrogant, he’s a very unstable megalomaniac,” describes the Brazilian actor who portrays the self-proclaimed God-King. “He just wants to conquer the world. His ambition is unlimited. He wants glory; he wants victory; he wants eternal fame. Underneath all that wanting, though, he’s ultimately weak and very insecure.”
Santoro first met with the director as a potential Spartan, but after he left, “I said ‘I think Rodrigo could be Xerxes,’” recalls Snyder.
A towering, enigmatic figure covered with exotic jewels, Xerxes is carried on a golden throne by crouching slaves. “He has a voice that is smooth and seductive and everything that a God-King should be,” says Bernie Goldmann. “You see that people would follow him…that he would seduce as well as conquer.”
Leonidas shows the Persians what he thinks of their threat by literally killing the messengers. But the politicians of Sparta do not want to fight. Theron, played by Dominic West, represents a new kind of Spartan, more interested in negotiating for power than fighting for freedom. “Theron is not an honest politician by any means, and his duality first manifests itself in his being a treacherous appeaser of the Persians,” says West. “He’s the politician, not the warrior. It’s always good to play a villain; they usually get the best lines,” the actor smiles.
The Spartan Council sends Leonidas to consult the Oracle—a young woman corralled by Ephors, ancient men who interpret her signs. “Leonidas, through a gigantic leap of imagination, understands exactly what Persia is up to and knows how to stop them,” says Frank Miller. “But he has all the odds against him. The council doesn’t want to have the battle for their own reasons, so they use the Carneia celebration of the moon as an excuse not to go to war.”
Leonidas would sooner die fighting than kneel before any conqueror, but if he is to take Xerxes on, it will have to be without the Spartan army behind him. “Leonidas is probably the most decisive character I have ever played, but when he has a moment of indecision, when he needs assurance that he’s right, he looks each time to his wife,” says Butler. “And she explains so eloquently why he has to go to war, which is, ‘Go and die. I’ll never see you again, but you’ll do this as a free man. Don’t answer this question as a king or as a Spartan citizen but as a free man.’ That really is the essence of the Spartan woman.”
Though she is not at the Hot Gates with Leonidas, Queen Gorgo must also face a battle on their home ground. Gorgo’s sacrifice for Sparta and its future king, her son, is equal to that of Leonidas. “Gorgo is as much a warrior as Leonidas. She must rally her city and her country to her King’s aid,” affirms Johnstad, “while also fending off the political maneuverings of Theron.”
Deborah Snyder adds, “She gives herself, but, to her, it is nothing compared to what’s at risk. It means nothing because the stakes are so high.”
Gorgo’s words are the perfect challenge to a Spartan warrior. “His nation has been asked to do the one thing they don’t do, which is to submit to another ruler,” Butler avows. “There’s a time to stand back and resist, and then there’s a time to take action. He understands like nobody else the relevance of this mission. It isn’t just a mission to save Sparta—this is his moment to show the world, not just Xerxes, for all the centuries yet to be, just what Spartans are made of.”
An all-volunteer personal guard, made up of 300 of the most skilled and courageous Spartan warriors, coalesces around Leonidas. He cannot declare war, but he can give Xerxes a shock. When Sparta decides to fight, there’s no holding back. “These are insurmountable odds he’s facing, but perfect for a Spartan king,” states Butler. “So he takes his elite force to Thermopylae to make a stand.”
Dilios, a Spartan warrior and storyteller in the graphic novel, is played by David Wenham, an Australian actor whose popularity increased dramatically in North America when audiences were introduced to him in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
The character of Dilios solved for Snyder the puzzle of how to bring Miller’s unique voice as a storyteller into the film. “We hit on the idea of having a narrator tell the story, which allows Frank’s fantastic world to come to life,” Snyder offers. “That was really important when it came to weaving Dilios’s story through the movie—how awesome it is to have this storyteller that can render Frank’s prose in the picture.”
“I love telling stories, so to have the opportunity to be a storyteller is a gift,” comments Wenham. “Dilios spends a lot of time entertaining the troops when there’s down time, telling stories about the first Olympics or other tales. He is also probably one of Leonidas’s best friends, and a great warrior who is highly respected among the men.”
The film unfolds with Dilios as a guide; his version of events thus becomes the narrative that future generations will pass along. “Dilios is a guy who knows how not to ruin a good story with the truth, necessarily,” says Snyder. “He’s going to make it bigger where it needs to be bigger, and do whatever it takes to motivate and excite the Spartans. His voice provides the poetic flux of the movie.”
The core trio leading the 300 Spartans is Leonidas, Dilios and an enigmatic warrior called the Captain, played by Vincent Regan. “The Captain is probably one of the most intense of the all the 300 Spartans, along with Leonidas,” says Regan. “Historically, he would have been one of the three captains of the bodyguards of the king.”
The Captain brings with him to battle his eldest son, Astinos, played by Tom Wisdom.
“In a way, The Captain makes a great sacrifice in bringing his eldest son with him on the expedition because it’s seen as a suicide mission,” Regan asserts. “After all, there are only 300 Spartans against a million soldiers of the Persian Empire. But he is extremely faithful to his king and his city, and he’s prepared to sacrifice all that he has—his own life and also his son’s life—for the ideal of freedom for his city and king, who is also a close friend.”
The role of Astinos marks Wisdom’s feature film debut, a detail that might have played in his favor. “I suppose one reason I was cast is because I share similar characteristics with Astinos, who is a novice in battle,” he says.
Astinos and another soldier, Stelios, played by Michael Fassbender, represent the enthusiasm of the young Spartan warriors. “Stelios is very spontaneous and very passionate,” says Fassbender. “He sees this as his chance to prove himself on the battlefield and die the glorious death that he craves in order to fulfill his destiny as a Spartan warrior.”
“Stelios is very spontaneous, very passionate,” says Fassbender. “It’s his chance to prove himself on the battlefield and die the glorious death that he craves in order to fulfill his destiny as a Spartan warrior.”
In Xerxes’s army, the Spartans have finally come up against a worthy adversary. Xerxes has willed into being an exotic and extraordinary force comprised of physical oddities, brute strength, wild African animals, magic practitioners, and his elite guard, called the Immortals.
“The Immortals are his special force,” says Santoro. “They are very skilled, scary, fiercelooking masked warriors. They are his finest men.”
“Leonidas is the opposite of Xerxes, who sits up in his high tower, who bribes, who seduces, who kills his men to achieve victory,” Butler remarks. “There’s a great line when Xerxes says, ‘How can you ever stand against me when I would gladly kill any one of my men for victory?’ And Leonidas says, ‘And I would die for any one of mine.’ That, to me, is the essence of Leonidas.”
Leonidas’s plan is to use the geography of Greece itself against the Persians, leading his 300 to the Hot Gates of Thermopylae—a narrow corridor between towering cliffs of the Aegean, which the Persians will have to pass. This natural structure provides the 300 Spartans with a much-needed strategic advantage. But it is not invulnerable, as Leonidas learns from a terribly deformed onlooker, Ephialtes, who tells him of a hidden goat path behind the rocks. Played by Andrew Tiernan, Ephialtes is described by Deborah Snyder as “a sad character. He was outcast from Sparta at birth but all he wants is to be a Spartan.”
As soon as the horizon darkens with the awesome sight of Xerxes’s forces, the battle is on. “The story of the 300 Spartans is about more than just a battle,” says Miller. “Leonidas knows these 300 men can’t defeat the Persian army. ‘300’ is about fighting, knowing you can’t win. The act itself holds more power than the sum of the 300 warriors’ spears. These people, these men at the Hot Gates, are ready to die. In fact, Leonidas intends for them to die. He knows there’s no chance of survival. He clearly doesn’t care, because he knows something will be achieved. I regard the Spartans as the victors of Hot Gates. You can win by losing.”
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