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This Is Blasphemy! This is Madness! This is … SPARTA!

Category: 300 News
Article Date: February 9, 2007 | Publication: Premiere Magazine | Author: Tom Russo

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Frank Miller’s Ultraviolent Graphic Novel, 300, about a fight to the finish between Spartans and Persians gets an Ultra-faithful translation to the screen.

March 2007 Premiere Magazine

Gerard Butler’s King Lenoidas and his men prepare for battle – outfitted, per Frank Miller’s provocatively selective read on history, with only helmets, capes, codpieces, and attitude. Says Butler with a laugh, “Sometimes you’re better off describing history in a more artistic way, if that’s what’s going to hit home, rather than what you get on the Discovery Channel.”

If you’re looking to make the statement that your Spartan warrior epic is something new and different, a good start is to populate it with skin-flashing troops, fetishistically pierced enemy hordes, quasi-mutant combatants, and – why not? – even a battle rhino, or to really drive home the point, how about ramming a spear through a bad guy’s eye socket?

All this and more awaits audiences in the euphorically gory landscape of 300, director Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the award-winning graphic novel by Frank Miller. It’s as distinct from other entries in the genre as Miller’s Sin City is from conventional film noir – and like Sin City, it was created by filming the cast on a bluescreen stage and adding their stark digital environment later.

“Sword-and-sandal movies are never going to be the same, hopefully, after we’re done with them,” says Snyder (2004’s Dawn of the Dead), reiterating the argument that finally sold Warner Bros. on the project despite concerns that Troy and especially Alexander had underperformed. (Of course, it didn’t hurt that Snyder handed the studio brass a two-minute test shot opening with the Warner shield getting speared, and segueing into a 360-degree ballet of cutting-edge ultraviolence.)

The film recounts the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., in which an absurdly shorthanded Spartan detachment – just 300 men – marched to a geographic bottleneck to make a doomed stand against a massive Persian invading force. Miller had been fascinated by the battle since seeing 1962’s The 300 Spartans as a kid; the story and its downbeat ending informed his sensibilities to the point that he even shoehorned a capsule version in to an early Sin City comic. “I’ve loved this story since I was six years old, and was always aching to do it,” says Miller, who poured several years of writing, drawing, and research into 300, originally published in serialized comics form in 1998. Given his creative and intellectual investment, Miller had long been leery of okaying an adaptation. Now, he says, “the way Zack shot it, with the bluescreen and slo-mo and fast motion, it doesn’t feel at all like it’s an old story. When the Spartans go into action, they look like superheroes. In a good way.”

Snyder’s first priority was to capture Miller’s distinctive visuals, which don’t always adhere to physics or logic. To storyboard the movie, the 40-year-old director, who attended art schools as an aspiring painter before turning to film, cut up pages from the graphic novel and expanded on key panels. Sometimes he’d draw the action he imagine coming before and after one of Miller’s pictures; in other cases, he’d take a vertical panel and draw in the margins until it fit movie-frame proportions. But the goal was always, as he describes it, something “Frank-esque.” He recalls how the studio was thrown by an instigating scene in which Gerard Butler, as the Spartan king, Leonidas, coldly (and improbably) kicks a Persian emissary down a gaping well. “They said, ‘Um, the messenger wouldn’t stand that close to the well, would he?’ And I went, ‘In real life, no. But in Frank’s world? Yeah.’ It took them a while to understand that it’s just the material.”

Miller’s hard-rocking interpretation did leave the filmmakers with a quandary: how to lend their protagonists humanity when their demeanor is so, well, Spartan. One answer was to give the material an estrogen injection not found in the graphic novel, in the form of the love story between Leonidas and his queen, Gorgo (played by The Brothers Grimm’s Lena Headey). Still, says Butler (Reign of Fire), “if you really wanted to analyze the Spartans, some people could quite easily describe them as crazy, murdering Nazis. And yet they’re the only heroes of the movie. It was a challenge to be so uncompromisingly, unapologetically badass, and yet allow the audience into your soul.”

Snyder, who’s now in preproduction on the seminal superhero deconstructionist tale Watchmen, didn’t hesitate to play rough on 300. (Chat rooms will no doubt soon be debating which scores higher on the harsh-o-meter – the zombie-baby execution in Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead or the fate awaiting a Spartan child born sickly in 300.) “When anyone at the studio tried to water down the screenplay with a note about, ‘Oh, they can’t throw babies off cliffs, they need to be sympathetic,’ I was like ‘Then let’s not make it,’” he says. “Because the fun of the movie is that for two hours, you get to be a Spartan. No one’s supposed to be that hard-core.”

Thanks to melanieg for typing up the article!


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