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On a low budget, with a cut-price cast and an oven-ready graphic novel script

Category: 300 News
Article Date: March 4, 2007 | Publication: Sunday Times (London) | Author: Jeff Dawson

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On a low budget, with a cut-price cast and an oven-ready graphic-novel script, 300 is the tale of a blockbuster battle that's framing the future of the action movie, says Jeff Dawson

Back in 480BC, on the cliffs of Thermopylae, it's unlikely that the band of Spartans repelling the Persian hordes thought of anything beyond slicing off a few heads, a quick bit of boy love and perhaps a kebab on the way home. Time has elevated their sacrifice, which ultimately saved the Greek city states from conquest, into a defining moment for western freedom. Civilisation v barbarism; democracy v tyranny; Europe fending off the Middle East: themes especially pertinent today. "It really must have been kind of a wonder," muses the celebrated graphic artist Frank Miller. "Huge forces were massed, and with such focus, that you could take one three-day battle and draw from it a tapestry for the forces that have shaped the world ever since." "Thank Thermopylae for your Starbucks," adds the director, Zack Snyder, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Nowhere have King Leonidas's warriors been more celebrated than in Hollywood.

Post-Spartacus, 45 years ago, when the cycle of sword-and-sandals epics had begun to flag at the box office, along came The 300 Spartans, starring Richard Egan, to stage an impressive last stand for the genre. Itself a cold-war allegory, it inspired Miller's cult 1998 graphic novel 300. "I saw the film when I was five," he recalls. "I was just astounded. As I realised, towards the end, that the heroes were actually going to die, I remember asking my dad, and him shaking his head sadly and saying, 'I'm afraid so, son.' I have always loved heroes, and this redefines them. People who were willing to sacrifice every last thing they had in order to do the right thing." Fast- forward to the present day, with the modern phalanx of toga flicks trudging into oblivion, and those doughty Greeks have been recalled to mount a heroic rearguard.

This month sees the release of 300, the movie -Snyder's version of Miller's book.

It was filmed with live actors before a blue-screen, computer-generated background, in much the same way that Miller's Sin City was shot a couple of years ago, though on a much broader canvas. The effect is a faithful visual replication of the artist's work.

"Nobody wanted to make it: they thought I was crazy," says Snyder, detailing his seven-year mission to bring his project to life. But the existence of films such as Gladiator, Troy and Kingdom of Heaven did at least allow his backers to get their head round the concept. "I said that my movie was a reinvention of the genre. The well is dry, the bucket is on the ground, but maybe if we throw a grenade down there..."

Appraisal of the film can be left to the critics, though a good reaction at the recent Berlin film festival augurs well. There's the sheer scale -the million-strong Persian army is beyond anything Cecil B DeMille could possibly have envisaged. And never, it seems, have decapitation and limb-lopping been so lovingly rendered; never with such grace have so many elephants been pushed off cliff tops, charging rhinos slaughtered or mountains of dead bodies stacked up.

("I'm sick," Snyder concedes.) Standing sure against the slings and arrows is the Scotsman Gerard Butler as Leonidas, bearded and booming like Brian Blessed, eager for his soldiers to secure their heroic "beautiful death". "The coolest thing is that you find yourself on the side of the Spartans," chuckles Snyder, "and they're insane."

You can hear the historians rattling their teacups. Just as Dawn of the Dead, Snyder's debut, was a knowing homage to the cult 1978 zombie original, here Snyder's duty is more to movie convention than to Herodotus. The Spartans are largely British actors, such as Lena Headey (Queen Gorgo) and Dominic West (the senator Theron). "It was a concession I made to the audience. The movie would be bizarre-looking, so they needed a frame of reference." The Persian king, Xerxes, becomes a 10ft man god, wallowing in some kind of S&M mutant sex tent. Snyder has also forgone the heavy Spartan body armour for a half-naked, homoerotic, ab-crunched buffness, making Leonidas's troops resemble a sort of Chippendales SAS. Even Hot Gates, the name of the mountain pass the Spartans defend, sounds like some kind of questionable night-club. "Someone said to me, 'Is this film pro-gay or pro-NRA?'"

Snyder laughs. "I said, 'NRA, like the gun lobby?' There are no guns in the film, though that would have been awesome."

Snyder, 41, a fast-talking cineaste straight out of the Tarantino mould, may find that his most notable achievement is his working method. The film was shot with a relatively small cast and on only three sets, all done in a tiny studio in Montreal over a tough, but brief, 60 days. Most of the 1,500 effects shots were tweaked on nothing more than your humble Mac. "Is this the future of cinema?"

Snyder asks, pointing to films such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars series, all of which used extensive CG backgrounds. "Putting someone in front of a green screen or blue screen is not revolutionary -your TV weatherman has the same technology. It's really just how we used it." But with a budget of $63m (half that for the flop Alexander), and no big stars to underwrite, the Wagnerian ambition comes at a knockdown price.

Miller loves what Snyder has done with his book. "I think it's remarkable. With Sin City and 300, a kind of hybrid film is emerging. I love the energy animation can provide. And to have that mashed with the visceral impact of actors makes for quite a combination." He should know what he's talking about. A celebrated graphic artist of 30 years' standing, his works have been much sought after by the film world, including his Dark Knight Returns (the inspiration for relaunching the Batman franchise in the late 1980s), RoboCop and Daredevil. He co-directed the noirish Sin City with Robert Rodriguez, and two further instalments are on their way.

The use of the graphic novel as a source material for film-makers is not a new phenomenon, but the adaptation of Sin City and 300 so literally for the silver screen -something tried with Dick Tracy in 1990 and dabbled with in the odd film by Richard Linklater (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly) -is perhaps proof that the art form can now be transposed in all its raw glory. "You might regard it as a long, abusive affair that has turned into a marriage," Miller ponders.

"It used to be that comic books were strip-mined: the source material would be tossed over the shoulder. The name would be kept, but the movie might as well have been a mockery of the comic book. It's about time my craft came out of the wild and took its place alongside other art forms."

The definition of a graphic novel is itself a contentious one. "It just came to mean 'expensive comic book'," says Alan Moore, Miller's rival as king of the ink, whose The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell and V for Vendetta have all been given the big-screen treatment. (Miller himself is quite comfortable with "comic book".) In the past five years, backed by internet buzz, a new chic and the increasing fascination with Japanese manga, the graphic-novel market has quadrupled to be worth $640m. It's a figure Hollywood cannot ignore. Sin City made a $120m profit at the global box office (12 times the return on Alexander, and it was filmed at a quarter of the cost). Hopes are high for a good margin on 300. And when you can pitch a story in pre-storyboarded form to a studio exec and guarantee an audience to boot, it doesn't take much for the sound of cash registers to start ker-chinging. "We've been beat up by Superman and Batman long enough," Snyder quips.

Although both men expect a lot more graphic-novel adaptations in the future, Snyder cautions that their very nature means they will never be embraced fully by the mainstream. "Hollywood has been really interested in the comic book from a character standpoint -superheroes," he says. "The character is marketable and interesting, but they can still frame them in a Hollywood movie. Graphic novels dictate too much. Hollywood doesn't like that. It doesn't want to be told what the movie looks like, what the actors look like." Or that it must retain the often R-rated content. But for that reason, they will remain, healthy and undiluted, on the outside.

Not all appreciate the trend. Fans of the graphic novel often cite The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film as a particularly poor adaptation; and Moore had his name removed from the credits of V for Vendetta in disapproval. But even movie tie-ins can benefit sales of the original book: Miller's 300 is already back in the Amazon Top 30.

"Oh yeah," he purrs. "It's doing great."

Maybe there's just something about the freedom of the form, the sheer abstractness of it all. With the forthcoming Bonesaw, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Torso (furthering the adventures of The Untouchables' Eliot Ness) in the pipeline, not to mention Snyder's planned version of Moore's Watchmen, previously deemed unfilmable, there's certainly no shortage of directors willing to have a crack at further translations. "If you wanted 300 to look like stone-cold reality, then you'd be in big trouble," Snyder says. "In some ways, with a graphic novel, you can get away with anything. The cool thing, to me, is that if you have the right material, then it really does open up the world to you."

It will be interesting to see how it fares against more conventional opposition.

Two rival Spartan movies, including Michael Mann's Gates of Fire, are already in the works.

300 is released on March 23; Bryan Appleyard on the boom in graphic novels, page 6

LOAD-DATE: March 4, 2007


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