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300: Bloodshed made beautiful

Category: 300 News
Article Date: March 7, 2007 | Publication: Times Leader | Author: Amy Longsdorf , Weekender Correspondent

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The violent epic ‘300’ opens this week. The Weekender talks to its star-on-the-verge Gerard Butler about becoming Spartan King Leonidas and laying low in Hollywood.

There are scores of eye-popping special effects in “300,” the latest account of the battle to the finish between 300 Spartans and 1,000 Persian soldiers.

Based on a graphic novel by Frank “Sin City” Miller, the ultra-violent film is fueled by fight scenes full of sword-carrying warriors, charging elephants and bomb-wielding wizards.

Shot in a pumped-up style by Zach Snyder (2004’s “Dawn of the Dead”), “300” was put through a process called “the crush,” in which the color balance was manipulated to give the whole thing a brutal, hyper-realistic glow.

But forget about all that, for a minute. If you go to see “300,” you’re likely to come away awed by one particular piece of eye candy: star Gerard Butler’s washboard abs.

“300” gets a lot of mileage out of those abs. Butler’s Spartan King Leonidas is a man who strides into battle wearing little more than a leather thong and a long, flowing cape. Leonidas, literally, seems to lead with his chest.

“When I went into this film, I was in really bad shape,” insists Butler, 37, best known for playing the title role in “The Phantom of the Opera.” “I had this kind of stomach that, when relaxed, can do an impersonation of John Hurt in `Alien.’ “

“But I made a promise to [Warner Bros. president] Alan Horn personally that if he gave me the role, I would so kick butt that I would make the movie my life - and I did.

“When I started on ‘Phantom,’ I’d never had a singing lesson in my life. It was almost simpler that way. On this I went, ‘What is my big, bang-all task here?’ I made sure that it was all thrown in front of me so I’d have no choice but to just do it.”

Going from zero to hero in less than six months was no easy task. Butler worked-out six days a week, six hours a day. After circuit training with medicine balls and kettlebells, running, rock-climbing and weight-lifting, he’d train alongside the film’s legion of stunt guys.

“We were in this non-air conditioned warehouse in the San Fernando Valley doing all of these military drills,” he recalls. “The floor would be soaking wet with our sweat. “

When filming actually began, Butler estimates he was pumping iron between 10-15 times a day. But before you chalk up Butler’s physical transformation to movie star vanity, consider that he was playing a man who practically made fitness a religion.

“Every workout session, and every bit of pain that I went through made me feel more like a Spartan,” says the Glasgow native. “When I put on that cape, I wanted all of the stunt guys to go, ‘Wow! Look at that!’

“It’s easy for me to be paranoid, especially when you’re an actor playing the lead role, and you’ve seen, to be honest, so many actors with a massive amount of armor on and then little twiggy arms.

“They have these plumy accents, and you think to yourself, ‘You couldn’t fight your way out of a paper bag and you’re commanding armies?’ I wanted to be that guy where my men would look at me and go, ‘Yeah, I would follow that.’ ”

“300” producer Bernie Goldmann was sold on Butler’s appeal after watching him in “Dear Frankie,” a low-budget indie.

“Gerry is so masculine in that movie,” says Goldmann. “He doesn’t have to say very much but he commands your attention. You just want to watch the guy - and that’s what makes someone a king. I looked at ‘Dear Frankie’ and thought, ‘That guy is going places.’ I think people will look back on ‘300’ and think, ‘That’s the movie that made Gerry Butler a star.’ ”

Filmed entirely on soundstages in Montreal, “300” recounts the epic scuffle between King Leonidas’ 300 troops and a massive Persian army led by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro.) Using the geography of Greece against the enemy, Leonidas led his troops to the Hot Gates of Thermopylae, a narrow corridor on the cliffs of the Adriatic, which the Persians had to pass. Instantly, the Spartans had the strategic advantage.

Still, the Spartans couldn’t hope to battle back so many soldiers. Leonidas and his men knew they’d die. But, as author Frank Miller notes, “ the act itself holds more power than the sum of the 300 warriors’ arrows.”

While “Apocalypto” and “Braveheart” might feature gorier deaths, “300” has the distinction of being one of the bloodiest films in Hollywood history.

“The violence is beautifully depicted,” stresses producer Deborah Snyder. “The blood is almost another character. I have a hard time watching the violence in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ but the violence here is operatic and surreal. It’s still a battle and it’s still brutal but it’s all done in a very beautiful way.”

For Butler, the battle scenes were nothing short of endurance tests. At the request of director Zach Snyder, everyone’s prop swords were made out of metal-coated rubber rather than the usual balsa wood.

“Trust me, if you were to hit someone hard enough with that rubber sword, you’d kill them,” say Butler. “You would crack their skull open. But that never happened. We had an amazing stunt team. I can honestly say that pretty much every mistake I made was my own fault.”

Butler did suffer his share of injuries. He snapped his rotator cuff, pulled a hip flexor and sustained dozens of whacks to the head.

“If you look at a film like ‘The Matrix,’ it’s all phenomenal action stuff too, but they cut, cut, cut, cut. A lot of the scenes in this, we did in one, long take. When we put on our full costumes, you couldn’t see our eyes. So, sometimes, I have all of these guys just running at me at full speed, screaming with fury. It was intense stuff, but it was also awesome. “

By now, Butler is an old hand at costume epics. The Scottish actor made a name for himself in America by starring in “Dracula 2000” (2000), the mini-series “Attila” (2001), “Reign of Fire” (2002), “Phantom of the Opera” (2004) and the straight-to-DVD “Beowulf & Grendel” (2005.)

“It’s kind of funny because I actually see myself more as a character actor than a leading man,” he says. “I mean it’s only been by chance that I’ve happened to step off the plane in America and literally walk into playing Attila the Hun.

“For me, it’s been fun to play these roles but also to do smaller films which haven’t stood quite out as much. But I’m just as proud of a film like ‘Dear Frankie’ as I am of `300.’ ”

Over the last couple of years, Butler has managed to keep a low profile in Hollywood. Although he says he just broken off a long-term relationship with a woman, he’s rarely snapped by the paparazzi. If he hits the clubs, he manages to keep it on the down low.

“I haven’t turned into the kind of actor that worried that I might become, which is one who’s out there eating up all the attention,” muses Butler.” I see that around me and it makes me want to vomit. I can’t abide by that. There is a lot of that in L.A. It’s just not my thing.”

At the moment, Butler is hoping to get beyond costume epics with “P.S. I Love You,” a romantic comedy co-starring Hilary Swank. Set to open later this year, the film will show off a gentler side of the actor.

“I feel that very few people have seen what my agents call The Gerry Juice. Without sounding arrogant, it’s the guy who’s just silly and funny rather than this really intense character,” notes Butler.

“Often people meet me and they go, ‘My, God. I didn’t expect you to be so light and easy. I thought you were going to be dark and depressed and that you’d be staring at me with those eyes as if you’d want to kill me.’ I’m probably more like a puppy dog than any kind of ruler. In my life I have no command.”


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