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300 a graphic epic

Category: 300 News
Article Date: March 8, 2007 | Publication: London Free Press (Ontario) | Author: BRUCE KIRKLAND
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The story of the Spartan warriors' bravery in battle is enhanced by technology that gives the film its dark quality.

In 480 B.C., a band of 300 Spartan warriors led by King Leonidas fought to the death while holding back a million-man Persian army under their god-king Xerxes.

The legendary Battle of Thermopylae, staged in the confines of the Gates of Hell and one of the pivotal historical moments for Western civilization and democracy, was transformed into the graphic novel 300 in the 1990s.

The author was Frank Miller, a freak for Spartan culture.

Now, filmmaker Zack Snyder, another Spartan devotee, has transformed Miller's heroic vision into a surreal film. He uses the same thrilling, heightened and stylized approach Robert Rodriguez employed to make Miller's noirish Sin City into a film.

"The film is mythology out of history," says co-writer and director Zack Snyder, best known for re-making Romero's Dawn of the Dead. "I think historians have been obsessed with taking mythology and making it real, and we kind of went the other way."

The film 300 was photographed on a sound stage in Montreal, with only one scene -- Persians messengers thundering toward the camera on horseback -- shot outdoors.

Otherwise, the cast led by Gerard Butler as Leonidas, Lena Headey as his tough queen Gorgo, David Wenham as warrior-storyteller Dilios and Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes, did all their work indoors, in front of blue or green screens.

Everything else, such as scenery, the Sparta cityscape, mountains and cliffs, rampaging rhinos and elephants, Persian ships, an army of one million and more carnage than in the movie Saving Private Ryan, was added digitally.

Yet 300 looks real, in an odd, dreamlike fashion.

"It's the tool of the movie," Snyder says of CGI effects, most of which were done in Quebec as part of the tax incentive that drew the Hollywood filmmakers to Montreal.

After the shoot, Snyder and his crew distressed the celluloid film stock, added dirt and grain, played with colour and took the polish off.

"One of the most important things to me was that the movie didn't look like it was just spit out of computer," Snyder says.

"I wanted the film to feel organic because I feel the book feels dirty. Not in a sexual way, although that would also be great. But it's just gritty. It has a dark quality to it."

The film is sexualized, however. Headey is smoulderingly hot in a scene with Butler.

The Spartans are all ripped, with muscles on their muscles. Like in the homoerotic graphic novel, the men are nearly naked in battle. Real Greek warriors wore heavy armour, but invoking mythology meant he had the freedom to play with body image, Snyder says. So he challenged his actors.

"I was not in great shape when I started training for the film," Butler (from the movie musical Phantom of the Opera) says of his pudge.

"I realized it and, trust me, everybody else did as well."

So Butler went into a Spartan-like training regimen supervised by a former mountain climber. "Mark Twight is this nut job," Butler grouses with a smile.

From June to October, 2006, when filming began, the actors trained together, bearing down to reach a level of physical fitness that is nothing short of phenomenal.

"On Phantom," Butler recalls, "I hadn't had a single singing lesson in my life."

So getting buff for 300 seemed like the same challenge, he says.

"I think it's fear. I operate well with fear and stress, like a Spartan. I think there is a lot of Spartan in me."

Santoro had a different challenge in bringing Xerxes to life. He is an historical figure but the movie makes him into an androgynous giant, a Persian superman.

"Ego trip describes it a little bit," says Santoro. "He is an egomaniac, a self-proclaimed god. Frank Miller's vision. When I first saw the drawings in the comic book, I was literally salivating to do this."

The 300 experience was surreal for the actors even during the shoot. After finishing the final scene -- a field of dead Spartans with severed heads and limbs -- the sweaty actors in their loincloths burst outside their Montreal studio.

"We all stepped out into this blizzard and had a big snowball fight," recalls Snyder. "It was pretty awesome."

It is a mistake to think that 300, Zack Snyder's movie version of Frank Miller's graphic novel about Spartans, is a political commentary on today's world politics.

"Mistake? It think it is." says Snyder, when it's suggested that people might be eager to interpret the film as a metaphor for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- with Americans as the heroes.

"The movie is about an event that took place over 2,000 years ago (480 B.C. to be precise)," says Snyder, adding that, like Miller, he tells that story "from the perspective of Spartans, who are not us!"

Spartans developed a warrior culture that required extraordinary discipline and the search for "a beautiful death," says Snyder. Their regimen included killing unwanted babies and brutally training young boys in battle techniques.

"To assume we are the Spartans . . ." Snyder says, pausing for effect. "You don't throw your babies off cliffs. You don't beat your kids all the time, as much as they deserve it. Although they are cool, Spartans -- supercool -- I just don't think it's a modern aesthetic."

The movie has clues, he says: "Whenever I could, I tried to remind the audience: 'Hello, that's not you! Wake up! It's fun to be with the Spartans but you're not a Spartan!' "


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