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Audacious director redefines the epic battle

Category: 300 News
Article Date: March 11, 2007 | Publication: USA Today | Author: SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA

Posted by: maryp

"300" retells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae. After a seven-month training regimen to get the Spartan look, Butler said, "I felt like a lion. I felt like a killer. I felt like a leader ferocious enough to take on such an army."

Few modern men can look into the face of death and gladly accept their fate. Except maybe those masochistic bozos from the "Jackass" movies.

But in 480 B.C., an elite band of 300 lean, mean Spartans faced off against hordes of Persian soldiers at the battle of Thermopylae, knowing that certain slaughter awaited them. They lost their lives but scored a moral victory for freedom that resounds to this day.

Leading the charge at what is known as the Greek Alamo was King Leonidas, whose headstrong valor and unwavering discipline to his culture's militaristic code is captured in all its glory in "300." The mind-blowing ballet of R-rated butchery, beefcake and bombast rumbled into theaters last week.

The $60-million-plus epic starring Gerard Butler also will play at Imax theaters (including the one in King of Prussia, Pa.), and for good reason. The History Channel this is not. The surreal ode to extreme combat is part Fellini freak show, part "Lord of the Rings"-style blood fest. It's all an adrenaline rush, stoked by the occasional heavy-metal power chord.

The moody skyscapes are inspired by the illustrations in Frank Miller's 1998 graphic novel.

The movie might just do for Hollywood's ailing epic genre, which has been wounded by the unsatisfying likes of "Troy" and "Alexander," what the Spartans did for war: Turn the thrill of the kill into high art.

Standing behind the camera is a man with nearly as much confidence in his vision as Leonidas himself. Director Zack Snyder, who at age 41 could pass for 21 in his trendy sneaks and camo hoodie, is much shorter and slighter than Butler, the stately Scot who was behind the mask in 2004's "Phantom of the Opera."

To play the legendary Spartan, the actor underwent a grueling training regimen for about seven months, often for six hours a day, to achieve the necessary he-man physique.

"I felt like a lion. I felt like a killer," Butler says. "I felt like a leader ferocious enough to take on such an army."

But Snyder, who got his start with commercials (he did the Budweiser ad with the gridiron Clydesdales), is no less a mighty warrior when it comes to taking on challenges.

He, too, relishes an opportunity that might scare off lesser mortals -- such as his 2004 remake of the 1978 horror classic "Dawn of the Dead," which helped to feed a new zombie-flick frenzy.

A first-time filmmaker, Snyder had the audacity to turbo-charge George A. Romero's stumbling flesh eaters into meat-seeking missiles. He also blew off the threats he received from diehard fans of the original.

"They would say, 'Who do you think you are? You can't remake this movie. George Romero is God. I'm going to kill you if I see you.' " Did he freak out? "No. They all ended up loving the movie."

With "300," which Snyder tried to get off the ground before he did "Dawn," it was the studios that initially balked.

"No one was really interested in making it into a movie. They just didn't get it. It was late 2002, and 'Troy' was just in preproduction. They had Brad Pitt. They had everything they needed," he says.

But after the surprise success of "Dawn," Snyder acquired the necessary industry muscle to sell his pitch. The popularity of "Sin City," Robert Rodriguez's 2005 digital noir rendering of another Miller graphic novel, didn't hurt.

The onetime art major also was able to share his stylized imaginings in the form of storyboards he sketched himself, which would eventually be re-created on Montreal soundstages and on the computer screens at 10 visual effects companies in four countries.

His actors were duly impressed.

"Zack is a lovely guy who also happens to be kind of a genius," says Lena Headey, the British actress who brings strong-willed Spartan queen Gorgo to life. "He has such great energy and is committed to his belief. He doesn't give in to pressure."

So were the execs.

"The movie is all about Zack Snyder," says Jeff Robinov, head of production for Warner Bros., which by all rights should have been less than enthusiastic to back "300" after releasing "Troy" and "Alexander." "Until he showed us his storyboards, I had no idea what the movie was. We already had our share of sword-and-sandal movies. Another one was not an obvious choice.


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