LOS ANGELES -- 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.
This now-legendary Battle of Thermopylae, staged in the confines of the Gates of Hell and one of the pivotal historical moments for Western civilization, was transformed into a 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 remaking George A. 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 kickass queen Gorgo, David Wenham as warrior-storyteller Dilios and Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes, did all its work inside 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 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 a computer," Synder 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 smoldering hot in a copulation 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," Scotsman 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.
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 remembers, "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."
300 is about Spartans, and you are NOT a Spartan
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 Sun Media suggests 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.
Although (Spartans) are super cool, 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!' "