"It's mythology out of history," director Zack Snyder says of his blood-soaked, steroid-driven adaptation of Frank Miller's award-winning graphic novel 300. Set in 480 B.C., it recounts the real-life Battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartan warriors -- basically the Klingons of Ancient Greece -- held off an army of 1 million Persians for three days before eventually being defeated. Their sacrifice inspired the rest of Greece to unify into Western civilization's first great democracy.
"Someone said the other day, 'You know that Spartans really wore this heavy armor at the Battle of Thermopylae,' " Snyder says, chuckling. "And I'm like, 'Oh really? So you were there? Well, do you know the statue of Leonidas at Thermopylae is naked?' And he's like, 'Oh, well that's a statue.' "
Snyder shrugs. "In some ways, my movie is probably closer to that statue than some time-machine version of this event. It was sort of my philosophy: If a Spartan was telling you the story of the Battle of Thermopylae around the fire a year after it happened, what would his version be?"
Snyder understands the balance between reality and mythology and renders the movie using a technique much like Sin City's (also based on a Miller graphic novel), except in full-color here so that the exaggerated, stylized carnage takes on an almost poetic beauty while still remaining in the historical ballpark.
A lot of this is a credit to Miller's work, but just as much is due to the actors -- led by Gerard Butler as King Leonidas -- who transformed their bodies into muscle-bound machines and delved into their roles so passionately that it's hard not to leave the theater wanting to become a Spartan or cut off a few Persian heads of your own.
Butler is a loud, mirthful Scotsman who loves to laugh and gesticulate enthusiastically as he talks -- especially when talking about 300. He endured several months of training, up to six hours a day, to prepare for the movie; in fact, he continued pumping iron all the way through the production.
"I always wanted to get bigger," he says in his heavy brogue. "This is where I departed slightly from Zack and the producer's POV of just sticking with (the cardiovascular and endurance training). I think I knew that the king had to be this bigger persona. If you look at the graphic novel, there's just something big about him in every way -- that beard, the braid, the helmet he has. So I trained with a body builder here and then a body builder in Montreal.
"That didn't just make me look better, I felt better. I felt strong. When I got into that kind of mind conditioning and that focus, it gave me such confidence that I felt like a lion, like I could take on an army. I might not have been able to kick one person's ass, but I felt like I could kick everybody's ass -- and I felt like I wanted to."
Butler's commitment to Miller's interpretation of Leonidas drove him to these fanatical lengths and, though he admits to looking at historical texts for some outside research and even watching The 300 Spartans (the 1962 feature film that inspired Miller to become a storyteller), he remains fiercely loyal to the source material -- as loyal as a Spartan to the idea of a man's right to live free.
"The graphic novel is where it's at," he says. "The drawings, the tone, the dialogue, that's the world we're dealing with. I find that you can use a lot of history, but it only affects subtle parts of your performance. Because if it takes a larger part, it only complicates the larger story the graphic novel is trying to tell."
Those drawings Butler references, as well as the dialogue, survived the translation to movie, or at least 90 percent of it did Snyder insists. The tone was made possible by filming almost entirely in controlled, artificial environments and then using computers to imagine ancient Greece. In this way, whole scenes from Miller's graphic novel are re-created, often frame by frame.
"The first thing to note about the CGI is that it's the tool of the movie," Snyder points out. "We didn't set out to do a blue-screen movie. It just happened to be the (best) way to do it."
Butler dismisses those who naysay this new style of filmmaking.
"I always try to say, 'It's a whole new way of acting. Let's just dig it rather than bitch about it.' At some point, yeah, you think, 'OK, this is a little weird. I'm surrounded by blue screen.' But then you think, is it so important since (Leonidas') power came so much from inside and dealing with the people right in front of him? To me, as a king, it wouldn't matter if there were the mountains of Sparta behind me or a curtain, I'm talking to you. You've got to learn to trust in that.
"The cool thing about it is when you finally see the film. I'm like, 'Oh, wow, that looks awwwesome. I didn't realize that was going to look like that.' "
So awesome, in fact, that Snyder says Miller is a devout fan.
"When I showed him the movie, he said, 'That's the movie I wanted to see when I saw the original The 300 Spartans. That movie changed my life and, if I had seen this one, who knows how fucked up I'd be now?' " �
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