It would seem that there’s absolutely no reason for the Phantom from “Phantom of the Opera,” the heartthrob from “Love Actually,” and the director of a “Dawn of the Dead” remake to walk into a room together, except perhaps to begin the kind of joke that movie nerds like to make up in their spare time. Yet somehow, such a meeting happened not once, but many times over several months.
Though lighthearted at times, the result of those meetings—a film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel “300”—can hardly be considered a joke. Amidst scenes of elephants stomping through crowds and bare-chested men throwing each other off cliffs, the movie, a reimagination of the fifth-century B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, also attempts to address issues of duty, reason, and human freedom.
In the process, it brings together filmmakers and actors with vastly different backgrounds, most notably Gerard Butler, a Scottish actor with a history of playing Gothic villains (“Dracula,” “Phantom in the Opera”); Brazilian indie film veteran Rodrigo Santoro, who also played Laura Linney’s love interest in “Love Actually”; and young director Zack Snyder.
Snyder got interested in making “300” into a film several years ago, when he first read Miller’s book. The greatest obstacle, according to the director, was getting studios to agree to produce the movie in the first place. Without a script, he failed to convince anyone to finance “300,” and eventually decided to pursue other projects.
“We went pretty much to every studio at that time and we pretty much got a ‘no’ from everybody,” he says. “Then ‘Dawn of the Dead’ came along and I felt like ‘300’ had stalled, and I went and did ‘Dawn.’ And when I came back from ‘Dawn’ the movie hadn’t really gotten anywhere because no one had been able to do anything with it, so that’s when we wrote the script.”
According to Snyder, the 2005 opening of “Sin City,” also based on a graphic novel by Miller, helped to convince studio officials to commit to the project.
“It was the success of ‘Sin City,’ once it came out, that really probably helped to motivate the studio to say, ‘You know what, that’s cool.’ I also, though, would say I’m not sure that they saw the exact relationship between the two things, though I’m sure they know there’s a very strong relationship between ‘Sin City’ and Frank [Miller] and ‘300’ and Frank and sort of his style and that world.”
INTO THE SPOTLIGHT
Snyder explains his decision to cast lesser-known actors in leading roles as part of a desire to have audiences see the film as an artistic creation rather than a conglomeration of big names.
“We felt like, look, Gerry is amazing and Rodrigo is awesome, but if you put them in sort of the Us Magazine poll of star power, they’d be not as high as a Brad Pitt or a Bruce Willis,” Snyder says. “We didn’t want the movie to pop for you because, oh, there’s Brad Pitt in a loincloth, and I just saw him on the news with Angelina last night. It becomes pop culture dressing itself up as a movie.”
According to Snyder, Butler’s enthusiasm also helped him get cast as Leonidas, the Spartan king who leads a band of 300 men to fight a Persian force of a million. When Butler and Snyder first met in a coffee shop on Los Angeles’s Ventura Boulevard to discuss the script, Butler came with his character already prepared.
“When he showed up, he stomped around the coffee shop and he was acting like Leonidas,” Snyder recalls.
The director shot the film in only 60 days. Because everything was done against a blue or green screen, however, post-production took a year.
Santoro, who portrays Persian king Xerxes, explains that the blue-screen process also presented a unique challenge for cast members, who had little concrete material to interact with while shooting scenes.
“Once you’re there acting, it’s just you and blue walls everywhere. And because Xerxes is so huge, my eye lines had to be so low that many times I was by myself just talking to nowhere, nobody, and just pretending that I was, you know, talking to Leonidas,” he says.
“It’s a great training for an actor to use every cell in your brain to just imagine and really believe that everything’s happening, that you have millions of men behind you,” Santaro says.
Santoro, whose character thinks he is a god and aspires to extend his domain over Sparta, brings perhaps the most unique acting background to the movie. Having done work in films that involve questions of sexuality, most notably playing a transvestite in 2003’s “Carandiru,” Santoro explains that he chose to portray Xerxes as a character whose gender was fundamentally ambiguous.
“I try to not be feminine or masculine,” Santoro says of playing Xerxes. “I try to be asexual in a way, because he’s such a creature. When you see the graphic novel…I just saw something there that was very ambiguous. And I just think that it makes him more interesting.”
For Butler, who played the ultra-masculine Leonidas, the issue of characterization was a simpler one. Butler explains that the bulk of his preparation involved physical training, which he said made him feel like a warrior, regardless of his actual strength.
“In the middle of the film, maybe I couldn’t have kicked a single person’s ass, but I felt like I could have kicked everyone’s ass,” he says. “And I felt like I wanted to as well.”
—Staff writer Marianne F. Kaletzky can be reached at email@example.com.