With Gladiator, Alexander, and Troy, recent Greco-Roman epic films have risen in prominence. At the same time, comic book movies have become a Hollywood staple. The film 300 is the first work to combine the two concepts, retelling the battle of Thermopylae in the style of Frank Miller’s 1998 graphic novel. I was flown into L.A. to interview three of the driving forces behind 300: director Zack Snyder and actors Gerard Butler (Leonidas) and Rodrigo Santoro (Xerxes). Each had a unique perspective on the film, and all three seemed extremely enthusiastic about the product.
Snyder was the first to show up. With the giant tattoos on his arms, he seemed like an extra in a Rob Zombie horror film. Perhaps that was fitting from a director whose debut was the highly successful remake of Dawn of the Dead. Getting 300 made, however, was a different story.
“The biggest difficulty was getting the movie made, first of all,” Snyder mused. “When I first got the book and took it to the studio, we had no script at all. I just was pretty convinced that everyone would think it was as cool as I did. But they said ‘No, we don’t understand it. We need a book with words in it and no pictures.’” After a push by Snyder, based on the success of Dawn of the Dead, he was finally given the go-ahead years after originally pitching the idea.
One obvious influence on 300 is Sin City. Both films were based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels and used blue screen animation. However, Snyder didn’t think the studios saw the films in the same light. “For some reason I don’t know if the studio saw the relationship. I think they said Sin City is more of a noir, a sort of weird comic book movie, and 300 is more of an ancient Greek epic,” Snyder said.
While Gerard Butler gave an impassioned performance as King Leonidas, it was a risky move to cast such a low-profile actor in such a big budget film.
“I met him in a coffee shop,” said Snyder, recalling his first meeting with Butler. “When he showed up, he stomped around the coffee shop and was acting like Leonidas, imitating some of the hand gestures from the book and I thought ‘Wow, that’s pretty awesome.’ I thought the people in the coffee shop looking on were thinking, ‘Looks like he’s got the part.’ He was really the only guy I wanted.”
Snyder actually preferred the lack of big names. “We felt like Gerry’s amazing, and Rodrigo is awesome, but they don’t have the star power of Brad Pitt. But we really felt strong about what the movie would be, and we didn’t want it to pop out with, ‘Oh look, there’s Brad Pitt in a loin cloth.’ It becomes pop culture dressing itself up.”
On a practical level, he also noted that “once we had Gerry, we couldn’t have Gerry as the king and Mel Gibson as the captain.”
I was shocked to see the relatively frail appearance of Rodrigo Santoro after seeing him play a demigod in 300. Santoro noted the larger-than-life nature of Xerxes: “Body language is very important in this film, in this operatic style. We had to do voice work and make my voice lower and lower. Zack said he wanted the movie theater shaking when he heard my voice. Plus because Xerxes was so giant, my eye-lines had to be very low, so I was often staring at nowhere.”
With past performances as the enigmatic designer in Love Actually and a homosexual prison inmate in Canadiru, the role of Xerxes was a welcome new direction for Santoro.
“This was a great opportunity for me to disappear,” Santoro noted. “Especially being Latin, it’s very easy for the market to sell you the way you look. So when you have the chance to play something like Xerxes…when I saw the character in the book, I was salivating. As an actor, to put yourself in that spot, it’s risky. You make a choice and go for it, or you’re in the middle of something you don’t believe.”
Santoro was immediately thrilled by the prospect of working on 300. “When Sin City came out, my friend showed me 300, and I thought ‘Wow, this could be a great film.’” He was also quick to praise his director. “It’s very important for an actor to have a relationship with the director where you know you can say what you think about the character, but at the same time he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s deeply talented.”
By far the most entertaining interview was with Gerard Butler, who, with a thick Scottish accent, sported the same sort of boisterousness that marked his performance as Leonidas. When asked about the training process for the film, Butler quibbled, “I guess no one told you that’s a body suit.”
“Basically, we were in the gym two hours a day, pumping weights, running, and rowing,” Butler said. “But then I got this film guy who trains cage fighters. He’s an intense guy, kind of like ‘Let’s get the kettle bells and run and bang your head against the wall six times.’ You were almost dead by the end of it.”
Leonidas was a challenging role for Butler, as he at once had to be an extremely masculine commander and also show sensitivity when addressing his wife. “You choose your moments,” Butler said. “One glimpse, and the raising of an eyebrow at a certain moment can say so much about a person. This is a masculine, intense guy, and I wanted to show that these 300 men would follow this guy to their death gladly, and yet he never has to say anything.”
The film was shot entirely in front of a blue screen, and Butler noted the awkwardness of staying in character without any sense of setting. “There is a humor to saying, ‘Ha ha, look at you,’ and ‘I’m wearing a bigger cock piece than him.’ We had to laugh at ourselves to get over all these. Yet you had to be so focused to make sure it’s out of your mind.”
As for that coffee shop meeting with Snyder, Butler was more modest. “We had such fun together, we’re both incredibly impassionate. I just knew who Leonidas was, so I started jumping around. We just had a blast. I went out of there thinking, ‘That couldn’t have been as good as I thought it was.’ But then I heard Zack really liked me.”
Butler concluded by noting how exceptional he thought the film turned out. “I’m really happy with what I did, but what [Snyder] did just blows me the hell away. Not just that in the look of it, but to not make any of it gratuitous and put it together and have a film with great pacing and great performances. He has really made it work on every level, seemingly without any effort.”