Note: This article includes details about the legendary tale told by Frank Miller in his graphic novel and in the film "300." These events are central to the film's plot and its ending.
In 480 B.C., a small army of 300 Spartan warriors led by King Leonidas held off 100,000 Persian invaders under the command of King Xerxes at a narrow canyon called Thermopylae. Twenty-four centuries later, the story author and illustrator Frank Miller captured so vividly in his 1999 graphic novel has been realized on screen as "300" by director Zack Snyder—a Herculean task that would have been impossible without a modern-day army of artists, technicians, stunt people and trainers.
In this article, we’ll look at how the movie came from a graphic novel to the big screen, the casting of the major characters, the logistics of filming, separating the myth from history and bulking up for the dynamic fight scenes.
“When I was a little kid I saw a film version of the story, a much tamer one. The story has haunted me ever since,” recalls Frank Miller. “It defined everything a hero was. I told myself, ‘When I’m good enough I’m going to do this story.’ I never intended it for a movie. But I was impressed by Zack’s enthusiasm for it.”
Snyder, a commercials director about to start shooting his debut feature "Dawn of the Dead," got over his fan-boy nerves about meeting Miller and clicked with the author when they met. “We had a lot of the same esthetic and ideas and next thing we knew we were meeting with Warner Bros.” One problem: the studio had already produced two sword-and-sandal epics, "Troy" and "Alexander." “But to their credit,” adds Snyder, “they thought Frank’s perspective compared to the Hollywood sort of epic might be worth doing, and [supported] my passion for it.”
Using Miller’s graphic novel as his bible, Snyder shot some test footage that brought the visual style in focus for the studio. As for the script, adapting Miller’s work proved “incredibly intimidating” for big fan Kurt Johnstad, the screenplay’s co-author (with Snyder). “He’s the Holy Grail of that world and we were very aware of that,” says Johnstad, who held his breath until Miller gave the script his thumbs up.
In translating "300" to the screen, Snyder’s mandate from the studio, according to producer Bernie Goldmann, was “to create a world that you hadn’t seen before, to reinvent the epic movie and do it much less expensively,” about a third of the cost of "Troy" and "Alexander," and that meant no big, marquee names. In the next section, we'll look at the casting of Leonidas, the leader of the Spartans, and Xerxes, the Persian king who claims to be a god.
Casting Leonidas and Xerxes
Gerard Butler makes a commanding leader as Leonidas, and in fact once played another ancient-world warrior, Attila the Hun, in a 2001 TV movie. But nothing in his diverse resume, including "Dracula," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Timeline," sold Snyder on the 37-year-old Glasgow native except an in-person meeting.
However, producer Goldmann was mesmerized by Butler’s on-screen presence in 2004’s Dear Frankie. “He’s somebody that you just want to watch, and that’s what makes someone a king—that presence, that ability to hold a room. I think people will look back at 300 and say, ‘That’s the movie that made Gerry Butler a star.’”
Butler, who in real life says he’d “probably be more likened to a puppy dog than any kind of ruler,” jumped at the chance to play Leonidas after reading the script and getting a peek at Snyder’s test clip. “It blew me away. And this was such a cool and kick-ass character to play. The film works on so many levels,” he says. “It's a great story and on the one hand it's informative, but on the other hand it is so cool and visually beautiful while being emotionally powerful and inspirational."
In hindsight, however, “If I thought about what I was about to put myself through, I’d have said, ‘Tell them I’m not interested!’” Butler jokes. He and the otherwise mostly English cast underwent rigorous training to prepare for the movie, but more on that later.
Rodrigo Santoro, a Brazilian actor, was chosen to play the imposing, Persian ruler Xerxes. Historical depictions of Xerxes with a wavy beard and tall hat went out the window in favor of the scary shaven, pierced and chain-covered creature in Miller’s graphic novel, with an otherworldly voice to match.
“Zack told me he wanted the movie theater shaking, so he asked me to speak in as low a register as possible, and he would enhance my voice in the computer to make it echo,” says Santoro. “I tried to portray him as not human. He’s a creature. He’s an entity. So that voice fits, filling the room, together with 7 feet tall and all that.” (He’s actually 6’3”.)
Invited to audition for "300" by Gianni Nunnari, who was familiar with his Brazilian films, Santoro sent in a tape because he was playing Don Quixote in a film at the time, and had lost nearly 40 pounds to do so. “I had to be very fragile and very, very skinny,” he explains, so he had to convince Snyder that he could bulk up to do justice to Xerxes, and did so with workouts and a high protein diet. “I didn’t want to be muscled up, but I had to be this giant figure. Also I had to work with my body to find the right language for this god-king.”
Santoro researched Heroditas’ historical accounts to find that Xerxes was a vain, unstable megalomaniac, but also insecure, weak and scared. “I don’t think he’s evil,” says the 31-year-old Rio de Janeiro native, best known in America for films like "Love Actually" and "Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle," a Chanel commercial with Nicole Kidman and, most recently, playing Paulo on "Lost."
While he agreed to wax and shave off his body hair, a process that gave him new respect for women, he drew the line at shaving his eyebrows, which were instead covered by latex, as were other parts of his face to accommodate several piercings. “I shaved my own head,” adds Santoro, calling it a “freeing experience. I felt like this amphibious creature. It helped me with the character.”
So did getting into makeup and costume, a five-hour process. The chain-laden outfit was “heavy enough to feel the weight of it but I think also it was part of that character—a self-proclaimed god who believed that he really was above everything and everyone on planet earth.”
We'll look at the film's location and its special effects in the next section.
The Blue Screen and Visual Effects
Heading north of the border to save money on production costs and take advantage of good crews and proximity to the visual effects house Hybrid, the movie was “shot it in Montreal, which I know instantaneously brings to mind ancient Greece for a lot of people, with the harsh winters and French and all that,” quips Snyder, noting that his 61-day shoot finished on schedule in January 2006.
With a couple of minor exceptions, the entire film was shot indoors, against a blue screen. Cinematographer Larry Fong devised an efficient method combining overhead and key lighting that made for faster, more efficient shooting — it allowed the perspective to change by turning the simply reversing the lighting: all lights were pre-mounted, so it was a matter of flipping a switch and then some tweaks. Because all the backgrounds were added later, neither the camera nor the actors had to move. This disoriented actors, “because they didn’t know where they were half the time, but because it was so physical, they eventually forgot about the blue screen,” notes Snyder.
Chris Watts, the Visual Effect Supervisor over a department of 17, and another 500 artists working in graphics facilities around the world, faced the challenge of creating a three-dimensional version of Miller’s world and adding elements that weren’t in his novel that would remain true to it. “They say that art is never finished, it’s expanded, and there’s definitely a huge element of that in this movie. I’ve done a lot of movies with a lot of shots and a lot of movies with difficult shots but had never done a movie with twice as many shots that were difficult,” states Watts, whose credits include Gattaca, Waterworld, The Day After Tomorrow, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Corpse Bride, The Fog and Pleasantville.
Watts, one of the first hired on the film and the last to leave when post-production was completed in January 2007, dealt with the logistics of 1300 effects shots and the limitations of shooting an epic on a soundstage. “In the battle scenes, if you wanted to have someone walking from far away right up to the camera, you couldn’t actually put them far enough away—there wasn’t enough stage space for the amount of time they’d be walking to cover the necessary distance,” Watts explains. “So we’d shoot elements and delay them in time and filled up the back space with CG people. We had hundreds of shots of digital people and even more with real people composited in, because we couldn’t afford digital people in every shot. You try to do things as efficiently as possible because there’s always something that comes up that you’re not expecting and you don’t want to have to say no to a director.”
“On "Pleasantville," we had one terabyte of disc space for the whole thing. Now I have 16 terabytes on my desktop. We’re an all-Mac department and I have 15 G5s. Most of the compositing is done on Shake or Inferno,” says Watts, who needed that capacity to handle elements like fake water. “I shot a little bit of ocean off the Santa Monica Pier and we used that for two shots but most of it was digital water.” A German company, Scanline, digitally created all the elements of a scene showing Persian boats crashing against rocks. For another scene, depicting a burning village, “We shot one burning building from a lot of angles and smoke and put that together in an amazing sequence.”
Scenes involving horses were particularly complicated. “In the first battle scene,” Watts relates, “we had the riders ride the horses up to the edge of the blue screen and skid to a stop. That was a challenge we got around through clever editing and a convincing backdrop.” But the Persian messenger‘s ride over the hill to Sparta actually had to be shot outdoors. “We couldn’t get the horses running fast enough [otherwise],” says Snyder. He was intent on having a real feel to "300" despite the artificial setting. “I didn’t want the movie to look like it was made in a computer, like 'Polar Express.' The movie was shot on film. We added grain and lens flares because I wanted it to feel rough. It’s very organic-feeling.”
With spurting showers of blood and no less than three decapitations, 300 earned an R rating for its stylized violence, described by producer Deborah Snyder, the director’s wife, as a “ballet of death.”
But according to Watts, “ We shot with very little actual blood because we had a limited production schedule and shooting with blood can really multiply your shooting time by a lot, and we didn’t want to have a lot of photorealistic blood in the movie—it would have gotten us an NC-17. So [Grant Freckleton, the VFX art director] designed what we call 2-D blood: we splattered coffee onto napkins, photographed it and did some digital processes on it. We shot a lot of blood as elements against blue screen to comp in but we used very little of it because at the end of the day the 2-D blood looked a lot more like the comic book and we could use a lot more of it without agitating the ratings board. The makeup people kept asking me when we were going to use blood. They had gallons of fake blood but we never used it.”
On set, Watts coordinated with the set design and costume departments to prevent problems. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson “showed me one particular fabric that was beautiful but when you bent it, it developed this blue sheen on the edges so we got rid of it. It wouldn’t have worked against the blue screen.”
Blue screen, rather than green, was chosen for several reasons. “We have a lot of red in the movie, and sometimes when you have saturated red on a green screen you often have edge problems, where you get a yellow edge. It has to do with the way light travels through film and interacts with the emulsion layers,” explains Watts. “Also, the amount of light that bounces back off a blue screen vs. a green screen is different. The green bounces back a little more light, and we would have ended up with screens that were a little brighter than I like to shoot them. Some say that the color of the spills that come off a blue screen are less objectionable than those that come off a green screen.”
Whatever the background color, it took some getting used to for the actors. “You need every bit of your brain that you can use to imagine because there’s nothing around, just blue walls. You have to imagine with full concentration,” offers Santoro.
We'll look at the task of costuming the heroes as well as the original myth of the Spartans in the next section.
The Myth and the Legend
“I didn’t think having three hundred slow moving guys in skirts would be as cool as naked guys running with red capes,” Miller explains his choice of Spartan regalia. But full-frontal nudity was not an option for the film.
Warner Bros. “barely let me put them in the outfits they’re in. They wanted them way more clothed,” says Snyder, revealing that he received more notes about that, and details like the length of Leonidas’ beard, than about the film’s violence.
Familiar with the graphic novel, Gerard Butler was prepared for the semi-nudity, but that flowing cape took some getting used to. He tripped more than once. “We all did. Someone would be standing on your cape and you don't know it and then you go to walk and you get pulled back by the neck,” he relates.
As for the Persian army’s elite Immortals, “They [look] like ninjas because Frank loves Japanese art,” Snyder sums up. For him and for Miller, cool visuals and the spirit of the legend were more important than historical accuracy.
“Taking liberties and making the story more abstract falls into historic tradition. Read Heroditas and you’ll see some exaggeration,” says Miller. Along those lines, the prose in his novel becomes the film’s narration by Dilios (David Wenham, The Lord of the Rings’ Faramir), who lives to tell the tale because Leonidas sends him home. “He wasn’t at the battle. But he describes this final confrontation between Xerxes and Leonidas in vivid detail,” Snyder points out. He also invented Leonidas’ wife Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), as a way of “reminding the audience of what was happening back in Sparta.”
While the modern location of Thermopylae is a highway intersection, the movie’s representation approximates its ancient incarnation, with “an ocean on one side and a very narrow mountain pass on the other. The reason why the Spartans went there was at some point the Persian army was going to have to turn inward and this was the traditional place where they did it,” Snyder points out.
“We did look at a lot of art work and pictorial representation of what people wore and what weapons they used and how they fought, but nobody really knows if that’s true or not. There’s no pictorial record of what happened,” reminds Chris Watts. “But we were much more interested in it being a movie version of the comic book than we were in a movie version of history. This is about making Frank’s and Zack’s vision.”
Next, we'll look at how the actors got into shape.
Getting Into Shape
Zack Snyder's vision involved turning lazy, doughy actors into fierce-looking fighters with six-packs for armor, a transformation that took months of grueling physical conditioning--not computer magic. “There is a little bit of makeup,” concedes Snyder, “but 99 percent of it was sweat. The bodies are all theirs.”
Embarking on "300" in “really bad shape,” Gerard Butler began working with a personal trainer three months before the official pre-production training sessions began, working two hours a day, six days a week with weights, cardio, running and circuit training.
“I wanted to be that guy where my men would look at me and go, ‘Yeah, I would follow that.' And the audience would look at Leonidas and go, ‘I can see why they would follow that.' And I would be feeling like, 'Of course they're going to follow me.' I wanted to see that in their eyes when I was speaking to them.”
“I had the guys train really hard,” acknowledges Snyder, who hired mountain climber and trainer Mark Twight to condition the actors and stuntmen as he does the military operatives, pro martial artists and endurance athletes at his private gym in Utah. “Zack wanted me to turn them into a gang that had been fighting together since they were children and have that come across on camera,” notes Twight.
“They needed to interact and share some suffering to understand what being a Spartan was all about. Obviously they had to look good because their main costume was leather underpants and a red cape. Whatever we made them look like was going to be their costume. But the look was a by-product. We trained for actual physical and psychological capacity.”
Twight worked with Butler and the stunt team in Los Angeles, “and then we had seven weeks of fight training and physical conditioning before they rolled film.” Using rowing machines and basic equipment like barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls and kettle bells, Twight would put the men through circuit and tag team workouts.
“One guy has to drag a tire 50 meters; another guy does pull ups on the rings until the drag is finished. One round means every guy has rotated through every station one time and the idea is to do five rounds.” They were timed, and “sometimes there were penalties—holding a squat position up to full extension with weights, or maybe a 50-meter lunge. Something painful.”
Adding to the torture, Twight put his charges on a calorie-restricted diet, “which is why they look all sinewy and ropy—it’s all muscle and there’s no fat there.” The diet “was 30 percent protein, 40 percent complex carbohydrates, 30 percent fat; some people got more or less food, depending on what needed to happen.”
Vincent Regan, who plays Captain, “needed to lose 40 pounds,” Twight relates. “He came to us weighing 210. Eight weeks later he was 170 and could dead-lift 355 pounds. He was absolutely dedicated to the program, and did extra on his own time. After being in Montreal for a month he went to pick his wife up at the airport and she didn’t recognize him.”
Butler was into it too, working out constantly on the set between takes. “I was probably pumping between ten and fifteen times a day, sometimes before every shot. The more you trained the more that you wanted to train because the more you appreciated it. Every session that I did, every bit of pain that I went through, the more I felt like a Spartan and the more that I would push myself."
He has the scars to show for it. “I had tendonitis in almost every part of my body. I had a bad injury in my forearm, which still comes up if I go back into the gym. I had a rotator cuff injury. I pulled my hip flexor,” Butler enumerates. But no one was seriously injured on the shoot—rather miraculous considering the perils of hand-to-hand combat. Fight choreographers and stunt coordinators Damon Caro and Chad Stahelski prepared the team for battle. We'll see how next.
Stunts and Fight Choreography
“You have to get 50 guys who don’t know each other to work together including guys who never touched a sword in their lives,” Stahelski begins. “To get them all to the quality level that the director is looking for and make it all work—it all goes back to preparation and training.” He, Caro, and 10 stuntmen they brought from Los Angeles, supplemented by 35 to 40 from Montreal, formed the battle corps.
“These are supposed to be the elite 300 Spartans,” Caro reminds. “What are you gonna do, get six great Spartans and a bunch of extras that can’t pick up a sword? We made it look like there are 300 real Spartans there.”
Gerard Butler and David Wenham came into "300" with a bit of sword-handling experience, “but we changed everything so they had to start from scratch,” notes Caro, who’d previously worked with Snyder on Dawn of the Dead. He and Stahelski based their choreography on research and experience with fighting styles and weaponry.
“It’s well known that they fought as a unit, and we implemented the tactics that they used. There are no historical records, but we understand what they might have done in combat,” Caro explains. “We didn’t just throw a bunch of moves together. There is a method to the madness,” adds Stahelski. “We took a little liberty to make it cinematically attractive. But there’s military strategic detail built into it.”
Friends for nearly 20 years who met at a martial arts gym in Los Angeles, the pair—with third partner Dave Leitch, a frequent stunt double for Matt Damon and Brad Pitt—now run 87eleven, a stunts/fight/action training facility where they train actors and stuntmen on gymnastic, acrobatic and cross-training apparatuses of all kinds. Butler worked out there prior to filming, as did the stunt crew, and continued for five weeks prior to the shoot in Montreal.
“At 9 a.m. we’d do two solid hours of martial arts and sword work with the stunt people and the actors would come in for another two to four hours, and after lunch the actors would work with Mark Twight,” outlines Stahelski. “It was a full eight-hour day.”
The results are apparent on screen, which Stahelski attributes to the performers’ commitment at the gym and discipline at the table. “They got in great shape. They’d have a cheat meal maybe once a month, but they were so good,” he says. “No one really cheated until the wrap party.”
With the buzz on "300" ringing loudly in Hollywood before its release, producer Mark Canton expects others to jump on the bandwagon, “asking how they can make movies like "300" practical and audacious at the same time.” Chris Watts has already fielded calls along those lines, a proposition that scares him. “People will want to make movies in the style of '300' but for less money and in half the time. I don’t think I’d jump on it just because it was going to be made like this,” he says, although he’d gladly work with Snyder again.
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