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.