Writer-director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) creates one of the most artistically beautiful films of the decade with 300, based on Frank Miller's graphic novel and starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro and David Wenham. Snyder stuck closely to the source material when adapting Miller's work for the big screen, including scenes in his film that look as though they've been lifted straight from the graphic novel.
The Origin Story: 300 deals primarily with the mythology surrounding the Battle of Thermopylae rather than sticking with history. “Absolutely. I’d say 300 is a movie that is made from the Spartan perspective. Not just from the Spartan perspective, the cameras are the Spartans, but it’s the Spartans sensibility of the Battle of Thermopylae. If you had Spartans sitting around a fire and they were telling you before anything was written down what happened at Thermopylae, this is the way they would tell it. It’s not necessarily down to the fact that they don’t have armor on. Everything about it is just to make the Spartans more heroic.”
Comparing Frank Miller’s Graphic Novel to the Finished Film: “I would say it’s probably about 90% the book. There’s maybe a 10% bit that I added that’s sort of the Queen’s story line. We did that to really initially remind people of the ‘why we fight’ part of it. You get all the way up there to Thermopylae and suddenly Sparta becomes abstract. I wanted to remind people. Once we got into that, we started to realize that we had to figure out what the Queen was about. There’s a line in the graphic novel where Gorgo says, ‘Come back with your shield or on it,’ which was attributed to her in history. In my research I found, ‘Oh, here’s another thing - this thing where only Spartan women give birth to real men.’ That was another line I found attributed to her. If you combined those two, what kind of character is that? Who is that woman who said those things? That’s really what we used to sort of build her and flesh her out.”
The First Steps to Bringing 300 to Life: “The way we started was with the concept art. I would do a little doodle and Grant [Story] would say, ‘Okay.’ He would so some photo shop, whacking together some images. That would sort of get us in an area where I would say, ‘Okay, that’s kind of working.’ Then we’d try to refine that by maybe shooting stuff. Shot a guy in a Spartan outfit. Not the ones we used in the movie, but something like it: red cape for composition and sky and things like that. That process led us all the way to production where we sit at a table like this. We’d have the storyboard sitting in front of us and I’d say, ‘Okay, I want the camera below. What happened a moment before, if the guy walked up and stopped on the hill,’ and I’m imagining that it’s a silhouette and that sky we’d replace.
Everyone would take a turn and the visual effects guys would go, ‘What we plan to do is generate this sky, get this background. Maybe there’s a sun flare. Maybe blah blah blah.’ Then Jim Bissell the production designer would say, ‘Okay, this is what I plan to build for you to shoot on. It’s a little silhouetted hill. It’s made out of concrete and you can use it for all these different things.’ We basically do that 2,000 times and you have a movie.”
Getting Frank Miller’s Stamp of Approval: Miller was apprehensive about turning Sin City over to Robert Rodriguez. How was he about Snyder signing up to do 300? “He was hesitant,” explained Snyder. “I don’t think he thought that anyone would ever try to make a movie out of 300. When I’ve been with him and we’ve talked about it in these kinds of scenarios, he always seems to me to be very surprised that we picked it. It’s almost like a passion project for him. If you look at it in relation to his other work, it’s an anomaly in a lot of ways. I think the graphic novel world, it’s is an anomaly. It sort of exists outside the realm. The one thing that is consistent is who Leonidas is. Leonidas is Marv or he’s Batman. He’s the same guy. Frank likes that guy. He writes him a lot. I think his chance to have Leonidas march up to Thermopylae and fight like a madman and then die, that’s the thing he just likes.”
Following in Frank Miller’s Footsteps: Frank Miller has such a distinctive visual style yet in adapting 300 Snyder never worried over whether he was leaving his own mark on the material. “I didn’t really think about it in that way. Even when you try to get out of the way of something, you’re like a filter. You can’t help it because it goes through you and when it comes out the other side, it’s got people in it and there’s all sorts of stuff that happens so I really wasn’t worried about. The thing I love about a movie is its tone. That’s my favorite part of movies, the tone of the movie. What is it? What kind of a movie is it?
I think when I did Dawn of the Dead my feeling with Dawn was that I wanted to make a movie that felt like a cult movie. You could feel it was organic and it was simple. It wasn’t going to be a lot of CGI and it was going to be a lot of makeup. When we went to do 300, I wanted to make a movie that felt like the graphic novel. The characters stood and they looked and they talked like the graphic novel, and that you felt the graphic novel. That was the most important thing to me because I felt like the story was there, was sort of the heroic nature of the film. But, the tone of it, the where it came from, I wanted you to feel it. So in that way, I used the graphic novel as a thing that informed the tone of the movie. That’s my favorite thing about the movie is that I feel that.”
Dealing with the MPAA: “It wasn’t that bad. On Dawn I had like five or six tries before I got my R. But we got an R right away so it was pretty cool. I don’t think the movie personally is that gory, 300. I think it’s so bizarre. I’ve had 50-year-old women see the movie and go, ‘Oh I thought it was cool.’ And I go, ‘What about all the gore?’ They’re like, ‘Oh it’s cool. It’s like art. It’s fancy.’ I think on one hand, yes, if you want to enjoy that you can. But I think on the other hand it’s abstract in a way. I think the MPAA looked at it and said, ‘Oh, it’s not Saving Private Ryan.’”