Back to selection

Battle Tested

300 COURTESY WARNER BROS.

Zack Snyder brings Frank Miller’s ultraviolent graphic novel, 300, to life with amazing special effects and non-stop action.

It’s been two years since Sin City introduced audiences to the world of Frank Miller. Under the direction of Robert Rodriguez, who shot actors using blue screen technology and then added the computer-generated backgrounds in post, Miller’s graphic novel made it to celluloid as a depraved trio of vignettes that both updated film noir and pointed towards a new way of making motion pictures. Now director Zack Snyder (2004’s Dawn of the Dead), employing the same production method as Rodriguez, takes on Miller’s 300, a blood-soaked retelling of the battle of Thermopylae. The result is as breathtaking to watch as it is entertaining.

300 isn’t another swords-and-sandals epic with toga-wearing heartthrobs more interested in making speeches about fighting than actually doing it. In Snyder’s film, Spartans leave the talking to bureaucrats, and, as we learn in the opening scenes (at birth the weaklings are thrown off a cliff), they are so in tune to the art of war that their only fulfillment in life is to end it in battle. So when King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) learns the Persian army is closing in on Sparta he doesn’t hesitate to call on 300 of his most skilled warriors to follow him into an Alamo-like stand-off. And that’s when things get good.

The incredible fight sequences come as fast and furious as the hard rock soundtrack that accompanies it; each more ultraviolet than the one before. And the Spartans, who are anything less than Herculean, take on all comers — that includes bomb-tossing wizards, huge elephants, and a giant mutant — even though they are heavily outnumbered and will certainly die. But like any of Frank Miller’s works, death is the least of these characters’ concerns.

The true triumph of 300, though, is its aforementioned visuals. Shot mainly in huge sound stages where the actors performed in front of blue screens, Snyder and his CGI team (headed by Chris Watts) storyboarded the film by taking the actual panels right from Miller’s book. Snyder expanded on the drawings so they’d fit the movie frame or, in some cases, he’d anticipate what would happen next from what he saw on the page. The end result are film images as groundbreaking as those in the first Matrix.

Filmmaker talked to Snyder about getting 300 made, the challenges of directing actors in a blue screen environment and if Miller will pen another Spartan adventure.

ZACK SNYDER (CENTER) AND GERARD BUTLER (RIGHT) ON THE SET OF 300. COURTESY TAKASHI SEIDA.

Filmmaker: Were you always a fan of Miller’s graphic novel?

Snyder: I was. I’m a huge Frank Miller fan but I never really thought there would be an option for me to make 300 into a movie. My friends and I would just sit around in a coffee shop and I’d say, “Oh, 300 would be an awesome movie.” And they’d say, “Yeah, right.”

Filmmaker: How did the project get off the ground?

Snyder: I was in one of my producer’s offices, Gianni Nunnari, and I saw that he had 300 on his desk [which Nunnari had been trying to make for five years]. I said, “That would be a cool movie.” So he called me a few days later and said, “Okay I got the rights — all you have to do is go meet Frank Miller and then we can determine whether or not you can do it.”

Filmmaker: How was that encounter?

Snyder: It was awesome. The atmosphere that was created at that meeting was the one that continued to this day. [In order to convince the studio to back the project, Snyder also did a test reel for Warner Bros., who were hesitant to make the film after the poor box-office of Alexander.]

Filmmaker: Did you bring any notes to the Miller meeting?

Snyder: No not at all. I just brought my copy of 300, and we talked about what was cool. I’d point out the moments that would make the film great and he agreed.

Filmmaker: Sin City was visually stunning but 300 goes to another level. Were there any advances in the technology since Sin City came out?

Snyder: I don’t think what we used technologically was really any different from what they used on Sin City. What they created with Sin City was this noir look, and what we did feels different because of its scale and color. We also incorporated giant creatures so there’s a fantasy feeling that comes too.

Filmmaker: And the violence is done in a poetic way, almost like a dance.

Snyder: That’s just my own personal esthetic. That’s what I think is cool. Frank’s book created an arena that I could just go nuts in.

Filmmaker: Was Frank on set a lot?

Snyder: He was on set for a few days. I talked to him on the phone a lot. I think he was writing the script for Sin City 2 while we were shooting.

Filmmaker: Frank Miller was inspired to make the graphic novel after watching The 300 Spartans. Were you inspired by any films going into making this?

Snyder: I was mostly inspired by films like Excalibur. I did see The 300 Spartans and there are certainly some costumes in the movie that are similar just because Frank borrowed them. When he drew his drawings he used a lot of the costumes from that movie, which is pretty funny.

Filmmaker: I really saw similarities to The Wild Bunch while watching 300.

Snyder: I’m a big Peckinpah fan. When I was a kid that was the kind of thing that I really loved. But the one thing about sword-and-sandals movies is that they’re all designed for that one hit, that one stab move. I wanted every stroke in 300 to be that one stab move. I wanted you to go, “Oh my God that’s insane,” but that’s just one of 80!

Filmmaker: Tell me about the trailer, which has really stoked the audience for this film.

Snyder: I think that our first experience with it was when we went to Comic-Con in San Diego. We showed this three-minute trailer that I had put together, and the reaction was insane. The audience went so crazy that we had to show it three times. They kept chanting to show it again. It’s funny — when you do a movie like this you say to yourself, “This is cool,” but you’re never sure until you show it whether people will get it. When I made Dawn of the Dead it was a movie I wasn’t sure anyone would get. I’m like okay, “I’m making a cult movie at a studio, it’s weird.” The idea of making a love letter to George A. Romero, some people got it and some people didn’t. And that’s fine. I thought with 300 it would be the same thing. It’s ultraviolent, it’s about the belly of death and some people are going to get it and some people aren’t. The thing that’s cool about 300 to me is that it’s a movie that’s incredibly self-aware. It knows what it is, it’s unapologetic in some ways, but it’s also very aware of its own limitations.

Filmmaker: Because 300 is so CG heavy, were you able to look at dallies?

Snyder: You could. We looked at dailies every day but you’re basically looking at blue screen dailies so you have to have to picture in your mind. The good thing is I don’t think the studio looked at too many dailies because they just had no idea what the hell they were looking at. It was completely liberating.

Filmmaker: So when did you realize that what you were shooting was working?

Snyder: Grant Freckelton, who is the visual effects art director, would give frames to me while we were shooting so I could sense if our methodology was working out. I had a pretty good idea of how it was going to work even before anyone else did.

Filmmaker: What are some of the challenges of directing actors with a blue screen in back of them?

Snyder: The challenge of course is to just get everyone on the same page and make sure they know what they’re doing and what it means. I had to paint the picture for them so they relied on me to make the reality of their surroundings. It was difficult but also fun for me too because I could make up anything. [Laughs.]

Filmmaker: What kind of training regimen did the actors go through?

Snyder: It was intense, like eight weeks before shooting started. For me it was all about getting the Spartan look. I wanted to make sure that when the audience saw the look of the Spartans they wouldn’t think, oh these are some guys who got in shape. I wanted them to think, these are guys who got crazy in shape! [Trainer] Mark [Twight] wanted them to look like this impossible street gang that could kick your butt, and that’s kind of what the Spartans are. I said when they walk toward you, you have to feel like, okay, I get the point, Spartans are crazy bad asses. I even said to the guys, “When you’re just standing you should be in character,” and what I meant was that their bodies should be acting.

Filmmaker: Is their look digitally enhanced at all?

Snyder: No, not their bodies at all. We didn’t have that much money. [Laughs.]

Filmmaker: Did you research the real battle or just concentrate on Frank’s interpretation?

Snyder: I knew the history but I really wanted to make Frank’s book. And for all of its supposed flaws it actually does a pretty good job breaking down the battle, I think. I would hope that because of watching this people would go to Wikipedia at least and learn more about this.

Filmmaker: In order to stay dedicated to the graphic novel’s look I heard you had a phrase: “Frank Frames.”

Snyder: For me it was the experience of letting the audience feel what I felt when I read the graphic novel for the first time, that idea of being taken to this super cool place. I wanted it to be a consistent vision, not like any movie experience that you might have had. I knew that if we shot frames exactly as they appear in the graphic novel that the experience of seeing the movie would be different from what you’re used to. Seeing the frames rendered in the way they were let us know how the rest of the movie would feel. And if you know the graphic novel you certainly are aware of [these “Frank Frames”] and if you don’t they’re the same as the rest of the movie. The real trick was to make all our frames Frank Frames.

(left) PANEL FROM FRANK MILLER’S GRAPHIC NOVEL. (RIGHT) THE SCENE AS IT APPEARS IN 300. COURTESY WARNER BROS.

Filmmaker: Do you have a favorite?

Snyder: I love the one where the Spartans are pushing the guys off the cliff.

Filmmaker: Are there talks of a prequel?

Snyder: There have in fact been talks. Frank said he might write another graphic novel about the Spartans where they are the bad guys. It could be fun.

© 2016 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF