Berlin: Snyder Talks 300
300 is one of those movies that is going to change the way movies are made. It will be a decade-defining blockbuster, I suspect. Who knew that Frank "Dark Knight" Miller would continue to have such an impact on pop culture? He and Robert Rodriguez turned his Sin City into a stunning digital graphic novel movie, and now Dawn of the Dead director Zack Snyder has translated Miller's 300—about the Spartan's Battle of Thermopylae—into a hugely entertaining movie starring the well-muscled Gerard Butler (with, from left, director Snyder and Rodrigo Santoro). Warner Bros. launched the stylized war picture out of competition Wednesday at the Berlinale; here's Kirk Honeycutt's review and Borys Kit's Q & A with the filmmaker:
Filmmaker Zack Snyder is arriving in Berlin with "300," a historical action movie about the Battle of Thermopylae based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Snyder is an award-winning commercial and video director who made his debut with the 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead," which not only was a boxoffice hit but also was that rare horror movie to earn critical acclaim. "300" is only Snyder's second movie, but looking like a graphic novel come to life, it already is generating buzz for its unique style. Snyder discussed the film with The Hollywood Reporter film reporter Borys Kit.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you get involved with "300"? Did you read the Frank Miller graphic novel?
Zach Snyder: I was familiar with the graphic novel, and a few years ago, I was in (producer) Gianni Nunnari's office, and I saw it on his desk. And he was telling me, "We have this movie that Martin Scorsese is doing, and we have this movie ..." and he said, "What are you interested in doing? What would be cool?" And I said, "That would be cool (pointing at graphic novel.) If you made '300' into a movie, and specifically this shot of Leonidas getting whacked by a million arrows." I said, "If you could make this shot real, then you've got, well, you've made something that I had never seen in a movie."
THR: But at that point you had not even directed a movie.
Snyder: I had no track record. I was the guy who quit 'S.W.A.T.'. That's not a great thing to be in Hollywood.
THR: And then you made "Dawn of the Dead," which was a hit, and then the project was finally set up at Warner Bros.
Snyder: (Warners president of production) Jeff Robinov had seen 'Dawn of the Dead' and for whatever reason thought it was something special. He wanted to make a movie with me. He helped shape the movie ("300") and helped me understand that movie I wanted to make, but in the end, he wanted me to make my movie as cool as I could. And that's hard in this town. The way the system is set up, to really cultivate a filmmaker and say, "You're promising me you'll make something different?" That's a promise that every filmmaker makes, by the way. That was really cool, and I felt obligated to try to give him something else.
THR: How did you convince him that you're making something different with "300"?
Snyder: I did a test shot. I remember we were talking, and he said, "Is there anything you could show me that would help me understand what this is?" I said, "Yeah, let me shoot something." So I did a shot and basically it was a 360-degrees Steadicam shot of one Spartan fighting. I didn't want to do a shot from the movie because it invites a whole series of questions like, "Is this what the actors are going to look like?" It opens up a whole can of worms. So I did an abstract action sequence, but it actually tells a story. It starts with the Warner Bros. shield, which gets stabbed, and the camera comes around and you see this Spartan fighting these Persian soldiers, kills them all, and a phalanx links up with him and we go back to reveal the entire Persian army. And they all shoot arrows. So it had the same style as the movie.
THR: How did you come up with that style?
Snyder: I had played around with it in commercials. Aesthetically, it's what I like. What we did in the test shot, and we did this in the movie, is in the fighting. I wanted to see the actors fighting. If you look at the movie, in the beginning of Battle 1, there's a lot of quick cutting. And in some ways I did that on purpose, to goad the audience into perceiving that that's the way the battles were going to be photographed, in that sort of "Gladiator," messy, you're-not-quite-sure-what's-happening style. And then suddenly, the movie breaks out and the language of the movie really becomes apparent when Gerry (Gerard Butler) is hacking everybody and the camera is floating. We shot that with three cameras, all right next to each other. The one center camera is flat, the wide lens camera is slightly bladed in, and the long lens is slightly bladed in. And all three were running at 150 frames. All three are basically shooting the same thing. They overlap. And in post, you end up with the ability to zoom between the different sizes and never cut. By having all three, I could choose where I wanted to be.
THR: You made this movie in a very nontraditional way, with nontraditional backgrounds on a soundstage in Montreal. You didn't even leave the continent. Snyder: People ask me, "What's the hardest part of shooting on blue screen?" The question presupposes that it was difficult to shoot on bluescreen because there was no set there. But that was the world that we decided to go into. The real question isn't was it hard to shoot it on bluescreen but would it have been hard to shoot this movie without bluescreen? And the answer to that question is it would have been impossible. Bluescreen was my friend. That is what allowed it to look like it does and be what it is. It's a painting. If I had shot this movie outside, it would have been a completely different movie. If I had shot this movie outside, and done the movie in a traditional way, you wouldn't have felt the relationship to the book that you feel because it would have been abstract. People would have been, "Oh yeah, it's kinda like the graphic novel, some of the dialogue is the same," but you would not have had that stark relationship. You wouldn't have the frames that you have.
THR: You made a conscious decision to show as much severed limbs and blood and sex as possible.
Snyder: Absolutely. I wanted to make a movie for me. I always feel that when I see a movie like this, it just stops before it gets good. I always want the extra bit that I don't get. I want to turn that volume up just a little bit louder and you go, "Oh, no way! Are you kidding me? They really didn't do that!" And even in the sex scene, it's not porn, but it certainly has some edge to it. You know you're in an R-movie. The one thing about "300" is that it's a movie done on purpose. All of its weirdness is there because I like it, not because we couldn't do this or we couldn't do that. The movie is not shy. It's coming to get you. And it's not afraid of who it is. Its very confident in its skin.
THR: The cast is almost all non-American. Most of the actors are English. Why is that?
Snyder: Well, the convention of a sword and sandals movie is that you have English actors in the movie. And I thought I would give the audience that. I felt that they were going to get so kicked in the nuts on everything else that I said, "Maybe this sort of English accent reference to the theater, in this drama that feels like an opera anyway, will help them access the movie a little more. And those guys, classically trained, believe it. There's no wink at the camera, there's no, "What am I doing?" There's no, "This is stupid." They are in the zone, they are dedicated, they are 100% in that moment when they do it.
THR: How historically accurate is this movie? Are historian purists going to be up in arms?
Snyder: Is there a time machine version of the Battle of Thermopylae where you go and try to go back in time and to live that moment? Probably. Is it a glorious and heroic endeavor? Probably not. It is muddled by history and by all the things that 2,500 years of that story being regurgitated by all the different mediums has done to it. Why try to get to that? I don't understand the merit of that. Is it truth? Because truth is also relative. Plutarch and those guys, they were as much liars as I am, that's what I always say. They are as prone to bullshit as anybody. Maybe more so; they had agendas. I don't. They wanted to change peoples' points of view. I want people to enjoy the movie.