300 Brings History to Bloody Life
Is director Zack Snyder the next Bryan Singer? Will he become the new go-to guy for megabudget comic book adaptations?
Warner Bros. is so excited about 300, Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's Greek-history-as-superhero tale, that they handed him the keys to Alan Moore's Watchmen, another sacred text for comics fans. 300 opens nationally March 9; Watchmen is scheduled for a 2008 release.
Snyder, a commercial director whose debut feature Dawn of the Dead was a surprise hit in 2004, filmed the ultraviolent 300 on a Montreal sound stage. After recording real actors doing fake battle, he added heavily manipulated digital backdrops. Like Robert Rodriguez with Sin City, Snyder went to enormous lengths to precisely match Miller's eerie landscapes.
300 re-imagines the true story of a small band of Spartan soldiers led by King Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler). The Spartans held off an enormous army of Persians that was commanded by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and bent on conquering Greece.
Snyder talked to Wired News on the eve of his departure for the Berlin Film Festival, where 300 celebrated its world premiere Feb. 14.
Wired News: This is one crazy-looking movie.
Zack Snyder: No one should ever take drugs, ever. I want to go on the record on that. But if someone was to slip you a mickey, I would immediately get into a taxi and go to an Imax screening of 300.
WN: Why did you decide to shoot this indoors?
Snyder: I wanted to get at the book as much as I could. Shooting outside, we couldn't control the skies and lighting to the extent I wanted to. And the landscapes are different than in real life. They don't exist in the real world, only in Frank Miller's imagination.
WN: Did you worry that filming on sound stages would make the action seem unreal?
Snyder: I didn't want the movie to feel like it was shot out of a computer. I wanted you to feel that it was made by humans. We shot the movie on film and added a lot of grain back into it. For the fight scenes, we added flares, dirt on the lenses -- none of which was there when we filmed it. Putting that stuff in spoke to the organic process of making a film, just as if we were standing out in a field. But in our case it was everyone standing in front of a blue screen.
WN: So there are dirt-on-the-lens plug-ins now? You can actually put the imperfections back into the process?
Snyder: That's the crazy part. We learned how to create a pristine image and now we are working to fuck it up again. Part of the technology now is used to make it look like you didn't use the technology.
WN: What was the biggest challenge in bringing the battle scenes to life?
Snyder: You'd think it would be the process, with the blue screen and everything. But really it was our schedule, a rigorous 60-day schedule. We were all playing hurt.
WN: You must have used some cutting-edge digital effects to make the film look like it does.
Snyder: Not really. The idea of shooting a guy against a blue screen and adding backgrounds isn't unusual or difficult. People say how crazy the technology we used is, but it's not outside of the industry standard. We didn't invent any software.
It's the aesthetic choices that we made -- the colors of the skies, and how the contrast is so heavy and the landscapes so surreal. All of those things create this look, and it's the look that makes it interesting.
WN: Of course, every film looks a bit different from others.
Snyder: Films do look different, but a tree's usually a tree and a rock's a rock. In our case, the trees are weird. But we aren't trying to be Lord of the Rings.
If you ask a digital artist to do a (computer-generated) shot, maybe a glass dropping on the ground, you can show it to anyone and ask, "Does that look real?" They'll say "yes" or "no." With 300, I was asking my artists to create something that looks surreal or fantastic, to create environments that were impossible. I was asking them to be artists again, to be expressive, to express their own emotions through the skies and landscapes.
WN: Did you go through the film scene by scene and manipulate the backdrops to match the emotional impact you were after?
Snyder: Absolutely, I would adjust the sky in every scene so it reflects the mood of my actors. It was like a big mood ring.
WN: You must have developed a shorthand with your visual effects team.
Snyder: I'd look at the scene, and I'd tell (visual effects director) Grant Freckleton that it would be cool if it had our chocolate sky, or if it was a bit "flare-ier." He'd know exactly what I meant. We were capable of putting the sun where we wanted. With 1,700 shots, that meant a lot of work.
WN: Any other examples of your shorthand?
Snyder: We'd always say "crushier," which means more contrast and more highlights. Up on the highlights and down on the blacks. More shadowy.
WN: How did you handle the blood?
Snyder: 90 percent of it is 2-D blood. In the punching scene, where my son Eli is playing the young Leonidas, we used the scans of blood off of the cover of the book.
WN: How many times did you watch Sin City? Did you learn anything from it?
Snyder: I watched it three or four times. I enjoyed the film, but didn't use it as a learning tool. What it mostly did was validate Frank's aesthetic in the commercial realm. After that movie, the studio could understand that a Frank Miller movie was a viable idea.
WN: Most people think about Ken Burns or the History Channel when they think about history movies. Do you think these new digital effects tools can change that?
Snyder: This is a historical film, and technology gave us the tools to render history in ways we haven't seen before. And it wasn't cost-prohibitive. The idea of making ancient Rome or the pyramids -- those could only have been done in very big-budget films. Now, rendering these kinds of images has become less expensive and more accessible. I think you'll be seeing more fantastic images and journeys back in time.
WN: Are you going to do more of that in Watchmen?
Snyder: Yeah, we've got a scene that takes place on Mars.
WN: Visual effects guys are running out of excuses. It's probably deadly to your career to say, "That can't be done."
Snyder: It's funny -- I'm pretty savvy as to what can and can't be done. Actually, I don't know if there's anything they can't do. I've done some commercials recently with people who didn't know I had made 300. They'd say, "I'm not sure I can do that because of the visual effects." And I'd say, "Look, brother. Check out the trailer on my website and then we'll talk."
WN: Did you have problems finding enough buff actors? The Spartans in the book have superhero physiques. Did you digitize their pecs or anything?
Snyder: I picked them for their acting chops, not their bodies, and then we trained them. The training became part of their performance, part of the persona of the people they were portraying. The workouts became part of their preparation.
WN: There's blood splattered on the poster, blood flying into the lens. This movie has some very gory stuff in it. Did you think about where 300 fits into the history of violence in art and entertainment?
Snyder: I hadn't, but I did have certain ideas about how I wanted to render the violence. I'm happy at the way it came out, and I'm interested to see how it resonates, how people respond to it. It's brutal and beautiful at the same time. I would say 300 is the opera of the Battle of Thermopylae.
WN: People have described Sam Peckinpah's violence as brutal, beautiful and operatic. So what's new?
Snyder: Listen, Peckinpah's an influence on me for sure. And Kurosawa. But they didn't have digital blood. I can make the blood go anywhere I want.
WN: In the film, a tiny bunch of European freedom fighters hold off a huge army of Iranian slaves. Everyone is sure to be translating this into contemporary politics.
Snyder: Someone asked me, "Is George Bush Leonidas or Xerxes?" I said, "That's an awesome question." The fact they asked tells me that this movie can mean one thing to one person and something totally different to another. I clearly didn't mean either. I was just trying to get Frank's book made into a movie.
That kind of debate is unavoidable right now. I don't live in a cave, but on the other hand, the film's about a 2,000-year-old conflict. People will say, "You made this because we are going to war with Iran." I'll say, "We are? Not if I have anything to do with it."