"300: Rise of an Empire" is a 3-D IMAX film based on Frank Miller’s latest graphic novel "Xerxes," and told in the breathtaking visual style of the blockbuster “300.” This second chapter of the epic "300" movie saga takes the action to a fresh battlefield — on the sea — as Greek general Themistokles (played by Sullivan Stapleton) attempts to unite all of Greece by leading the charge that will change the course of the war. “300: Rise of an Empire” pits Themistokles against the massive invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes (played by Rodrigo Santoro) and Artemesia (played by Eva Green), the vengeful commander of the Persian navy.
"300: Rise of an Empire" co-stars Green, Lena Headey (who plays Queen Gorgo), Jack O’Connell (who plays Calisto), Callan Mulvey (who plays Scyllias), "300: Rise of an Empire" director Noam Murro, "300" director/"300: Rise of an Empire" producer/screenwriter Zack Snyder, "300: Rise of an Empire" screenwriter Kurt Johnstad and "300: Rise of an Empire" producers Deborah Snyder (Zack's wife), Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton and Bernie Goldmann gathered recently for a press conference in Los Angeles. Here is what they said.
Eva and Lena, can you talk about being the only prominent women in this hyper-masculine world? And Eva, your Artemesia character survived sexual abuse as a child. How did that trauma affect Artemesia?
Green: I think it's quite rare to see strong women in an action film, kicking some ... So that 's cool. [Artemesia] is like a man in a woman's body. She's really ballsy, very brave. And, as you said, she was traumatized as a child, so she built this armor around her to survive. She became so driven by vengeance, blinded by vengeance, like completely obsessed. And she's bonkers, a maniac!
Headey: An awesome bonkers. Gorgo is back for a bit of revenge, I'd say. Simple.
Was it great to work with most of the same filmmakers for this sequel?
Headey: It was a great thrill hold a sword. I liked that about that.
Can you talk about taking the template of Zack Synder's "300" movie and making something new for "300: Rise of an Empire"?
O'Connell: Well, I was very keen to introduce a youth element to the story. Obviously, that becomes relevant to the paternal relationship between Callan's character Scyllias and how that battle mentality can potentially age an individual. Calisto is perhaps younger than myself but perhaps more mentally maturer, which I didn't think featured in the original ["300"] picture, so that was a new idea from the writing. I was in a position where I was in the peak of my life, the prime of my life physically.
Zack Snyder: It's all downhill now!
O'Connell: We've got documentation, so thank you, guys.
Mulvey: I felt that stylistically, that part of the world had been taken care of, so it was primarily up to us to find those humanistic threads to our characters and portray those relationships, particularly with Calisto, in a realistic way.
Can you talk about the element of protecting, and defending your family and having the honor with the defense theme?
Headey: Speaking from Gorgo's point of view, the Spartan law is honor before anything else. And the fact that she loses the love of her life, there is nothing else to be done, apart from avenge. In terms of her, it's pretty striaghtforward. There's only one way to go.
Zack Snyder: I think what Kurt [Johnstad, co-writer of "300: Rise of an Empire"] and I were talking about when we originally started talking about how we would incorporate the different characters, and make them do what they were going to do in the movie. I think it’s always like “Oh, the dad, the kid, the wife, the mother…" Those are strong things that we always talk about. For us, it’s just sort of talking about the origins of the story, getting those guys to go into battle for their families or their children. It's easy stuff to feel. It made its way into the story pretty easily.
Deborah Snyder: I think what's interesting about this story is that in the first story, we could never be the Spartans. They were trained to be these warriors from day one. We're more like the free Greeks: most of them untrained. Their navy was so small, compared to the Persians, so they had to come and rely on all the people to motivate them to come and join.
So it was super-personal. They were fighting for their families. They were fighting for their land. And being relatively untrained is just a whole different mentality. And they had so much more at stake, so much more to risk, I think, because of that.
Going back to an earlier question, how did you bring over the same aesthetic of "300" yet have a unique look for "300: Rise of an Empire"?
Murro: I think the idea thematically, there is an expansion here. And therefore, there's a way to do that visually. I think that geography and weather systems and the idea that this is all happening, most of it is happening in the open seas really allows you to do something that is different. I think, operatically speaking, it really allows you to do something bigger and has a deeper visual route into it. And I think it allows you to open it up.
Also, I think part of the challenge was how do you connect? "300" really changed a lot of filmmaking when it came out. How do you take that and keep ties to it and not make it look exactly the same, but it still has a real connection to the original? And that was really part of the struggle of the investigation.
Who had the hardest job among the filmmakers?
Canton: It's all hard. It's about teamwork. And I think in the spirit of what the question about family. This is a very unique group of human beings, a very unique group of talented professionals. And somehow, as it rarely happens, finds its own rhythm amongst everybody here. It's a team. And it's emblefied in the best way in the process.
Goldmann: Everybody had their own cross to bear in making the movie. And I think Mark's right. Working together, it's a different challenge for everyone involved, but I think we're all really proud of what it's become. I think it's hard to make a sequel to any movie. The goal was to make something that could stand on its own and be a true movie that could stand beside the first one. And I feel everyone stepped up to that task, and that's hugely rewarding.
O'Connell: May I slightly interject also? I certainly took a lot of inspiration from seeing Sullivan's approach. Unfortunately, he isn't here today. I feel like, he along with Eva, really led the piece, in terms of endurance anyways. I think he shares that with Themistokles, perhaps. But, for me, as a young actor, aspiring, it was definitely beneficial to be on the set with the likes of [them]. I hope that's relevant.
Noam and Zack, why did you want to work with each other on "300: Rise of an Empire"?
Zack Snyder: When Noam came to talk to us about the idea about making the movie, we had the script, and we knew that I was going to do "Man of Steel," and I knew there was no way I was going to be able to [direct "300: Rise of an Empire"]. It was a big decision to say, “Maybe we should get another director to direct the movie." So we started to talk about directors, and Debbie [Snyder, my wife and filmmaking partner] had worked with Noam on a TV commercial back in the day ...
Deborah Snyder: In my previous life.
Zack Snyder: I think they shot it in Toronto, and we talked. She had been a big fan of Noam’s, and still is, of course, and now in this new incarnation. That initiated the idea that we might work with hi. And, then he came and told us a little about what he wanted to do with the movie.
Frankly, it was a lot of the things that I had said to these guys all those years ago when I was pitching the original movie. There was what I felt was a symmetry in the full circle aspect of it. Then he did this cool presentation, and then we felt like he had the vocabulary to make something cool. And he has. That’s how we sort of came to it.
Murro: I remember seeing the preview to "300" when I was sitting in the theater in L.A. It was just blew my mind, because we really hadn't seen anything like that, just from taking the genre and flipping it completely on its head and doing something operatic and something you really hadn't seen before. And when the envelope came from across the street from CAA with the script, I just couldn't believe it.
Because really, ["300"] influenced me, it influenced a bunch of people for years, and it really changed the way, in many ways, cinema is looked at and this genre in general. There have been many attempts at imitating it. So I think I drew so much out of it. And the challenge was, "How do you continue to look back at it and understand the greatness of what happened there and push it forward?"
How did you keep the "300" story exciting without being too robotic?
Zack Snyder: [He says jokingly] I think the truth is there are robots in the movie. I'm kidding. It feels like roots. [He says seriously] Kurt and I .... when we were working on "300" originally, we just think it's cool. Clearly there is cool action and stories to be told that aren't necessarily in a sci-fi environment. If you look at the great tradition of historical films, they make for good drama and action.
We have an amazing fight choreographer and stunt coordinator in Damon Caro. One of his favorite languages is swords and soldiers, maybe better than lasers and guns and light sabers. When Kurt and I talked about it, these are things we find cool. By the time Noam gets it, the spirit of the thing is, I hope, infused with an energy that might help this to be interesting visually more than guys with swords and no shirts on. Those robots just don't have the abs.
Murro: The robots in these movies try to do what we do at the end of the day: They try to be human. They try to move like humans and try to have emotions like humans. We feel blessed because we just had to deal with what humans do. The point I'm trying to make is that sci-fi movies try to humanize the robot, and we didn't have to go through that.
Kurt, what does a script like "300: Rise of an Empire" look like?
Johnstad: I think that one of the things Zack and I try to do is distill. The action beats will always play out. You can always make a spectacle in those things. But it's really drilling down on character and the moments in character where there are silences, where the characters can play between each other, so they don't necessarily need to be talking about what's happening.
And I think it's the idea of an army of conquest versus an army of survival or defense. If you look at the movie through that lens, then it's pretty easy to start feeling for somebody if they're fighting for their wife or their child or their farm. Or you can flip it and go, "OK, I want to look at it from the Persian side. This is what their motivation is."
Then all the spectacle can fall into it. As far as what it looks like, there are lots of different drafts. I don't know what we ended on, but the whole thing is to try things.
I feel that Zack and I have done it several times. We've written and collaborated well with one another. I think what we always tried to do is take risks and not be afraid to fail and turn those failures into some kind of success. And that's on a scene basis or an act or structural basis. And if you look at the total of the film, hopefully, you'll have something that lands with an audience.
The first "300" film is very mythic, and demanded a kind of theatricality from the actors. "300: Rise of an Empire" has more philosophical qualities and explores the ambiguities of war. To the actors, can you talk about balancing the humanity with the mythic nature of this filmmaking?
Mulvey: I think in finding that balance, you have to be as realistic as you can, but at the same time, you need to give a performance, and it needs to be heightened because there are such high stakes. Although the battles and all of the physical elements of the film, which you have to do as an actor, certainly help create that, I think you just be as real with that as you can with the other actor and make it high-stakes. And also, if you keep that real, everything around you, because we were in a green room on a soundstage with a bit of dirt and there’s green walls around. And you have to trust in the amazingly talented crew and post-production people that can create that world and do a lot of the work for you.
Green: And also, Noam loves classical music, opera, so he used to play opera music. He wanted for us not to be afraid to be theatrical, in a good way. I mean, my character is full-on, so to go all of the way and not play natural. So it’s kind of great, it’s cool.
Headey: I think there’s a kind of giant science to it, do you know what I mean? It’s like you’re playing a mother who’s losing a son or a father who’s losing a son or a son who’s losing [a father]. There’s something at stake, and it’s not like you have to write every single word down.
Some of it is just done with pure emotion. And, you know, this piece is about war and death. So I think you're already set up to be emotionally raw. I don’t think it needs much more than that. You don’t need to do some big theatrical acting, because that’s mental!
O’Connell: It’s kind of a variation on what Callan said, in the sense that I felt there were two primary priorities with this role in particular: There was the emotional nature involved in it, and also physicalities, which to some degree were pretty extreme. I believe we all did our own stunts here, so that enabled us to introduce anything sort of outwardly extravagant into the fighting styles, which meant we could afford to be subtle, I guess, with the realities, which I think with a piece like this gives it a real heartbeat, you know?
It’s very astonishing to watch, but also to really feel and empathize is, as an actor that’s a luxury to be able to perform, I feel. But there was definitely a distinction between physicalities and emotion. I hope that too is relevant.
How was it working out and training for "300: Rise of an Empire"?
Murro: Every lunch, Bernie and I went down to one of the stages on the lot, and we met that team, which is a very ruthless and unkind bunch, and they just tell you to start lifting stuff. I'm Jewish. I don't lift stuff, but I did. And it's amazing the transformation your body — even looking at me, believe it or not — can do. It's a humungous part of the process, really, what they are able to do.
You shape actors emotionally, and actors shape themselves emotionally, but they can also shape themselves physically. And that's a huge part of this. At the end of the day, they're in front of the screen. There's almost choreography and dance in it, when you look at it and zoom out for a second.
You don't look at it as pure action. You look at it as an operatic expression or dance or choreography. And that is part of the body that needs to be addressed. In addition to the six-pack [abs] and all that, it is a mental part in making it all come together.
Did the actors have a fitness class every morning?
Murro: You can ask them, but they had more than a fitness class in the morning. It wasn't a fitness class. It was a torture class! In the morning, lunch and in the evening, I think we all ate about 239.6 calories a day. And that was really what it was.
Headey: I loved it, but then I’m a sadist and a tomboy. But the sad thing is when it’s over, it all kind of goes [she makes a flop sound with her tongue].
Mulvey: I think everybody went straight to fat camp once we stopped filming. I think, for me personally, I never want to look at chicken and broccoli again which is basically all we ate. Just lifted things constantly. We were learning all our fight sequences right up to the shoot and training throughout the shoot so it was quite exhausting.
But the great thing was they trained us in such a way you weren’t trained to have your chest look like this or an aesthetic look. You were trained so that you could move and you really see that with everybody in their fight scenes that they could actually move the way they were supposed to, and you didn’t have to have the stunt doubles in as much.
Headey: [She says jokingly] You can see that you've let it go, Callan. Dreadful!
Green: I was kind of lucky because I didn’t have to be naked like the guys so I was allowed to have my glass of red wine in the evenings. I’m so not physical so that was such a big challenge. You feel very powerful, actually, but not straightaway. It’s very scary at the beginning to have to do all the squats and lunges. It’s like, “Oh my God.” It’s painful.
But then, it helps you for the fights. You can go quite low. After a while you feel very proud of yourself and that was the best thing. I adored it. The stunt guys are just amazing because they’re so passionate. They love it, and they’re fun. It was my favorite bit, I have to say.
O’Connell: Callan, are you still flexible, mate? I think my favorite element was feeling triple hard and ready to go. Hard in a strong sense, not…
What was the choreography like for learning all the fight sequences and stunts?
Green: It’s like a dance. I’ve always been an enormous fan of those Chinese films, “Hero,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and all that. So I felt like a little girl, and I had great masters.
At the beginning, you can’t think too much. You just have to do it. So that’s a great thing. Just let it all out. Just go for it. But it takes a while to digest it and be able to do it. It requires lots of work.
Noam, what was one of the more difficult sequences that you had to film for "300: Rise of an Empire," and how did you rise to the challenge of filming it?
Murro: First of all, when I came back from shooting, I removed everything green in my house. The challenge really is on multiple levels. We really were creating an epic on a soundstage. What takes place in the water is actually on a soundstage. And you have to imagine quite a bit.
So there are multiple complexities to that visual part of it, but there's also a complexity to have these characters come to life. I had these wonderful people come to life. And I can't imagine how the do that because, really, we were standing on a piece of stage, and you have to imagine that you're in the middle of the sea, and actually pull that off emotionally and physically.
So just the complexity of that, aside from the thematic issues of what this movie is all about are immense. You go to your room. You pray. You come out. You come back on stage again.
How comfortable were the costumes to wear, especially during the fight scenes?
Mulvey: Just one word: Vaseline.You’re wearing leather underpants. They’re not the most comfortable garment to run around chopping people’s heads off in. But the negatives were taken care of by plenty of Vaseline to stop the chafing. That's all I really have to add about that.
O’Connell: I’d just like to second what Callan said. We went through a lot of Vaseline. We actually shared some, didn’t we?
Zack Snyder: It was a tight budget, so we didn't want the Vaseline to go to waste.
Murro: I think he loved it!
Mulvey: I have to say he loved it. We had an incredible costume designer. I’m sure there was a lot of thought going into what we would have to do within these costumes and it was very easy to move in them, for myself anyway.
Green: Alexandra Byrne is very talented and very brave. I love that outfit that she made with the golden spikes erupting from my back. I look like kind of a dinosaur or something. It was very cool and very easy to move. Sometimes my hair got caught in the spikes but you don’t see that in the film. Otherwise, it’s my favorite outfit. I look like a weird animal. It’s cool.
Do you have any final thoughts?
Zack Snyder: We have an amazing cast. As you can see, they’re funny and smart and physical and amazing actors. We have an awesome director who made I think a picture that ... It is true that when we made "300," in truth, a lot of the movie was also created with economic restrictions.
We had this idea of the style of the movie we wanted to make, and we knew it was a boutique-y movie. We thought it was a movie for kind of a small audience that would be into this kind of crazy, comic-booky, sword-and-sandals movie. It was kind of a genre that didn’t exist.
You know, there are sword-and-sandals movies, there are comic-book movies, but there wasn’t the rules of mashing those things up wasn’t really [around]. And Frank [Miller] had done it in the comic book. And when I read the comic book, it was "Oh, this is an amazing comic book." I remember.
And the cool thing about what these guys have done and the movie has done is that it took that language without a comic book, because Frank hasn’t finished it, but sort of with Frank’s inspiration still flowing across, frankly, Kurt and I first and then Noam and now these guys, that what he did in that book is kind of echoed across in the movie. And I think that’s what he did, because I was not 100 percent sure when we finished "300," it’s like, "They all die. I guess that’s it." We didn’t really think there could be another movie.
But I think when Frank came and said this other thing happened on the same three days as Thermopylae, we were like, "What? That’s cool!" And actually, it’s really fun for me to see these two movies kind of exist now next to each other. We were talking about how, "Oh, you could cut them together, actually, if you were ambitious." And maybe some fans will do that. But it’s really satisfying for me, because in a weird way it’s come full circle for me.
For more info: "300 Rise of an Empire" website