Zack Snyder and Frank Miller Talk About "300"

Actor Gerald Butler (C) and Director Zack Snyder (R) attend a press conference to promote the film '300' at Mandarin Oriental Tokyo.
"Three Hundred" Press Conference. Koji Watanabe/Getty Images Entertainment

When just a few minutes worth of footage of 300 was shown at the 2006 San Diego Comic Con, the film quickly became one of the most talked about upcoming releases. The buzz has been growing since the summer of 2006, and writer/director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) and 300 creator Frank Miller are doing their best to keep the film in the spotlight. The twosome even teamed up for a special sneak peek at extended footage from what’s quickly become one of 2007’s most anticipated films.

After showing specially selected scenes from the film, Snyder and Miller took part in a Q&A with the media. But before Snyder introduced each of the clips, and before he opened up the floor to questions, he offered the following insight into why he believed Miller’s graphic novel could translate well into a feature film.

“As far as 300 [being] a strange choice,” said Snyder, “when you read the graphic novel I don’t think you think right away, ‘Easy. Make it into a movie, of course.’ It was daunting in its scope. The next thing I knew [producer Gianni Nunnari and I] were meeting with Warner Bros and saying, ‘Hey, you know, we want to make 300.’ At this point actually I have the timeline a little bit wrong because the first time we met with Warner Bros was right before I did Dawn. I remember talking to them about it and they were getting ready to go make Troy. And I understand, but they were not into a movie about Greece because they had Troy and they had Brad Pitt and I had just me and a graphic novel.

Now, time is a thing that I think heals all wounds and gets people excited again. And I think that because 300 is what it is, because of its take, because of Frank’s perspective on the Battle of Thermopylae compared to what I’d call a Hollywood-sort of epic, they said, ‘You know what? Maybe that is cool.

Maybe that is a way to do it.’ And to their credit, having pretty much Troy and Alexander… I mean, Greece was pretty much covered as far as they were considered. And so they said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ That became the actual odyssey of then making the movie.

I feel like what Frank did with Sin City vindicated us and actually informed us on this process of shooting this movie. We shot it in Montreal, which I know instantaneously brings to mind ancient Greece for a lot of people, for me especially. For the harsh winters and the French and all that. It was great. We got up there and we were in a warehouse, basically. We got an old train factory where they built trains and we built our world in there. It was hard for the actors, but I think in the end it was our little dusty home and we loved it. We hated it, but we loved it too. Every time I look at the movie I think, ‘Gosh, right over there is snow. You can’t see it but it’s right behind that dusty Thermopylae.’ That was the process and everyone up there, they all suffered the same. But everyone loved it and I hope it’s in the movie. I feel like it is.”

Besides Frank's original work, what were your visual influences?
Zack Snyder: “Absolutely the book was where we started.

We're doing a Making Of book that has basically pretty much storyboard to final frame, Frank's art, everything. The cool thing about that, I think, is that it does show you how at every turn, we always had the book. One of the big things I said on set was, we'd be talking about what to do and they’d say, 'Well, what should we do with this rock? Or what should we do with this guy?' And I always would say, because Frank had the same problems when he drew the book as we had when we shot it, 'You still have to tell the story. You still have to know who's who. You still have to understand in a picture what's happening.' That was a big help to the making of the movie. After that, as far as the slo-mo and all that stuff goes, I like violence so I'm sorry. I can't help that. It's a disease more than anything.”

How did you make the perfect moonlit butt shot when you were working on a green screen stage?
Zack Snyder: (Laughing) “That was difficult. We had to brighten it a little bit, I gotta admit, when we were in the telecine. They composite it a certain way and then we have it, and then you've got to go, 'Okay, put a little power window on the butt and brighten it.' Debbie, my wife, was in the telecine going, 'You know, it's probably bright enough,' or 'No, not bright enough,' so I deferred to her a little bit for that. If it was up to me, it'd be super bright. No, I’m just kidding.”

Are the actors’ six packs real or visual effects?
Zack Snyder: “I had the guys train really hard. They hate me probably because we really - I will be perfectly honest with you. There is a little bit of makeup, airbrushes to help some of the abs, but I've got to say, 99% is just sweat and muscle and caring. Because the actors really… Vince Regan, who plays the Captain, when he came to Montreal he had no idea that he was going to be basically naked in the movie. I showed some of this footage in England and we were in London and I was talking about the movie. Most of the actors in the movie are English. I told them, 'I cast English actors because they're notoriously health conscious people who love fitness over most other pursuits.' And that is totally not true, as you know. And where do we go? Montreal! They love fish and chips and beer. They don't love turkey breasts and weights. So they really worked hard and I think the day the film ended, if you were to bring them here today and take their clothes off, you'd be like, 'Who are these guys? Where are the Spartans?' I've seen Gerry [Butler] recently and I love him more than anything, but for the premiere, I don't think he's going to be taking his shirt off.”

Page 2: The Costumes, the Lighting, and the Visual Effects

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Can you talk about the costume design?
Frank Miller: “Well, what I wanted out of Xerxes when I was drawing the comic book was to have one figure that would show the sheer size and exotic qualities of a very rich, very pleasure oriented culture. As I worked on it, he just got taller and taller and more little ringlets and stuff all over him to the point where I was driving my painter out of her mind.

The idea was just to get across the opulence of the Persian Empire in contrast to the very stark, severe Spartans.”

Zack Snyder: “I know when we went to actually make the outfit, Rodrigo [Santoro] who plays Xerxes – we’d cast him already and then I think he got a copy of the graphic novel. He called me and he was like, ‘I’m not going to be dressed like this am I, in the movie?’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s awesome.’ It took him a little while to really… He wouldn’t shave off his eyebrows. That’s one thing he wouldn’t do. But everything else is that’s him. He did it. And Michael Wilkinson who did the costumes in the movie, who’s amazing, who I love, he just would have Frank’s drawing and he just said, ‘Okay. That’s it. How do you make it? Let’s see what we’ve got.’ I think he did a great job. If you’ve seen the book, it’s the same.”

How did you set up the shots and the lighting?
Zack Snyder: “The cinematographer is a guy named Larry Fong.

He and I went to [Art Center] together. He and I were classmates. We had done a lot of commercials together because in the commercial world, I'm a director/cameraman, but it gets lonely in that business so you like to call your friends and Larry's talented so it was nice to go to BBF or someplace like that with your buddy.

So we had done a lot of jobs together and when I approached him about 300, I think he thought I was joking. I said, 'I want to make it look just like this book, this awesome graphic novel.' And he just was flipping through it, 'Okay, all right. I guess.' I don't think he realized how much I intended until we started to shoot some tests and talked about how to make it look and crush it and do all the things we ended up doing.

We shot the movie in 60 days and I don't know if you're familiar with film production schedules, but that's not a lot of time. It's pretty involved in its action, and it was ambitious. We finished on schedule. What we basically did is we had a huge, soft top, because the whole movie takes place outside. I mean 90% of it. Then Larry had devised this method of rigging in the perms back lighting, because everyone's kind of brimmed or edged with an edge light. And what we did was if we were doing a close-up like this way, and the backlight was over there, then when we go to do the reverse, instead of physically putting the camera over there, we would just switch the edge to that side and keep facing the same way. It’s blue screen so nobody cares.

We were able to motor, but it was kind of hard for the actors.

They didn't know where they were half the time. I'd have to really go like, 'Okay, Thermopylae is over there. Xerxes is over there.’ But because it was so physical, they were able to stay in it. When a guy's running at you trying to kill you, you kind of forget you're on blue screen, I think. That's my feeling anyway. The more violence or the more confronted they were, the more into it they seemed to get. They were able to stay in it.”

Frank, what did you see in the movie that you wish you could have done in the graphic novel?
Frank Miller: “It's really apples and oranges. All I can say is I was a little kid when I saw a much earlier filmed version of the story, much tamer one. But I was just six or seven years old and I sat there next to my brother who is only two years older than me. Right before the climax, I said, 'Steve, are the good guys losing?' He said, 'I don't know, ask dad.' At the age, we're way too cool to sit with our parents so I had to go back a couple rows and said, 'Dad, are the good guys going to, like, die?' 'I'm afraid so, son.' I went back down and sat down and the story haunted me ever since.

It redefined everything a hero was.

Years went by and I told myself, 'When I'm good enough, I'm going to do this story.' More years went by and I found myself talking about it too much. I was afraid I’d become one of those boring people who sat around and talked about the story he never did. So to make up for lost time, I went to Greece, I read up everything there was and turned it into my book. I never intended for it to be a movie. As a matter of fact, I was shying away from any of my material being movies. But first I was attacked by the enthusiasm of [Gianni Nunnari] and then by Mark Canton's obsession with the story. Finally by Zack who has a passion but also has become maybe one of the half dozen people on the planet who can completely obsessed and utterly knowledgeable about the [whole thing]. The whole thing felt right so I backed off.

As far as things I would have taken from the film, I guess I would have made it a film. Before I got to the set, as they were slamming along through all these battle scenes, I maybe jokingly thought about killing Zack. At the time, I'd become a director so I thought, 'Maybe I'll just show up, be nice to everybody, take Zack out back, pop him, leave him in the snow.' But when I saw the battle scene with the immortals and saw what Zack was orchestrating, I'm like, 'Uh, Frank, you're a puppy. Wait for a couple more pictures before you try this.' Anyway, my main reaction is no, there's nothing I'd rob back at this point. I'm very happy with the book. But I think what this team has put together through sheer dedication and with a verve and even with humor is going to create a bunch more little bright-eyed kids who have a story they can't get out of their head.”

Page 3: Difficult Scenes, Marketing 300, and Historical Accuracy

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Was the most difficult challenge or the hardest scene to shoot?
Zack Snyder: “Probably the hardest thing to do was the beginning of the movie, I think, when we were in Sparta and all that – just getting in the groove. It’s funny, by the end of the movie when the Spartans have their last stand, I felt like we were pretty in the groove. When you look at it in the movie, it’s not here, but when you see it it’s an ambitious part of the movie.

But surprisingly by then everyone kind of knew where to go, what to do, why, where everything was, so it was really the early stuff, the stuff actually with more sets which was strangely more stressful. For me, anyway. That’s not logistics, but I think it translates into logistics when no one knows where they are or what’s happening.”

Have you finalized what your marketing campaign is going to look like so that the public knows this is different than your normal genre movie?
Zack Snyder: “I think that when you see the trailer - my feeling is anyway and maybe I’m not objective because I live it – but I think when you see it you immediately go, ‘Okay, this is another sort of way of doing this.’ I think in every aspect, in its attitude, in its visual style, in its sort of unapologetic violence, all those things I think… And also I’ve got to say in the movie Gorgo, who is the Queen, she has also a part that is – I think – I don’t want to say, ‘Oh look, it’s multi-quadrant,’ and all this.

I believe that it is because I think my dad can see this movie and go, ‘F**k yeah! Freedom, I get that.’ And I think also some college kid can just go like, ‘What the hell? This is nuts!’ My aesthetic is probably closer to a 15-year-old’s than my dad’s, but I get his conviction.”

Were you concerned about sticking to reality in regards to how the people of the time would actually look and the clothing they’d wear?
Frank Miller: “I’ve never been accused of being realistic.

It’s never my goal. I mean, putting together the Persians I looked over the way they really looked. Frankly, whole armies of them were apparently rag dolls or just had rugs or something. So I just looked at the coolest warriors there were and a number of them just happened to be Japanese. ‘Should I do that?’ So when I was putting together my version of this, I just wanted it to look cool. The same with in Sin City, for instance. I defy anyone to pick what decade it takes place in because it’s got cell phones and ‘53 Cadillac Eldorados. I know you’re all from Los Angeles so you’re used to that, but the rest of us aren’t.”

Zack Snyder: “I think Sin City is a good example. Nobody would accuse Sin City of being historically inaccurate because it takes place in modern times. When you look at the book and you look at the immortals, you say, ‘Okay, they look like ninjas sort of.’ I personally also feel like that’s cool, those little tassels. That’s cool. You have to have that. But also you have this narration that kind of covers the whole film. I imagine the film as if I was a Spartan and I had never seen an immortal or a Persian, or an elephant or a rhino for that matter, and I was waiting and Dilios was telling me about it, what would I picture?”

Frank Miller: “And also if you were a Spartan at the time, it seems really unlikely there were 70 foot elephants in Thermopylae, okay? There haven’t been a lot of them spotted. But how would you remember it when you first saw this monster? It would be 70 feet tall because nobody from the Greek side had ever seen an elephant. So I think taking liberties and thinking more and more abstract really falls into historical tradition.”

Zack Snyder: “In the Making Of book there’s a guy named Victor Davis Hanson who is a…”

Frank Miller: “We’re his fan club.”

Zack Snyder: “He’s a frickin genius. He’s a Greek historian and we showed him the movie because I wanted him to write a forward to the Making Of book. I was a little nervous to be honest, because I wasn’t sure how he’d react. And Kurt Johnstad who he and I worked on the screenplay together, he actually also is a huge fan of Victor Davis Hanson.

He went up to show him the movie at his house. And about halfway through the movie, it’s the scenes where the Spartans are leaving for Thermopylae and they’re walking out of Sparta, Victor turned to Kurt and said, ‘Are the Spartans just going to be naked like this the whole time?’ And Kurt kind of went, ‘Yeah…,’ thinking that Victor was like, ‘Okay, wrong.’ But at the end of the movie he said, ‘You know, I’ve got to say that the movie in some ways,’ and I’m going to post on the website just a little excerpt from it because I feel like it’s a cool thing for people to read because it actually puts a lot of it in perspective as far as from an historical standpoint. He says that, ‘Look, if you have a problem with distilling the Battle of Thermopylae down to freedom versus tyranny, you need to read Herodotus because he’s the one. It’s his fault, not modern culture’s fault. He did it.’ He references a lot of things like that because he feels like the spirit of the book and of the movie are very close to the Spartan aesthetic. That’s really kind of what he feels.”

Frank Miller: “When I started work on the comic book I said, ‘Okay, let’s see how the accurate version works.’ Imagining 300 slow-moving beetles wearing skirts coming across the field to face off, rather than these huge, muscular guys running with these red capes and those really scary Corinthian helmets. I mean, jumping back to Victor Davis Hanson, it was right in the middle of maybe our first conversation that Zack brought his name up, not realizing that he was citing my favorite non-fiction writer in the whole universe. I kind of felt we were starting to get along.”

Page 4: Frank Miller and Zack Snyder on Future Projects

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What do you think this says about your visual style?
Frank Miller: “I think it says the source is drawn. Rather than build all this stuff and spend twice as much money and maybe three times as much time, you can actually do this new hybrid that's somewhere between animation and live action. It's the closest thing to bringing a cartoon to life as it could be while using the magic that is actors and everything film can do.

I sat here stunned at a lot of this footage. I never saw this stuff coming. Zack blew me away.”

Zack Snyder: “Also, for us, I think that it’s hard when you look at the graphic novel and you think about the philosophy of like, ‘Let’s make this into a movie,’ when you have a book that never presupposes a visual approach. It may be in the text, but I think that when the text is an image you have an obligation to respect that. That’s kind of why, for me anyway, why the movie looks like that.”

Now that Sin City and 300 are on the screen, how would you feel about Ronin or The Dark Knight Returns?
Frank Miller: “You know what? (Laughing) It just takes a phone call.”

Watchmen, Cobalt 60 and The Spirit – are we going to see these in green screen or shot on regular sets?
Frank Miller:The Spirit is going to be green screen.”

Zack Snyder:Cobalt I don’t know about, as far as what we’ll do with it. But as far as Watchmen goes, it’s going to be somewhere in between.”

Frank Miller: “A hybrid of a hybrid.”

Zack Snyder: “Yes, exactly. Crazy though that might seem.”

Zack, how did you convince people you were the guy to bring this project to life?
Zack Snyder: “I think that’s a credit to Warner Bros and all the guys there. I feel like they never doubted for a second. I was like, ‘Dawn wasn’t that good, guys.’ You know?

I didn’t bring it up because I thought it might dissuade them (laughing).

I think they felt that I was so clear with my passion for this. I’ve got to say that the thing about Dawn is that in attitude, it’s all about tone. Dawn is all about the tone of the movie. When I was making the film the studio was actually kind of mad. Universal was kind of mad at me because there wasn’t a lot of doves or wind. They’re like, ‘You’re a commercial director. Make it look like a commercial. Why does it look like this?’ I said, ‘It’s just not appropriate. This is like a cult movie; it should look like a cult movie not like a Hollywood slick freak-out. It should be a love letter to the original movie, not a copy or mock of the original movie.’ That’s kind of what I was trying to do. They’re just like, ‘Okay, you’re thinking about it way too hard.’ (laughing) And so I just feel like the thing with the guys at Warner Bros, they said, ‘Okay, we get the movie.’ I feel like they got the movie to the point where they were ready to bank on not particularly what I shot there, but the tone and that I understood what I was making. I think that’s different. Does that make any sense? I’m not sure it does. I can talk in circles – that’s how I got the movie made.”

What other Frank Miller property would you like to tackle?
Zack Snyder: “Me? Frank Miller? He’s tackling all the Frank Miller properties. I stole one. I lucked out. “