A pack of tourists and a museum docent fanned out in front of Leonidas at Thermopylae in the Louvre a few months ago. Spotting Jacques-Louis David's 1814 oil painting of a buff, naked warrior king preparing to lead 300 Spartan troops into battle, a cheerful young American said: "Awesome. I just made a movie of this."
"Really?" said the docent. "What does it look like?"
The young man shrugged and smiled. "It basically looks like this."
"Well, those men are all naked," the docent said after a long pause.
"Yeah," the man replied. "That's kind of what the Spartans were all about."
Zack Snyder is something of an expert after spending years creating his own audaciously loud, fast-paced cinematic painting of the Spartans' tale, 300, a $60-million live-action adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's 1999 graphic novel.
Snyder has visualized thousands of permutations of the overmatched Greek force that held off hoards of advancing Persians in 480 B.C., fighting to the death for their freedom and inspiring the resistance of their countrymen. And for 300, he's developed an inventive visual vocabulary, shooting on film and using a bevy of fancy camera, lighting and sonic tricks drawn from his work in commercials to bring his actors, filmed against neutral blue screen, to bold life in a moody CGI world.
With 300 (which opens today) Snyder, 40, seems to defy the conventions of stiff and airless blue screen movies in which muted performances belie pretend environments. The rule on his sets was that anything the actors touched had to be real - the stone paths they walked on, the elaborate litter that carries Xerxes, the Persian king. Instead of playing to imaginary foils, they had more tangible environments to ground their performances. Battles were staged with swords and shields.
Snyder samples from high and low culture - everything from the masterworks of Greek antiquity to Super Bowl beer ads. But it was Miller's bold silhouetted frames and Varley's firelit colors in the pages of 300 that Snyder and his cast and crew seem to have tattooed on the backs of their eyelids. In the more than three months of prep, 60 days of shooting on bluescreen sets in Montreal and year-and-a-half in postproduction, it was broad visual references, as opposed to words, that informed the creative intent of the movie.
Much of the action unfolds in bold tableaux under the stormy skies of battle and aftermath - the dust of an attack, smoke of a burning village. The reds of capes and blood are the only colors that cut through in silhouetted backgrounds. Austere rocks and an angry Aegean Sea below offset the brutal violence and almost inhuman discipline of the outnumbered Spartans in battle.
Gerard Butler (King Leonidas) signed on after watching a four-minute Snyder test shot. During production he spent hours in the art department studying artistic renderings and referring back to the graphic novel, he said. "I knew I would never again come across a hero quite as masculine, powerful or uncompromising," Butler said. "When you read the graphic novel you see every pose the king has is such a position of strength and power I pushed for this stylized movement from the novel when you see us all walking together, leaning forward and marching like a machine."
Miller, who co-directed Sin City, has spoken effusively about Snyder's 300 adaptation ever since a teaser debuted at Comic-Con last summer. Miller has said it's not that Snyder faithfully copied every last detail in his novel, it's that he tapped into a similar mythic scope. Snyder nailed the visual ideal of an oral history told over hundreds of years by firelight.
"Very accurate, detailed figures walking around in battle is boring," Miller said. "The most important thing was to strip them down to helmets and red capes. Spartans move like lightning. Reality be damned."
Sheigh Crabtree writes for the Los Angeles Times.