“300: Rise of an Empire” is a new chapter of the epic saga based on the graphic novel “Xerxes” by Frank Miller and directed by Noam Murro from a screenplay by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad. Told in the breathtaking visual style of the blockbuster “300,” the story takes the action to a new battlefield – the sea — and pits the Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) against the massive invading Persian forces, ruled by the mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), and led by Artemisia (Eva Green), the vengeful commander of the Persian navy. Opening March 7th, the film also stars Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey and Jack O’Connell.
At the film’s recent press day, Green, Headey, Mulvey, O’Connell, Murro, Johnstad, and producers Bernie Goldmann, Mark Canton, and Zack and Deborah Snyder talked about referencing the first film yet doing something fresh and new, why Murro was tapped to direct the sequel, having two strong female characters in an otherwise hyper-masculine universe, the theme of defending and protecting family that runs through the story and inspires the action, how they chose to convey the thematic expansion visually without losing the connection to the first film, and the challenge of bringing an epic battle to life on sound stages using green screen.
Here’s what they had to say:
QUESTION: Lena and Eva, you play the two female characters in this hyper-masculine universe. Can you talk about the position of these women in this world?
EVA GREEN: First of all, I think it’s quite rare to see strong women in an action film kicking some ass, so that’s cool. She’s like a man in a woman’s body. She is really ballsy, very brave, and she was kind of traumatized as a child. So, she built this armor around her to survive. She became so driven and blinded by vengeance and completely obsessed. She’s bonkers.
LENA HEADEY: It all goes back for a bit of revenge, I’d say. Simple. It was great to be able to hold a sword. I liked that about it.
Q: For the actors, I’m curious about your process and referencing the first film and how your role and style fit into it. Did you have to study what was done before to try to get a template and then do something fresh, unique and new?
JACK O’CONNELL: I was very keen to be able to introduce a youth element to the story, and obviously then that becomes relevant to the paternal relationship with Callan’s (Callan Mulvey) character, Scyllias, and how that sort of a battle mentality can change the age of an individual. I guess Calisto (O’Connell’s character) is younger than me but perhaps more mentally mature, which I didn’t think featured in the original picture. That was a new idea from the writing team. I was in a position where I was at the peak of my life, the prime of my life physically anyway. Personally, I’ve since peaked, so thankfully we’ve got documentation.
CALLAN MULVEY: I felt that stylistically that part of the world had been taken care of. It was primarily up to us to just find those humanistic threads to our characters and portray those relationships, particularly with Calisto, in a realistic way.
Q: I liked the family relationship, not only between father and son, but everyone who had their motivations based on things that had happened to their family. Can you talk a little bit about the theme of defending and protecting your family that runs through the film?
HEADEY: Speaking from Gorgo’s (Headey’s character) 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 avenging him. So, in terms of her, it’s pretty straightforward. There’s only one way to go.
ZACK SNYDER: When Kurt (Johnstad) and I originally started talking about how we would incorporate the different characters and make them do what they were going to do in the movie, it was always we could do that with the kid or the wife or the mother. Those are strong things that we always talk about. For us, just talking about the origins of the story, it was getting those guys to go into battle for their families or for their children or whatever. I think that’s easy stuff to feel, so it made its way into the story pretty easily.
DEBORAH SNYDER: I think what’s really interesting about this story is, in the first story, we could never be the Spartans. They were trained to be these warriors from day one and we’re more like the free Greeks. Most of them were untrained. Their navy was so small compared to the Persians, so they had to rely on all the people and motivate them to come and join them. It was super personal. They were fighting for their families. They were fighting for their land. Being relatively untrained, it’s just a whole different mentality, and they had so much more at stake and so much more to risk because of that.
Q: The first film had such a unique visual style, certain signatures of Zack’s plus just its own kind of mojo. This one is really of a piece with the first one. How did you accomplish that, to bring that established look over yet still have it be its own thing as well?
NOAM MURRO: I think the idea was thematically there is an expansion here, and therefore there’s a way to do that visually. There is geography and weather systems and the idea that most of this is happening at sea, on the open seas. It really allows you to do something that is different. Operatically speaking, this allows you to do something that’s a little bigger and has, I guess, just a deeper visual root into it, and it allows you to open it up. Also, part of the challenge was how do you connect this, because “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 still have a real connection to the original. That was really part of the struggle.
Q: You had such success with the first film, and with the second, you really had your work cut out for you. Who had the hardest job? Was it possibly writing the script, directing or trying to get the actors in shape?
MURRO: I did. (Laughter)
MARK CANTON: It’s all hard and that’s the truth. It’s about team work, and I think in the spirit of the question about family, this is a very unique group of human beings, a very unique group of talented professionals, and it somehow, as rarely happens, kind of finds its own rhythm amongst everybody here. It’s a team, and I think it’s amplified in the best way in the process.
BERNIE GOLDMANN: Everybody has their own cross to bear in making the movie. I think Mark’s right. Everybody works together, and it’s a different challenge for everyone involved. 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 always to make something that could stand on its own and be a true movie that stood beside the first one. I feel like everyone stepped up to that task. That’s hugely rewarding.
O’CONNELL: May I slightly interject also? I certainly took a lot of inspiration and very useful tools from seeing Sullivan Stapleton’s approach. Unfortunately, he isn’t here today. I feel he along with Eve really led the piece in terms of endurance anyway. I think he shares that with a version of Themistokles (character played by Hans Matheson) perhaps. For me, as a young actor aspiring, it’s definitely beneficial to work with someone the likes of Sullivan.
Q: Zack, what was it about Noam’s directorial background that drew you to him as your successor in the sequel? And Noam, what drew you to Zack and made you really want to get involved in this project?
ZACK SNYDER: Noam came to talk to us about the idea of making the movie, because we had the script and we knew that I was going to do “Man of Steel,” and there was no way honestly that I was going to be able to do it. It was a big decision to say, okay, maybe we should get another director to direct the movie. We started to talk about different directors. Debbie had worked with Noam on a TV commercial back in the day that I think they shot in Toronto. We talked, and she had been a big fan of Noam’s and still is, of course, but now in this new incarnation. That initiated the idea that we might work with him. And then, he came and told us a little bit about what he would want to do with the movie, and frankly it was a lot of the things that I had said to these guys (referring to producers Mark Canton and Bernie Goldmann) all those years ago when I was pitching the original movie. I felt there was symmetry in the full circle aspect of it. And then, he did this cool presentation, and we just really felt like he had the vocabulary to make something cool, and I think he has. So that’s how we came to it.
MURRO: I remember seeing the previous “300” when I was sitting in a theater in L.A. and literally I think I said, “What the fuck is this?” It blew my mind because I really hadn’t seen anything like that, just taking the genre and flipping it completely on its head and doing something operatic and something you really hadn’t seen before. When the envelope came from across the street from CAA (Creative Artists Agency) with the script, I just couldn’t believe it. It influenced me, and it influenced a bunch of people for years, and it really changed in many ways the way cinema is looked at and this genre in general. There were many attempts at imitating it. I think I drew so much out of it, and the challenge was really how do you continue to look back at it and understand the greatness of what happened there and just keep pushing it forward.
Q: How do you keep this story exciting when it’s set in a period like this and it’s a big action movie and we’re so used to seeing the use of robotics and sophisticated weaponry? Is it challenging to write it?
ZACK SNYDER: I think in truth there are robots in the movie. (Laughter) No, I’m kidding. Kurt and I, and he can speak to this, too, but when we were working on “300” originally, it was a thing that we just thought was cool. Clearly, there’s cool action and stories to be told that don’t necessarily take place in a sci-fi environment. We have a great tradition of historical films that I think 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 and maybe better than laser guns and lightsabers. When Kurt and I talk about it, these are things that we find cool. By the time Noam gets it, the spirit of the thing is already, I hope anyway, infused with an energy that might help this to be interesting visually. That might be guys with swords and no shirts on and it’s enjoyable.
DEBORAH SNYDER: Maybe that’s the key.
ZACK SNYDER: Those robots just don’t have that.
MURRO: It’s funny, because in all these movies robots try to do what we do, which is at the end of it, they just try to be human and they try to move like humans and have emotions like humans. We feel blessed because we didn’t have to deal with all the other shit. 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.
Q: Kurt, what does a script like this look like?
MURRO: (Laughs) White pages with black letters.
KURT JOHNSTAD: There are lots of variations, but one of the things that Zack and I always try to do is distill, because the action beats will always play out and you always make a spectacle in those things. It’s really drilling down on character and the moments between character and kind of the silences that characters can play between each other. They don’t necessarily need to be talking out what’s happening. It’s the idea of people are an army of conquests versus an army of survival or defense. I think that 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, “Okay, 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 idea is to try things. Zack and I have done it several times where we’ve written and collaborated well with one another, and I think that what we’re always trying to do is take risks and not be afraid to fail, and then turn those failures into some kind of success. That’s on a scene basis or on a structural or act basis. And then, you look at the total of the film, and hopefully, you have something that lands with an audience.
Q: The first film is so much about myth-making and it demanded a certain kind of performance that had a largeness to it that was not just compelling but inspirational. This movie has much more philosophical equivocation and it depicts the ambiguities of war in a more nuanced way. For the actors, can you talk about determining and negotiating the scale of the performances that is supposed to have real humanity but at the same time is supposed to play faithfully into the stylization and the mythic nature of the filmmaking?
MULVEY: I think you’re finding that balance between 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 it’s such high stakes. Although the battles and the physical elements of the film and what you have to do as an actor certainly helped create that, you just have to be as real as you can with the other actor and make it high stakes. If you keep that real, then everything around you will fall into place, because we’re in a room on a sound stage with a bit of dirt and green walls around. 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: 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. My character is quite full on, so to go all the way and not play natural. It’s brave but it’s cool.
HEADEY: There’s no kind of giant science to it. If 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 like Kurt said, you don’t have to write every single word down. Some of it is just done with pure emotion. This piece is about war and death and love, so 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 to what Callan said in the sense that I feel that there were two primary priorities with this role in particular. There was the emotional nature and involvement and also the physicalities, which to some degree were pretty extreme. I believe we all did our own stunts. That enabled us to introduce anything sort of outwardly extravagant into the fighting styles, which meant we could have fought to be subtle I guess with the realities, which I think in this kind of piece gives it a real heartbeat. It’s very astonishing to watch, but also to really feel and empathize. As an actor, that’s a luxury to be able to perform and feel something. It was definitely a distinction between the physicalities and the emotion.
Q: For Noam, I was speaking with Mark Twight, the lead fitness trainer, and it sounds like you got inspired and were working out with the crew when you were in Bulgaria. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
MURRO: 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. Now I’m Jewish. I don’t lift stuff. (Laughs) But I did, and it’s amazing the transformation and what your body can do. It’s a humungous part of the process 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, because at the end of the day it’s up on the screen. There’s almost choreography and dance in it. When you look at it and you zoom out for a second, you don’t just look at it as pure action, but 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 and all that, it is a mental part in making it all come together.
Q: Did the actors all 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, at lunch and in the evening. I think we all ate about 239.6 calories a day and that was really what it was.
Q: Was it torture for you guys?
HEADEY: I loved it, but then I’m a sadist and a tomboy. The sad thing is when it’s over, it all kind of goes pfffft.
MULVEY: I think everybody went straight to the fat can once we stopped filming. I know for me personally I never want to look at chicken and broccoli again, which is basically all we ate and then we just lifted things constantly. We were learning all our fight sequences in the lead-up to the shoot and training throughout the shoot. It was quite exhausting, but the great thing was they trained us in such a way that 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 the fight scenes. They could actually move the way they were supposed to and you didn’t have to have the stunt doubles in as much.
HEADEY: You’ve really let it go, Callan. (Laughter) It’s 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 straight away. It’s very scary in the beginning to have to do all the squats and lunges, and it’s like oh my God. It’s painful, but then it helps you for the fights and you can go quite low. After a while, you feel very proud of yourself. That was the best thing and 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 then I was ready to go. I mean hard in a strong sense, not… (Laughter) Physically. I’m happy to indulge you further.
Q: Your characters and performances are completely badass. When it comes to fight choreography, what was the learning curve for you guys regarding all the sword work and all of that coordination?
GREEN: It’s like a dance. I’ve always been an enormous fan of those Chinese films like “Hero,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and all that. 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. That’s a great thing just to let it all out and just go for it. It takes a while to digest it and then be able to do it. It requires lots of work.
Q: For Noam, every project has its unique challenges. What was the most difficult aspect for you of directing this film?
MURRO: First of all, when I came back from shooting it, I removed everything green in my house. The challenge really is on multiple levels. We’re really recreating an epic on a sound stage, and it’s an epic that takes place in the water on a sound stage, and you have to imagine quite a bit. There are multiple complexities to that visual part of it, but there’s also a complexity to how these characters need to come to life. I had these wonderful actors come to life, and I can’t imagine really how they do that, because we’re standing on a little piece of stage, and we have to imagine that we’re in the middle of the sea and actually pull that off emotionally and physically. Just the complexities 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 and come back on stage.
Q: For the actors, how uncomfortable are your costumes and how were you able to move in them for the many action sequences?
MULVEY: It’s just one word: Vaseline. (Laughter)
ZACK SNYDER: Let’s not combine these two answers. (More laughter)
MULVEY: You’re wearing leather underpants. They’re not the most comfortable garments to run around chopping people’s heads off in. But the negatives were taken care of by plenty of Vaseline to stop the chaffing. That’s all I can say about that.
O’CONNELL: I’d just like to second what Callan said. We went through a lot of Vaseline. We actually shared. We shared some, didn’t we? We had the same jar at one point.
ZACK SNYDER: It was a tight budget.
MURRO: I have to say he loved it.
MULVEY: 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. It was very easy to move in them, for myself anyway. (to Eva) You had a little bit more to put on?
GREEN: Yeah. 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 kind of like 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.
Q: Let’s let Zack have the last words about “300: Rise of an Empire.”
ZACK SNYDER: We have an amazing cast as you can see. They’re very funny and smart and physical and amazing actors. We also have a director who made a picture that is amazing. When we made “300,” in truth, a lot of the movie was also created through a lot of economic restrictions. We had this idea of the style of movie we wanted to make and we knew it was kind of a boutique-y movie. We thought it was a movie for a small audience that would be into this kind of crazy, comic book-y sort of sandals movie. It really was a genre that didn’t exist. There are swords and sandals movies. There are comic book movies. But it wasn’t really that kind of world where we were mashing those things up. Frank (Miller) had done it in the comic book, and to me, when I read the comic book, I said, “Oh this is an amazing comic book.” The cool thing about what these guys have done, and what the movie has done, is that it took that language and without a comic book now, because Frank hasn’t finished it, but with Frank’s inspiration still flowing frankly across Kurt and I first and then Noam and now these guys. What he did in that book is now echoed across the movie. I was a little bit not 100 percent sure when we first finished “300.” They all die. I guess that’s it. We didn’t really think that there could be another movie, but then Frank came and said, “Oh yeah, this other thing happened actually on the same three days at Thermopylae” and we were like, “What? That’s cool!” It actually was really fun for me to see these two movies now exist next to each other. We were talking about how we could actually come together if we were ambitious. Maybe some fans will do that. It’s satisfying for me, because in a weird way it’s come full circle.