Frank Millers 300 : Bringing the Novel To LifePosted by: Stanch
Mysterious. Fierce. Formidable. Spartans are among the most enigmatic cultures in history. Taught never to retreat, never to surrender, they are the perfect warriors. "The Spartans remain a mystery to everybody," says Frank Miller, who wrote the graphic novel 300 which inspired the film. "They are arguably unique in that they are completely a battle culture, absolutely dedicated to warfare. They have a code of honor on what it means to be Spartan, and out of that arises a heroic class like the world has never seen before."
Co-writer/director Zack Snyder adds, "Spartans live for battle. They love it," he says. "They fight as one, creating a phalanx in which each warrior's shield protects the man beside him. It's an awesome and intimidating sight, even for the masses of Persians. Though the Spartans face insurmountable odds in terms of numbers, a true Spartan warrior is always willing to die for freedom--they consider it a 'beautiful death.' They define themselves by sacrifice and freedom."
Frank Miller first encountered the Spartans when he saw the film "The 300 Spartans" as a kid. He remembers, "I was quite shaken and inspired by it because it taught me that heroes aren't the people who necessarily get a medal at the end of the story, that heroes are people who do what is right because it is right, even making the ultimate sacrifice to do it. All my life I wanted to tell this story because it's the best story I've ever encountered. And, eventually, I gained the skills as a cartoonist, such that I thought I could finally handle it."
To illustrate 300, Miller synthesized his substantial research--which took him to the cliffs of Thermopylae itself--with the trademark style he brought to such legendary graphic works as Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns. He pared down the Spartans' uniform (roughly half his body weight in uniform and weapons) down to its most essential and symbolic features and peppered the story of the historic 480 B.C. battle of Thermopylae with elements of prior and subsequent clashes between Xerxes and the Greeks.
"Frank took an actual event and turned it into mythology, as opposed to taking a mythological event and turning it into reality," says Snyder, who blended Miller's bold vision with his own to make the feature film. "That's the refreshing thing about it. He wanted to get at the essence, as opposed to the reality, of what a Spartan is. If you go to Thermopylae, the statue of Leonidas is a nude; he's got a shield and spear and a helmet and that's it. Frank went to Thermopylae and I'm sure he saw that and went, 'Okay, this is how we have to do it.'"
Walking through the underbrush of Thermopylae had a profound effect on Miller. "It's a place where great and glorious things happened," he describes. "We are talking about the crucible, the epicenter of the battle for everything that we have, for everything that is Western civilization. There's a reason why we are as free as we are, and a lot of it begins with the story of 300 young men holding a very narrow pass long enough to inspire the rest of Greece."
300 became a best seller and won Miller numerous industry awards. "The story sold itself," he comments. "I just did my best to do justice to a great moment in history. It was very important to streamline the appearance of characters to make them more dynamic and to lose the sense of this being an old story. It's not an old story; it's an eternal story."
The book gained a legion of fans, counting among them the co-writer/director and producers of the feature film. "The beautiful thing about Frank's book, and about any of Frank's work, is the prose that goes along with his drawings," notes Snyder. "It is not just an illustration; there is this poetry. The way that he structures the prose is as important as the drawings to me. I wanted to think of a way to preserve and honor his prose, as well as his imagery in the film."
Five years ago, producer Gianni Nunnari and Snyder were discussing future projects on which to collaborate when Snyder noticed Nunnari's copy of the graphic novel on his desk. Nunnari championed the project solo for several years. He was able to reach out to convince producer Mark Canton to get involved with him and develop the project in earnest with Snyder as director and co-writer.
"300 is an incredible work and Zack came to this project with such love for the material itself," Canton enthuses. "He also brought such an extraordinary vision for what it could be as a film that we became tremendously excited about the possibilities."
Nunnari adds, "The property itself just opened his imagination. He saw every ingredient clearly - from the visualization of the fighting to the characters themselves. We knew that what he wanted to make would be a seminal film."
"Gianni's persistence and Mark's dedication to this project convinced me," recalls Miller. "First Gianni, then Mark, were so determined and so believed in the story that they won me over. Zack really wanted to make this movie. He's really charming and was so completely focused on this project that it was very difficult to say no...so I didn't."
Snyder found his process in conceiving the feature film similar to what Miller had experienced. He wanted to eschew the precepts of realistic filmmaking and instead find a way to "make it live on screen," he explains. "I didn't want to make a film that looks like a photograph but, rather, to put you inside the world Frank created in the graphic novel. This is not an historical drama. It's not a linear story. Nor is it meant to be entirely historically accurate. Our goal was to create a true experience unlike anything you've ever seen before."
A core team of filmmakers coalesced around "300" from the moment it crystallized. Producers Canton, Nunnari and Bernie Goldmann were all captivated by the story. "Zack was so specific about how he wanted this film to look and feel," comments Goldmann, "and as the project began to take shape, there was great satisfaction in knowing that Zack would be bringing this story to life in a way that audiences have never seen before."
Snyder, in the interim, made his directorial debut with "Dawn of the Dead" and then immediately returned to the project, working on the adaptation with his writing partner Kurt Johnstad, infusing the story with additions that sprang naturally from the clarity of Miller's original vision (Michael B. Gordon had written a previous draft of the screenplay). Producer Jeffrey Silver joined the team to work closely with the physical production and visual effects aspects of the production.
"From the start, everyone on this film, from the studio to the producers, executive producers, the cast and production team, was incredibly supportive of what I wanted to do with '300,'" says Snyder. "They all grasped the vision so well and were such tremendous collaborators that it has been a truly extraordinary experience."
Snyder's decision to make the graphic novel had groundbreaking implications for the film's look. "The look development was a big part of the process," Snyder continues. "You go to the movies because you want an experience that's different. That's what we tried to do with '300.' Whether it was landscapes or battles or action or architecture, every frame in the movie is like a visual effect."
Snyder initially storyboarded the film himself, and ultimately, he and his producing partner and wife, executive producer Deborah Snyder, and associate producer Wesley Coller put together a development package to express the director's vision for the film.
The presence of Frank Miller, who also served as an executive producer on the movie, might have proved intimidating to the director, but Goldmann counters, "Frank was so nice and so helpful. Whenever Zack sought his input or approval, he would say, 'Keep going, it's great. I love what you're doing.' He embraced the movie and all the people involved in making it."
A series of tests was conducted on every aspect of the film, from lighting and costumes to the texture of the sets. One of the elements that the filmmakers wanted to explore was the photographic look of the film. Snyder had the idea of manipulating the color balance to create a process that was ultimately nicknamed "the crush." "Zack developed a recipe where you'd crush the black content of the image and enhance the color saturation to change the contrast ratio of the film," Jeffrey Silver explains. "Every image in this film went through a post-image processing. The crush is what gives this film its distinct look and feel."
"I don't want anyone to say, 'Oh, that looks like Greece or that looks like Canada,'" explains Snyder. "I want them to be, from beginning to end, inside of this experience."
"We were all in awe of the scope of what Zack wanted to do with this multi-layered effects process," Canton adds.
"The evolution of what was filmed, from the set to the final product, brings this story into another realm," says Nunnari.
Gerard Butler, who stars as King Leonidas, states, "It's almost like somebody who was there and witnessed the battle went to sleep and dreamed the whole thing again because a lot of it is very representational...a lot of it exists in the imagination, so it allows us to take it so much further. It's an incredible story, which has been an inspiration to so many people throughout history, but it's not a documentary. It is a fantastic story full of passion and politics and brutality and so many more things, existing in this hyper-real, beautiful, emotional world."