SOFIA, BULGARIA. “Show no mercy and give no quarter!” bellows Eva Green, as she strides confidently out of a ship’s state room, through a sea of masked men. Wearing a badass, fringed leather tunic with metallic highlights in front and spikes poking out of her back, she paces towards the camera once, twice, three times.
“Today, the last Greek ships will be destroyed,” she announces over and over again. That first line remains the same with every reading, but Green keeps varying the second line, barking the order in different directions, varying the clarity and the emphasis.
After each take, Green returns to her character’s state room. Director Noam Murro isn’t making refinements to Green’s performance, though. The Persian queen Artemisia is assertive, loud and sexy and she’s not the problem. The problem appears to be the obscured men referred to as proto-samurais. They’re clad in heavy, layered armor and they’re wearing matching versions of what seems to be a more bellicose version of the famed masks of Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. The masks, which come in several complicated pieces, are bedecked with threatening metal dreadlocks, so we may be comparing them to samurai, but a better antecedent might be The Predator.
It’s hard in here for a proto-samurai. To begin with, they have to be giving expressive performances, even though their faces are completely covered and they’re almost entirely immobile. They can’t remove the masks wearing their gloves and they can’t remove their gloves without the help of assistants. So between shots, some of the proto-samurai remain in full costume, while others get help from scurrying assistants so that they can get water or scratch an itch.
It probably won’t be the case when “300: Rise of an Empire” is released, but on this September day in 2012 at Sofia, Bulgaria’s Nu Boyana Studios, the proto-samurai are the stars of the movie.
Murro, best known for a resume of acclaimed commercials and the Dennis Quaid movie “Smart People,” is shooting a variety of set-ups on the deck of Artemisia’s boat. The rest of the vessel, the bulk of the ship really, is on a different stage, where it’s attached to giant wheels, like the biggest imaginable Boston duck boat. That other ship is the one with the huge throne in the center and the two enormous bearded heads at the prow, each wearing a necklace of skulls. For these set-ups, though, we’re just on a small stage, with a dozen journalists and at least a dozen proto-samurai and at least a dozen proto-samurai holders, the quarters are close.
The rise of the proto-samurai on this day is one of practicality. There are a number of shots that involve this exact positioning of the cabin. In at least one shot, Artemisia enters the room. In two other shots, Sullivan Stapleton’s Themistocles enters and exits the cabin, wearing a vivid flock. The principles in each shot change, as does the movement of the camera, but the proto-samurais remain in place and while they all sport flawless posture and threatening stature when we first arrive on the stage, over an hour later, they’re stretching, doing deep knee bends, basically doing anything to stay up-right. All the while, Murro is yelling directions at an assistant director in accented English, the assistant director is yelling directions at a translator, who then turns the directions into Bulgarian. It’s hard to pick up the exact words, but all evidence is that the direction is something along the lines of, “Stand up straight.”
The entire scene is playing out in a room festooned in the obligatory blue and green screens, even though the images on the monitor are all tight enough where the screens aren’t visible anywhere and where digital augmentation is, while inevitable, likely to be less pervasive than in other scenes.
“You know, there are moments where it’s very difficult, and there are moments where it’s liberating, because there is an upside of it, is that it feels like theater, so you really are left with an effect of what acting is and that’s the beauty of it, so you can really work on that and really feel that,” Murro tells us earlier that day. “The other side of that is you have to imagine everything and you see nothing. So, I think it’s modern filming, modern cinema — I don’t know if it’s ‘filmmaking’ or ‘cinema’ or ‘movies — but it’s certainly going there. We were joking the other day, that maybe in 25 years, you won’t need him. [He looks over at Sullivan Stapleton, loitering in the room.] You’ll always need me. There are no locations, no nothing. You just sample his voice, get a couple pictures of him. You don’t have to negotiate with him. You say what I tell you say, exactly how I want you to say it.”
There’s at least a sense that Murro’s involvement is meant as an indication that “300: Rise of an Empire” isn’t meant to be a replica of Zack Snyder’s blockbuster first film which, itself, took more than a little of its style from Frank Miller’s graphic novel.
“I’ve seen ‘Smart People,’ but it was really much more about the commercial work he had done and what he had to say about the movie,” producer Bernie Goldmann says of Murro.
Goldmann continues, “The great thing about the movie and the great thing, I think, about making the second movie is that there was this other battle going on at the same time, so you get to see the first movie through different eyes which I think is a great way to make a sequel, is to tell really a similar story, from a different point of view at the same time.”
The Israeli-born director is a giant in the commercial world, but in the feature world, he’s more down for the big projects he departed — “A Good Day to Die Hard,” “The Ring Two” — than his lone feature, which was a tiny dramedy about a family of academics. So how was he chosen for this film?
“It’s like asking my wife why she married me,” Murro cracks. “I don’t know. If I were her, ‘No’ would be the answer, but I think that during the process of doing it, we all had a similar sort of approach to it, in a way that none of us, including the studio, and it’s incredible that they were able, what I’m saying is true. Nobody in the chain of command, from the head of the studio to whatever. Nobody wanted to do a copycat of the film. I don’t know, if when it comes out, people go, ‘It’s exactly the same, What are you talking about?’ But, at least from an intentional point of view, we did not. And I think I came in with a certain view of that that is different. The story is different. The characters are different. I think visually, there’s enough in there people will go, ‘Yeah! I’m going in there to see that, but I’m not watching the same thing again.'”
See, “300: Rise of an Empire” has to walk a difficult tightrope. The first movie established an aesthetic that was, at the time, relatively unique. The aesthetic was then repeated in a slew of generally less successful movies. So there’s a message that “Rise of an Empire” will be very different, but it will also be very much the same. See?
“I think that what we have to do is we’re guests,” Murro explains. “To a certain extent, I have responsibility as a guest to honor the house I’m in. I remember when ‘300’ came out and it was just one of those things you just went, ‘What the f*** is this?’ I remember seeing it, as a preview. I don’t remember what movie I was in and I looked at it and said ‘What the f*** is,’ and I think that we are trying at least, humbly so, to do the same thing, that you look at it and you go ‘What the f*** is this?’ with a bit of history. I think we’re going for something that has, you can recall some of the aesthetic, but God forbid we’re repeating ourselves for the sake of repeating ourselves. The issue is not to milk it. The issue is to further it. Part of what makes this interesting, I think, from a thematical point of view, from a visual point of view, from any point of view really, is this is a second story to a building. This is not a copy of suburbia. We’re not just building Type A building again. We’re building fully a second story to something that is complex.”
But it’s like building a second story when the owner of the first story is a constant presence. Because of that movie with the guy in tights and a cap, Snyder wasn’t a constant on-set premise on “Rise of an Empire,” but he wrote the script with Kurt Johnstad and was available to give his blessing for things.
“Look, he’s created an unbelievable franchise, really, that was completely original. I’ll say it again, these are big shoes to fill in that sense. You’ve gotta walk in and it’s got to work on many levels. The amazing thing, and I want to make sure I communicate it, and it’s not just lip-service, is that as a filmmaker, he’s allowed filmmakers to work in their own way,” Murro says. “This is not one of those relationships, and I could name you a few, but I won’t, filmmakers that allow other filmmakers to make a film next to them because they have… but they really don’t. He is not that guy. He gives you the freedom and the wisdom and really if you pressed me, I couldn’t tell you one bad thing about that relationship.”
[More on Page 2, including the challenges of digital water…]
The biggest difference between the original and its sequel, obviously, is elemental. “300” was set on the battlefield, mostly at the Hot Gates. “300: Rise of an Empire” is set on water but, thanks to digital magic, it becomes a different take on Coleridge’s “Water, water every where, nor a drop to drink.” As we’re standing on the stage with the tiny portion of the boat, crewmembers keep coming in and dampening the stage, keeping the maritime glisten. That’s as close to the sea as we’re getting today.
Goldmann requires the elation of reading the script and then processing the risks involved.
“I really remember very clearly sitting on my couch going, ‘Wow, this is going to be fantastic.’ And then it’s like that hangover, that being drunk in enthusiasm wears off and you go, ‘Wow, how the hell do we do this?’ And that’s when you start to go, ‘Well, that’s going to be something,’ because I don’t think anybody’s really done anything like this before, shot a movie without water that takes place on the water,” Goldmann says.
He continues, “It’s easier than the movies that have been shot on water. I can guarantee you that, because the water obviously creates all those problems and when you get to put the water in later, it’s a lot simpler. The challenges are, ‘Oh. OK. Well, the boat’s moving in this scene.’ It becomes a physics problem of, ‘Oh. OK. You’ve got a boat of this size. You’ve got people rowing it. What’s it gonna look like? How fast can you make it go? What can you make it look like? This is gonna be the weather. This is the look of it.’ So there’s an incredible amount of planning that goes into it.”
Murro, who came onto the project after a script was finished and the producers had weighed the risks, entered with his eyes open.
“I don’t want to get too much into it, but there is a correlation between, a thematic correlation between ‘300’ and what this is. Is it to the side of it, to the back of it, the front of it, whatever. So, it had to relate to it in some fashion,” Murro says. “There was a naval Battle of Artemisia for real, and it’s a very good story, because at the heart of it, there is also, as you can tell, there’s Artemisia. So, you bring into it a whole other layer, forget whether it’s happening on the water or whatever, there is a female character in it that is fantastic. So, part of that, it’s really refreshing to have that sort of thing in it, and the challenges are enormous, technically to make. Most filmmakers, that’s where they drown. Right? They say, ‘Don’t work with animals, kids, or water.’ So, animals I am working with, Sully for instance. Water, we’ve got. Kids? No.”
Perhaps the kids are just being saved for a hypothetical third movie? Goldmann, for one, isn’t ready to commit to franchise expansion.
“”Well, the first movie there was no expectations, because it was the kind of thing where everybody passed on it a hundred times,” he says By the time we were making the movie, we were happy to be making the movie and we thought it would be cool, but I don’t think anybody else outside of Zack and Debbie [Snyder] and Mark [Canton] and Jonny [Jashni] thought it was gonna be successful. And what we thought was gonna be successful I think was over on Friday night, we had that level of success that we were hoping for. The second one, I think there’s pressure in making it successful, so I think we’ll wait and think about the third one and hope that this one works.”
And for Murro? Well, he looks at the film’s legacy in a different way. Multiple times in the chat with the press, he references watching big, epic movies on his computer, including “Cleopatra,” which amazed him because how how many of the sets and extras, things that now might be tweaked digitally, were real. I asked the director what the balance is between making a film of cinematic scope, but also being aware that future audiences may watch it on computers or on even smaller screens. What are the things he can care about?
“We care about the opening weekend very much,” he laughs. “Look, it’s the reality and there is life. The interesting part of this is you can’t criticize it. You have to accept it, that there are multiple lives to these things. There is life to it in the opening weekend and the following few, hopefully. And then there is a life for it on your big TV at home and then there is a life for it there, and then just before it dies, it goes on your American Airlines little screen on the version that has PG-11. That’s when it goes to the sh***er and rests peacefully.”
“300: Rise of an Empire” begins its cinematic life on March 7.