300: Rise of Empire–Making the Sequel

In March 2007, the film “300” hit theatres worldwide, enthralling moviegoers with its action-packed portrayal of Sparta’s King Leonidas and his 300 brothers-in-arms who, though vastly outnumbered, heroically took their last stand against the invading Persian forces, ruled by the God-King Xerxes.  The filmmakers, led by “300” writer/director Zack Snyder, brought the ancient legend to life utilizing state-of-the-art filmmaking techniques, wherein the sets and backgrounds existed entirely in a virtual world.

Inspired by the work of graphic novelist Frank Miller, “300” became a global blockbuster, with its stunning imagery that set a new standard for the genre, and unforgettable battle cries, which became part of the pop culture lexicon.  The film’s success naturally spawned talk of a sequel; however, as Snyder points out, there was one clear obstacle.  “You saw the end of that movie—almost all the main characters were dead, so I just felt that it was done.”

There could not be a sequel in the traditional sense, but that did not mean there were no more stories to be told.  Snyder, who produced and co-wrote the screenplay for “300: Rise of an Empire,” recalls, “Frank Miller contacted me and said he was working on an idea about an Athenian general named Themistokles, who led the Greek Navy against the Persian Navy, which was commanded by this amazing woman named Artemisia.  When he told me it took place during the same three days as Thermopylae, where Leonidas faced the Persians at the Hot Gates, and with an equally significant outcome, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s very intriguing.’  The next thing I knew, he sent me an outline and some drawings and I said, ‘Okay, we’re doing this.’”

Producer Deborah Snyder notes, “What Frank came up with enabled us to revisit the same time and place, while introducing new characters who are just as inspiring and fun and have great depth to them.  We wanted to up the ante from the first movie with a really enjoyable ride that offers another level of drama and, of course, tremendous action.”

“The idea was to create a second story within the architecture of the first film,” says Noam Murro, who directed the film.  “Thematically, it is in a similar historical context, so it intersects with ‘300,’ while coming from a different perspective that is just as engaging.”

Snyder reteamed with Kurt Johnstad, his writing partner from “300,” to craft a screenplay for the new film that, Johnstad emphasizes, “could stand alone, so you won’t need to have seen the first movie to follow the second.  It runs on parallel tracks that, every now and then, weave together.  Not having to focus solely on Sparta, we were able to widen the lens and involve the other Greek city-states, particularly Athens, which is at the tipping point of democracy.”

In addition to the Snyders and Johnstad, the film also reunited producers Gianni Nunnari and Mark Canton, who initially developed and brought the original “300” to the studio, and producer Bernie Goldmann, who also helped usher the first film to the screen.  They all agree that the story offered them the opportunity to view the broader conflict that was unfolding at the time in Greece.  Depicting epic battles, brutal and bloody, the action shifts from the land to the sea where the Greeks again face enormous odds.

Nunnari says, “It embraces the history in ‘300,’ but Thermopylae was just one fight in a war that lasted many years, so there was still a lot to explore in the real and mythological stories of the time.”

“That was the most exciting part,” Goldmann says.  “Zack and Kurt created a script that complements the first movie, but it’s an entirely different battlefield.  And these are not Spartans; they are not professional soldiers who live for war.  They are free men who must make a decision to fight, and possibly die, for what they believe in.”

Canton observes, “The whole Spartan concept of a ‘beautiful death’ was stirring, but it was not a unifying philosophy.  A unifying philosophy is the every-man: the bakers, the potters, the poets; people who don’t necessarily see the world the same way but come together in a common cause.  I think that is the primary theme that makes this such a strong story.”

Noam Murro, an award-winning commercial director, was chosen to take the helm of this contiguous chapter of the “300” story after presenting his concepts for the film to the producing team.  Zack Snyder remembers, “He took the story in, and then gave it back to us in a way that was emotional and engrossing.  I was intrigued and felt he would bring something fresh to that whole world, and he did.”

Canton adds, “Noam is not only highly regarded as a terrific shooter, but he also understands story and music and sound and is very technically skilled, so it felt like a natural transition.”

“He knew the challenge would be to make a movie that was respectful of the first but stands on its own, and Noam met that challenge head on,” Goldmann states.  “He is also a wonderful collaborator who surrounded himself with the best team.  He really welcomed their input and gave them the space to do their best work, which I think only enhanced his vision.”

The Greeks are called upon to fight under the leadership of one man, Themistokles, who is part soldier and part politician and is using his abilities as both in the pursuit of one goal.  Sullivan Stapleton, who stars as the Athenian general, remarks, “Whereas Leonidas rules Sparta in a very authoritative, military style, Themistokles must be a great speaker to rally all of Greece to fight as one.  He knows, even then, they may be no match for the Persians, but he loves his country and believes in this new idea of democracy.  The script gave me insight into what was at stake at that time.”

Themistokles’ very formidable adversary is Artemisia, who, Murro asserts, “is also driven, but not by anything as idealistic as democracy; instead her brutality is born of vengeance.  They both believe deeply in their causes, as different as they may be, and that makes it an interesting dynamic.”

Taking on the role of the stunning but ruthless warrior, Eva Green says, “I was able to do some research on her because she actually existed, although she’s quite a bit different in our film.  But a woman commander all those years ago was rather unusual, so she had to have been exceptionally strong.”

“It was fun to set up the circumstances for them to go at each other in this fictionalized, mythological world,” says Zack Snyder.  “It’s like a perpetual motion machine; it just keeps feeding off itself.”

Johnstad says, “One thing Zack and I have always been mindful of—and I think Frank sets the bar high on this, too—is that this is a story that is thousands of years old, but it should never sound thousands of years old.  There is a modern, aggressive quality to the dialogue; not only the male but also the female characters have attitude and snap in a graphic novel sense.  So there is a certain luxury working with pieces that Frank creates because he writes cool, hip, dark stuff that you can expand either backwards or forward on the timeline of history, and it still resonates because it feels true.”

In “300: Rise of an Empire,” it is revealed how Xerxes became a God-King, a metamorphosis in which Themistokles and Artemisia each played a significant part.  Rodrigo Santoro, who again portrays the magnificently adorned Persian ruler, says, “In the first film, you had no idea where he came from, so seeing his transformation brings more dimension to this character, and you understand the power behind his throne.”

Lena Headey reprises her role of the Spartan Queen Gorgo, who now acts as both observer and leader.  Deborah Snyder explains, “Gorgo is our storyteller; it’s her voice that guides us through the film.  She is such a strong female character and adds a whole other layer to the story, because she connects us to the past and to the present.”

As with the first film, almost all of the sets and environments for “300: Rise of an Empire” were achieved virtually, meaning that everyone on the stage, from the actors to the crew, had to visualize in their mind’s eye what the audience would be seeing.  There was also the added challenge that the battles would be waged on the heaving decks of ships at sea instead of on solid ground.

Nunnari offers, “It can be difficult to work on water in general, but imagine having to create a large body of water on screen and then having to stage huge fight sequences on it.  A lot of new technologies went into making this movie.”

“We wanted to shape the imagery so it was consistent with the visual language of ‘300’ but not exactly the same,” Zack Snyder says.  “We started asking how it could live in the same realm while being completely separate.  I think the answers they came up with were very cool.”

Murro relates, “From the beginning, Zack said the movie has an aesthetic that stems from the first film but with a larger scope.  He said, ‘Open it up.  Find a new way.’  And he was incredibly supportive of everyone’s efforts to do that throughout production.”