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''300'': Inside the making of a surprise smash

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300, Gerard Butler, ...
Warner Bros.

Before the buzz, before the unauthorized footage on YouTube, before the jawdropping, $70.9 million opening weekend, there was a chilly January afternoon in Montreal. A bunch of buffed-up manly men stood around a cavernous warehouse, wearing red capes and leather bikini briefs. Though every step outside brought the dreaded threat of shrinkage, there was surprisingly little complaining on the set of the bloody swords-and-sandals epic 300. This was, after all, a movie about Spartan warriors — the original no-pain-no-gainers, ancient Greece’s ultimate fighters trained from infancy never to show any sign of weakness and to greet death itself with a steely grin — so it would have been unseemly to kvetch about the occasional breeze gusting through your codpiece. Anyway, once the armless concubine and the scantily clad slave girls showed up for the big harem scene, things around the set would warm up considerably.

For the man at the helm, director Zack Snyder, the heat was already on. The making of 300 had been a battle, which is only fitting since the film centers on one of history’s most famous conflicts: the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, in whicha mere 300 Spartan soldiers, led by the indomitable King Leonidas, defended Greece in a defiant last stand against the 250,000-strong invading armies of Persia. One point of contention involved severed heads: Snyder wanted more — not surprising given his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead — and Warner Bros. wanted less. As it was, nearly all of the bloodshed in 300 would be computer-generated, which would hopefully placate those squeamish church ladies at the MPAA (and save on dry-cleaning bills). Still, an R-rated movie tends to make studio executives nervous — particularly an R-rated movie set in ancient Greece, based on a graphic novel, with no major stars and lots of half-naked guys who look like Party Boy from Jackass but with swords and shields. Snyder had already cut the budget down to a slim $60 million to appease the studio’s concerns and he was intent on holding the line at three lopped heads. According to his wife, Deborah, an exec producer on 300, Warner Bros. president-COO Alan Horn had weighed in personally: ”Alan does not like a lot of blood.”

He may like it a little more these days. Last weekend, 300 stormed into theaters like an army, reaping that staggering $70.9 million — the biggest opening in March history and the third-highest for any R-rated movie. The industry was stunned by the magnitude of the Spartan victory. As he watched the weekend grosses ringing up far above the widely expected $30 million range, Snyder himself could hardly believe the numbers: ”I was like, No, that can’t be right — that’s nutty time. The tracking showed we’d be popular, but not stupid popular. It’s just a goofy little $60 million movie!”

For Warner Bros. (which, like EW, is owned by Time Warner), the goofy little movie’s surprising success represents a rebound from a fairly dismal 2006, stemming some of the losses from pricey disappointments like Poseidon, Lady in the Water, and Superman Returns. Exactly what it means to the rest of Hollywood, though, depends on whom you ask. To the many critics who trashed 300 as a mindless exercise in stylized warmongering, it’s merely the latest in a string of dispiritingly pan-resistant hits this season, following Norbit, Ghost Rider, and Wild Hogs. (For more on that subject, see Mark Harris’ Final Cut column.) To others in the film industry, though, it’s an encouraging sign of an emerging new world, one where state-of-the-art computer wizardry makes it possible to create anything a filmmaker can imagine on the (relatively) cheap, where a small investment in marketing on the Internet can reap the rewards that have long been promised, and where a geekfest like Comic-Con can hold its own against Cannes or any other snooty film festival. Forget the battle cry of the Spartans — this is the revenge of the nerds.

Whatever its ultimate significance, Frank Miller, who wrote the original 300 graphic novel, along with those for Sin City and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, is just trying to savor the moment. ”It’s somewhere beyond nice,” he says. ”I’m kind of like a Tex Avery cartoon character, walking around without his head on.”

Everywhere you turn with 300, there’s another decapitated head.