How ''300'' went from the page to the screen
He redefined the Caped Crusader for an entire generation of comic-book lovers with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. His Sin City graphic novels put a whole new visual spin on noir-flavored fiction. And in the late ’90s, seminal comic-book artist and writer Frank Miller created 300, a retelling of how a small group of Spartan soldiers stood up against a vastly larger Persian army in 480 B.C. Miller had seen the 1962 film about this doomed last stand, The 300 Spartans, as a 5-year-old kid, and it triggered a lifelong obsession with the story. Now he’s seen his own comics-medium version of the Battle of Thermopylae turned into a movie, opening on March 9. We caught up with Miller for a chat about Spartan ideology and why 300‘s warriors are practically naked.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You injured yourself recently. What happened?
FRANK MILLER: I slipped on some black ice and landed about as badly as you can. I busted my leg and my hip. The hip’s the worst part. But I’m in recovery, working my way up to a cane now.
Did you have to miss a lot of 300-related events while recuperating?
The real heartbreaker was the opening [of the movie] in February in Berlin [at the Berlin Film Festival]. There were other things I had to decline, too, because I wanted to be in shape for the L.A. premiere [on March 5]. I’m only now starting to be able to give interviews. Otherwise you would’ve heard somebody who was on all kinds of painkillers, sounding like a complete moron. I might’ve gone wandering off talking about funny little things that were dancing by me as I spoke.
What fascinated you about the Thermopylae story?
All the great cultures have at least one of these little jewels of [war] history, a story where you see a tiny contingent of men, or even one man, achieve a remarkable a victory, if only one of morale, against a tremendous horde. There’s the Alamo, Horatius at the bridge, the 47 Ronin, Masada.
What sort of dance went into the early development of 300 as a movie?
I can only speak from my own perspective, because there were a lot of unseen battles that people like Gianni Nunnari and Mark Canton went through behind the scenes. [Nunnari and Canton are among nearly a dozen producers and executive producers on 300; the list also includes Bernie Goldmann, Jeffrey Silver, and director Zack Snyder’s wife, Debbie Snyder.] Gianni is persuasive and utterly relentless. He was determined to make this movie. I own [the controlling rights to] 300, same as I do with Sin City. So the movie couldn’t be done without my go-ahead. At the time, I hadn’t yet gotten involved with the Sin City movie. And I was very, very skeptical of moviemaking in general. I was afraid my babies would turn into nice little movies with happy endings. As I think you know, happy endings aren’t my specialty.
What won you over?
I met Zack Snyder. We met for, it couldn’t have been over an hour. It was like we were separated at birth. He understood every historical reference I made, and added a few of his own that startled me. He seemed to know an awful lot about this sequence in history. It turns out we shared the same favorite historian, Victor Davis Hanson. I realized, I’m dealing with a kindred soul here. So I did the only sensible thing, which was to say yes.
What was your actual involvement?
I took an exec producer title and kibitzed on the script. I had talks with Zack. And then one day I just said, Well, you’re heading toward production here — this is your movie now. By that time I’d become a director [on Sin City], and I realized the last thing Zack needed was more democracy in the process. The closer he could get to the wonderful situation I had on Sin City, the better. After that, it became me seeing various cuts of scenes, and coming to the set once, during a big battle scene, and generally not doing a lot of work. There should be no confusion between 300 and Sin City in that way: 300 is Zack’s movie.
So that’s why your name doesn’t appear as part of the title of 300, the way it was for Frank Miller’s Sin City?
I would only want a possessive [credit] if I was much more thoroughly responsible. Possessives are always tricky anyway. The idea of a director just snagging a possessive was an exception that the [Directors] Guild made for Alfred Hitchcock. Now they’re all snagging it.
300 is largely faithful to your material. But it takes the character of Queen Gorgo, who only appears in a couple of panels in your version, and gives her a major subplot with a character called Theron, an evil politician. What did you think of that addition?
At first I very much disagreed with it. My main comment was, ”This is a boys’ movie. Let it be that.” The story itself, in historical terms, really didn’t involve her all that much, from most accounts. But Zack had his reasons. He wanted to show that King Leonidas was fighting for something, by giving him a romantic aspect and by lingering in Sparta a little bit.
You make the Spartans pretty idealistic, if bloodthirsty, as does the movie. How close is that to historical reality?
The Spartans were a paradoxical people. They were the biggest slave owners in Greece. But at the same time, Spartan women had an unusual level of rights. It’s a paradox that they were a bunch of people who in many ways were fascist, but they were the bulwark against the fall of democracy. The closest comparison you can draw in terms of our own military today is to think of the red-caped Spartans as being like our special-ops forces. They’re these almost superhuman characters with a tremendous warrior ethic, who were unquesionably the best fighters in Greece. I didn’t want to render Sparta in overly accurate terms, because ultimately I do want you to root for the Spartans. I couldn’t show them being quite as cruel as they were. I made them as cruel as I thought a modern audience could stand.
Where did you hold back?
Well, I have King Leonidas very gently tell Ephialtes, the hunchback, that they can’t use him [as a soldier], because of his deformity. It would be much more clasically Spartan if Leonidas laughed and kicked him off the cliff.
That’s pretty hard-ass.
They were a hard people. But the trick with this sort of thing is to transplant you into a different mindset than you’re used to. The important thing is, they made a huge sacrifice. While Athens dithered, and while much of Greece cowered — and even much of Sparta did — there’s King Leonidas breaking all the rules, saying, Okay, I’ll go fight the invading Persian army by myself. Except ”by himself” meant going with 300 bodyguards.
The Spartan soldiers are practically naked in your version of combat: helmets knocked off, no body armor. How accurate is that?
The inaccuracies, almost all of them, are intentional. I took those chest plates and leather skirts off of them for a reason. I wanted these guys to move and I wanted ’em to look good. I knocked their helmets off a fair amount, partly so you can recognize who the characters are. Spartans, in full regalia, were almost indistinguishable except at a very close angle. Another liberty I took was, they all had plumes, but I only gave a plume to Leonidas, to make him stand out and identify him as a king. I was looking for more an evocation than a history lesson. The best result I can hope for is that if the movie excites someone, they’ll go explore the histories themselves. Because the histories are endlessly fascinating.
Has there been any talk of creating a sequel if 300 does well?
There is another story that would make a perfect bookend to this. I know what it would be. It’s at the earliest stages. But I ain’t gonna go into it now.
Would it show the larger battle that Greece took up against the Persians, after Thermopylae?
Oh, no. It takes place 10 years later. That’s all I’m saying. I can’t speak out of school. [Producer] Mark Canton will beat me up.