’300: Rise of an Empire’ director Noam Murro talks operatic approach

March 07, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.
300roae09 300: Rise of an Empire director Noam Murro talks operatic approach

Callan Mulvey and Jack O'Connell in "300: Rise of an Empire." (Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

Noam Murro had one question when he was asked to direct the follow-up to 2007′s bloody swords-and-sandals action film “300″: How do you make a sequel to a movie in which everyone died?

The answer, in short: You don’t.

Zack Snyder’s “300″ concluded with [spoiler alert!] Sparta’s King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his few, proud soldiers being gloriously slain while making a heroic stand against the overwhelming forces of Persian god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro).

The new “300: Rise of an Empire” uses that Leonidas-vs.-Xerxes narrative as a crucial plot point. In essence, the new film wraps its story around the earlier movie’s action to function as something more like a companion piece than a reboot.

“What do you call it? A prequel? A sequel?” says Murro, 52. “It’s an equal, hopefully. It’s a different perspective of the same time. Thematically, that’s an interesting place to be.”

Sullivan Stapleton in "300: Rise of an Empire." (Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

Sullivan Stapleton in “300: Rise of an Empire.” (Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

In Murro’s $100-million 3-D epic “300: Rise of an Empire,” which hits theaters Friday, the Aegean Sea runs crimson with blood, broad swords clang on metal helmets, and the larger-than-life violence was inspired by the operas of Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Strauss.

“Operatic” may be an overused movie description for so much florid bloodshed, but for Murro, opera really did help summon savagery and conjure cruelty in “Rise of an Empire.”

Take, for instance, the scene in which French actress Eva Green — portraying Artemisia, a power-crazed naval commander for the ancient Persian forces — murders a captured foe by chopping off his head. She lifts his disembodied noggin to her lips for a passionate, posthumous kiss.

“That’s a ‘Salome’ moment! Basically, she wanted to kill and … at the same time,” Murro, a bearish man with a ready smile, colorfully exclaims. “One of the things that influenced me as a teenager was Strauss’ ‘Salome.’ I always wanted to put ‘Salome’ on the screen.

Eva Green in "300: Rise of an Empire." (Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

Eva Green in “300: Rise of an Empire.” (Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

“If you get that reference, great,” he continues. “If not, it’s not self-serving. And that’s really the challenge: How do you take genre and flip it on its head? I understood this movie as populist entertainment through the eyes of an opera.”

But grafting opera’s grand evocations of humanity in extremis onto a popcorn thriller was hardly Murro’s only challenge. “Rise of an Empire” arrives with huge expectations.

The earlier “300″ — based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, a liberally embellished retelling of the historic battle between Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC — stunned industry observers by grossing more than $450 million worldwide (on a $65-million budget). And thanks to its arresting visuals coupled with Snyder’s sheer originality at showcasing arterial splatter, “300″ rewrote the lingua franca of movie action sequences in the process. (To wit: Snyder was tapped to direct last year’s blockbuster Superman movie reboot “Man of Steel” and he’s now putting together an as-yet untitled Batman-Superman film project that is generating similar heat.)

In short, Murro faces all the pressure of Comic-Con nation to live up to expectations set by Snyder.

Rodrigo Santoro in "300: Rise of an Empire." (Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

Rodrigo Santoro in “300: Rise of an Empire.” (Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

The Jerusalem native, known primarily for his work on television commercials, is an interesting choice to put in the director’s chair for “Rise of an Empire.” Having shot spots for such corporate clients as Volkswagen, Microsoft’s “Halo” and DirecTV, he’s a two-time Directors Guild of America director-of-the-year award winner for his ad work with only one feature film credit before “Rise” — the 2008 indie dramedy “Smart People,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Dennis Quaid. That film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, boasted precisely zero special effects and exists in a pop cultural realm light years from the “300″ testosterone-surged universe.

Snyder, an acclaimed commercial director in his own right, and his producing partner wife, Deborah Snyder, knew Murro from the world of advertising by both reputation and experience — Deborah had hired Murro to film a TV commercial years earlier. In 2010, they contacted him about potentially directing the follow-up to “300″ and were impressed by — you guessed it — Murro’s proposal to play up the original film’s operatic themes.

“In ’300,’ that had been our mantra: ‘We’re making an opera, we’re not really making an action film,’” Snyder recalls. “Just hearing that as a jumping off point, we were like, ‘That’s great.’ The action is going to happen. The spectacle is going to happen. But to have the point of view of an opera is the thing we thought was fun.”

To be sure, Murro’s reputation as the guy responsible for Taco Bell’s “Viva Young” Super Bowl ad does little to bolster his high cultural bona fides. But the filmmaker says his grandfather helped establish Befall Academy of Arts and Design, Israel’s leading art school. And growing up, Murro performed chamber music and studied architecture at university before moving to New York in 1987 to break into advertising.

“My true passion is opera. I understand it. I’m very much into it,” Murro says. “I grew up in a very artistic household. I remember at the beginning, showing my [commercial] work to my dad. And he said, ‘Ibsen, it’s not.’”

He laughed at the memory. “I want to say back, ‘Thank God it’s not Ibsen!’”

Toward that end, “Rise of an Empire” transposes the action to another front of the Greco-Persian Wars. Warrior-politician Themistokles (Aussie actor Sullivan Stapleton) leads a ragtag army of shirtless Greeks with six-pack abs to ward off an attack by the massive Persian naval fleet, led by Xerxes’ bloodthirsty second in command, the warrior-queen Artemisia. Although vastly out-boated and out-gunned, Themistokles uses cunning and strategy to take on the armada in a series of ever-more-bloody nautical set pieces.

Sullivan Stapleton in "300: Rise of an Empire." (Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

Sullivan Stapleton in “300: Rise of an Empire.” (Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

Shot over eight months in Bulgaria (a suitable stand-in for ancient Greece thanks to substantial moviemaking tax breaks), “Rise of an Empire” is larger in scope than “300″ but relies, like the first film, on computer-generated special effects and footage shot against a soundstage green screen for its visual jolt.

So much so that at the end of physical production, Murro needed a break from anything emerald-hued.

“When I came back home, everything green had to be removed,” the director says. “Every history book had to be removed, everything having to do with Greeks and ships — with men, for that matter! It took a bit of adjustment, coming back.”

According to pre-release audience awareness surveys, “300: Rise of an Empire” is on track to earn around $45 million in its opening weekend in theaters. For his part, Murro sees “no reason” another installment of the franchise won’t be produced down the line, although no future “300″ has been green-lighted. And he never loses perspective on the cultural synthesis that led to his highest-profile directing gig.

“At the end of the day, you’re at the service of a comic book,” he says, pointedly. “But getting there involves what you absorb from every other field: music, fine arts. There’s choreography, an incredibly violent dance. You are onstage like theater — especially Wagner’s work, which is so abstract; there’s a tree, there’s fire — you need to create a world.

“It all funnels from the same ideas,” Murro said. “Opera is green screen, essentially.”

– Chris Lee | @LATHeroComplex

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