It’s official: Zack Synder, the director of “300,” is going back into battle on the side of the ancient Greeks — and Frank Miller. “We closed the writing deal on ‘Xerxes.’ We started writing about a week ago,” Snyder said, referring to his script work with “300” collaborator Kurt Johnstad. “So we’re doing it. It’s happening.”
Snyder has a first-look deal with Warner Bros. (which is taking his 2011 film “Sucker Punch” down to Comic-Con International in a big way this Saturday) and the presumption is that Snyder will direct this film, but that’s not a done deal yet.
“It’s really going to depend on what the studio wants to do and what we do when we finish; I don’t have a directing deal in place but we are writing it, so call it intent,” Snyder said with a chuckle when I visited his office the other day. “If there was a crime they could probably convict me.”
Some people did consider “300” a cultural crime of sorts — others swooned for the striking, hyper-reality visuals and ferocious tale of death and duty. The 2007 film was the defining career moment to date for the 44-year-old Snyder. The added up to a surprise hit; “300” set new box-office records for a March release and became the highest-grossing R-rated film of the year with $456 million in worldwide box office. It also made a star of Gerard Butler and pushed Miller, the writer-artist of the “300” graphic novel, into the arena of media opinion when the movie was searched for contemporary geopolitical themes.
But “300” also became an international incident, of sorts. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bitterly denounced the film and the Iranian Academy of the Arts filed a formal complaint through the United Nations that framed the movie as nothing less than an attack on the historical identity of a nation — especially with its portrayal of Xerxes (portrayed by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro) as leering and androgynous and the Persian army as a demonic horde.
“300” first appeared in the pages of Dark Horse Comics, with Miller writing and drawing. That’s the starting point too for “Xerxes,” which Miller talked about in detail here at the Hero Complex a few weeks ago. The comics will be published in the months ahead, but Miller has already shown Snyder enough to win him over to a follow-up film. It’s neither prequel nor sequel, precisely, since the time setting begins years before the events of “300” and then moves up past the first film’s 480 B.C. Spartan battle.
“This movie follows Themistocles and the Battle of Artemisium, which coincidentally happens on the exact same three days as the Battle of Thermopylae [which was the basis of ‘300’],” Snyder said. “This one starts off with a quick retelling of the why of the Persian wars. It starts off at the Battle of Marathon and then it goes back to Themistocles finding out that Persians are invading again. and off we go over to learn a little bit about why Xerxes is the way he is.”
He went on with a Greek history lesson told in Synder’s dude-speak: “Darius [the Persian king and father of Xerxes] gets wounded at Marathon and he’s super cool and like a great guy. Even the Greeks are like, ‘Darius is awesome.’ After Darius dies, Xerxes is so distraught, but Darius had told him, ‘Don’t attack the Greeks, only a god can punish the Greeks.’ So that’s when he calls his mystics and wizards and says, ‘Make me a god so I can avenge my father.’ “
I had dropped by to see footage from “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” the filmmaker’s first animated feature and a passion project for producer Debbie Synder, his partner in marriage and movie making. (“Guardians,” by the way, is visually stunning and could be a September sensation with youngsters; that’s the hope of of Warners, certainly, where one publicist has a new slogan: “Owls are the new penguins.”) So all of this “Xerxes” talk was a bit of surprise, but the director of “Watchmen“ was clearly caught up in the early passion needed for any filmmaker to take on such a massive project.
“What I said to the studio is that ‘300’ gave everyone a chance to fight alongside a super warrior, a chance to fight alongside these Spartan warriors that you could never fight against; but Themistocles is different, he is us,” Snyder said. “It’s much more about the everyman.”
He added: “Themistocles is kind of the father of democracy. It’s much more about these guys choosing. The Spartans are, ‘We fight, we die,’ so that’s an easy choice for them, there’s no surrender. The cool thing about Themistocles and his gang is that it’s way more difficult. Things aren’t as clear or unchallenged. He has to be more political to get everyone to agree. It’s political, in the soap-opera sense of the word. There’s a relationship with Leonidas … and … well, we’ll see where it all goes.”
Leonidas,of course, was Butler’s character in “300,” but Snyder said he hasn’t called the Scottish actor up yet to talk about the new project and the possibility of a cameo. I asked about the look of the film — would it have the same liquid mayhem and fiery nightmare visuals as “300”?
“Yes, it’s the same universe visually,” Snyder said, suggesting that in his mind he’s already directing the film even though there’s only a writing deal in place.
He seemed most excited about the climatic sea battle that would take “Xerxes” the film into a novel cinematic battle zone. “The triremes all crash together, and as they all ram in you have basic hoplite combat. But it’s all on the deck on these crashing ships — there’s even horses riding across them,” Snyder said. “How cool is that?”
— Geoff Boucher
Geoff Boucher will moderate the “Sucker Punch” panel with Zack Snyder and cast members at Comic-Con International in Hall H on Saturday.
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PHOTOS: Top: Zack Snyder (Credit: Clay Enos). Second: an early image from “Xerxes” (Frank Miller and Dark Horse Comics). Third: promotional poster for “300.” Bottom logo for “Sucker Punch.”
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