This is a longer version of my Calendar cover story on Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times.
Frank Miller and the filmmakers behind “300“ are looking for a return to the battlefields of antiquity — and, no doubt, to the arenas of pop-culture controversy.
Three years ago, the sword-and-sandal adventure “300” became a surprise sensation with moviegoers — it set box-office records for a March release and became the highest-grossing R-rated film of 2007 — and delivered career breakthroughs for actor Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder. But the movie, which was based on the comic books written and drawn by Miller, also triggered an unlikely international incident with its portrayal of the Persian leader Xerxes the bloody Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.
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.
Those foes and critics of “300” will not be enthused to hear that Tuesday, Miller released the first artwork from his upcoming book — a “300” prequel entitled “Xerxes.” More than that, Snyder and “300” producer Thomas Tull have seen some of Miller’s completed pages and plan to pursue it as a feature film if the finished tale lives up to their hopes.
“If the book is awesome and compelling,” Snyder said Monday, “then, yes, we’re interested.”
Miller said his “Xerxes” will be a six-part tale with each installment released in individual comic book issues beginning next year. The publisher will be Dark Horse Comics, which published Miller’s “300” as a five-issue mini-series in 1998 and which has notable Hollywood success with other properties such as “Hellboy“ and “The Mask.”
“The story will be the same heft as ‘300’ but it cover a much, much greater span of time — it’s 10 years, not three days,” Miller said. “This is a more complex story. The story is so much larger. The Spartans in ‘300’ were being enclosed by the page as the world got smaller. This story has truly vast subjects. The Athenian naval fleet, for instance, is a massive artistic undertaking and it dwarfed by the Persian fleet, which is also shown in this story. The story has elements of espionage, too, and it’s a sweeping tale with gods and warriors.”
The action may take place in the distant past, but as “300” the film showed, any tale that pits the West against a Middle East culture is closely inspected these days for contemporary political messaging. That was especially the case for “300,” which an Iranian government spokesman described a cultural slur of the highest order.
“Not only would no nation or government accept this … but it would also consider it as hostile behavior, which is the result of cultural and psychological warfare,” Tehran official Gholamhossein Elham said in March 2007. While Tehran officials framed the film as a primer to stir the American populace for war, many cultural critics here in the States saw “300” as the cinematic equivalent of the World Wrestling Federation. In The New Yorker, for instance, David Denby wrote: “Everyone screams at everyone, and specialized Persian warriors wearing masks and other freakish regalia turn up to do battle. Pop has always drawn energy from the lower floors of respectability; this movie, in which fan-boy cultism reaches new levels of goofy chaos and sexual confusion, draws energy from the subbasement.”
The Persians were presented as ruthless but consistently out-wittted, and their leader Xerxes was made to looked like a heavily pierced, decadent Dennis Rodman lookalike, while the Spartans were portrayed primarily as honorable, duty-bound and robust of spirit and body.
As for the title of the new tale, Miller is aware that his choice will be seen as willfully provocative — the portrayal of Xerxes in “300” was deeply offensive in Iran, where the ruler is viewed as part of a noble era in Persian history.
“Yes, I suppose it will be seen as provocative, but really to me he is such a pivotal character and in this story I get to explain him so much more fully,” Miller said. “I do my best to crawl inside his head rather than have him be this iconic force that simply commands this huge army. There are many scenes with him alone or just with his people. There’s an extended scene set in Persepolis, for instance, where he takes power and there are several scenes where he is going through his transitions and he’s shown speaking to his mother and his wife and with all of that he becomes that much more interesting as a character.”
Xerxes may be the title character, but once again a Greek warrior is the protagonist, Miller said.
“The time frame begins 10 years before ‘300’ and the story starts with the Battle of Marathon, which was killer to draw, by the way, even if it was a lot of work,” Miller said. “The lead character is Themistocles, who became warlord of Greece and built their navy. The story is very different than ‘300’ in that it involves Xerxes search for godhood. The existence of gods are presupposed in this story and the idea is that he well on his way to godhood by the end of the story.”
Miller added: “With Themistocles I have a character who is almost the dead opposite of Leonidas in that Themistocles was a lying, conniving, brilliant, heroic figure. He was nicknamed ‘The Subtle Serpent’ and he always manages to do the exact right things that will result in him benefiting greatly.”
Miller is arguably the most important comic-book artist of the past 25 years, with a shelf of acclaimed works that include “The Dark Knight Returns,” “Sin City” and “Ronin,” but he finds himself on uncertain ground here in 2010.
After the success of the film versions of “300” and “Sin City” (which was co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller), Miller made the unprecedented leap from comics-industry star to director of his own feature film with “The Spirit” in 2008. But that grand adventure ended badly — “The Spirit” was savaged by critics, mocked by peers and ignored by moviegoers — and Miller has yet to bounce back in either medium.
But Miller remains a singular visual talent in the mind of Tull, the founder of Legendary Pictures, which has scored hits with films such as “The Dark Knight,” “The Hangover“ and “Clash of the Titans.” Tull said he was a bit in awe during a recent visit to Miller’s studio in New York to get an early peek at “Xerxes,” but he also walked in with a healthy skepticism about revisiting the “300” universe.
“We’ve said since the beginning that we’re not just going to do some prequel or sequel — a ‘301’ — just as some money-grab,” said Tull, a longtime comic fans. “We said if it was a story that was good and it came from Frank and it was organic, that’s the only way it could and would happen. So we’ll see where this leads.”
The first film pulled in $456 million in worldwide box office off a $67-million budget, and its influence could be seen in similar projects, which were as varied as “Clash of the Titans” and the television show “Spartacus.” Not all sword adventures are certain success, of course, as evidenced by “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” which is flat-lining in theaters right now (and took heat for its casting of white actors in Middle Eastern roles).
[A scene from “300”…]
“300” is remembered for its visual style — Snyder brought an operatic, liquid mayhem to Miller’s drawings of stark battlefields and chiseled warriors. On the page and on the screen, the hyper-real visuals were meant to separate the film from history lessons, Miller said, with overheated personas and bizarre battlefield exaggerations channeling the way outsized Spartan legends were passed on in flickering firelight.
“My intent was misunderstood because in many ways ‘300’ was a deliberate propaganda piece. When I work on a story I choose a point of view. For this story, the approach was to tell this story the way the Spartans told it around the campfire. That’s the reason they were fighting against 80-foot elephants and that’s why Xerxes was portrayed as much larger-than-life figure and given these traits that the Spartans would [project on to] their enemies.”
[Another scene from “300”…]
With ‘Xerxes,’ the point of view shifts to the Athenians — and Spartans are in fact mocked often throughout the course of the story, Miller says. With the new vantage point and a wider, deeper portrait of Xerxes, might Miller be apologizing for his earlier actions in the cultural warfare? “That’s nonsense. This is a very different story but when it comes to ‘300’ I make no apologies whatsoever.”
Miller said two other characters from “300” make appearances in “Xerxes”: Ephialtes, the Spartan traitor, plays a part in the tale and there is “a brief appearance by Leonidis,” the Spartan king memorably portrayed by Butler on-screen. (“Leonidis,” Miller says, “has a brief but spirited debate with Themistocles.”) The new tale climaxes with a massive naval confrontation that is so dense that it is fought like a land war and it ends on the same day as the events of “300.”
“There is an aftermath that is like an extension of ‘300’ because ‘300’ ended so abruptly with all of them getting mowed down by arrows. I do get into what happened after that and what the entire thing means to Xerxes. Xerxes is a megalomaniac and takes everything as a sign of his godhood. I’ve known people like that.”
As for any Hollywood life for “Xerxes,” Miller said he has no desire to direct or co-direct it and can’t approach his bordered pages as storyboards for a film. “I don’t do a comic book thinking there is a movie. I just want it to be as good a comic book as it can be. It’s up to Zack and company to make it work as a film.”
After the “Spirit” experience, Miller said he especially enjoyed the imperatives of his old medium and telling stories with a serialized, standalone chapter approach that lends itself to the periodical nature of comic-book publishing.
“It imposes a discipline and structure and, at the very least, there has to be a question asked at the end of each chapter. Or a moment of unbelievable peril or some resolution of some kind. I believe with ‘Xerxes,’ the way I’ve constructed this, I will have all three. We’ll find out.”
— Geoff Boucher
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