Noam Murro and Kurt Johnstad interview: 300: Rise of an Empire

Duncan chats to the director and writer of the new 300 movie about expanding universes, researching history, and future sequels...

With 300 Rise of an Empire about to be unleashed onto cinema screens, we were fortunate enough to be offered the chance to speak to the director, Noam Murro and writer, Kurt Johnstad, over the phone to LA and found them in fine form considering it was only 9.15 in the morning over there.

Noam Murro is relatively unknown in terms of feature films, but his handling of both the material and the large scale action in Rise of an Empire are as assured as his in depth answers. He proved to be self-deprecating and very funny, at times making me laugh so loudly that I worried I’d miss some of the answers. Kurt Johnstad was equally passionate about the world of 300, as you’d expect from the man that has written the screenplays for both films, alongside Zack Snyder and comic legend Frank Miller.

Combined they’ve created a film that expands the established universe in every way, with spectacular battle scenes and some of the most insanely over the top action in recent memory, whether it be the inappropriate use of dismembered heads, or a sexual power game rendered in IMAX scale 3D. So without further ado…

Firstly I wanted to say congratulations on the film, as a Classics geek I really liked it. Noam you were obviously new to the saga in taking over the directorial reigns, while Kurt you’d written the first – can you tell me a little bit about how your working relationship formed?

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Noam Murro: I guess I’ve known Zack and Kurt just through the work really, over the years. I remember seeing 300 for the first time and seeing the preview for it in a theatre and I just didn’t know what to do – it was one of those things when you just look at it and you just go ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’ it just redefined everything.

And like any other thing, one day you get an envelope from CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and here’s a script for the next instalment of 300 and (I thought) there’s no chance that I’ll be able to do that and I read it and for me there was just an unbelievable second story to the building of 300 and it was just mind boggling how you can actually take a movie that ended with everybody dead! [laughs] and find a way into it.

Like anybody else on the internet I was like ‘how do you make a sequel to a movie where they’re all dead’ and it was one of those things where you zoom out and you really get – we were all joking do you call it a prequel, a sequel, or an equal and everyone said “Equal sounds good!” because it really is a fresh point of view on a second instalment on a continuum , because it takes place at the same time, but from a different perspective. And to me, from a thematic point of view, that’s an incredible, fresh idea as a conceptual point of view of how to attack it.

There are many other things in it that have to deal with the type of movie it is – it takes place on water – the idea that there’s a female character, or characters, in it that give you a whole new dimension and I think all of these things together were extremely fascinating to me and I thought ‘it’s just a genius move’ and really we started working on it. It’s like if you asked me the question why did my wife decide to marry me and I actually don’t have the answer to that, because she knows me too well and I think this is that same thing – I don’t know why they chose me, but I’m grateful! [laughs]

Noam, you mention the script was in place, but how far back did you both get involved on starting the film? I remember straight after the first 300’s success there was talk of making a sequel, but quite a lot of years have passed since then?

Kurt Johnstad: So basically after the success of the first one, the studio and everybody (especially) on the internet was just excited about what is the continuation of the brand and that experience that was the first movie and Zack basically stepped back and said “Look, the way to do this the right way is to go back to the source material, go back to Frank Miller and embrace Frank and say ‘Look what’s cool?’” because what Zack was very conscious of is not just rushing in to a sequel without it being grounded thematically, with a good story and without having Frank’s blessing, because if we were to do that, or if the studio just said “Hey let’s go make some money” the fanboys would just tear it apart.

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What’s turned out is that we went back to Frank, he took some time and came back with a pretty cool story line and just the keel of the story, or the spine of the story and started drawing a graphic novel and we able to then cull the best parts of Frank’s imagery, his frames, his story and his creative mind and then Zack and I sat down and filled in from the centre of the movie and we kind of fleshed out everything for a screenplay. So that, I think, was a smart decision on Zack’s part and it gave us a little time just to let that mercurial process that is creativity and thinking up with Frank Miller and just having him behind the project – that’s been nothing but a good thing.

One of my favourite elements of the film is that being a big action movie fan, a lot of people don’t get that you have to have emotional investment behind character motivations, or there’s no power behind the spectacle – was that part of the reason you included more backstory for several of the characters?

KJ: Yeah I think that the luxury of making, if it’s a sequel, prequel, equal – you know Zack and I have called it a companion piece – that was that does is that it becomes episodic, so you get to explore deeper the characters if it’s Queen Gorgo, or if it’s Leonidas, or if it’s Xerxes and looking at the building of a God-king.

You get to see where these guys came from, what their motivations are, why they behave the way they do, what the stakes are from maybe a different point of view and that makes it – it actually, when you start watching the second movie, it makes the first one that much more compelling and interesting because you really start to see that it wasn’t just one battle at the hot gates, but it was multiple battles, multiple city states. I mean this campaign that had been going on had been waged for years and now we get to drop in and visit these highlighted battles and these dramatic pivot points in history.

And it’s great because it’s world building, so like you say there’s a broader awareness of everything that’s happening in and around events in the first film. Was it quite liberating getting to expand the 300 universe without having to adhere to the work by Frank Miller and to forge in your own direction?

NM: What was great about the first one, really, is that it felt operatic, in the sense that it really has the idea that you zoom in on something so specific and are able to create the poetry, or the operatic experience of what a Spartan battle is, is one (direction). And I think the idea here was – I don’t know if it’s liberating, but it gives you a bigger palette, or a bigger toolbox to be able to zoom out and have a weather system and geography and characters and a villain, a specific villain as I think no great movie – there’s no Bond without a great villain and I think that’s part of what’s so great about this, is that at the centre of the film – and that’s maybe the liberating part of it – it’s not just a geography and it’s not just the battle sequences and not just the sea, but also the idea that you have great villain at the centre of it. And that was the great thing about the writing of this is allowing for a female character that is at the centre of it and that to me was liberating emotionally and also gives you another point of view about that time, which is really something special.

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Definitely and it’s also quite rare in contemporary cinema for Hollywood to make films based on classic material, which I’ve always found strange with the vast array of visual material in mythology and the original tales – why do you think that is?

NM: I don’t know, I think you’re right. I think that there is a wealth of material that the histories can offer, the bible can offer and it’s free of charge! [laughs] I don’t know why they don’t do that, you know they don’t have to pay anybody anything! But I think that over the years, after 300 came out and redefined the genre and really flipped it on its head, which is really the success of the movie in my mind, it to take the idea of populism in genre and flip it on its head and create something completely new and I think over the years between when 300 came out and this one came out, there were a lot of attempts that felt to me like an imitation of the original 300.

I think that was part of the challenge and this is really a kudos to everybody, including the studio and Legendary and everybody – they always, everybody from day one said “We are looking for a new 300, not just a copy” and I think that was the beauty of it from a thematic point of view, from a character point of view – how do you take that and make that into something that you haven’t quite seen before and correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m not sure there was ever a sea battle movie at that scale that you could see and that to me is… pretty sexy! I mean the idea that you have with the ability of the genre, technology and 300 as a brand, to be able to take that idea operatically and put it on the water is unbelievable, because you’ve never seen it before and so I’m coming back to the same idea, which is there was a real intention on everybody’s part, from Zack and Kurt and then going through the studio system of making something new, not just another money grab.

I’m glad you mentioned the naval battles as they were great, both in terms of spectacle and strategy – how did they come together from a visual standpoint and also in terms of the strategic research?

KJ: Well, I spoke to a couple of Greek military historians, Frank had done a lot of research so we really followed Frank’s template first and through his outline and then I spoke to a professor at Stanford, a guy named Victor Davis Hansen who is really one of the foremost subject matter experts on Greek military history and we spoke and he gave me specific details to lace and weave in to the narrative the movie, but then also there are the fantastical elements of this movie and that’s just unique to the 300 brand.

I think there is a latitude there creatively as filmmakers and as a writer that I knew that I could push the boundaries of – this isn’t something that we’re making for the History Channel, or this isn’t something that’s a traditional sword and sandals movie that’s going to follow realism.

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It’s hyper-realism, so that in itself gives you the latitude creatively just to go in to those dark recesses of what you want to tell and push the envelope, whether it’s dramatically, or thematically, or emotionally, or in action beats, or in the violence that’s portrayed – you get to show that and make it as big and cinematic and I think the thing we were very successful with is that movie stands on its own, completely. So you can see the movie and understand everything that’s going on, without seeing the first one and so they work well in unison together, or they work well standing alone and I think that’s really one of the great successes of the movie.

NM: I second that, I think that’s exactly right. I think that there is a liberating quality, when you deal with history in general, that this is a story tellers point of view, not the History Channel and like any other story the idea of hyperbole, the idea of fantasy and exaggeration and poetic interpretation, these are all tools that at the end of the day service this idea. Nobody was there – I don’t know anybody who was there and is still around! [laughs] I just think that that is the beauty of it, that there’s entertainment quality to it, there is a populist approach, a fantastical approach to the material that allows you to enjoy an historical thing, without sitting there and yawning or thinking ‘ok so these are the designs, I’m not sure the stick was exactly in the right place!’

And going into it we took a lot a lot of influences on say what Persepolis was going to look like – does it look like Germanic architecture, fascist architecture – there were a lot of very interesting ideas that went into it thematically and from a design standpoint. So I think this is a very liberating thing in that way.

So now we’ve seen you both expand the world of 300 further, are there any plans to continue the saga?

NM: I think there will be three, four, five, six, seven, eight and nine! [laughs] I’m just kidding, I don’t know!

KJ: And from your lips, to Xerxes ears, that’s all I can say!

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[the PR wraps things up and Noam suddenly chimes in with…]

NM: And just the answer to that is – I don’t know if there are plans, but there must be, because it’s great!

That’s very well said, thank you both very much!

And 300: Rise of an Empire is in cinemas now..

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