From the Set of 300: Rise of an Empire

It’s 10 o’clock at night on the main stage of the Nu Boyana studios a few miles outside Sophia, Bulgaria’s capital city. She has been working for several hours on a pivotal scene in 300: Rise of an Empire, Noam (Smart People) Murro’s semi-prequel, semi-sequel to 2007’s re-telling of the Battle of Thermopylae.

As Artemisia, one of Persia’s top admirals, Green plays a pivotal role in the climactic Battle of Salamis, which decided the Persian invasion of Greece begun in the first 300. Although it’s 2012 as this moment is being shot, the final battle will start in the morning and Artemisia is psyching herself up for it, striding along the bridge of her flagship and declaring that “the last Greek ships will be destroyed.”

(When I say bridge I mean just that – Artemisia’s ship is so large it has been cut in thirds and spread out over three sound stages just for the exteriors, which are covered in black shields and spears and a lot of skulls sculpted from foam; the Persian’s are big on skulls.)

They do take after take after take–sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, always different–which we learn is a hallmark of Murro’s style.

“‘Do it again’, it’s always ‘do it again, but different,'” Sullivan Stapleton says, who plays Athenian leader Themistocles, says with mock aggravation.

“Do what I tell you, say what I tell you,” Murro responds in similar tone: the two have a fun faux-combative relationship and it shows.

Unlike Eva, Stapleton gets a costume not too different than the Spartan outfits of the first film, mainly a leather diaper/loincloth, which he demonstrates is much harder to get off and on than it looks and which required him “to get a six-pack for the first time in my life. I used to say not everyone could get one. That’s bullsh*t, anyone can, it’s just hard work,” and fueled, we’re told by the stuntmen, by a diet of almost 100% yogurt.

In fact, the only thing that really sets him apart from Gerard Butler’s crew from the first film is the green woolen cloak, which replaces the Spartan’s deep crimson. That differentiation sums up 300: Rise of An Empire, which is approaching the classic sequel conundrum–“new, but different”–in novel fashion.

“We’ve got giant land battles similar to the first film, but we’ve also got battles on the water; it’s much larger in scope and difficulty,” production designer Patrick Tatopoulos (Underworld) explains while showing off some of the hero weapons the various combatants will be using. The Persian weapons, covered in horse motifs, are particularly beautiful (and heavy!) and as intricate as anything WETA ever made for a Tolkien film.

“The idea is to have a great companion to 300,” producer Wes Cullen adds. The same but different.

Besides the expanded scope and focus on the Athenians, the other obvious difference is the inclusion of a major female character in the thick of the fighting of what has been (and really, still is) a man’s man of a film.

“She’s got a lot of b*alls,” Green says succinctly of her character and how she survives in such a testosterone-heavy world. “She’s very complicated, very human, with many layers. She has a tragic past, which has created a lot of issues with the Greeks.”

Lest anyone think she’s just in it for the challenge of portraying a complicated character, Artemisia also gets a fair bit of action herself, which was “really cool. She’s very good with daggers and has this great double sword.”

It doesn’t hurt that she’s “surrounded by naked men,” for most of the film, either, she says. In fact, much like her character, Green’s fit in the film is all about upsetting expectations for a woman’s place in this kind of movie, right down to her appreciation of said skin-tight black leather. “I feel very strong in it,” she says. “Alex did a great job.”

Academy Award -winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne–who shaped the looks of Thor and The Avengers–has put together a smorgasbord of material from the Greeks’ non-costume costumes to the skull enshrouded armor of Darius, Xerxes’ father. But at the top of the heap are the eight different outfits she’s put together for Artemisia, from exquisite multi-layer dresses to a thing they call the “horse outfit” made out of interwoven strips of leather to appear as if the skirt turns in to the mane of a horse, surrounding a gold breast plate that’s actually leather, not gold–but you have to touch it to know that–which she will wear while riding her war stallion from burning ship to burning ship during a pitched naval battle, according to one piece of production art.

One thing is not that different from 300 however: “This is my first green screen film. It’s everywhere,” Green says before she’s hustled off to get taken out of the leather number, which I like to imagine takes four or five people to manage.

In fact, except for the bridge of Artemisia’s ship there is nothing else on the soundstage except for green screen as the producers plan on recreating all of the exterior’s views and environments in a manner similar to the first film, leaving the final look of the film to our imagination except for some finished production art mainly showing the capital of Persia where Xerxes is consolidating his power early in the film.

The final look will ultimately share quite a bit with the Frank Miller–let’s be generous and call it “inspired”–palette of the first film, Murro says, though it won’t have quite as many “right out of the comic” compositions by necessity. The filmmakers did get some early art from Miller’s upcoming “Xerxes” graphic novel which they will be recreating in the film, but the fact that Miller’s book and Zack Snyder’s script were being worked on at the same time necessitates the two stories being ultimately different from one another.

The other big difference will be Murro himself, who has been “left to work in his own way,” by screenwriter and original director Snyder who was present through all of pre-production but has generally turned the film over to Murro.

Which leaves Murro and the producers to deal with the practical difficulties involved–which have not shrunken despite not having any location work–as the film is filled with animals, children, water and a crew working in three different languages.

Murro, sitting at video village in the back of the soundstage, does not seem the least bit harried as he has Eva get ready for one more take. He’s turned the wide shot into a close up with no dialogue–the original lines have been moved forward to the battle itself which will be shot the following day–with the thoughts behind the lines internalized by Eva and expressed solely by her face.

Murro has operatic music piping through the stage’s speakers to enhance the mood for Eva as she stomps onto the bridge from her stateroom and stalks about the bridge, starring daggers into the camera.

“Crank it!” Murro yells and the music swells. Eva stops, grimaces and glares, and walks out of frame.

300: Rise of an Empire opens nationwide on Friday, March 7, in 2D, 3D and IMAX screens.