TR Interview: Kurt Johnstad, Cowriter of 300: Rise of an Empire

By Luke Y. Thompson in Comics, Movies
Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 1:55 pm

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LYT: When you're writing big battles like that, how much of it do you put on the page, and how much do you leave to the director? Are you, like, "Athenian #51 clashes with Persian #16"?

KJ: No. No. I try not to enact ideas consciously. I mean, I do it in all the scripts that I write, but we try not to - we would write something like, "Bronze and wicker clash; the Persians and the Spartans fight; it's a ballet of violence and death." You give kind of the broad brush strokes, but if you give too much detail, you start to paint yourself into a corner, in the sense of when the fight choreographer is there, the time of day you're going to shoot it. You can give some specifics, but if you get too narrowly specific in the architecture of action, it usually, in a film like this - we would have boats colliding, or things like that, or horses running across the decks, but you don't want to go, "He turns. He lifts. He picks it up." It eats up too much page to describe that kind of action, so you just keep it general.

LYT: I've got to ask specifically then - the lightning bolt in the horse's eyes - the hoof then comes down, crushes the head - tell me you wrote that!

KJ: I did not write that.

LYT: You did not write that beat?

KJ: No. Actually that originally - that's all in the interpretation of, once Noam had decided the Marathon scene - I did not write that, because Marathon, it wasn't raining, but Noam said, "God, it would be really cool if it was raining, and it was muddy, and I've never really seen that, it's more like Henry V - Kenneth Branagh's Henry V." I was like, "OK, that's awesome." And so he went with that just artistically - "It's going to be raining, there's going to be thunder and lightning." And that's really, in that moment, it's kind of Zack and Noam are going "OK, it's going to be this kind of movie." Directors make decisions off what I write all the time.

LYT: When you did Act of Valor, was that because the military loved 300 so much that they sought you out?

KJ: [chuckles] Uh...you know, I came to Act of Valor in a very interesting way, and I have a very close, long-standing working relationship with the Naval Special Warfare community, and I'm friends with a lot of that community. So there was a captain who was part of the director of Special Warfare recruiting - he came to me, and he knew that I had written 300, and he introduced me to the Bandito Brothers, who ended up directing Act of Valor, and he said, "Hey, I know the guy who wrote 300. Would you like to meet him?" I met with Scott and Mouse, the directors from Bandito Brothers, and we created a movie, and then they went and filmed it. Yeah.

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LYT: Do you feel like there's a lot in common with modern military versus ancient? Has it changed a lot, or not so much?

KJ: I mean, except for the hardware that they use - no. I think it's the same brotherhood, it's the same "I'll go shoulder to shoulder, I'll fight that battle, go over that hill, take that mountain, I will die in your arms." It's the exact same ethos - warrior ethos - that is from the guys that are serving - the men and women, it doesn't matter - that are serving now in any military, or the guys that were in World War II, or all the way back to Marathon. It's the same kind of - you know, something happens in combat that really defines men, and women, but specifically in this sense, the warrior spirit, the esprit de corp - it's the same. It travels across the timeline of history.

LYT: A lot of people - colleagues of mine - read a lot of political subtext into the first film. Were they reading too much into it? And if not, is there some in this new one?

KJ: No. I mean, I think everybody finds what they want to find in works of art and film and music. I mean, Zack spoke about this earlier today, where in press conferences for the last film, people would ask him, "Did George Bush really direct this film and you just put your name on it?" The idea is that people are going to look for the things that satisfy them in a film, and things that maybe they push back on. But there's no bigger, broader, geopolitical conversation.


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