Total Film – June, 2004

BLOOD ON THE SAND – by Fred Schruers

The brain-melting heat. The cash-draining setbacks. The expensive inconvenience of a real war breaking out. One thing’s for sure: making $200-million sword’n’sandal epic Troy was no day at the beach…

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Thirtieth of August 2003. It’s mid-afternoon on a typically oppressive 85F day and even the local dogs are sprawled in the shade of the giant plaster construction that forms the gates of doomed ancient city Troy. Beside them lies an exhausted, burlap-clad extra, who’s also succumbed to the heat. Not the best conditions in which to shoot a complex battle scene, but Troy’s creators-stars, extras and crew alike-don’t have much choice.

After all, this is day 100 of one of the most expensive movies shoots ever; one insider puts the expensive movie costs at $700,000 per day. Add in other massive below-the-line costs ($30 million, no less) for an ocean-spanning company move after studio Warner Bros decided the original Morocco location was too risky during the Iraq war, plus the $17,5 million Brad Pitt will pocket for playing tormented Greek warrior Achilles, and you’ve got something like a $200-million price tag. Time, as they say, is money, and not a moment can be wasted.

But neither the heat nor the pressure appears to be causing sulkiness or fits of temper-at least as far as Total Film can ascertain. "You look like you’ve got a basketball between your legs," jokes Eric Hulk Bana after witnessing co-star Orlando Bloom repeatedly run across the baking sand. The former Legolas smiles, " Yeah, my legs are a bit bow," he mutters.

As Paris, Prince of Troy, it’s Bloom who’s kicked off the massive Ancient World conflict this movie portrays, having eloped with Greek queen Helen (Diane Kruger), the wife of Spartan king Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). With his all-powerful, Greek-ruler brother Agamemnon (Brian Cox) at his side, Menelaus has arrived at Troy’s gates to personally challenge Paris. But Paris has his big bro-Trojan commander Hector (Bana)-on hand to help fight his battles for him.

This afternoon, Bloom has to focus on a single key moment; the bloodied, post-confrontation Paris ignoring his brother’s exhortations and sprinting madly towards the charging, 50,000-strong Greek army to retrieve his symbolically weighty sword from the hard-packed dirt and carry it inside the gates. "Just when you think he’s gone mad," explains director Wolfgang Petersen, "he’s turned it into the heroic act of getting the sword of Troy."

Problem is, Petersen isn’t quite seeing what he wants in Bloom’s gritty dash and dive to earth, so he calls for a cut. "Are we doin’ this again?" asks Bloom in a neutral tone. Petersen nods. Bloom squints and asks, half-jokingly, "So, just…Act…Better?"

"What can I say?" answers Petersen who, even in his floppy white sunhat, carries some of the elegance of a master of ceremonies in a Weimar nightclub. "Just do it differently…" He pauses, then gives in to the concept. "Better…"

Petersen, a veteran German theatre director, first made his mark on world cinema with Das Boot in 1981. That model of subaquatic claustrophobia wouldn’t seem a natural calling card for a sprawling epic that he estimates to be set "90 percent outdoors". Early scenes were filmed in Malta and much of the Greek assault from beach to city shot here in Cabo, on a 2,800-acre spread that boasts two miles of mostly untouched coastline.

Sheltered momentarily from the sun by a blue tarp, the 63-year-old Petersen considers what he’s taken on: "I’ve done big, complicated movies, but nothing of this score. It’s so complex. This is, so to speak, the big one for me in the sense of the difficult logistics of it and everything. It’s challenging."

Of course, Petersen doesn’t literally have to direct a 50,000-strong army. Instead, he has one-hundredth of that number to deal with, CG-multiplication-magic creating the rest. Comparisons with The Lord Of The Rings’ massive battle theatrics are obvious and though Petersen insists he admired Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy, he says, "it’s totally different to Troy. In Troy, the intention is to at least try to give an audience the feeling they are watching real people fighting each other. And it’s not sort of darkish, magical light. It’s harsh sunlight. It’s blood, sweat and tears. It’s hopefully getting an audience sucked inside a battle to experience how that could have been. It was no fun. It was not glorious at all. And it was unorganized. It was a mess. It was 1,250 years before Christ. This is not the time of Alexander The Great with formations and all these kind of clever staging of battles. This is tens of thousands of soldiers just throwing themselves into each other and seeing what happens. Everybody hacks at everyone. There’s a lot of tough stuff."

He watches his first assistant director, Gerry Gavigan, positioning the 500 extras for their charge up the hill. They are outfitted variously as Myceneans, Spartans, Thessalonians, Ithacans, Salaminians and, most fearsome, the black-clad Myrmidons (led by Pitt’s Achilles, albeit not in today’s scene). But the first rehearsed charge, by the horde of extras that’s thick with locals as a well as sub-army of more than 200 Bulgarian jocks, isn’t convincing. "Cut, cut, cut," comes the instruction from the assistant director. "Let’s go again."

Petersen is unfazed. "It’s an extremely difficult movie, as I said," he reminds Total Film between rehearsal takes. "Such an outdoor movie. You know how vulnerable you are as a production. A lot of people get sick-a big problem we still have. Here especially, Montezuma’s Revenge, the stomach thing. It hits everybody. Some are in the hospital on an IV drip. With these logistics and the sickness and the heat…I think what keeps us going is that we have a really good movie. If there were any doubts about what we are doing here, it would be almost impossible to go through this. It’s Homer, it’s the Iliad. A wonderful combination of grand scale and intimate human relations, a multi layered story."

Preparing to head into the broiling sun and survey both the troops and the shot, he gives a poker player’s twist of the mouth, as if reminding himself of something that has served as daily inspiration: "This is one of the great stories of all time."

"I guess the best evidence of the power of the Trojan War myth," says writer David Benioff, "is that we’re still talking about it 3,000 years later." Since adapting his own book, 25th Hour, for Spike Lee, Benioff’s now one of the hottest screenwriters in Hollywood. But he’s all too aware of the magnitude of this project. After all, Benioff’s story encompasses much more than Homer’s tale of the war; it also uses Virgil’s Aeneid and various histories. "The Iliad begins with the rage of Achilles over Agamemnon’s abduction of a slave girl, Briseis (Rose Byrne)," he says. "In my script, that doesn’t occur until page 82 or so. This is the Trojan War in its entirety and I’ve taken serious liberties and been ruthless in terms of what to cut out and what to change."

The screenplay he came up with was so clean that Warner Bros took the extremely rare step of sending it straight out to Petersen (whose Radiant Productions has a deal with the studio) and around the same time slipped a copy to Pitt.

Pitt had all but signed on when he met up with Petersen. "We had a nice dinner in a German restaurant in L.A., having a good time with every heavy German food and some beers," the director recalls. "We talked about the script and the part and got very excited about it. We talked also about Eric Bana, who I’d met in the meantime-Brad had also seen Eric’s film Chopper-and we both had the feeling that he could be a great Hector. And then came the long, hard work of casting the other parts."

Bana, a formidable presence at 34, needed a younger brother who shared at least some of his chiselled features but could be the sheltered neophyte to his veteran soldier-and the impetuous lover of the most dangerously beautiful woman in the world. Bloom, then 25, had burst onto the scene just months before as earnest elf Legolas in The Fellowship Of The Ring. He’d also had a small part in Black Hawk Down but was otherwise untested.

Arriving in London to meet Bloom, Petersen was initially unconvinced. "I’d never heard of this young kid before. ‘Orlando Bloom? Oh yeah, the guy from Lord Of The Rings with that funny long blond hair. He doesn’t look right to me.’ He comes in and looks completely different, and my English people there are saying, ‘Oh, Orlando Bloom is here, my daughter is going nuts! All the girls are crazy about him!’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ He’s so perfect for Paris. Every girl loves him. That’s Paris!"

Before long, Petersen had rounded out his cast with Bloom’s Fellowship compatriot Sean Bean as Odysseus, 19-year-old discovery Garrett Hedlund as Achilles’ younger cousin Patroclus, and the venerated Peter O’Toole and Julie Christie as King Priam of Troy and Achilles’ mother, Thetis.

Finally, the epic needed the woman who intoxicates young Paris and thereby spurs all that follows. "All the blood, all the violence of the war was initiated by a passionate love story," says Petersen. Helen of Troy had to be the otherworldly, a blonde aberration among the swarthy Greeks; with her lambent blue-green eyes and aristocratic bearing, Diane Kruger won the day.

In keeping with Petersen’s wish for "fresh faces", it was not, other than Pitt, the costliest cast. Just as well, given the production’s cash-hemorrhaging setbacks. A hurricane washed away great sections of the production’s costly Cabo sets, while the Morocco-Mexico move saw massive props being broken down and crated in the bellies of Russian Antonov transport planes-including the 40-foot Trojan horse, with which the Greeks manage to penetrate Troy’s defences. (It had played its part well in Malta, though, where some scenes had already been shot. As Bean recalls: "It was expecting a trapdoor, but we actually came through doors like it was all covered in insects!")

Even worse, the work in Malta had been marred by one tragedy-bodybuilder George Camilleri was injured in a waterborne action sequence and, less than three weeks after a pin was inserted in his badly broken leg, he died from a heart attack. There was also the fact that, ironically, Pitt needed to take time out after damaging his Achilles tendon. Not to mention the hard-to-assess PR debacle of widely circulated paparazzo photos of the star, helmetless and casual, legs attractively bare, talking on a mobile phone in the Maltese sun…

There’s no escaping that much of the weight of bringing off this staggeringly expensive epic rests on Pitt’s portrayal of Achilles, whom Petersen calls "a haunted guy". Petersen grants the sceptics their question: "I would say normally, ‘Is that Brad?’ Can he pull that off? Does he have that dark side to him?’" But he adds, "He absolutely has. I think Brad has, from the very beginning, a very strong instinct about how to play this part. He felt as an actor that he was born to do this. At some point he even said to Peter O’Toole, ‘All the parts I ever did were like a preparation for this.’ His whole demeanor every single day here, his physical preparation, his mental preparation, the fact that he stopped smoking for it…He did everything to get ready for the part and into the part."

Including an attempt to get his mouth around the production’s haute-English pronounced dialogue, "There was, for Brad, maybe some struggle from the very beginning, finding the right dialect," admits Petersen. "But he got control of that very quickly and from that followed the mission of being the greatest warrior of all time."

Pitt wasn’t alone in being challenged. Bana brooded at length before accepting the Hector role. "It’s the process of convincing yourself that you’re up to it," he says, "because if you can’t do it, you’re going to make a monumental cock of yourself."

But, since shooting started, Bana’s had no regrets. He came to regard his on-screen sibling Bloom "as like a real brother", and was only too delighted to be working apposite the legendary O’Toole. "It’s just really special to perform scenes with someone you feel genuine affection for", he explains. "We had an amazing scene this week, just before I go off to battle Achilles-bidding farewell to my immediate family. Peter’s character is about the only one I allow Hector to show any emotions toward, so it was just really nice, a total no-acting-required moment."

From the moment Bloom and Bana first met, during a practise horseback ride in London, with plenty of excited speculation about the film, plus cigars and more talk afterwards, the bonding was unequivocal. "I look up to him, a real honourable man," Bloom says of his co-star. "Like Hector is to Paris, he’s a real rock."

As Bloom sits talking, studiously ignoring the long gash the make-up crew has created on his right thigh, he’s mindful that, "I still have to shoot this scene where I see my brother go out to fight Achilles. Hector is an honourable, skilful, brave and strong fighter. But Achilles is a killer. So when he goes out to fight…"He pauses and ponders the scene, "I still have to play this moment where I see my brother do what I should have done."

"Paris is a very different role for Orlando Bloom," says Benioff. "Obviously, he was he fearless hero in Lord Of The Rings, who gets to run up an elephant and shoot an arrow in his brain. And here, yeah, he is showing fear…"

"This is an epic, fantastic, huge drama," says Bloom, "but it deals with very human issues: anger, hate, love, fear, and all those things that lead a man to war, lead a country to war. As a young prince, Paris has been protected by the umbrella of his family and that environment. He’s an archer, which is more of a sport, and he’s never really taken up a blade. He’s left it up to his older brother to be the warrior. He’s a complex character, an anti-hero. There are certainly a lot of dark qualities about him because of the decision he makes…"

Bloom pauses as a sea breeze that’s accompanying the arrival of dusk sends a half-hearted dust devil across the ground toward him. Just behind it is an assistant director coming to say Bloom is wrapped for the day. Many a young actor would be halfway to the trailer in a heartbeat, heading for the hotel pool and a beer, but Bloom politely asks for a moment and walks a few paces to get his benediction from Petersen. The director just gazes back with obvious fondness and gives him an acknowledging nod. Bloom brings forth his hand with a slightly formal hitching motion to shake Petersen’s. "A pleasure doin’ business with ya, boss," he says.

Trudging through the gate, he finishes his interrupted thought. "Paris is a young man and I’m a young man. And as a young man, you’re coming to terms with an awful lot. It’s the seven deadly sins, you know? Everyone’s trying to understand what they mean to him. And so it’s been a challenge." He waits a beat, then adds: "But a really exciting one."

Total Film rejoins Petersen as crewman with long horses scurry across the dusty field trying to settle the grit the sun’s been baking all day. The director considers what’s forced him to endure so many ways where "your brain is melting". Try as he might to cling to the reality that cost him so much sweat over so many months, Petersen turns philosophical. "I think we all have Achilles and Hector in ourselves. If I look at myself, or when I was a kid, do I respond to the nobility of Hector? Yes. There is something great about that. Do I react to the fact that Achilles is so self-absorbed, that he’s got a dark side, that he wants to have fame forever? Do I have part of that myself? Yes. I think everybody has. That’s what makes this story so interesting-that it reflects more the reality of life than just, ‘Okay, this is the bad guy and this is the good guy.’

"And this is why the project is risky. It doesn’t go the clichéd way of saying, ‘This is good and this is bad.’ These characters have much to do with your own life, It’s always the same story. It always has to do with how people deal with love, with violence, with passion. It’s just told on a different scale."