When we arrive at Cinespace Studios in Toronto during the summer of 2013 there is no question what kind of a picture is lensing there: Hundreds of extras lounge in their own special holding area, draped in togas.
Yes, it’s sword and sandal time again, seen amidst the glorious ruins of the lost city of Pompeii. The massive Sony production, shot in 3D no less, will depict the tragedy that befell thousands upon thousands in the city placed not-so-strategically at the base of Mount Vesuvius. At the helm of this Gladiator-meets-I, Claudius-meets-a-disaster movie epic is none other than Paul W.S. Anderson, the equally successful and divisive director behind the “Resident Evil” franchise among other geeky properties. Making a transition into historical epic territory came naturally to the Englishman, who grew up near Hadrian’s Wall in New Castle.
“Romans were a big part of my life when I was a kid, so I was always fascinated by them,” says Anderson. “And Pompeii also is taught in school and its just a fascinating subject. You know, the idea of this city thats really been preserved in time. Its really one of the most unique archeological sites in the world. You can see life as it was frozen in time. These people were flash fried at the point of death. So you see the kind of lovers who were embraced, you see the person carrying, you see the dog, it’s kind of all these figures frozen in time.”
The director has assembled a formidable cast of thesps who have lined up to be “flash fried” for our amusement: Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, and, in the roles of star-crossed lovers fighting for survival in the Jack-and-Rose tradition, Kit Harrington and Emily Browning. Browning proved her capacity for badassery in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, while Harrington has made a name for himself as the most heroic member of the Night’s Watch over three seasons of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
“Stunts to set!” someone yells.
We follow to the big outdoor gladiator arena that’s been constructed with minimal greenscreen. There’s a giant stone obelisk covered in Brittanic Celtic runes in the center where much of the action takes place. Up to 300+ extras sit in the stands at any one time over the course of the 5-6 days this sequence will take to lens, with 2nd unit picking up Ben Hur-style chariot races on the weekend.
Harrington’s stunt double rehearses a sword fight for the lead character of Milo, who’s taking part in the celebrations at Pompeii in 79 AD as a very theatrical re-enactment of Romans conquering Brittania. This celebration will eventually be capped by earthquakes, a tidal wave and buckets of lava, but that’s for another day. In between takes, Harrington pumps iron with two massive free weights to get beefy arms the Jon Snow way.
“I’ve been pumping up right before scenes and stuff,” explains Harrington, clearly excited for his first lead role in a major film. “You feel like a bit of a douche, because they’ve got like 100 extras, and I’m there going [mimes bicep curls] But you know, it’s an action film, where I’ve got my arms out the whole time, so I have to try and look tough. And I’m next to all these stunt boys who are huge, so I need to kind of compete with them, so it doesn’t look ridiculous that I’m beating them up.”
Despite the slight embarrassment, the young Harrington enjoyed the immediate gratification of playing to the crowd during his sword fights against massive stuntmen.
“Kind of like in the theater, you want to play to them a bit, and that’s good,” Harrington says. “Because this is what it should be. It’s playing to an audience. I went to a hockey game recently and it was quite interesting. It was good research for this. It was a good feeling of what bloodsport might be like. Because the whole crowd you know, I mean, you’ve seen hockey, when someone goes to punch someone else, they’re all instantly up on their feet going, “Come on! F**king do it!” And it was quite good research for this, because you could see how humans react to violence. It’s f**king strange.”
We observe the fights on huge 3D HD monitors in a tent adjacent to the set, the visuals greatly enhanced by the sand at our feet and the smell of horse in the air. Co-star Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje swings a huge axe at the obelisk, cutting it open like a piñata, while Harrington gets to slash a few dudes with his mini sword and triumphantly kick an enemy off the rock. The obelisk is meant to be theatrical since it’s a set within the movie, and over the course of the scene they knock it down and use it in the battle.
A dead soldier scratches his face waiting for another shot to start. We see 2nd unit footage of soldiers lying on the ground as another wounded centurion gallops by on horseback. They grab a shot of the extras and an AD yells “Remember, bloodlust! You love this!” A centurion takes a nasty tumble off a horse.
The architect of this mayhem is Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland), an evil Roman senator who has a bit of a crush on Browning’s character, and is ruthless enough to make a match between them happen by any means necessary.
“Obviously, he’s the antagonist of the film, he’s an *sshole,” says Sutherland of Corvis. “He wants to marry this girl. He’s come to Pompeii to marry this girl and to take over the father’s company. He has a line where he says, ‘As soon as this deal is done and the marriage is settled ’ The line earlier is my right-hand guy says, ‘What a mouth on her.’ And he says, ‘Yes. As soon as the deal is done and the marriage is settled, I’ll take great pleasure in shutting it.’ Thats exactly what he’s there for. The deal and the marriage and then he goes back to Rome.”
Of course, Emily Browning’s Cassia has different ideas pertaining to her romantic future
“I think Cassia is pretty tough, she doesn’t want to be told what to do,” explains Browning. “She says right at the beginning of the film, ‘I don’t want to marry anyone, I’m not interested.’ I think she manages to hold her own, but is still kind of frustrated that her dad won’t listen to her as much as she would like, because at the very start she advises him against getting into bed with the Romans, she hates the idea that there’s a Roman Senator at the house, and she disagrees with what’s going on there with the Emperor and everything.”
There’s more to Pompeii than politics and destruction porn, though, as there’s also a compelling love story between Milo and Cassia, which is a bit of a change up from Anderson’s typical routine.
“It’s been really fun just directing the drama aspect of it and the love story as well, which has been really great,” exclaims Anderson. “More kissing than any movie I’ve everprobably more kissing in this than my entire career combined so far. And it’s really good kissing as well, it’s very emotional. Kit and Emily are just fantastic.”
“Shes a little bit sort of hardened at the beginning, like maybe she’s had a lot of attention from these kind of guys and she’s just really not into it,” says Browning of Cassia. “And it’s me meeting Milo and realizing that ‘Woah, I have feelings for a boy’ that softens her up a little bit. I wouldn’t say that the volcano eruption is lucky for her (laughs) but it kind of does get her out of a very compromising position, because she’s in a place where it looks like she is going to have to marry Corvis to save her family, to protect her family.”
“It’s bizarre, because you’ve got a love story and it’s in the middle of a f**king volcano going off, so it’s not your classic love story,” adds Harrington. “It’s not what you’d expect it to be really, which is, again, what I quite liked about it. They don’t have time to go through all the talky-talky, kissy-kissy, lovey-lovey. The volcano’s going off, so they have to get on with it.”
Inside the studio we get a greater sense of the world-building going on to recreate the ancient city with as much authenticity as technology will provide. There’s a massive amphitheater forum made up of huge marble steps, columns and statuary. Craftsmen have built a ramp off an existing ramp on the lot which serves as both a ramp to the harbor and entrance to the gladiator arena. Some of the paintings, and even mosaic-textured floors, are just Photoshop printouts pasted onto walls. They’re also building a portion of a boat on a movable gimbal. Ultimately 45-50 minutes of visual effects will help to complete the picture that’s only begun to be painted on these sets.
“It’s a historical movie but it’s not in the mold of like ‘300’ or ‘Immortals’ where their world is created through green screen,” assures Anderson. “I wanted a believable, historical world. I think for the disaster to work and the drama to work, you really need to feel like you’re really in that world. I really wanted to build as much of Pompeii as possible. We recreated an entire street, we had a whole villa built which we’ve since destroyed, so there’s none of that left. We built as much of the arena as possible and you can see we’ve got like 350 to 400 extras working today, so there’s a huge chunk of kind of scope and scale you’ll get in camera. As a filmmaker, it helps me solve when to go wide, when to go for the digital shots. I think in an audience’s mind we’ve already sold it as reality.”
As we walk through the large street set that has already been partly decimated by pyroclastic flow, it reminds us of talking with the great Jared Harris (“Mad Men,” Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) earlier. Harris plays Browning’s father Lucretius, a businessman willing to make a deal with Corvis for his daughter’s hand. When we spoke he had already been through several rounds of disaster scenes and what’s described might seem like a spoiler until you realize his fate is presumably the fate of everyone in this picture.
“To be covered ash?” says Harris. “There’s a lot of toxic flames. There’s a time when we’re on set and the makeup person puts a thing up your nose. There’s so much black stuff that goes up your nose, but I don’t think it gets any worse than that. We do get mummified in lava but I’m dead before that happens.”
We caught a glimpse of much more to come in the course of the picture, including chariot races, Corvis taking Cassia hostage while Milo gives chase, lava bombs destroying buildings, and Corvis and Milo fighting on the steps of the Temple of Jupiter. It all looks exciting, vibrant, and an awesome historical portrayal of the legendary city of Pompeii. Only one person seemed to be bummed about it and that’s Jared Harris, who doesn’t get a sword fight of his own despite having the classical chops to pull it off.
“I’ve always wanted to be in one of these Greek ‘300’ things,” bemoans Harris. “I’ve been asking Paul if I could please be given a little push during one of these scenes so I end up in the arena with a sword. I’m so close! If someone could just give me a little push in the back.”
Pompeii explodes into theaters on February 21, 2014. You can watch the new trailer below.