Set in 79 A.D., "Game of Thrones" star Kit Harington plays Milo, a slave-turned-gladiator who must fight to save both himself and Cassia, the woman he loves (Emily Browning), as Mount Vesuvius erupts and the city of Pompeii crumbles around them. And with a corrupt Roman Senator (Kiefer Sutherland) also vying for Cassia's affection, Milo has a lot more than just lava to contend with.
The story of Pompeii is one that Anderson's been wanting to tell for years, and one that would've been almost impossible without recent advances in computer animation -- along with finding the right cast to ensure that audiences root for the human beings fighting for survival as much as the special effects carnage.
Moviefone Canada visited the set of "Pompeii" in Toronto, where we spoke with the cast and crew about mixing swords and sandals with an active volcano. Here's everything else you need to know to prepare for the historical disaster movie.
It's Been Years in the Making
Maybe not quite since 79 A.D., but the Roman Empire and Pompeii in particular have fascinated Anderson since he grew up visiting Roman forts on school field trips. "Romans were a big part of my life when I was a kid," the director explained. "I was always fascinated by them."
He's not the only filmmaker who's been intrigued by the possibility of translating the real-life tragedy to the big-screen: at one point Roman Polanski had been attached to his own Pompeii film. And it's hard to believe that Hollywood's reigning master of disaster, Roland Emmerich, didn't beat either of the directors to the story. "It's one of those obvious ideas," admits Anderson's producing partner Jeremy Bolt. "After Titanic, what are the other great disasters in history?"
"This was a way of combining visual effects, epic spectacle, and a period of history that is just profoundly fascinating. It's something Paul's wanted to do for years," said Bolt. Calling the project "a five or six-year labour of love," Anderson first started developing the screenplay for "Pompeii" back in 2008, but the delay actually ended up working in the director's favour.
"The possibility of making it on a sensible budget has only just come up," said Bolt. "Ten years ago, this film would've almost been impossible, but because of the digital revolution with CG, you can do destruction in a way you never used to be able to."
Everyone's a Big "Game of Thrones" Fan
"In Europe, Pompeii is a massive brand. Everybody knows it. It's like Titanic," explained Bolt. The bigger question is how well the subject matter will translate in North America, where the story may not be quite as familiar to audiences. That's where Kit Harington comes in, especially now that "Games of Thrones" has become such a widespread cultural phenomenon. As Jon Snow in the hit HBO fantasy series, Harington is a fan favourite, and a "movie star waiting to happen," according to Anderson.
"We were actively looking for something to do with him," explained Bolt. "We felt he combined romantic credibility, as well as being credible with a sword. He's young, but he's not a boy. He's a man." And, as his co-star Kiefer Sutherland helpfully pointed out, "Let's face it, he's a good-looking kid."
Sutherland, who also considers himself a big "Game of Thrones" fan, said he's always impatient for the show to get back to Harington's storyline. To Sutherland, the young actor has a star power that can't be taught. "He just stands out," according to the Hollywood vet. "And you can't help but watch what he's doing."
For Harington though, it's funny that he's become so well-known for his sword fighting prowess, saying how odd it is for everyone who knew him growing up. "At drama school, I was always playing the 11-year-old boys," he laughed. "Everyone is just a bit surprised that I've become this action hero." As for the inevitable comparisons between Milo and Jon Snow, Harington laughed, saying, "As you can guess, I like playing dark, broody types."
It's not easy to find a young leading man capable of carrying a blockbuster movie, said Bolt. "There are not many gettable actors at that age who are really going to inspire confidence," the producer said, pointing to the success of "Man of Steel" and Henry Cavill as a good example of finding the right fit. "The more movies we do, the more we realize that that decision is so fundamental, because if you get it wrong, you can't recover," he explained.
And "Pompeii" is the first time that Harington's being asked to carry a project on his own, which has been a big adjustment for the 26-year-old actor. "This is the first time I've been a lead role in a movie, and it is demanding, it's tiring," he admitted. "There's a lot of fighting in this, and there's a lot of stunts. I'm in the best shape I've ever been, but I'm exhausted."
Still, Harington's doing just fine, according to his co-stars. "He's had tremendous demands on him, physically and emotionally," said Sasha Roiz, who plays Sutherland's right-hand man Proculus. "He's doing a great job." Even if he is going to need to take some time off to recuperate afterwards.
Emily Browning Could Be the Next Milla Jovovich
Anderson was also a big fan of Harington's co-star Emily Browning, saying she reminded him a bit of his wife (and frequent collaborator) Milla Jovovich. "She's obviously a very beautiful woman, but the more dirt and blood you put on her, the sexier she becomes," the director laughed. "So she's very, very gorgeous at the start of the movie, but she's unbelievably stunning by the end when she's just covered in ash and blood."
And even though she doesn't get to kick ass like Jovovich has in the "Resident Evil" movies (or Browning did in Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch"), her character is no damsel in distress. "I liked the fact that Cassia gets to save Milo a couple of times, and I think that's rare you see that in this kind of film," said Browning. "She's a very feisty, modern woman," agreed Bolt.
Still, Browning wouldn't have minded getting to pick up a sword, saying she's envious of her gladiator co-stars. "I don't get to have a fight scene and I'm kind of jealous when I see the boys doing that," she laughed. "Seeing them getting to train everyday, it makes me wanna do that kind of film again, where I get to fight."
Otherwise though, she's enjoying the pomp and circumstance that comes with the gladiator genre. "I spent last year making tiny indie films, which I loved doing, but coming back here it was like, 'Oh yeah, this is a big Hollywood movie.' The sets are all epic and huge," Browning said. "It's kind of fun having all these big, greased-up muscly dudes walking around as well."
There's a "Downton Abbey" Connection
That's right. A 3D disaster movie about an ancient volcano has something in common with the acclaimed British costume drama. That's because "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes has a co-writing credit on "Pompeii."
"Believe it or not, Paul and I love 'Downton Abbey,' " said Bolt, calling Fellowes brilliant, and "one of the great English writers." So they brought the Oscar-winning screenwriter on to touch up the script, a process that took a couple of months. "We wanted him to come in and work on the language and the dramatic structure," Bolt explained. That script, in turn, helped attract a higher-calibre cast.
"I was so surprised how beautifully well-written the script was. The dialogue was really rich. The structure is unbelievably sound and it's a very classic love story," said Sutherland. "Yes, it's a gladiator movie. Yes, it has elements of a disaster movie, but there's such a well-told story at the root of it." Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays Cassia's mother in the film, felt the same way. "It came to me and I thought, 'Oh, big action-y kind of movie, 3D.' I wasn't expecting it to be such a good read."
"We wanted good actors, so Jared Harris, Carrie-Ann Moss, Kiefer Sutherland, they're going to give the story gravitas," said Bolt. The theory being that if they can get audiences to invest in the characters, it'll heighten the drama during the disaster scenes. "There has to be an emotional involvement with the people involved in that situation, as well as the spectacle," explained Moss' on-screen husband Harris. Or in other words, what makes a good disaster movie is more than just good special effects.
They're Committed to Historical Accuracy
Again, it might sound strange, since Anderson is better known for zombie action than period drama. But with "Pompeii," the director was looking to do something slightly different. And while the film obviously still contains action movie elements, Anderson explained that "the intention was to make a straight historical movie."
"What he's trying to do, as opposed to his previous work, is keep it as real as possible. There's not gonna be any fancy 'Resident Evil' shots. It's not that movie," said Bolt. "It's got to be grounded and believable, because if you don't believe that this actually happened, you're gonna check out."
"The last film I did with Paul, we wanted to be quite stylized. But this one, with the settings, we wanted it to be as realistic as possible," explained Paul Austerberry, the film's production designer. It's all thanks to the vast amount of archaeological records that were available. "Nothing is fabricated. All this stuff is actually based on documentation," said Austerberry, right down to the frescos in the arena.
And although the majority of the film was shot on Canadian back lots, the production traveled to Italy early on for more hands-on research. "We literally scanned everything. We probably took 30,000 photos, we took hours of high-level HD video," recalled Berardi. All to ensure that the sets, both practical and digital, were as accurate as possible. "Going to Pompeii was a must," he explained. "We focused a lot of our attention just in detail." So much so that when it came to recreating the Temple of Jupiter, the set of a climactic fight between Sutherland's Corvus and Harington's Milo, they scanned every inch of the ruins, "right down to the millimetre in terms of scale and textures."
Even the film's disaster elements were subject to the same scrutiny. "We're using real-world reference as our standard of quality. I'm not using other movie references," Berardi said. "We're trying to look at real world reference of real volcano explosions and what really happens."
Actors Appreciate the Realism as Much as Audiences
"I really wanted to build as much of Pompeii as possible," Anderson said, as opposed to recent sword and sandals films like "300" or "Immortals," which made heavy use of green screen. "Because I think for the disaster and the drama to work, you need to feel like you're really in that world."
It helped the actors too, reasoned the director: "It made it easier for the actors because they could really immerse themselves -- you walked into Jared and Carrie-Anne's villa and it was there." Well, it used to be at least. Anderson wished he could show us the villa set, but there was nothing left to show; it'd since been completely levelled. (Which helped explain why certain props sported giant "Do Not Burn" signs, to save them from overzealous crew. "We burnt too many things," laughed Austerberry.)
"There's actually quite a lot built out here. I thought it was going to be a lot more green screen," said Harington. "I generally find green screen stuff quite difficult. I like being surrounded by all this, I think it's part of the pleasure of acting." Browning, who had her share of green screen in "Sucker Punch," concurred: "It is nice to have something to react to. It's weird when you just have to react to a pink X on a green wall. That's not the most fun."
"You get lost in it, it's amazing. The costumes are remarkable, the sets are really something special. And it makes it much easier to get lost in the role and the world of it," offered Roiz. "The way they set it up for us is that it's so realistic, you have everything you need. It's not hard to drop yourself in there," agreed Currie Graham, who plays the head guard (and primary torturer) of the gladiators.
Everyone Wants to Play with Swords
"Pompeii" is equal parts gladiator movie and disaster movie, according to the cast and crew, which means there's lots of opportunity for sword and sandals action before Vesuvius erupts. But Browning's not the only one who wishes she had her own fight scene. Harris also begged his director to let him join the fun. "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," he laughed. "I'm so close, I'm standing right there in the arena. I'm classically trained, I can do all that stuff."
Still, playing a gladiator is a lot more demanding than your typical action hero. According to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the axe he's swinging weighs over fifteen pounds. It's exhausting just listening to their four-week training regimen of six-plus hours a day. "This whole role, from the very outset, we were told it wasn't about looking fit," he said. Instead, it was important that they be able to perform all the gruelling fight scenes themselves.
So Akinnuoye-Agbaje arranged for a mini-gym to be stationed next to the set, with various weights and dip bars, which he and the other gladiators use before every take. "You guys want the beef. This is a gladiator movie. You've got to be pumped," he reasoned.
Harington agreed, though he admitted to feeling self-conscious doing bicep curls in front of the assembled crowd of 450 extras. Still, he figures a little embarrassment now saves him a lot more when he's fighting guys three times his size on the big-screen. "It's an action film, 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 guys who are huge," Harington said. "I need to compete with them, so it doesn't look ridiculous that I'm beating them up."
It's All About Playing to the Crowd
There's just something about the size and scope of a gladiator movie that makes it feel like a "real" film set -- even if walking past a holding area of hundreds of toga-wearing extras all checking their phones somewhat ruins the illusion. "We've always dreamed of doing a sword and sandals movie. We're huge 'Spartacus' fans," agreed Bolt. So is Akinnuoye-Agbaje. "In the back of my mind, I just had this epic image of 'Ben Hur' and 'Spartacus.' Because they are the Holy Grail as far as these movies go," he said. "There's a temptation to pick up the dirt and rub it."
Even the movie's villains found themselves getting carried away by it all. "I was whipping Adewale and broke my finger and I didn't realize until after the take," laughed Graham. Roiz credits the grandeur of the sets that Anderson and his production team designed. "When you step into that arena," he said. "You just kind of lose yourself in it."
Austerberry only built about a quarter of the arena, with special effects filling in the rest. Even so, it's a massive set, large enough to hold up to 450 cheering extras. For Harington, performing in front of the crowd is added motivation. "It's weirdly like being back in theatre, having all them watching what you're doing," he said of the gladiator battles. "You want to play to them a bit, and that's good. Because this is what it should be. It's playing to an audience." Akinnuoye-Agbaje agreed: "You come out to the setting, and you just feel it."
It seems the only one who didn't enjoy the sword fighting was Anderson's dog, who accompanied the director on set and apparently attempted to break up the stuntmen. "Whenever they start fighting, he jumps in between them to stop them. And then when the stunt guys lie down and pretend to be dead, he walks up and licks them," laughed Anderson. "He thinks he's like Aslan, he can bring them back to life by licking them."
They Learned as Much from "Titanic" As they Did From "Gladiator"
For all the gladiator action, as Harington reminds us, "There's love somewhere in there too." But how much exactly? "There's probably more kissing in this than my entire career combined," laughed Anderson.
"It's not something that I'm particularly well-known for. So it was something I was very excited to do, but also I was a little tense about it," said Anderson. To compensate, he made sure he spent a lot of time plotting out Milo and Cassia's love story. "I put more effort into that than thinking about the volcano and the visual effects," Anderson said. "Because that's something that I know, that's in my wheelhouse and I can do that."
So they looked to another famous disaster movie for tips on how to balance big-budget carnage with romance. "We learned from 'Titanic' that, when you're going with a huge dramatic disaster, try to keep the narrative as simple as possible. So we really focused on the love story between Kit Harington and Emily Browning," said Bolt.
Still, don't expect to see Anderson's version of "The Notebook." "It's in the middle of a f**king volcano going off, so it's not your classic love story," said Harington. "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."
Anderson agreed, saying that they managed to squeeze a lot of emotion into a relatively short period of time. "They have this compressed relationship, because it's in this disastrous setting. They basically have a day to fall in love and live a whole life together before what happens at the end of the film," he explained. "And they really pull it off."
They're Going Out with a Bang
No spoilers here, but you can expect an awful lot of death and destruction from one of history's greatest natural disasters. And since, like "Titanic," everyone knows it's coming from the opening credits, figuring out when to kick off the mayhem was the other major challenge for the filmmakers.
It's all about finding the right balance. "If you start it too soon, it will actually become repetitive," explained Bolt. "But if you leave it too late, the audience will check out." Eventually, they settled on the final third of the film. And from the moment Mount Vesuvius starts to blow, it's almost non-stop action, with tremors and lava bombs exploding everywhere. "We are going to wipe people out just with sheer violence," promised Berardi.
To help ramp up the suspense, "Pompeii" is going to tease the big eruption in a variety of ways, with "little mini-events." Otherwise? "You're kind of just waiting for the big event," said the visual effects supervisor. "And then you spend a lot of money and it feels empty and hollow." Bolt agreed: "We have moments of calm between each section. So you might think, 'Oh, I've made it!' Wrong. The next stage is just gearing up."
Still, expect to see some impressive set pieces in the movie's final stages, including tsunamis, and Berardi's personal favorite, a chariot race between Milo and Corvus. "It's pretty spectacular," Berardi assured us. "Four horses abreast, going as fast as they can run, lava bombs hitting and destroying buildings, fissures opening up in the ground underneath, pressurized vapor vents, that all culminates entering into the Forum."
"The scope and the fact that we're doing it in 3D, and the level of destruction, all in period, is just gonna be fantastic and immersive," Berardi said. Bolt agreed, saying, "When Paul first got involved in 3D, I said to him, 'The perfect genre for 3D is a disaster movie, because you have the debris coming at you.' And there's no greater disaster than a volcano, because there are so many aspects to it."
So even though audiences may have a pretty good idea of how "Pompeii" is going to end, that should only make the movie that much more exciting.
"Pompeii" is set to open in theatres on February 21, 2014.