Operatic project gets a dream payoff

Times Staff Writer

"My god, it's an opera," Steven Spielberg said after he saw Ridley Scott's "Gladiator." DreamWorks, Spielberg's company, had nurtured the neo-sword-and-sandals epic from the start: Writer David Franzoni first mentioned his fascination with the mad Roman emperor Commodus to Spielberg when they were collaborating on "Amistad" in 1995. But apparently not even Spielberg was quite prepared for the primal drama, backed with lavish, computer-augmented vistas of imperial glory that Scott delivered.

With Russell Crowe as Maximus, a courageous general reduced to a slave, Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, the emperor who faces off with him in gladiatorial combat, and Connie Nielsen as the royal Lucilla, the woman caught between the two men, the film reaches for a stylized high drama that could easily have degenerated into high camp.

"In this instance, there was no rule book," says Scott. "It's easy to look back and say most of these types of movies were not done well. We ought to be a bloody sight more sophisticated than we were 35, 40 years ago. But we still make bad movies. It all boils down to story, story, story. I just thought we had a good, inspirational story." He said he thought, "If I could bring the vision up to speed to serve the story, then chances are, we'd have a good movie."

Hollywood, which could reward "Gladiator" with its ultimate thumbs-up as the year's best movie at the 73rd annual Academy Awards, seems to have been just as surprised as Spielberg by "Gladiator's" triumphant processional.

Originally, the very idea of resurrecting the long-discredited genre was greeted with skepticism. Sony Pictures, where Franzoni and producer Douglas Wick first pitched the idea, quickly declined, wanting no part of a toga party. Even when the movie collected $35 million over its opening weekend last May, it was still dismissed in some quarters as nothing but a flashy popcorn pic -- a World Wrestling Federation Smackdown in Roman drag.

But the movie has outlasted its naysayers, earning $187 million domestically, picking up laurels from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Producers Guild of America. With 12 nominations, "Gladiator" has to be considered the favorite for Oscar gold.

Its victory is hardly a foregone conclusion in a tightly contested race. If voters are looking to honor an epic, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" offers equally exotic spectacle, while members who prefer a winner with socially redeeming credentials can pick between the Steven Soderbergh double bill of "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich." But "Gladiator," by virtue of the honors it has already amassed, has earned its reputation as a state-of-the-art movie. And a closer look at its making reveals where the state of that art currently resides.

"For me, it was never about redoing a genre," says Wick. "When David first showed me all the research he'd done about the Roman arena, I saw that it could serve as a peephole into a whole world -- its politics, its military, its values. And because I was aware of the whole new frontier of digital effects" -- Wick was in the midst of producing the fantasy film "Stuart Little" and preparing the horror thriller "Hollow Man" -- "I knew we could do it in a way that had never been done before."

New views

"Gladiator's" digitally created visual effects, which conjure an ancient world out of bits of computer code, inevitably got the lion's share of attention when the movie debuted. Though the film's 90 effects shots -- including two bravura moments, a 540-degree Steadicam shot of the gladiators' first entry into the Colosseum and an overhead view -- constitute just nine minutes of film time, they permeate the movie.

Computers insinuated themselves throughout the production process: After first constructing a huge, tabletop model of his Roman sets, production designer Arthur Max scanned his building designs into a computer, allowing the filmmakers to experiment with sources of light and shadow, to take a virtual walk through their reconstructed town, even before it was built on top of an abandoned English army barracks in Malta.

On the actual set, the digital backgrounds could be combined with filmed footage in a nearly instantaneous video playback, so that cinematographer John Mathieson could keep track of how the two matched up. Working with an Avid computer editing machine, film editor Pietro Scalia was free to experiment and reshuffle sequences: The movie's opening shot -- Maximus' hand running through the wheat of his Spanish farm -- was actually filmed for the concluding after-life sequence, but, on a hunch, Scalia placed it at the beginning of the film, where, as a piece of moody foreshadowing, it stuck.

And composer Hans Zimmer, instead of relying on a piano to audition his melodies for Scott, composed on a sort of computer music processor. The music files were then fed into the Avid so that Scalia could edit to the developing score.

At the same time, the filmmakers resorted to lots of low-tech cinematic tricks as well. Interiors of the emperor's palace, for example, were shot on the same set -- it was just redressed six ways and shot from different angles. And for the transition to the Morocco sequence -- Maximus, near death, has been captured by slave traders and, in close-up, his head seems to glide mysteriously over the desert sand -- Scott simply placed Crowe on an unseen cart and shot him from above.

Still other aspects of the film were shaped by unforeseen circumstance. Oliver Reed, who played wily gladiator trainer Proximo, died, at 61, before his last two scenes had been shot. With digital dexterity, Scott constructed the scene in which Proximo springs Maximus from his cell by borrowing several head shots of the actor from earlier sequences, relighting them in the computer and grafting them to a body double. Crowe suggested a line of dialogue -- "Are you in danger of becoming a good man?" -- which, when followed by a dismissive growl from Reed, allowed for the illusion of genuine interaction between the two actors. "In terms of cost, though, we are still years away from replacing actors with CGI," or computer-generated images, Scott adds. "It will happen one day, but right now I don't think Russell Crowe or Brad Pitt needs to worry."

But for all the ingenuity that this production required, "Gladiator's" journey to the screen is also illustrative of how the larger film industry works. Franzoni and Wick initially had to finesse a bit of studio politics. While Franzoni was attached to DreamWorks, Wick, with whom he hoped to work, was contractually obligated to offer the project to his home studio, Sony. Only when Sony passed were they free to take it to DreamWorks production heads Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald. DreamWorks, which had successfully revived the World War II drama with Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," immediately signed on to the project. But with a budget that would ultimately approach $105 million, the studio opted for the insurance of sharing production costs with Universal Pictures, which came aboard as a partner. (DreamWorks handled domestic distribution; Universal covered foreign distribution.)

Atypically for such an expensive production, neither DreamWorks nor Universal insisted on the added security of a tried-and-tested movie star. Scott explains that the only other star he could have imagined playing Maximus was Mel Gibson, but since Gibson had recently gone the historical epic route himself in "Braveheart," he wasn't ready to jump back into the fray. Instead, Scott turned to the lesser-known Crowe, who was in the midst of filming "The Insider," for which he had put on 50 pounds, to portray his lean, mean fighting machine.

"We talked about making a movie-star version," says Wick, "but a movie star would have cost us another $20 million, and we were trying hard to make this on a budget. Everyone always felt that our downside protection was really Ridley. All the way back to 'Bladerunner,' he's been able to create visual, coherent worlds. … We figured we could market his vision of the second-century Colosseum around the world, and with that we could always limp to break-even."

From the start, Franzoni saw the material through contemporary eyes. "When I first discovered the story of Commodus," he says, "I immediately thought of him as a kind of Ted Turner, who puts politics and entertainment together to create a power base. And Proximo always seemed to me a kind of Mike Ovitz. I wanted audiences to see themselves in the Colosseum so the movie would not be just about a bunch of nasty old Romans. I wanted to revisit Rome in such a way that we were revisiting ourselves."

The story took many twists before Franzoni thought of making his gladiator a Roman general the dying Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) attempts to appoint as his successor.

Triple threat

Eventually, two other writers, John Logan (who'd written Scott's HBO production "RKO 281") and William Nicholson ("Shadowlands"), who came aboard once filming had begun, also massaged the script. But unlike many Hollywood tag-team writing situations, all three communicated with one another throughout the process. Says Franzoni, who also served as one of the film's producers, "It was not one of those situations where each writer felt a duty to go off to his own ivory tower. Everything that went on, in one way or another, involved all three of us."

Scott, while overseeing the evolving screenplay, was even more involved in determining the movie's visual design. A graduate of London's Royal College of Art, he was first drawn into the project when Wick and Parkes seduced him with a reproduction of Jean-Leon Gerome's 1872 painting "Pollice Verso," in which a Roman gladiator stands over his defeated foe while the mob calls for a final, fatal blow. And -- dashing off sketches to illustrate his ideas -- he proceeded to re-create Rome from the ground up.

"The design concept was more of a 19th-century interpretation of Rome, an interpretation via the Romantic painters of France and England, with a bit of 'German architect' Albert Speer thrown into the mix," says production designer Max. For the crowded Roman streets, Scott even turned for inspiration to Wall Street, with towering buildings blocking out the sky. Adds Max, "Ridley takes a lot of creative leaps. Working for him is both thrilling and terrifying, like taking a tiger by the tail -- you never know which way he's going to turn, but it's better holding on than letting go." Although Max discovered a few props left over from movies like 1959's "Ben-Hur" -- a couple of large, bronze braziers, a few centurions' banners -- virtually everything, from chariots to armor to weapons, had to be crafted from scratch.

That included the Colosseum itself. Max erected a fragment of the stadium's first tier, one-third of the original's circumference and 52 feet high. Then visual effects supervisor John Nelson, working with the Mill Film effects house in London, added three more tiers digitally, peopling them with extras, who were first shot against blue screens and then multiplied throughout the stadium. "We could have made them do the wave if we wanted to," Nelson jokes.

Not so the far less cooperative tigers that Crowe battles on the Colosseum's floor. "The tigers were flat-out dangerous, but they didn't always look 'ferocious' when we wanted them to," says Nelson. So rather than create fake, computer-generated tigers, a second-unit spent weeks filming tigers -- crouching and otherwise -- that were later composited with shots of Crowe and his fellow gladiators.

A rock 'n' roll director

With as many as eight cameras shooting some scenes, cinematographer Mathieson, a music video veteran, says of Scott, "For an older, established filmmaker, he was very rock 'n' roll."

For the film's opening, bloody battle in Germania, filmed in a patch of woods in Farnham, England, that was slated to be deforested, Nelson had to improvise madly to compensate for the fading winter light. In some instances, he reduced the camera shutter speed to capture a strobing, staccato effect; in others, he undercranked the camera, filming just six, as opposed to the usual 24, frames per second so that when the six were later stretched back optically to 24 frames, the result was a blurred, fan-like motion.

As the film moves from Germania to Morocco to Rome, its color palette also changed from the cold grays and blues of the battle to the warmer hues of the desert to the dusty browns of Rome, full of ominous shadows. For Commodus' return to his seat of power, the movie even shifts to near black-and-white in a nod to period newsreel footage of Nazi pomp.

"A lot of big movies done today have the look of high-class TV," observes Scott. "But I've always liked chiaroscuro 'effects' that you find in the work of '17th Century French painter' Georges de La Tour."

In the end, editor Scalia had about 900,000 feet of film -- twice the amount shot for an average feature -- to shape into "Gladiator's" final, 2 1/2-hour running time. "One of the most difficult things on any film is to get the tone right," he observes. "'Gladiator' is really a classic hero's journey. My job was really finding that story and embellishing the theme of the hero."

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