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300 Producer Mark Canton sits down for an exclusive interview with The Scott Mitchell Rosenberg Interview Series, to discuss the process of bringing comics and graphic novels to the big screen, how he assembled a top notch team to make 300 and his next comic-based film project.

SCOTT MITCHELL ROSENBERG:  Mark, you deserve some bragging, and I know you won’t do it yourself, so I’m going to talk about you in the third person for a moment: 

Mark Canton has had just about every enviable experience possible in Hollywood. He was Chairman of Sony, President of Warner Brothers, and now gets to do what he likes best:  producing. Mark also greenlit the first Batman movie, which took incredible effort, then another billion dollar franchise, "Men in Black", which was a strong risk at the time (full disclosure: yours truly signed the Men in Black deal at Sony), and another risk and a new bar for CG with live action: "300".  Mark’s next development is another graphic novel based feature: "Killing Demons".

OK, Mark, let’s start the interview.  Wow, the USA Today  piece is terrific. The buzz that you’ve got going on this movie is absolutely amazing.

MARK CANTON: We’ve got a rare occasion.  The people are buzzing going in and instead of being cynical coming out, they’re going, “oh, that was f–ing awesome!”  So that’s when it’s really a nice time.

SMR: Well, I’ve got a question for you:  You’re the one who got Batman up and going theatrically, and who greenlit my own movie, “Men In Black;” What are the challenges you went through? How did it all start with “300” coming to life?

MC: I knew Frank Miller going back to the “Dark Knight Returns” days, and of course, was a big fan of his and “Sin City.” Those are the kind of things that I shepherded in my days as an executive – “Batman,” “M.I.B.” and “Starship Troopers,” and numerous other movies that have gone on to stand the test of time, each in their own way. 

Interestingly enough, Gianni Nunnari and I had been talking about working together for a long time – we’re great friends. He had convinced Frank Miller to option the rights on “300,” which was very hard, and at a certain point he needed some help with financing.  I was looking at his portfolio, and my son Henry, who at the time was 10…

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SMR: How old is he now?

MC: He’s going to be 16 – I shouldn’t say this because of the content of the comic book, except from an historical viewpoint, it is educational – but he said ‘Dad, that’s the one, you’ve got to get that one.’

But that’s really how it started.  Gianni and I were able, because of my mutual relationship with Frank and the mutual respect, to make sure that every time an option came up during the arduous development period, because we know it’s just, I don’t have enough hours to go into how long it took to get this thing made.  But, I’d say long ago I established myself as someone who doesn’t ever let up.

SMR: Actually, Frank Miller said that it’s you who pushed and pushed and pushed, and how obsessive you were about the story.

MC: Yes, that’s true.  And when Zack Snyder came on board – Gianni’s the one who found Zack Snyder as well – but when Zack came on board, he just had such an amazing vision of how he could take this brilliant graphic novel and be completely faithful yet bring his own vision. For example, there are characters like The Queen, who’s such an impactful part of our picture, who women can connect with.  Women love the story because it’s so contemporary in nature.

SMR: Is that why you increased her role in the film from what it was in the comic ?

MC: Yes, we wanted to balance it out.  The true story is, amongst their other virtues – they certainly had things that were not virtues, like discarding anyone who was not “physically capable,” which is in the first scene in the movie – but amongst their virtues was the fact that The Queen was every bit the partner of the King.  And that comes across in every way in the movie.  And it’s a fabulous addition which Frank loved, that was not part of his graphic novel.

You know, Frank is a great partner.  We’re already trying to figure out with him where we go from here with the Spartans.  It’s a rare movie, because people can’t get enough. I’ve never had this experience in my entire career, even with the successes of a “Lethal Weapon” or a “Batman,” where people in the “300” focus groups said “can you make the movie longer?”  You know, that’s a first.

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SMR: You took on a major career challenge – a major theatrical challenge – with the level of background, the CG; you’ve actually created the new bar.  How were you willing to take that leap? As Chairman of Sony and former President of Warner Bros, obviously studios have faith in you.  But how did you actually have faith that you’d be able to pull all that off?

MC: I think this was, in the truest sense, a team sport – movies at their purest, are a team sport.  This was about a lot of people lining up all in one direction. And when Zack Snyder did his test – which is now something everyone’s clamoring for on the internet, to see the original test which got Warner to say yes – he just had such a vision.  It was really more responding to the amount of talent that Zack has, and his leadership abilities, which many directors don’t have.  They don’t have the ability to get everybody to drink the Kool–Aid the same way, you know?  And that’s sort of it. From a creative standpoint, the way Chris Watts supervised the effects, or Larry Fong, who shot the movie, everybody was on one focused path from day one. It was the only way Zack would accept it. 

And the producer’s job is to support that and to also question it. But, Zack is a rare personality, the kind of leader who treats everyone the same way. And by doing that, whether you’re a crew member, or a star, or a producing partner, it created a very hard to believe, “chill” set.  I mean, we shot this amazing movie in 60 days on a stage, with only one day outside, in Montreal, Canada.  It’s hard to believe that what you see on the screen can be envisioned in 60 days in Canada. 

And that, I think, is why, when you talk about setting the bar, I think all the other studios are responding to that, and are talking to their executives already – even if they haven’t seen the movie!  Because it’s in the air – how do you do something like this?  On the other hand, I’m not sure you can do it that often, because it’s hard to repeat. When you make a little history, let’s say “Matrix,” or the original “Batman,” if you set the bar high, it’s hard to repeat it.  Once you start copying it, it’s not as unique. And that’s the biggest challenge we’re experiencing right now, before we open, is the unique–ness.  Have you’ve seen this week, that people are questioning the politics of the film?  Which side is George Bush, which side isn’t George Bush?


SMR: Yes, I found that quite interesting…

MC: It’s wonderful.  Let them all question.  It’s wonderful that people are responding to the politics, to the morality, to the sensuality, to the history – that they want to authenticate it.  In the USA Today  piece, the scholar we used talks about how historically we are validated, and yet we did some things that…, who knows that Herodetes, who Frank based the tale on, he was the first historian, really.  But it’s a piece of history, and we used a lot of the actual words like “we will fight in the shade…”

SMR: That’s always been my favorite phrase…

MC: It’s awesome, and it comes across amazing in the movie.  You know you’re firing on all cylinders when you make a water–cooler movie that people, when they leave the theatre, like they did at the premiere the other night at Mann’s Chinese (in Hollywood, CA), and rather than running to their cars to leave, rather than being cynical like they can be in this town and putting the movie down, they stood outside and were buzzing about the way different people are impacted by the movie. 

Kids see one thing, because it’s such a great ride like comics and graphic novels can be.  Adults have never seen anything quite like it – the combination of the picture quality, the artistry, the music, which is dazzling – it’s very, very unique, because it’s a combination of more traditional, epic movie composition and rock & roll. 

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SMR: I was talking to the folks over at Warner Records and they were astounded too.  

MC: They came out with the CD yesterday, and it’s already on iTunes ; and they also cut a vinyl version for the purists, which is so cool...

Right now, we’re firing on all cylinders, and Zack Snyder deserves the credit, and that’s how it is.  But we’re all very proud, and very happy.

And I think, from an artistic standpoint I’m looking forward to partnering with you on the projects we’ve been talking about.  I like to think, in my career, in the sense of, you know, Tim Burton was the genius, and Barry Sonnenfeld did his thing on “Men In Black,” Zack Snyder’s at the high, high end of talent.  But at the same time, you like to think from the contribution that I made, or we made collectively, individually, it just was a relentless support system, to making sure that people were listening, including Zack, to the sound of their own voice. 

And then the marketing – I get deeply involved with the studio on the editing and the marketing. I think that’s a critical component of it because, you can’t just let go.  Even today, you don’t want to be at the studio taking my calls all day because I’m just torturing people…

SMR: I think this movie shows how “torturing” works; your whole career, pretty much, with the movies you’ve selected…  And being proactively involved in marketing is a rare for a producer and a remarkable talent in you.

MC: It’s a belief system and it’s whatever god–given talent I may have. I’m driven on this. I love the movie as a fan. I love Frank Miller’s work as a fan. So from a fan–boy standpoint, I’m there. 

And also, I have great partners – Gianni Nunnari, Jeff Silver, Bernie Goldman, these guys have all brought their own contribution to the team here.  You look at the credits in this movie, they’re massive – there’s something like 12 minutes of credits at the end.  It’s crazy – the credits take longer than it did to shoot the movie! (laughs)

SMR: How long did it take to train and build up the guys you have in the movie?

MC: About 7 or 8 months and they could never stop. Zack brought in Mark Twight – he’s the Navy SEAL and Covert Ops trainer, and he has his own way of doing things. Their regimen was very difficult and it was never the same, so it varied every day. And it wasn’t long, but it was very intense.  They couldn’t stop while they were shooting.  Usually when you’re shooting a movie you stop training, but our guys couldn’t.  Every day they were just wearing these loincloths.

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SMR: You don’t need to name names, but was it kind of like boot camp, where some people just couldn’t take it?

MC: If you couldn’t do it, you couldn’t be in this movie.

SMR: So they were Spartans themselves...

MC: They had to be to look the way they do.  There’s no artificial body stuff.  There’s coloring, but that’s what they did, they got ripped.  They made all of us look bad. [Laughs]

SMR: What’s your next project, and how do think this experience with “300” is going to help?

MC: Well I love my next project, and love that it’s with you, Scott, and Platinum Studios  It’s certainly going to help “Killing Demons .”  First of all, you have a great sensibility – we connected years ago on “Men In Black.” What we want to do with “Killing Demons” is to have that heroic character again, who can put themselves up against – like Batman or Leonides – up against all odds, including sacrifice if need be, to conquer their own inner demons but to also impact the world around them. 

I think that we have a great, great character here, and I also think it’s a world that… now we have the technology to do it in a way where an audience can get that kind of experience, that you couldn’t get five years ago.  So to me, it’s just like what we did with “300”: the combination of really, really good storytelling – great storytelling, emotional storytelling, which is more old–fashioned – combined with the use of today’s new technology.  It breaks new ground, and I think that’s going to benefit us on “Killing Demons.”

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SMR: How would you describe “Killing Demons” to a studio exec or savvy financer?”

MC: I’d say “Batman with demons,” but today’s Batman, absolutely, not the old–fashioned Batman.

SMR: I remember the second you first fell in love with it.  I was sitting in your lobby, with that “thing” next to me…

MC: [Laughs] Yeah , the “Land of the Dead”…

SMR: I was actually reading the last part of it for the first time.  You saw it, grabbed it, said “WOW,” and took it home and called the next morning saying “WOW.”

MC: Well it is a “WOW.”  And it’s funny, that you were sitting next to that model head from “Land of the Dead.” We did “Land of the Dead” and Zack did “Dawn of the Dead.” That’s another interesting connection as well – Zombie lovers.  I’m thrilled about our association, and I expect it to continue well beyond “Killing Demons” as well. 

SMR: One interesting thing about “killing Demons,” it was never distributed to stores. It was so obscure. The creator, Peter Aaron Rose, made them himself, and was self–selling them at conventions.  We bumped into the book, and we actually misplaced it for a period of time, then found it and basically it was an “we have to make this…”

MC: I didn’t even know that…

SMR: …and then we called him. So the world has not seen this book.  We’re going to talk with the creator about putting it up on the webcomic community, www.DrunkDuck.com (OK, I’m plugging Drunk Duck because Platinum Studios, which I’m Chairman of, owns it!).  

MC: That’s great. Readers will love it. I think that’s a great thing and definitely my next focus.

SMR: Mark, is there anything else you would like to get across here?

MC: Well, most of the people who will read this, I think, are probably online because they’re savvy and they know that something’s coming. And I think for them, I’m just glad that we can satisfy what it takes to get out of the house and go to the movies.  Based on the type of readers that you have, and from what I’ve been seeing around the net, they want to go to the IMAX because that’s a whole other experience….and then they’ll get back online.  Ultimately we make the movie for the audience and I think that that’s where we’re going to succeed here.

The budget and the way we managed the movie is something to mention as well.  When people see it, they’re amazed, and I think that matters.  I’m always proud of the way we can manage the process.  And at the end of the day, I think that again, the movie’s crossed over in every direction. 

From our preview process, and the fact that women, teenagers, adult men, adult women, young women, all the quadrants are responding.  It’s exciting, and I think with all of the genius of the campaign that Warner Bros has done, the single thing that’s most exciting is, sometimes when you get a present, it’s a great box and it’s not a good gift, and you open this box, I think there’s a great gift for everyone in there.  So, we’re proud of that.

Check back here next week when Mark Canton discusses 300’s opening weekend.

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Scott Mitchell Rosenberg is Chairman of Platinum Studios, former owner of Malibu Comics and responsible for the $1 billion “Men In Black” franchise.  For more information see www.platinumstudios.com.

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