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Troy - From the very beginning, I had the feeling that this movie would be in the tradition of the great David Lean films



Feature by: Jack Foley

GERMAN-born director, Wolfgang Petersen, sounds like an excited schoolboy, when he describes the opportunity of making the $200-million epic, Troy, as ‘a dream come true’.

Speaking at a London press conference, ahead of the film’s world premiere in Berlin, the enthusiastic film-maker recalled learning about Homer’s The Iliad at school, and fantasising about his childhood hero, Achilles.

"He was like a James Dean, or a Marlon Brando, for me, the ultimate rebel. He was wonderful. He just lived by his own rules and nobody else’s; he would not accept any kind of authority. He was my guy," he explained.

Needless to say, as soon as he heard that Warner Bros had developed a story based on The Iliad, he thought, 'my God, this is what I want to do'.

"We knew it would be difficult to get the might of The Ilead into a single screenplay, but if it [the script] was any good, I wanted to do it. And boy it was good, it was very good," he recalled.

With a director in place, the search then extended to a cast, which would combine the good looks requisite with the role of Achilles, along with the all-consuming arrogance of such a timeless historical figure.

Brad Pitt stepped forward at an early stage, and seemed like an obvious choice for Petersen and the production team.

"We felt that it made a lot of sense to have a big superstar, like Brad Pitt, to play Achilles, because Achilles was definitely a superstar, like a rock star of his time," he continued. "It made sense to cast a star, especially a beautiful man like Brad, because Achilles was such an attractive man."

Not so obvious, however, was the casting of some of the other key roles - most notably that of Hector, Prince of Troy, and Helen, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’.

For this process, Petersen remained determined to take his time and make the right choices, avoiding the temptation to go for obvious names, or pander to the studio’s wish to cast more A-list stars.

"It's so easy, in a cast like this, to have another star, and another star, and another one, but it's wrong, it's a mistake, and you shouldn't do that," he asserted. "It's been done before, in the past, and it never works."

Hence, Petersen set out to find performers that weren’t so widely known by audiences, which gave rise to some humorous anecdotes, as he remembered the casting process.

In the case of Hector, the director eventually turned to The Hulk star, Eric Bana, who, despite taking the lead in Ang Lee’s comic book blockbuster, last Summer, is still very much a name on the rise.

In fact, Petersen, himself, remained sceptical of the actor’s suitability right up until the moment he met with him, due to the fact he had only previously seen him in Chopper, the independent Australian film, for which he put on weight to play one of his home country’s most infamous killers.

"When Diana Rathbun [the producer] came to me and said that she had just seen someone on the street, who she thought was Eric Bana, I was like, 'he should play Hector? What's wrong with you girl?!'

"But when she reassured me that he had lost weight, we invited him to my office, and spoke to him, and I fell in love with Eric immediately, because he looked great and, right from the outset, he was such a noble guy, and so honest. He talked about his family and his kids and so on, so I thought he was ideal for Hector."

Similarly, for the role of Helen, Petersen resisted pressure from the studio to cast a well-known A-list actress in the pivotal role, fearing that a big name would bring too much ‘baggage’.

"Helen was very known in that time, as the most beautiful woman, but no one had seen her," he explained. "She was somewhere hidden, in Sparta.

"She wasn't going from battlefield to battlefield, like Achilles, so I thought it would be great to find somebody who, for an audience, was a new face. There would be no baggage there, she would be Helen, from Sparta."

The subsequent search involved 3,000 beautiful women, before Petersen eventually settled for the choice of German actress, Diane Kruger.

"She had something in her eyes that you cannot explain when you look right into the soul of somebody; and it's much more than about good acting," he recalled.

"The studio remained a little bit reluctant, because a big name was on their wish-list, but we were insistent and thank God we were, because I feel this will be the beginning of a wonderful, wonderful career for her."

One actor who required no vetting process, however, was Peter O’Toole, who seemed like an obvious choice for the King of Priam, the tragic leader of Troy, who loses everything in his desire to protect his son, Paris, from the might of the Greeks.

"From the very beginning, I had the feeling that this movie would be in the tradition of the great David Lean films, so I thought it would be a wonderful nod to those kind of movies, and to David Lean, to get Peter O'Toole," observed Petersen.

"But not only that. Peter is one of the great, great actors of all-time, and what he brings with him, as an actor, with 50 years' of wonderful work behind him, is that he adds something to the role of Priam that, probably, no one else could."

The result of such a rigorous casting process is, according to the director, a different type of viewing experience - and one which doesn’t hinge on the ability of any one star.

He hopes that the success of the film will pave the way for many more big ensemble features.

"You get a different sort of pleasure and joy from watching a lot of great actors, together," he observed.

"Take this film, for example, you go from Brad Pitt and Eric Bana, to younger stars such as Orlando Bloom, and then great actors, such as Sean Bean, Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson, to legendary actors, such as Peter O'Toole and Julie Christie.

"I mean, what rich casting. How much additional pleasure is that? You’re not just watching a big movie, and a great movie, but watching a dozen of these wonderful actors to boot. I think it adds so much to it, and I hope that we come back to casting more in that direction," he concluded.

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