5 Major Takeaways and 65 Things to Know About Director Paul W.S. Anderson’s POMPEII From Our Set Visit

     December 9, 2013


When Paul W.S. Anderson’s disaster pic Pompeii was filming in Toronto earlier this year, I got to visit the set with a few other reporters.  Besides watching Kit Harington and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje fight as gladiators in a huge practical arena, we got to walk through a number of other sets, talk to most of the cast, filmmakers, and key production people.  If you’re not familiar with the film, Harington stars as an enslaved Celtic gladiator named Milo who falls in love with a noblewoman (Emily Browning) on the eve of a massive volcanic eruption that destroys Pompeii, an event that also brings him face-to-face with the man who slaughtered his family years earlier.  The film also stars Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jessica Lucas, and Jared Harris.  While on set, many people mentioned that Pompeii felt like a mixture of Gladiator and Titanic.  And after learning about the plot and the love story, I tend to agree, however, I have no idea how the film ends…just that the lovers are up against a very large disaster.

Anyway, while some set visits are very guarded, everyone working on Pompeii was more than willing to talk about their characters, what happens in the movie, and tell us plenty of behind-the-scenes stories.  To make it easy to digest, I’ve grabbed the highlights and made two lists: 5 major takeaways and 65 things to know.  Hit the jump to check them out.  Pompeii opens in 3D on February 21, 2014.

5 Major Takeaways from the Set Visit:

pompeii-kit-harington-adewale-akinnuoye-agbajeIn all of the interviews, the cast members and directors had a few consistent themes to keep in mind about the film:

  • They all consider the actual historical events of Pompeii and Vesuvius to be the strongest interest point in this film
  • They all emphasized that, for a major disaster film, Pompeii relied as much as it could on real, built sets, and as little as it could on green screen effects.
  • Gladiator was a huge influence on the film, in the idea of a sword and sandal epic of a slave fighting for his freedom.
  • Titanic was a model disaster film for Pompeii, especially in how it drew audiences first from its simple, compelling story of forbidden love and class differences.
  • Aside from the fictionalized love story at the film’s centerpiece, we can expect most of the film to be as historically accurate as possible, particularly in its coverage of the eruption of Vesuvius.

65 Things to Know About Pompeii:

  • pompeii-kiefer-sutherlandThe film starts in 58 AD with the destruction of a village by Kiefer Sutherland’s character.  After that scene, the film jumps to 79 AD and the rest of the movie takes place over the next 3 days.
  • A few of the people on set described the film as Titanic on land.
  • There’s a young love story at the center of Pompeii, but Anderson also wants to explore the “political machinations” of a very corrupt city.  He refers to Pompeii as the “Las Vegas of Ancient Rome.”
  • The bulk of the film takes place in the gladiator arena, but they only built 25% of it practically and the rest will be CG.  However, the arena set is quite massive and it looks very real.
  • The production shot in the real Pomeii for six days.  One of the reasons they shot on location was to film the base of the real mountain.  The plan is to amplify the base with CG.  They also shot the real bodies that were frozen by the lava.  You’ll understand why when you see the film.
  • The majority of the film was shot on Toronto soundstages, but they did film outside the city for 2 weeks for a Celtic village scene.
  • The film doesn’t play up the sex in ancient Rome.  Instead it focuses more on swords and sandals and trying to survive the destruction.
  • During production they estimated 45-50 minutes of digital shots in the film including tidal waves, earthquakes, blowing up the mountain, ash, a tsunami, and more.
  • Supposedly there are 3 big action sequences in the film including a chariot race and the huge destruction during the last third of the film.
  • Adewale-Akinnuoye-Agbaje-pompeii-3d-movie-imageAnderson and Bolt are huge Downton Abbey fans, so they hired Julian Fellowes to help write to assist with the screenplay’s language and dramatic structure.
  • Although they looked at European locations, for tax, budget and casting reasons, Pompeii is being shot near Toronto, Canada.
  • Pompeii is being shot in 3D.
  • Two huge cinematic influencers for producer Jeremy Bolt with Pompeii were Titanic and GladiatorTitanic’s popularity made them realize the potential popularity of big-scale disaster films done well.  Gladiator inspired them as an entertaining piece on what Bolt calls “a period of history that is profoundly fascinating.”
  • Concerning the film’s historical accuracy, Bolt confirms that, although most of the main characters are fictional, the names are accurate to the period, and the dating of the eruption is accurate.  Also, the eruption and tsunami were recreated as accurately as possible based on historical accounts.
  • A cameraman on the set essentially built a camera drone by mounting a camera on remote-controlled helicopters.  The drone can fly as high as 200 feet, and they’ve used it in some of the filming.
  • pompeii-kit-harington-emily-browningBolt argues that budget-wise, this disaster film would’ve been impossible to do 10 years ago, but thanks to huge advances in CG, it’s possible to really do a mind-blowing disaster movie.
  • Unbeknownst to many, Mt. Vesuvius erupted during a popular Roman Festival, so the Romans were in the middle of partying when it occurred.
  • Bolt believes the biggest challenge of a disaster film is timing the moment the disaster starts, and not making it too late in the film, or too early, so that it’s tiresome for the audience to watch.
  • Bolt estimates that the volcano eruption comprises the final third of the film.
  • Director Paul W.S. Anderson joked there is more kissing in this film than all the other films of his career so far.
  • Anderson said that he was obsessed with Kit Harrington in Game of Thrones and saw him as “a movie star waiting to happen.”
  • On attempting to build real sets and avoid excessive green screen, anderson said: “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.”
  • The best advice Kit Harrington received on the set for his first leading role has been to stay well-rested, so that he can continue to have energy for the role.
  • Pompeii-Kit-HarringtonAs a lead actor, Harrington has learned 2 big things: (1) being in a lead role has taught him to be more self-confident than he has ever been and (2) the lead actor often has the power to set the mood and tone for everyone on the set.
  •  The shoot was scheduled for 56 days.
  •  Some scenes had 300 extras.
  •  Harrington says that, although there has been some green screen CG stuff, most of the sets are real, and that’s made it easier for him to act the part.
  • Harrington been hit on the head a lot on the set, beaten up, and his finger has gotten broken pretty badly from sword-fighting.
  • Sutherland says that although his antagonistic character in Pompeii is funny and not the most evil character he’s played, “he’s still an asshole.”
  • Sutherland says that his brother is his acting agent, currently.
  • He had no interest in the part, but his brother persuaded him to read the script. When he did, he was surprised by how much he loved it.
  • Sutherland acknowledges that there are plenty of disaster sequences to the film, but he says it’s a lot more than that, with the gladiator sequences and the love story elements.
  • Says he spent his whole life horseback riding, so riding horses in the film wasn’t a challenge.  His biggest challenge was learning to ride chariots, which he had never learned.
  • On the physical combat he had to learn for the film, Sutherland said: “Nothing is unfamiliar. It’s a question of learning the specific dance for this film. Each battle sequence is a dance.”
  • Historically, rather than ancient Rome, Sutherland has actually always been most fascinated by WWII and all that it encompassed.
  • pompeii-3d-movie-imageSutherland hasn’t been to Pompeii yet, but he plans on going as soon as he’s done with the film.
  • He says that director Paul  W.S. Anderson is extremely nice and gracious on the set, but assertive. On the director, he said: “But as nice as he is, he’s very clear about what he wants. It’s such a gift to work in that. There’s a real safety in that.”
  • On the overall atmosphere that Anderson creates on the set, Sutherland added, “It’s just one of the most comfortable environments I’ve ever been in.”
  • If he could have changed anything about his early career, he wishes that he could have relaxed more and been grateful in the moment, rather than always worrying about whether or not he would get another acting job.
  • Out of all of his roles, he researched the most for Dark City and 24.
  • He says he is absolutely thrilled to do another season of 24.
  • On co-star Kit Harrington, Sutherland said: “I think he’s going to be extraordinary. And let’s face it… he’s a good looking kid.”
  • On the film’s sets versus green screen, Sutherland said: “unlike a film like 300…we have sets. They are tangible so as an actor, it’s very easy to work with. What I can’t wait to see is the multi-layered backdrop.”
  • Emily Browning says that, for her and Kit Harrington’s characters, who are in love, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is a blessing in disguise.  It frees them to be together despite class differences and his slavery.
  • Emily-Browning-pompeii-3d-movie-sliceUnlike her role in Sucker Punch, Browning didn’t have to physically train for this movie, and she watched on the sidelines more while the men did most of the action sequences. Talking about this, Emily Browning said: “Even though I loved the training I do remember that thing of working out for seven hours a day. In a way it’s a bit of a relief to not have to do that. Also the crazy diets they’re on, I don’t know if they’ve told you about that yet?  We didn’t really have to do that for Sucker Punch, thankfully.”
  • In studying the history of Pompeii and the eruption of Vesuvius, she was most surprised to see all the people whose bodies were mummified by the volcano.
  • She’s not sure the film passes the “Bechdel Test” regarding female characters, mainly because of how much of an influence Sutherland’s character is on hers in the film.
  • Bolt on Kiefer Sutherland as the bad guy: “We’ve only seen him in stuff like Jack Bauer, but he’s a damn good villain.  He’s scary.  He’s mean as a snake.  It’s excellent.”
  • pompeii-3d-movie-imageKit Harrington says that unlike Game of Thrones, which is very sporadic filming for him, it’s been exhausting being the leading role in such a physical action film.
  • Harrington has to lift weights between scenes to keep his muscles bulging, so that he looks stronger than all of the stuntmen he’s fighting in the film.
  • Harrington says that, although there has been some green screen CG stuff, most of the sets are real, and that’s made it easier for him to act the part.
  • Harrington’s favorite part of the filming was fighting a stuntman named Max, who played “the big Grecian.”  Harrington said: “But the first fight we did, it was so bizarre.  In real life, Max would absolutely take me to town.  He’d destroy me in a fight.  But I was absolutely pummeling him.  I found that fun. That was the funnest day.  I actually punched him in the face.  I missed, and I fully clocked him in the face and he didn’t even flinch.”
  • Jared Harris was drawn to the film because they told him the script was similar to both Gladiator and Titanic.
  • pompeii-movie-imageHarris is a huge disaster movie fan, and loved the films The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure.
  • Harris thinks it’s funny that most of the characters he plays are characters who die.
  • Harris believes part of the film’s relevance is its “across the tracks” controversial romance, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Harris researched a lot of primary sources, like Seneca’s letters, to understand the mindset of the culture from the period for the film.
  • Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje says his role was not just about looking fit, but also about being fit.  He had to be capable of many lengthy, brutal fight scenes.
  • Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s average day of workouts included 1 hour of cardio, 2 hours of stunt training, sword fighting, actual fighting, a lunch break, 1 hour of weight training, 45 more minutes of stunt work, and 1 more hour of cardio.  This was his schedule, 5 days a week for 4 weeks.
  • Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays an African slave named Atticus, fighting for his freedom.
  • Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s character shares a room with Milo (Kit Harrington’s character), and they must face each other in a fight for either death or freedom.
  • Director Paul W.S. Anderson said he grew up in England, and has always been fascinated by Roman culture, since childhood.
  • On the history of Pompeii and how the volcano preserved the culture, Anderson said: “You know, the idea of this city that’s really been preserved in time.  It’s 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.”
  • On actress Emily Browning, Anderson said: “She is obviously a very beautiful woman, but the more dirt and blood you put on her, undoubtedly the sexier she becomes.  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.”
  • Carrie-Ann Moss says her character is sort of an empress of Pompeii, and a matriarchal figure in the film.
  • Moss believes that the strongest part of the film is the actual events and history of Pompeii, which are fascinating and exciting.
  • Says she feels like her iconic role in The Matrix was ages ago.  She is now married with children, and she feels that her role in the film doesn’t affect her.

Check out some of my other coverage from the set visit:

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