Author of the Battle of Thermopylae classic discusses the status of the Gates of Fire movie project
The Steven Pressfield novel, Gates of Fire has raised awareness of the Battle of Thermopylae and the band of elite Greek warriors collectively known as the 300 Spartans. An indication of its popularity is apparent in that the title has been embraced by hundreds of thousands of readers, many of whom were previously unaware of one of ancient history's most celebrated battles. As a testament to its impact and the glorification of their ancestors, the city of Sparta bestowed upon S.P. the title of 'Honorary Citizen of Sparta'.
I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Steven Pressfield about his latest Killing Rommel and the Battle of Thermopylae classic, Gates of Fire which can be read below.
JT: Your latest, Killing Rommel, takes place a decade or so later than The Legend of Bagger Vance, while several of your other books such as Gates of Fire, The Afghan Campaign, Virtues of War and Tides of War take place over two millennia earlier. When you write about the characters and events during these two very different time periods, is your approach to researching your subject matter treated any differently?
SP: You can actually cheat a little on the ancient stuff, just because no one can check up on you. That doesn't mean I don't do exhaustive research. I do. But many facts about the ancient world, philosophical and personal as well as historical, have been lost over time. For Sparta in particular, we know practically nothing. The fiction writer has to beam himself back on wings of imagination. As an example, no one living today (or for the past two thousand years) has witnessed a hoplite battle, let alone actually fought in one. So all the writer can do is trust the Muse and use his imagination, extrapolating from what he knows about human nature and human conflict in our contemporary age.
With more nearly contemporary books like "Killing Rommel," the situation is completely different. Because there are many people still living who WERE THERE and know exactly how it all went down, not to mention many, many contemporary people who are the children or wives of men who were there, or are amateur historians or even professional historians who have made a specialty of the WWII period. So you can't cheat, you have to get it right. In a way the existence of so many individuals who possess a living memory of events is a treasure trove for a writer, because you can actually talk to people who were there and who can tell it like it was. You can ask them extremely nuanced questions, right down to what songs were you listening to then and what exactly was the feeling at that time, when Hitler invaded Poland or when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor? Was it like we read in history books or was it something else? I worked like hell to research Rommel. If you look in the Acknowledgments section in back, I thank a bunch of people, including half a dozen who helped me exclusively with military matters and British/English slang, usage, historical reality. And I still got plenty wrong, including one huge gaffe (corrected now) that I won't even tell you about because it might affect your enjoyment of the book. It's hard! Here's one seemingly silly example: sex. In an early draft of Killing Rommel, I had our protagonist, Chap, sleeping with his bride-to-be, Rose, in a fairly casual mannner. Not "on-screen" but just remarked upon. But the more I talked to people who had been young adults in that era, the more I realized how much more chaste everything was "back in the day." The Sexual Revolution hadn't happened yet; it was a whole other world. The final brick in the wall was talking to my 90-year-old uncle, Charlie Moses, who fought in North Africa and was courting my dear aunt Peggy at the time, the early 40s. "Were you and Peggy sleeping together?" I asked. He laughed. "No way!" So I cut all mention of pre-marital sex.
Another boon, research-wise, in working closer to contemporary times is the wealth of primary-source historical material available. For Sparta, you have next to nothing. For North Africa, you need a truck to cart it all home. I was able to contact the British National Archives in London, online, and have them photocopy for me and mail to me about twenty pounds of original material, including xerox copies of the actual combat reports filed by patrol commanders of the Long Range Desert Group in the actual months I was writing about. In fact one of the things that was most fun about the experience was that I was able to mail to New Zealand, to the Rev. Warner Wilder who's the son of Capt. Nick Wilder (one of the great real-life heroes of the Long Range Desert Group), a copy of the actual combat report where his Dad discovered "Wilder's Gap," a pass through the mountains in Tunisia, by which Montgomery was able to outflank Rommel and strike the decisive blow that led to the defeat of Panzerarmee Afrika a few months later. Rev. Wilder had never seen this report, or even known that it existed. So that really made me feel good to be able to send it to him and to the whole Wilder family.
JT: There seems to be a parallel between the LRDG (Long Range Desert Group) in Killing Rommel and the 300 Spartans in Gates of Fire as they are both elite groups fighting against a much larger force. What is about these groups that you think your readers find so fascinating?
SP: Small groups? I think everyone loves a heroic underdog. David and Goliath stories are always inspiring because we all feel overmatched in our lives, fighting internal and external demons. However for the Long Range Desert Group, I wasn't even thinking about that ... I just fell in love with the name. The Long Range Desert Group. I think it was the "Long Range" that got me. I just thought it was the coolest name I'd ever heard. If I had been around then, I would have moved heaven and earth to volunteer and stopped at nothing to get in.
JT: Usually the nemeses in many books are portrayed in an unfavorable light, however, Erwin Rommel and Xerxes the Great in Killing Rommel and Gates of Fire, respectively, are depicted much more positively than your contemporaries' versions. Do you think that providing a much more balanced account of these leaders has contributed to the popularity of your books?
SP: Robert McKee is one of the great teachers of writing, if you ask me. Full disclosure: he's a good friend. One of his tenets is that the writer should know the world of his creation (novel, record album, painting, play) as thoroughly as God knows this one. He also says that the villains are often the most interesting characters in the piece. I agree completely. I love my villains. This only makes sense because the villain, i.e. the antagonist, represents the counter-theme, the opposite of the theme. Some of the greatest speeches in literature or movies are villains' speeches. Did you ever seen Gunga Din? The speech that 'the guru' makes to Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks and Victor McLagen is absolutely fantastic. As a writer you know when you've gotten the villain right when he makes the case for his point -- and it's completely convincing. One note here: Rommel is not the villain of Killing Rommel. The trick that the book is playing on the reader is making him THINK that Rommel is the antagonist -- he is, after all, the enemy ... the guy we're trying to kill -- and then turning the tables at the end. We realize that Rommel does not embody the counter-theme, opposing chivalry and honor; he embodies the theme, demonstrating in his own person chivalry and honor. Xerxes in "Gates of Fire" was the villain. One way to look at that book is as a story of two kings, the Good King and the Bad King -- Leonidas and Xerxes. There are a number of passages in the book that contrast the two, one kind down in the dirt with his soldiers, so much like them that a messenger from the Persians mistakes him for a common infantryman ... and the other, watching from afar on a golden throne. But even Xerxes, in my view, isn't "bad." He simply represents a different view of human life -- and give him credit, he DOES change through the course of the story; he experiences remorse and regret, shame over acts he has committed. He exits the stage a chastened man.
JT: What was the genesis of Gates of Fire? In other words, when did the Muses say to you, "Steve, this would make a great idea for a book?"
SP: I had been a B-level screenwriter for about ten years; my career was ending (as it does in Hollywood the instant you get grey hair) just when I wrote "The Legend of Bagger Vance." That was my first published book. Suddenly I had a new career, just as my old one was tanking. But what could I do for a second book? I had no idea.
I've always been a buff for Greek history. I'd been reading and re-reading Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato for years -- never imagining I would every attempt to write anything on that subject. I was reading Herodotus, just for fun, when I came to the passage about Thermopylae, specifically the speech by Dienekes at the Hot Gates when the "stranger from Trachis" races up in a freaked-out state to the Spartan defensive position, telling all the warriors (who have not seen a single Persian yet and have no idea what they even look like) that he has just seen the army of Persia and that its multitudes are so vast that when the archers fire their arrows, the mass of the volley blocks out the sun ... and Dienekes coolly responds, "Good, then we'll have our battle in the shade."
Across 2500 years, I could see Dienekes. I knew exactly who he was and I understood completely what he was doing -- his wit, his courage, his leadership. I knew men like that from my own experience in the Marine Corps. I thought that, just like U.S. Marines, Spartans have historically gotten a bad rap; they've been portrayed as bullies and brutes, mindlessly militaristic, etc. while all the glory of Greece has been bestowed on Athens. I thought: Why not tell a story from the Spartan side, show their sense of humor, their warrior virtues -- but from a human and personal perspective.
When I started, I believed completely that no one would be interested in the story except me. I had no contract, no book deal. Americans, I thought, have no interest in stories about any country but their own. No one can even spell Thermopylae, let alone pronounce it, and certainly only one person in fifty has heard of it. But I was seized. I had to do it. The original manuscript was 800 pages long. My agent made me cut 300 before he would submit it. No publisher wanted it. Finally my movie-biz manager, Rich Silverman, had a brainstorm: he planted a two-sentence blurb in one of the columns about screenwriters who have also written novels. The blurb mentioned "Gates" (then titled "Thermopylae") and gave a ten-word synopsis. Sure enough, an editor at Doubleday named Shawn Coyne saw it and called me. We hit it off instantly and the book was published. I was amazed that people were interested. And delighted when I learned (a couple of years later) that the book had become something like required reading in the Marine Corps. The icing on the cake was when the book zoomed instantly to #1 in Greece. I was sure that real Greeks would HATE having an American tell one of their classic stories. But they didn't, they loved it. Or maybe it's just my outstanding Greek translator, Vassiliki Kokkinou.
JT: By now, we're familiar with the success of 300 and how it was made for the relatively small budget of $60-$70 million. There are those that say since the Battle of Thermopylae has been told via 300, there is no need for another rendition. However, the forums across the web concur that Gates of Fire would have been their choice, therefore, many of the readers of your book would still love to see this movie made. Since movies about the same topic can coexist within a small time frame which was proven by Tombstone/Wyatt Earp and more recently United 93/Flight 93/World Trade Center, is it possible that Gates of Fire could be made for approximately the same amount of money using the same technology?
SP: One thing I've learned in my years in Tinseltown is that projects go forward (or don't go forward) almost always based on the participation of one or more key "elements." This is Hollwoodspeak for a power player -- a big star, a director, someone whose participation makes the financier feel confident enough to go forward. For example, if you've got Will Smith, you pretty much don't even need to read the script; it's a "go picture" just because he's in it. Which reminds me of an old Hollywood joke. A producer comes running in to a studio head. "I've got a fantastic idea for a movie!" "Oh yeah, what's it about?" "It's about a shirt." "A shirt?" "Yeah, Clark Gable is wearing the shirt." Studio head: "I love it!"
The bottom line re Gates is probably the same for every other project in Hollywood, now or ever: if a big enough "element" can become "attached," it'll get made. If not ...
JT: Steve, there was a report inVariety on September 2nd, which stated Universal is developing Gates of Fire with a David Self script. Since 300 may have whet the appetite for a more realistic version of the Battle of Thermopylae, your readers have to wonder if there is any validity to this report, and if not, what do you think the chances are that it will ever be made for the big screen?
SP: Alas, that David Self report is about eight years old, maybe more. When the book was first optioned by Universal (in 1998, I think), David Self was the "element." He was very hot as a writer then (and still is) and Universal felt that his participation was enough to "take the project to the next level", i.e. attracting a decisive element like a big star or a director. His work actually did attract Michael Mann (who is definitely an element) but "creative differences" reared their ugly head and the project sunk into Development Hell. Realistically, I think it's doomed to remain there, unless and until that magical "decisive element" appears. Ridley Scott, are you listening?