"There’s a certain kind of gravitas a film has to take on when it already primes its audience that pretty much everyone’s gonna die,” said Jeremy Bolt, producer of “Pompeii,” from the sidelines of a scene from the forthcoming Kit Harington-starring film. That sort of large-scale horror and humor is easy to imagine, when practical sets abound, some covered in ash, some in paints red like blood, others with dust and a few in gold.
Harington himself – along with hundreds of extras, his love interest Emily Browning’s Cassia and other support like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, bad guy Kiefer Sutherland, Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss -- were clothed in linens and leather, some bright bangles or beads. The “Game of Thrones” actor plays Milo, a civilian-turned-slave who is forced to become a gladiator in this doomed, Roman-run world.
Pompeii was destroyed in 79, with some of its former city life preserved in volcanic tephra and the soil. So that “gravitas” Bolt was talking about? That’s a love story plus gladiator battles, added into imminent natural disasters surrounding (spoiler ‘lert!) the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which produced series of monumental cataclysms in itself.
“There was the earthquake tremors, water going off, animals dying, tsunami, the first explosion, ash, hail. And then the pyroclastic flow is one of the strong characteristics of this explosion, which is essentially boiling steam traveling at very high speed, which can incinerate you.
"[So] just when you thought you got over the worst bit, it got even worse... we have moments of calm between each section. So you might think, ‘They made it!’ Wrong. The next stage is just gearing up,” Bolt explained about the historical carnage that transpired during the ruin of Pompeii. “We’re really hoping that the audience gets deeply engaged in the drama before the mountain goes off. That they almost forget that it’s gonna go off, and then they’re like ‘Oh f*ck! Now they’re all gonna die!’”
No doubt, there were green screens abounding on this Toronto set, but the filmmakers built out main streets, a good quarter of a gladiator arena, store rooms, slaves quarters, palatial hallways and a doomed road to the marina, just as you might have seen back in Pompeii’s heyday. The society itself was urban-sophisticated for the era, and business then was booming.
That’s part of the Sutherland/Harris storyline, with Browning as part of a transaction. The story to “Pompeii” takes place within only a day or two before the eruption, with Cassia and Milo given only sparing moments together to get a love-buzz brewing.
“You’ve got a love story and it’s in the middle of a f*cking volcano going off, so it’s not your classic love story. It’s not what you’d expect it to be really, which is what I quite liked about it. They don’t have time to go through all the talky-talky, kissy-kissy, lovey-lovey,” Harington said about the exhilarating pace. “The volcano’s going off, so they have to get on with it. “
Milo is also got a grudge against Sutherland’s Senator Corvis; Harington and Akinnuoye-Agbaje have both an alliance and a good reason to annihilate each other; Akinnuoye-Agbaje also has a racial bond with another gladiator, Emmanuel Kabongo, both playing slaves from Africa.
Y'know, just a “straight historical disaster drama love story” as director Paul W.S. Anderson said.
“But the kind of Kit-Emily thing is the most exciting, it’s hot,” Anderson beams, pun likely unintended. “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 and she’s been beaten up.”
Ah, such are epics, like in “Ben Hur” and “Spartacus,” to which “Pompeii” tips its hat.
“There are some pretty cool scenes in the chariot with me and Keifer where it gets pretty intense and violent, there are big explosions and everything,” Browning said in discussing the action.
“You have to make sure you don’t hurt or hit someone. And hit the beats, because they have what, five cameras? It has to look real. That in itself becomes challenging because you have to learn it straight away. There’s no time for error,” Akinnuoye-Agbaje said, moments after wielding an axe.
"Having gone through a month of riding horses and chariots through ash where you couldn’t see a foot in front of you….yes, it’s a disaster," Sutherland said of the genre (and not of the movie itself).
“They sent the script and asked if I wanted to be in a ‘Gladiator’-cum-‘I, Claudius’-cum-disaster film, sounded f*cking great!” Harris was on board with the script from the get-go. “There's a timeless element to it, which is the "across the tracks" love story, it has that Romeo and Juliet element to it. In that sense that seems to be something that teen audiences are attracted to, that love will kill you.”
As if the timeless tale of “love will literally end you” isn’t enough for this flick, Bolt and Anderson insist that some of the draw to this film will be – incredibly – the reality of the times. Hand-to-hand combat is a counter to “fancy ‘Resident Evil’ shots.” The mind-bogglingly wealthy and devastatingly poor will be brought together in the sweep of boiling lava and the thrash of a tidal wave, not an Actual Hand Of God. The filmmaking team did a lot of research – including a field visit -- into the formerly buried city of Pompeii, with the pictures of preserved imprints of human bodies – humans dead in a hot instant -- as inspiration for the various characters.
“It’s gonna be grounded and believable, because if you don’t believe that this actually happened, you’re gonna check out,” as Bolt said.
Browning took from these images, too, to inform the emotional gravity to her role. "I think the thing that was most interesting was just seeing the pictures of these mummified figures after the eruption. Because there are people embracing and they’ve been completely calcified... there are these perfect statues of people in the moment that they died. That was really… kind of made me really emotional."
Akinnuoye-Agbaje agrees. To him, in researching the history, “The thing that stuck out was... you see the relics of these human beings, that are encased, enshrined in molten lava. It’s real -- horses in movement, people embraced, children, all captured in motion. Enshrined in this lava. It must have happened like that. When you’re doing something that’s real, it just makes the part juicier.”
"Pompeii" is out in theaters on Feb. 21, 2014.