Leading the Next Big Movie Into Battle
Zack Snyder, 41, director of 300
By Matthew Boyle

(FORTUNE Magazine) – A former director of music videos and beer commercials, Snyder, critics say, is poised to reinvent the action movie with 300--an ultraviolent historical epic. The reported $60 million release from Warner Bros. (owned by the parent of FORTUNE's publisher) hits screens March 9. Shot mainly with blue-screen technology to mimic the look of the gory graphic novel on which it's based, 300 blends elements of Gladiator, The Matrix, and Sin City. FORTUNE's Matthew Boyle spoke to Snyder about making movies with pension money and why Steve Jobs would make a great Spartan warrior.

You made a name for yourself in the advertising world. How is selling beer different from selling this story?

When you are trying to sell a commercial, you are taking the client's thing and saying, "I can make it supercool." A movie is your own thing. But a lot of the tools I got from advertising are helpful. For example, dealing with the studios is like dealing with ad clients. You just try to keep everyone happy and incorporate their ideas without ruining yours.

The film's financiers at Legendary Pictures are backed by private equity and institutional investors. Does it put pressure on you knowing that pensions of retired Honeywell factory workers might be riding on your vision?

Well, when you put it that way, it does. But I try to keep that in the abstract. I hope the Honeywell pensioners could look at the production log and see me sweating for their retirement. I even twisted my ankle near the end of production.

Legendary chooses what pictures to finance via sophisticated oddsmaking software. Were you surprised to be chosen by the computer?

I would love to see that computer. I imagine on paper this movie doesn't look like a great investment. You have an obscure graphic novel by Frank Miller [Sin City], an ex-commercial director who made one horror movie [Dawn of the Dead] … but once you get in a room, that's where you close the deal.

300 follows the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. What could today's CEOs learn from Sparta's King Leonidas?

Well, he was not wishy-washy--he had a commitment to an idea and he was willing to go all the way for that. I think the best CEOs are like that--they are like generals. They motivate their troops to go to bat for an idea. Sometimes it seems like it will not work, but then at the 11th hour it all goes well. Look at Apple.

So Steve Jobs is like King Leonidas?

For sure. He has stuck to his guns against great adversity.