MEN AND MYTHS - by Gillian Flynn

The epic and expensive TROY will soon tempt the gods of box office returns.Can Brad Pitt's face launch a summer hit?

DRIVE AN HOUR THROUGH THE Mexican desert and you'll spy a curious thing:massive slabs of stone jutting defiantly from the sand.An impregnable fortress in a Mediterranean seascape.The walls of Troy on the Baja Peninsula.Pass through the gates and you'll see the sun flashing off Apollo's temple,high atop a cliff.On the beach below,several hundred extras pant in their salt-laced armor,as Peter O'Toole and Orlando Bloom prepare to film the discovery of the Trojan horse,which looms like an ominous chess piece at the edge of the rowdy surf. After a smoke and a touch-up,O'Toole is ready.He glances at two plague-pocked actors playing dead,stares up at the 38-foot wooden beast,and regally purrs,"What is this?" He does it again and again.A wicked wind blows waves of heat and needle-sharp sand.Flies descend in petulant cliques.And a boom mike slips its shadow into the frame.Cut."Oh,for f---'s shake,"O'Toole snaps.

The dead come to life-extras stretching,sipping,blotting,then submitting to more painted-on gore.O'Toole kindly douses a dead man near him with some anti-fly ointment.The snippet of a scene continues."What is this?""What is this?"

THIS-SAND,SUN,ANNOYANCE,GRANDEUR,MISERY,myth-is Troy,director Wolfgang Petersen's take on the 2,800-year-old tale The Iliad.A sprawling,david Lean-inspired epic,Troyinitially budgeted at $150 million,boasts 1,250 extras,a re-created ancient city,several epic battles,and more than five months of location shoots in London,Malta and Mexico.The stakes,like the film,are massive.

Troy has become one of the most expensive movies in history.In return for its hubris,the ambitious production's budget ballooned to more than $200 million as it suffered a string of costly crises:emergency relocation,set destruction,and an injury to star Brad Pitt than postponed a crucial fight scene for months.See,Pitt,in his first starring role since 2001's Ocean's Eleven,plays mercenary warrior Achilles,and he...tweaked his Achilles."It's such a bad angle,"he groans."Stupid irony."

But a good Greek tragedy needs irony.And death,and love,and mayhem and guys with names like Itssolongyourejustshowingoff-forus.For those who haven't dabbled in Homer of late:Remember the face that launched a thousand ships?That's Helen,queen of Sparta(Diane Kruger).Prince Paris(Bloom),on a peace mission to his Spartan enemies,falls for her and rashly spirits his lover back to Troy.Helen's furious hubby,King Menelaus(Brendan Gleeson) presents the problem to his brother,the land-grabbing Super-monarch Agamemnon(Brian Cox),who uses it as an excuse for war,and looses Greece's armies-and Achilles-upon Troy.

Sound gigantic?Makes sense-Petersen was also the director behind The Perfect Storm and Air Force One.Says Pitt:"Wolfgang is a very savvy storyteller,he knows what's going on,he has a dry sense of humor...and he does it BIG."

IT STARTED PRETTY SMALL,HOWEVER,OVER PORK SHANKS and beer.In late summer 2002,Pitt and Petersen met at Knoll's Black Forest Inn,a German restaurant in Santa Monica,so the director could savor some homeland eats and the two could discuss Troy.After "quite a few beers,"Petersen remembers,they struck a handshake deal for Pitt to headline the film.Must've felt nice:Both men had seen their previous Warner Bros. projects fizzle.Pitt who'd spent months sporting a ragged Crusoe-esque beard for Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain,was finally cutting bait after more than a year of delays caused by budget issues and costar Cate Blanchette's pregnancy.Petersen had been readying Batman vs. Superman when the studio decided to revive each superhero franchise separately;Batman Begins got the go instead.

Fortunately,Warner had a spanking new script to offer,one that Petersen had previously circled.It was David Benioff's Troy,commissioned before the writer's 25th Hour had even become a Spike Lee joint."I thought it was strange no one had done it yet-that was my pitch,"Benioff says."[They] took a hyge chance on someone who'd written one small,unproduced urban movie.If there was one thing that made it an easier gamble,it's that I was really cheap."

Petersen,who'd read The Iliad in its original Greek as a young student,and Pitt,who was eager to play the stormy,vengeful Achilles,got the movie a fast start.Casting Prince Hector,Paris's big brother and Achilles' nemesis,was nearly as zippy.Eric Bana had an admirer in Pitt thanks to his sociopathic turn as a bluberry Aussie killer in the 2001 biopic Chopper."It's the next evolution of Taxi Driver for me,"Pitt says."I was a sick fan about it."The two had pledged to work together,and Bana had nice heat on him,thanks to the then-much-anticipated bomb-to-be The Hulk.says Bana:"It was a combination of loving the script and Brad and I not wanting to play the same role-which was helpful,I'll say."

Helen,however,was a conundrum.Petersen gazed upon more than 2,000 faces before he came across a videotape:Crappy lighting,bad setting,but helluva looker.It was German actress Kruger.In Montreal shooting the upcoming Wicker Park with Josh Hartnett,she'd filmed herself lying on the floor of her hotel room,performing a Helenic love speech speech.."I said,"Petersen recalls,"Over 20 years ago I discovered Nastassja Kinski when she was 15,I'll never forget it;it's so beautiful when you discover a new face."
Speaking of ardor:In the wake of The Lord of the Rings,girls around the world were suddenly sporting "I love Orlando" T-shirts,making Bloom a no-brainer for sensual prince Paris.But the actor was uneasy about playing a guy who steals a girl and then runs away from a battle he started,making him basically a ...wussy."I had a big moral struggle with it,"Bloom says."If you're faced with life and love or death and honor,what would you do?Everyone would like to say death and honor-at least as a guy-but Paris chooses love and life...It's an intimidating thing,to make an audience understand what you're doing-so they don's completely loathe you."

As Bloom pondered Paris' burning questions,Pitt offered up his own ideas.Benioff recalls the actor reporting to meetings steeped in Achilles analysis."He'd come with a binder with 500 pages of writing on Achilles that he'd underlined and highlighted,"the writer says."So I'd get homework too." Throughout the shoot,the team tightened the warrior's words."Brad is a very smart actor,"Petersen says."He'd never be able to exactly say the lines that even a great writer like David writes for him-Brad needs to shape it a bit for his vision.He likes to be all sparse with the dialogue,and I totally support him because I like that too."Pitt also quit smoking,packed on some massive knots of muscle,and trained in everything from horseback riding to swordsmanship.He found inspiration for his angry ancient in oddly modern places."I started out with a lot of Audioslave or anything Chris Cornell-it helped with the aggression,"he says."And Chris Webber from the [Sacramento] Kings.There's a real sweetness behind his eyes,but he's pissed off." Fight Club fan Petersen had faith his star could play a guy who,say,smacks his lover and brutalizes a family man."He looks like a god," the director says."But he has some really dark,edgy things about him/The tortured soul that Achilles is,that's Brad." Is that right...Brad? "I'm not stepping into that one,"Pitt says."You know,you live the part,you do what you gotta do...He's definitely a tortured guy.But that's what I was drawn to."

While Pitt's character got tweaked,the rest of The Iliad went pretty darn Hollywood.Briseis,a slave girl captured by the Greeks-speechless in Homer's tale-becomes a royal priestess and love interest for Achilles(she's played by Aussie Rose Byrne.).More notably,no gods interfere with battles in Troy."I didn't want them in," says screenwriter Benioff."You have Zeus played by an actor in a toga standing atop his CGI Mount Olympus,throwing CGI thunderbolts-it becomes Clash of the Titans." Mmmm...Clash of the Titans.We now pause to consider what might have been.

"THE FIRST DAY I GOT ON SET in Malta,there were nearly 1,500 extras in costume,and they'd perfected the entire city [of Troy]," says Kruger."It was like being there.Outrageous."As was the record heat that quickly buckled cast and crew,who were stuck there from May to June.A key scene involving an evening banquet with fires to keep warm was filmed in...a sizzling warehouse with a tin roof."It was like going from a sauna into the oven," Bana says."Brendan Gleeson had so many clothes on I thought someone was playing a trick."(Says the affable Gleeson:"I just concentrated on the dancing girls.") On a day when papers proclaimed Malta the hottest place on earth,the 71-year-old O'Toole filmed King Priam of Troy's introduction to Helen on the sunny palace stairs."I thought,Peter O'Toole is not the youngest,how can he deal with this?" Petersen says."Between takes,he was taking off his costume,sitting there in a light bathrobe,smoking like he always does."

Petersen had trickier problems than overheated elder statesmen. Troy was slated to move to Morocco for major battle scenes in June;sets had been built in anticipation.By March,it was clear the impending war in Iraq could turn Morocco into a hot spot.With the major stars boasting clockwork schedules and pay-or-play deals-meaning they got the cash whether the movie was made or not-Warner could neither postpone the production nor dissolve it.Studio head Alan Horn canvassed the actors and Petersen,most of whom preferred relocating to Mexico."We could have forced the issue," says production president Jeff Robinov."But if it had gone south and anyone was injured,it would have been a disaster-and not even strictly from a financial point of view."

Three months into shooting,10 weeks to go: The Troy travelling circus headed to tourist mecca Cabo San Lucas.(Says Gleeson:"I found it slightly ironic that this tale of great war retreated from the war.") The spot was more secure-but vastly more expensive than Morocco,ballooning the budget further.Oppressive heat continued to vex the filmmakers."We had so many people who fainted," Petersen admits."Not actors-the real poor people were the extras,who had to stand and fight in the sun."Alternating with the heat were tropical storms that threatened to turn into hurricanes,a couple of which did."My house got wiped out," Pitt says."I was living in a cliffside house.I wake up at four in the morning,hear this waterfall.I get out of bed and I'm standing in an inch of water.The thing had sprung leaks all over the place.The ship was going down.So I slept through the actual hurricane-I was so tired from the night before."

At the end of September,a second hurricane desroyed the supposedly indestructible walls of Troy.A costly reconstruction occured for the one scene yet to be shot: Pitt and Bana's big showdown.Unfortunately,just before the hurricane,Pitt had sidelined himself.Filming a fracas,the actor jumped up to land a death blow...and hit the ground in pain.A damaged Achilles,literally.Estimated healing time: about three months.Bana jetted home to Australia,under orders to keep himself intact."It was very odd and weird," he says."having all the usual temptations around me like my motorcycle and my racing cars and not being able to touch them was very surreal." Bana flew back once to Mexico set-only to be disappointed."He was not happy about that," Petersen recalls."He came all the way from Australia to do the fight,he's all poised,and Brad was still limping.He was waiting and hoping and waiting and hoping and then the doctor said no way."

Six weeks later,just before Christmas,Bana and Pitt had their final fight.More than 12 months after they'd signed on to the project."We all aged a year in front of the camera," Bana says.Cox,whose Agamemnon wasn't needed for the final scene,had left,filmed another movie,and was heading home to Europe on Dec. 21 when he glanced around the plane and saw the Troy crew."For about five seconds I thought I'd dreamed the time I'd done this another film."
Pain and exhaustion aside,the cast members remain impressively fond of their director."He's open to what you think your character should do," Bloom says."He humors us: You do your cute little acting thing and if I don't like it I'll cut it!Fair enough,that works." Adds Bana: "Your brain tends to expand because he's asking you your thoughts.Whether it's a trick or just his personality,he makes you feel like you're making a film together-he's a very,very giving filmmaker." And how does that compare with Hulk director Ang Lee? "They're different," Bana says.How so? "They're different."

Cast adulation,however,doesn't necessarily translate into box officse success,and Warner needs that badly.Petersen estimates that tax rebates will drop the price tag to about $175 million.But that's still a wildly expensive film-Gladiator,by contrast,was a cheapo $103 million affair.On top of the budget,the studio must add about $40 million in domestic marketing costs alone.Scary figures,considering that Troy is two and a half hours long and rated R-and a Petersen film has never grossed more than Perfect Storm's $183 million."I know I have a great responsibility because it's a very expensive movie,and I make damn sure if I can that the money comes back,or even more," Petersen says."I am very,very keen on seeing how an audience will react.You say butterflies?Of course."
Bana's more mellow: "Whether it explodes or not doesn't affect my self-esteem at all.If there's one thing I can admit to being really,really good at,it's relinqishing the things I have no control over."

Considering the film's source material,it's probably the most appropriate reponse: Place Troy's fate in the hands of the gods-and hope thay're in a benevolent mood.

Petersen says Pitt "has the brilliance and godlike appearance,but at the same time he has some really dark,edgy things about him."