Troy: An Epic Production

A massive, international production, the filming of Troy was an undeniably ambitious undertaking. Director Wolfgang Petersen welcomed the challenge of staging an intimate human drama on such a grand, sweeping scale. “Our story is a tightly interwoven character piece with fascinating individuals and emotions, which is a challenge to capture by itself. On top of that, we are telling their story against a spectacularly large canvas.”

Production design was a critical component of establishing the film’s incredible scope. Petersen chose innovative production designer Nigel Phelps to conjure up their ancient world. “Nigel had an enormous knowledge about the time, and his first drawings were just beautiful,” recalls Petersen. “He and his team dug themselves into all kinds of books and research material and I was fascinated by what they came up with.”

“The initial challenge was to give the film an epic quality,” says Phelps. “Wolfgang stressed that he wanted the film to be very believable and realistic. After doing a bit of research I realized that the reality of the period was that everything was actually very small scale. In 1200 BC, the cultures that were prominent were the Mycenaeans and the Egyptians. What I did was combine the art and forms of the Mycenaeans with the grand scale of the Egyptians, in order to come up with a different vocabulary that was both authentic to the period and met the criteria of an epic film.”

Much of the production teams’ research was accomplished through the British Museum, utilizing their collection of objects excavated from archeological digs in Turkey where the city of Troy is widely considered to have stood. There remains much speculation as to what Troy actually looked like during the period in which the events of The Iliad take place. Several different ancient cities have been discovered at the site, each built directly on top of the next. Troy VI is the level that represents the period that Phelps and his team were charged with recreating.

“The reality is, Troy was quite a bit smaller than what we eventually designed ‘ it’s really quite contained,” says the designer. “But you did have an outer wall and you did have an inner palace within the confines of the town. For the most part, all of the houses were single story and flat-roofed and made of mud. So we had to expand on that a little to make it more visually interesting.”

Most of the film takes place in and around Troy, the main elements being the beach on which the Greeks land, the battlefield outside the city walls, the city itself and the palace within it. Other locations featured in Troy include the Thessalonian Valley in mainland Greece and the kingdoms of Sparta and Mycenae. “We were really trying to create a mood that would establish the different cultures,” says Phelps. “Agamemnon’s Mycenaean world is all about gold and wealth and property, as opposed to the Spartans, who lead such a barren, colorless existence. And then when we get to Troy, there’s a lot of greenery and it’s very pleasant.”

The filmmakers had to decide which of their three locations ‘ London, Malta or Mexico ‘ was best suited to each setting. Most of the film’s interiors were built on soundstages at Shepperton Studios, 40 miles outside London, but the sprawling city of Troy couldn’t be contained on a stage. “Malta is a lovely island with wonderful cliff and rock formations; the area where we built Troy was amazing,” relates producer Diana Rathbun. “However, there was no expanse of beach big enough for our computer graphic experts to put in a thousand ships, or enough undeveloped land to stage a battle involving 75,000 troops. Our final location was Mexico, which met all our requirements.”

The filming of Troy began at Shepperton on April 22, 2003. Sets constructed there included the Palace of Troy, which encompasses Priam’s meeting hall and the royal family’s living quarters. All the interiors have open roofs, a reality of the time as the only sources of light and heat were the sun and the fires that were burned in the center of each room. When it came to designing Priam’s meeting hall, Phelps distinguished it from the other sets by introducing a large reflection pool in its center. The set also included another distinct design element: a 50-foot high statue of Zeus, God of Thunder, holding a golden scepter and surrounded by 15-foot tall statues of the other Olympians, each ornamented with a golden symbol of his or her own unique power.

“Religious motifs are very key elements of the film,” says Phelps. “When designing the statues, we looked at the earliest and oldest sculptures that were relevant, then with our costume designer, Bob Ringwood, we modified their hair and dress so that they were more in keeping with the overall look that we had established for the film.”