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The only people mad enough to employ Petersen on a regular basis are movie executives, who are trapped in an increasingly illogical if undeniably daring way of doing business. The latest proof is Petersen's loose adaptation of Homer's The Iliad, starring Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom. With a budget that Warner Bros. (which, like TIME, is part of Time Warner) puts at $175 million but that several sources say has crept closer to a quarter of a billion dollars Troy is one of the biggest, craziest movie gambits since Titanic. It's not just that the film required some 1,500 battle-trained extras or that production was plagued by war, hurricanes and frothing Bulgarian weight lifters or even that Pitt, playing the legendary Achilles, injured his Achilles tendon. It's also that the odds of a movie of Troy's scope making money have never been longer.
A year ago, studios started loading up their summer 2004 blockbusters like bullets in a chamber. Each movie has a one-week shot at grabbing the public's attention before another is fired into multiplexes and scatters the competition. Troy opens in roughly 3,500 locations on May 14, the week after Van Helsing and a week before Shrek 2. If it doesn't open huge or if it dies soon after it opens, it could do untold harm to the careers of Petersen, Pitt and numerous Warner Bros. executives. "On something this big, it'll come down on me and everyone else they're selling it on," says Pitt. "There are people keeping close score, believe me. I just hope they also pay attention to the story."
The story, The Iliad, is the epic poem of the Trojan War, set off when Paris, a Trojan prince, settles a dispute among three goddesses and is rewarded with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. The goddesses neglect to inform Paris that Helen is married, and Agamemnon, brother of Helen's husband and king of the Greeks, sends 1,000 ships to Troy to get her back. Paris a lover not a fighter asks his noble brother Hector to defend him and the rest of Troy while the Greeks rally behind the demigod Achilles, the world's greatest warrior.
There's a movie in there, but it's buried beneath 24 books of dactylic hexameter and some unfathomably dull speechifying by the gods. David Benioff, the novelist cum screenwriter who sold Warner Bros. on the idea for $150,000, decided early on that the god stuff had to go. "I had this terror of some actor in a toga hurling CGI [computer-generated imagery] thunderbolts from the top of Mount Olympus," Benioff says, in reference to the 1981 Laurence Olivier as Zeus camp classic, Clash of the Titans. After dropping the deities and adding the Trojan horse from The Aeneid, Benioff focused his taut 140page script on Hector and the now mortal Achilles. "They're the two great heroes on opposite sides, but it's not a good guy bad guy story. It's humans vs. humans, and that's what makes it great tragedy."
Petersen saw a Troy draft in early 2002 and signed on immediately. "I was offered Gladiator before Ridley Scott," he says ruefully. "And I turned it down ... What a fool was I. This time, again I responded to similar material. Great lovers. Great fights. I did not hesitate." Pitt received an early draft too, and over dinner at Petersen's favorite German restaurant ("They brought me out a giant ham hock, extra gristle," Pitt recalls), he committed to doing months of dialect and sword work and putting on the additional 7 lbs. to 10 lbs. of muscle required to play Achilles. "I hadn't worked for two years, so I figured, f___ it," says Pitt. "I got no excuses. Plus, once you've done a few movies, you want to up the ante. I don't know how much was fueled by the story or approaching 40 or what. But I wanted to see if I wasn't lazy about it, if I really went at the physical and emotional work where it might end up."