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With Pitt on board, Petersen cast the other dozen or so leading roles according to the gospel of David Lean. "I looked at Lawrence of Arabia," says Petersen, "at Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif. Oh, my God! What attractive guys they were. I think these epic stories need attractive people. So I decided I will go for a high standard of beauty." Eric Bana (last summer's Hulk) was chosen to play Hector; O'Toole snapped up the role of Priam, the Trojan king; Julie Christie took a cameo as Achilles' mother Thetis; and despite rumored interest from Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts, a worldwide casting call went out for a really pretty Helen of Troy, with German newcomer Diane Kruger landing the role. Finally, Orlando Bloom was cast as Paris. "It was a ferociously good-looking set," says Benioff. "A good way to crush your ego is to walk into a restaurant with Orlando Bloom."
With Troy's pretty people in place, the first hint of the trials to come arrived when production designer Nigel Phelps, who had been researching the architecture of ancient Troy at the British Museum, informed Petersen that the city was kind of a dump. "Going through all these sketches, there was a moment of realization," says Phelps. "Troy just didn't have the size or the spectacle the movie demanded. There was a wall and a gate, but most of the buildings were maybe 10-ft. high and made of mud." To make Troy look like a city worth defending, Phelps had to scramble to put together "an architectural vocabulary from a bunch of ancient cultures that was, you know, made up."
The invented Troy, surrounded by a wall 40 ft. by 500 ft. made from 200 tons of plaster, was to be built in Morocco. But shortly before shooting started, the location had to be switched. "The war in Iraq," says Petersen with a shrug. "There were concerns about terrorism in the area. So we go to Mexico." First, however, the production stopped in Malta to shoot scenes that would take place inside the Trojan walls. There were cataclysms a stuntman hurt himself during shooting and died unexpectedly weeks later, an editor reportedly had his laptop stolen, sparking fears that Troy might be bootlegged before it hit theaters, and paparazzi photos of Pitt in his armor (and on a cell phone) were inspiring jokes around the globe but on the whole, Petersen moved briskly.
Momentum slowed in Mexico. For the battle scenes, the movie needed an empty beach, and the best one available was a few miles outside Cabo San Lucas. "This beach was fantastic," says Phelps. "Four miles long, very broad, absolutely nothing there. And we found out why." The beach was home to 4,000 protected cacti. Botanists had to be called in to transplant each cactus to a nursery and note its exact location on the beach so it could be returned when production ended. The entire Mexican coast is also part of an endangered-turtle habitat, so 24-hour-a-day specialists were hired to spot turtle eggs and transfer them to incubators.
By the time the roughly 200 tons of props and equipment arrived from Malta on two Russian Antonov air freighters, it was clear that the beach scenes were going to be rough. "The heat was unbearable," says O'Toole, the man who played Lean's T.E. Lawrence. "Why anyone should choose to shoot on a tropic is beyond me."
O'Toole, the king, had it easy. It was the soldiers who truly suffered. Petersen used CGI to fill out the battle scenes he was known to say, "Same thing, only more expensive," when he wanted to go wider and reveal 50,000 digital fighters but on any given day, there were some 1,500 battle-trained and costumed extras milling around on the scalding, shadeless beach. About 250 of them were the weight lifters, who were recruited from a sports academy in Sofia and brought in for close-ups. "Those guys were absolutely beating the crap out of each other," says Bana. They went on strike for several days. "I'm not totally into the details, but it had to do with payments and maybe the kind of food they were getting," says Petersen. A few flew home in a rage. Most agreed to stay on.
Meanwhile, the Trojan horse had been broken down into hundreds of pieces for the flight across the Atlantic, the crew awoke one day shocked to discover 150 ft. of beach missing because of the tides, the Greek ships had engine trouble, and nearly everyone battled Montezuma's revenge. "None of this was easy," says Pitt.
Amazingly, the principals remained relatively unscathed until the end. The critical fight between Hector and Achilles was scheduled to be shot just before production wrapped, to give Bana and Pitt extra time to practice their swordsmanship with renowned stunt coordinator Simon Crane (Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan). But a few days before the fight, Pitt damaged his Achilles tendon an irony he can laugh about now, though only a little. A few days later, Hurricane Marty, the second hurricane to hit the production, blew down the walls of Troy. The walls were rebuilt, and Pitt's leg healed, but shooting was suspended for three months, during which both actors had to stay in peak physical shape. "You could say it was just another one of the challenges," Bana says wryly.