Director Paul W.S. Anderson has a lifelong fascination with the killer volcano that inspired his new film, “Pompeii.”
Anderson became interested in the history of the Roman Empire when he was growing up in northern England, near the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall -- a 73-mile frontier built in 122 AD to protect Roman Britain from the Picts of Scotland.
“The idea of a city that was lost in time for 1,700 years and then rediscovered -- it just fascinated me,” Anderson said of his obsession with Pompeii, the port city in Italy’s Bay of Naples that was destroyed by a cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. “I’ve been actively trying to make the movie for six years now.”
Vesuvius erupted with such force that its top lost more than 2,000 feet, and a mile-wide lava flow rushed down toward Pompeii at almost 80 miles per hour, destroying the city in just 12 hours.
“What happens is that there is a lot of gas in the magma as it’s coming up, and the magma is very viscous, so that gas can’t get out easily. So the pressure builds and builds until it just explodes, and all the magma turns to ash and small bits,” Rosaly Lopes of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab explained.
“It’s very scary! It goes up, as the movie showed, in an eruption column, but that eruption column can become so dense that it collapses. Once it collapses, that flow comes downwards.”
But the ash and mud that covered Pompeii also preserved the bodies of its population.
“What you’re looking at are not petrified bodies -- they are literally plaster casts,” said Sarah Yeomans, a professor and archaeologist at West Virginia University. “Archeologically speaking, these casts are phenomenal, because you can get a sense of the clothing. That helps us pinpoint their social class, their possible role in that society.
“It’s a treasure trove for archaeologists.”
Anderson’s film meticulously follows the last hours of the people of what he calls “The Las Vegas of the Roman Empire.”
“It’s all super-accurate,” he said. “It’s relatively easy to be accurate with Pompeii, because the city’s so well-preserved. The villa we built is all based on real Pompeian design, whether it’s the tiled floor or the color that the walls are painted. But also, a lot of the wall paintings were of everyday life, so you saw exactly what people looked like and what a Pompeian street was like. So we based a lot of our research on Pompeii itself.”
“Pompeii” also took full advantage of being filmed in 3D.
“This was the kind of movie that 3D was built for,” Anderson said. “I didn’t want it to be a movie like ‘300’ or the ‘Immortals.’ They’re both very stylish films, but they’re not real; they operate in a kind of comic book world.
“And ‘Pompeii’ is a real, historical disaster, and I wanted it to look real. So the visual effects have to be to a much higher standard. We were in production on some of the visual effects before we even started principal photography. There was a lot of pre-planning.”
While Anderson’s film is based on an ancient tragedy, the director warned that a similar disaster is lurking here in America.
“There’s a super-volcano in Yellowstone Park,” he said. “When it blows, it’ll take out the whole of the United States of America.”
But don’t pack your bags just yet.
“Yellowstone has had much bigger eruptions than Vesuvius in the past, but it hasn’t erupted for hundreds of thousands of years,” Lopes said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s likely to erupt again tomorrow. Yellowstone is very well monitored because if it does erupt, like it did a long time ago, it could be catastrophic. Potentially, it’s a very dangerous volcano -- more dangerous than Vesuvius.”
In any case, technology is no match for Mother Nature, Anderson said.
“I think one of the things I like about the movie is just how it reminds you that the Romans thought they had the best civilization -- and they did. They were technologically the most advanced -- but in the face of nature, it didn’t mean anything."
"And we’re very technologically advanced now -- almost as much as the Romans. We have underfloor heating, just like they did. We have plumbing. But in the face of a natural disaster, it just doesn’t mean anything.”