Last February, Anderson and the "Pompeii" crew were granted what they described as "unparalleled access to the city" for principal photography among the ruins of Pompeii. Those scenes are in the film, but made unrecognizable with layers of computer effects to make the rubble look unscathed. The actors filmed their scenes in Toronto last spring and summer.
"I try and base everything on real photography," Anderson said. "Every shot of the city that you see, or the coliseum, or the volcano, is based on real photography that we did around Vesuvius."
Filled with brothels and blood sports, Pompeii was a Las Vegas-style entertainment destination for its time, but plagued with frequent earthquakes caused by Mount Vesuvius.
However, the residents never connected the cause and effect, and the 79 A.D. eruption came as a real shock to them, said Sarah Yeomans, USC Roman archaeologist and Pompeii expert.
While the film is a historical drama, it also could be prophetic. Scientists say Mount Vesuvius is due for another blowout.
"It's something that volcanologists are really worried about because, these days, it could impact a lot more people," said Rosaly Lopes, volcanologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who is assisting in the marketing of the film.
Mount Vesuvius erupts in uneven cycles; the last eruption, in 1944, was mild, with mostly lava flow, Lopes said. Before the 79 A.D. disaster, Mount Vesuvius sat dormant since around 1800 B.C.
The A.D. 79 Plinian eruption — named after the journal entries by Pliny the Younger detailing the catastrophe from afar — made its mark on science and history.
Lopes says it's unlikely the next Mount Vesuvius eruption will reach the magnitude of the one in 79 A.D., when the volcano near Naples, Italy, blew its top off and buried Pompeii in lava and ash. According to several sources, the violent explosion decimated Pompeii and other nearby ancient cities, killing several thousand people.
Some died immediately after they breathed in the volatile gases that burned their lungs. Many of their withered bodies were preserved in ash; so far, 1,100 such bodies have been recovered in Pompeii, Yeomans said.
A modern Mount Vesuvius eruption could be a big one if there is enough buildup, Lopes said.
"The first (eruption) of a cycle is the biggest, and then, depending on how long it rests, the (following) eruption could (also) be very large," Lopes said.
If the 79 A.D. Plinian eruption did happen today, the effects would be just as devastating. Naples and the surrounding area have a population of 3 million, and about a half million people live at the base of the volcano. About 25,000 people live in modern Pompeii, where construction crews are redeveloping the slope of Mount Vesuvius.
The effects of the explosion would reach all around the globe and cause a climactic shift, Lopes said.