Things that have happened in the two-and-a-half years since I was on the set of Universal‘s hopeful Christmas blockbuster “47 Ronin” in June 2011: A presidential election, a government shutdown, three fall TV seasons, four Marvel movies, two “Fast & Furious” movies, two “Paranormal Activity” movies, three World Series, one complete Kim Kardashian marriage (and another engagement), the release of three albums by One Direction, and one fully-achieved Matthew McConaughey comeback. I’ve moved house four times, I’ve fallen in and out of love at least once, I’ve left my full-time job at The Playlist, and one couple I’m friends with have conceived and given birth to two whole children. What I’m saying is, this has been a long time coming.
“47 Ronin” had already been in development for some time when it went into production in the spring of 2011. The script by “Fast & Furious” mastermind Chris Morgan was snapped up by Universal in 2008, with Keanu Reeves attached to star, and the following year, it was announced it would be the feature debut of Carl Erik Rinsch, a commercials whizkid who was at one point set to direct the film that became “Prometheus” before his mentor (and father of one-time girlfriend Jordan Scott) Ridley Scott took over. But since then, it’s been a rocky road: originally set for a November 2012 release, the film was pushed back to February 2013, and then delayed a further ten months, with a Christmas Day date now creeping up.
Amidst that time, there have been rumors of a troubled production: six months after being on set, I heard from a friend working on another project at Shepperton that the film was getting a whopping 6-8 weeks of reshoots (about the same as “World War Z” wound up receiving), possibly being directed by someone other than Rinsch. I dismissed it as idle gossip at the time, and it’s likely that it was something of an exaggeration, but a few months later, The Hollywood Reporter went on record as saying that it had been “a tense, combative shoot” and that the $175 million budget had gone significantly over, with Rinsch kicking against studio control, “preferring to shoot every frame himself,” and turning out something closer to a drama than an event movie.
The Wrap went further six months later, reporting “micromanaged” reshoots, and saying that the budget had risen to $225 million, and that the director had been “removed from the editing suite.” Other reports denied any of this, saying that Rinsch will still in control, and that the film was still on track. However it turns out (and it would hardly be the first film rumored to have production troubles that turned out to be a huge hit—hello, “Titanic” and, yes, “World War Z“), the stories have undoubtedly tainted the film in the minds of some. But although everyone involved would obviously have been on their best behavior with press on set, it was far from chaos on the day I visited.
The likelihood of finding a Japanese palace, stacked with samurai, noblemen, handmaidens and the like, all dressed in their finery and numbering easily in three figures, in Surrey, on the outskirts of London, might seem minimal. But on a windy June morning, that’s exactly what was in the backlot of Shepperton Studios, and to all external appearances, everything appeared entirely harmonious.
For the uninitiated, the story of the forty-seven ronin is a beloved one in Japan: based on an historical event that took place in “1702, or 1703, depending on which scholar you believe,” as Rinsch told us on set. Set initially in Edo (now Tokyo), it saw one Lord Asano being forced to commit ritual seppuku (suicide), after attacking a court official named Kira. Left leaderless, the samurai under his command became ronin (masterless samurai), and spent over a year plotting their revenge, before mounting an attack on Kira’s fortress. Celebrated annually in Japan on December 14th, it’s become the focus of Chushingura—fictionalized retellings of the tale in theater, cinema and TV (almost every year sees a new production of some kind). But as Rinsch says, “the most [Western audiences] know about it is from the John Frankheimer film ‘Ronin,’ where they talk about it in the middle of the second act.”
The scene that was underway as the press arrived on set was a pivotal one; in which the Shogun (Cary Hiroyuki-Tanada) oversees the surrender of Asano’s samurai, led by Oishi (the great Hiroyuki Sanada, familiar both from many Japanese samurai movies, most recently “The Twilight Samurai,” but also American fare like “The Last Samurai,” “Sunshine,” “Speed Racer,” “Lost” and “The Wolverine“). Asano’s daughter Mika (“Battle Royale” star Kou Shibasaki) is given a year to mourn, but will then be forced to marry the villainous Kira (Tadanobu Asano, of “Ichi The Killer,” “Zatoichi,” “Battleship” and “Thor” fame). Among the ranks of the newly-forged ronin is one figure who stands out, because the face belongs to the not-exactly Japanese Keanu Reeves. And it’s the presence of the star of “The Matrix” that turns out to be one of the ways that “47 Ronin” is distinguishing itself from previous Chushingura.
Everyone involved from the production was keen to stress the film’s respect for the original story, and Japanese culture in general—even day players were cast out of Japan, despite the European shoot, Reeves learned Japanese in order to film some takes in the language to make his fellow actors comfortable, and costume designer Penny Rose told us that, “We’ve all had masterclasses, we had a Japanese costumer with us… Everything’s authentic, there’s no zips, no poppers, no buttons, it’s proper Japanese wear.” But a movie budgeted at $175 million was unlikely to fly in the U.S. with an entirely Japanese cast, and producer Pamela Abdy acknowledges that having a Westernized main character, in Reeves’ Kai was “helpful” in getting the film greenlit.
You can pick up as much from the trailers, but at the film’s opening, Kai is found by Lord Asano as a wild, feral 13-year-old boy, lost in the woods (his mysterious origins look to play into the film later on). He’s taken under the nobleman’s protection, but is dismissed by the other samurai, including Oishi, as a “demon” or a “half-breed,” and is used mostly as a tracker on hunts. When we talked to Reeves, he expanded on his character. “There’s some samurai for who I’m a dog, and there’s some like Oishi, he’s like a tracking dog. But then we learn that he can fight,” he added with a laugh. “We end up having the same goal, and I think by my actions, they learn about Kai, about his grace and his ferocity, and his commitment to what they’re doing. So I get a certain kind of acceptance, but there’s a line. I can’t take the princess out for a meal.”
Certainly, the Japanese actors in the film seem to approve of the change: Tadanobu Osana said on-set, “This is the big advantage that this take of the story has over the Japanese versions, by adding a new character, a new viewpoint,” and Hiroyuki Sanada concurred, adding: “It’s a good way to make a very international film. If it only has a Japanese cast, it’s hard to introduce to the world to our culture. Because his character is there, we can introduce our culture to the world, so it’s very important.” But then, Sanada also told the visiting press “A lot of episodes are gone from the original, but a lot of new ideas have come in,” and some of those ideas delve even further from the source material.
Abdy describes the original conception for the film as “a dream of Japan,” and as you’ll have noticed from trailers, this is not a straight samurai movie, with Miyazaki and “Lord of the Rings” among the reference points dropped by the filmmakers while I was on set. Kai and the other Ronin come up against a number of fantastical creatures in their adventures, including hunting the mythical beast known as the Kirin, being tormented by a shape-shifting villain played by “Pacific Rim” and “Babel” star Rinko Kikuchi, battling bird-like warrior monks known as Dengu (they’re the Voldemort-ish figures in yellow in the trailer), and squaring off against a 7’7″ samurai who was referred to on set as the Lovecraftian Warrior (he won’t be called that in the film, unsurprisingly).
The supernatural elements were featured in Chris Morgan‘s script (subsequently worked on by “Drive” and “Snow White & The Huntsman” scribe Hossein Amini) since the beginning, and according to Rinsch, was one of the main things that attracted him to the project. “As a Westerner,” he said, in between takes, “I knew what Kirin Beer was, but I never knew what a Kirin was, or what a Tangu Warrior was. The more I looked into, I saw that the myth and fantasy of Japan had more characters than Marvel could ever have in their entire menagerie. So I thought this was an opportunity to do something totally different. So our version of a Chushingura story is going to be a samurai fantasy epic. that’s cool, I haven’t fucking seen that before, that’s great. Kurosawa on meth.”
But he was also keen on keeping at least one foot on the ground. “Instead of doing it like ‘300,’ where it’s shot on a stage with a big green screen, we’ll do everything. We won’t just say that it has visual effects in it, and we won’t say it’s a boring period piece, we’re going to do everything. We’re gonna have big sets, the big costumes, real action sequences, CG augmentation, CG environments, CG characters, and CG fights as well. And you’ll never be able to know where the seam is… And you have to appreciate what a gutsy, crazy movie this is,” Rinsch said. ” ‘The Hobbit,’ ‘The Dark Knight,’ people know that shit. This, we’re creating a world that’s entirely new to most Western audiences, and we’re doing it in stereo, and with a cast that doesn’t speak English as a first language. On paper, that’s officially crazy. It’s a really gutsy move on the part of everyone at Universal.”
Also gutsy? Giving a movie like this to a first-time feature director, even one who cuts as impressive a figure on set as Rinsch (if Chris Hemsworth ever hangs up his “Thor” hammer, Rinsch would make a pretty good replacement…). Producer Pamela Abdy explained why he had been hired. “Carl really responded to the drama of it, the honor and the love,” she said. “And I remember, the first time I met with him, I went over to Digital Domain, where we were meeting, and [his presentation was] literally hanging on these giant boards in the fishbowl room there, he walked me through the movie on a visual level, like I was a little kid, and he was telling me a fairy tale. And I got really excited about that. I’ve worked with first-time directors before, not on this scale, but he just had a vision for this movie that was undeniable. You’re in the movie business, and you have to go with your gut, and you have to go with the passion, and he was very passionate, and had a great strong angle on the story, and what the world he wanted to create was. So we all decided that Carl was the best decision to go in.”
The actors seemed to approve too: Hiroyuki Sanada (who told us that this is the second time he’d appeared in a version of the story, having previously played Lord Asano in 1994’s “Crest Of Betrayal,” directed by Kinji Fukusaku, the late helmer of “Battle Royale”) explained that he’d initially been nervous about the approach to the story, until, he said, “I met him, and we talked a lot about the culture, and the image of the film, and then I could believe, because he has a great visual sense, and respects our culture. He has a good balance between the visual, the drama, the action. So I thought, ‘Oh, if he’s going to direct, we can make an epic film together.’ So my fear was gone, when I met him.”
That said, there were some hints of some of the problems that have been documented elsewhere, even in my brief time there. Costume designer Penny Rose made a passing reference to having had only eight weeks to prep for the shoot, and when pressed further by one of my colleagues replied, “I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that. The prep process for a film like this is [normally] eighteen weeks,” prompting a publicist to step in and say with a laugh, “No, you’re not allowed to say that, I know what you’re going to say.”
And Rinsch acknowledged that the sheer length of the shoot had been testing saying, “I wish I could just say it was a marathon. It’s like being beaten with a sledgehammer every single day. It has all the intensity of a commercial, but it just takes four months, six months.” More out of curiosity than what I wish I could claim was foresight, I then enquired if the film was on schedule, to which Rinsch replied, “Pretty much, pretty much. Which is a good thing. Scorsese was three weeks behind after his first week [on ‘Hugo,’ which like ‘47 Ronin‘ was shot in native 3D], even James Cameron was three weeks behind after his second week. So we’re doing really, really well.”
But let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill here: as I said, any real trouble would have been kept far from the prying eyes of visiting press, and even if it was there, a difficult shoot is far from incompatible from a good final product (in a way, Rinsch making something bolder than what the studio was expecting is the best possible outcome as far as I’m concerned). It does remain to be seen how Japanese audiences respond to this big Hollywood version of their beloved tale: weapons master Simon Atherton said on set “I don’t know how it’s going to go down in Japan, but I think it’s a film that only we could have made, I don’t think the Japanese could have made a film like this, because they’re so stuck into the tradition, and the correct way of telling it. We’ve messed with it a little bit, we’ve played around with it, to make it a more interesting film to a bigger audience,” and Tadanobu Asano echoed him, saying “This might be a very confusing film for a Japanese audience… at first sight, there will be a lot of thoughts that come up in the Japanese viewer’s mind.”
Indeed, it remains to be seen how audiences as a whole take to the film: I can’t say we’ve been overjoyed either by the early sizzle reel we were shown on set, or by more recent trailers, which have given off a sort of “The Last Samurai And The Huntsman: On Stranger Tides” vibe. But at the same time, we’re eager to see the final product—it’s an admirably ambitious project, and being taken very seriously by those behind it. Whatever else it turns out to be, it’s unlikely to be a cynical cash-in. There’ll be more from the set of “47 Ronin” tomorrow, and you can find out how it turns out when the film opens on Christmas Day.