Universal Pictures' upcoming samurai epic 47 Ronin
received a lot of attention when it was first announced because it would be the debut feature of director Carl Rinsch.
Rinsch had cut his teeth directing commercials as well as the highly-lauded short film "The Gift," but with "Ronin" he'd be taking on a big budget studio movie based on one of Japan's classic historical tales that has been made into countless films and television series. Not only that, but it was also decided to film the movie using 3D technology rather than converting it to 3D later.
Now there have been rumors over the last year that Rinsch never finished the movie--rumors we personally can't confirm—but when we spoke to the director during our set visit, he was still very gung-ho about how the movie was going, talking enthusiastically about the original story—mainly about the ending which we've edited out as to try not to spoil it for those who don't know it—as well as shooting his first feature film in 3D.
In fact, that's right where the conversation started once Rinsch arrived in the press room as he jumped right into these things without actually being asked a question, but not before asking the journalists what movies they'd seen recently… and we won't mention the movies he asked about because that would really gives away how long ago this set visit and interview took place.
How often have you all gone to a stereo shoot? Have you seen any stereo shoots before? One of the things that I get back to is that there haven't been many movies shot like this. I mean there's "Avatar," "Hugo Cabret," the Scorsese film. "Resident Evil" was shot with Demetri Portelli, who's our 3D guy, who I am sure will talk your ear off. He did that one I believe, but there are not a lot of films that have been shot like this. I don't even know where to begin. Just so I have a bit of context, you all have seen a bit of the sizzle real, which is basically the first four weeks. Interior stage stuff that we just cut together to get a slice of feeling out of it, and then, you probably saw a bit of the war room. Did you see that? So you saw that design right? So, you've seen just a smattering of stuff and you'd seen Kira's fortress, which is the big castle, and then you've seen this. So basically, as you may or may not know, the story of the "47 Ronin" is an age old historically relevant--I wouldn't say tale, because tale implies that it didn't happen--event in Japan. They celebrate it on the 14th of December every year to this day, where they close the schools, and they close the banks, and it's a big deal! And it has real emotional resonance to that culture. We in the West know very little about it. Most people know of it from the Frankenheimer film "Ronin," where they talk about it in the middle of the second act.
For us, when I was looking at a bunch of different scripts that I saw, this one, I saw the end of it, where we stay true to the real story, and I thought, "My God, which studio has the guts to make this movie?" There's not going to be a sequel to that, so it's not a saga movie. Every movie now is a big saga movie and the only way to do this would be to do some sort of prequel to it. So I thought, this is different, and the more I looked into the history of the event and what is considered "Chūshingura." I don't know if Pam (Adby, the film's producer) told you a little bit about the difference between "47 Ronin" and Chūshingura?
So "47 Ronin" is a historical event. It really actually happened. 1702 or 1703, depending on which scholar you believe. And that was the house of Ako, the lord was driven mad they say, and attacked Lord Kira. And because of that, he was forced to commit seppuku and all of his samurai became ronin and they decided, "We're gonna play possum and one year to the day we will seek revenge." And that's what they did.
That's the historical event. We went to the site. It's fantastic! You can still go there and pray today. That's that. Then there's this thing called "Chūshingura," which is the tradition of the storytelling of the "47 Ronin." That means Chūshingura is not just a historically accurate story. It's taking it and making it your own. There's been the "Hello Kitty Chūshingura." They've told the "47 Ronin" with all women. They've told it like Romeo and Juliet, where there's the gay Romeo and Juliet and then there's the gangster Romeo and Juliet. The same thing with "47 Ronin." That "Chūshingura" is a tradition of making the story your own. People have come up with sequels and prequels to what really happened with the 47 Ronin. People have had real fun with it. So in Japan, people will come out with one or two films that are "Chūshingura" stories every year, right around Christmas time.
For me, when I first looked at it, I went, "Oh, wow, this is hallowed ground. I don't want to trespass on it. I don't want to f*ck up a national, iconic, story, but then I started realizing, "No – that's the fun of it, is to make it your own." And what (screenwriter) Chris Morgan had done from the very beginning was to say, "What if you made some of the samurai story a fantasy?" And so we just leaned into that and invested that. "Okay, what are some of the fantasy characters I, as a westerner never heard of?" I mean I knew of Kirin Beer, but I can't imagine a real Kirin or Tengu Warrior. I never knew what a Tengu Warrior was, and the more I looked into it, the more I saw that the myth and the fantasy of Japan had more characters in it than Marvel could ever have in their entire menagerie, so I thought, "Okay, this is an opportunity to do something totally, totally different, so our version of "47 Ronin," our "Chūshingura" story, is going to be a samurai fantasy epic. I thought, "That's cool. I haven't f*cking seen that before. Great! Kurosawa on meth. I'll do that!"
Instead of doing it like "300" and make it very much shot on a stage with a big green screen, we said we're going to opt for everything. We're not going to say that this just has visual effects in it and we're not going to make what could be a boring period piece. We're going to do everything. We're going to have the big sets, we're going to have the big costumes, we're going to have the big real action sequences, and we are going to have CG augmentation, CG environments, CG characters, and CG fights as well. And you will never be able to know where the scene is. Hell, I think that shot this morning, traditionally I would look at a shot like that and say that's a CG shot, because it looks unreal. One of the things that happens with 3D is because it's plainer, it almost feels like a composite. So we keep watching these shots, thinking nobody is going to believe that we really shot that. Nobody is going to believe we really built all those sets.
Q: Does that bum you out?
No, because it doesn't really matter. I'm not really one of those guys that ego over, "Oh look my sets are so big, and look how powerful I am." That doesn't turn me on. So if it happens in a computer, or it happens in real life, as long as it's on a screen, that's cool. But there is something to be said about--for as much as I love CGI, I do, and there's so much you can do with CGI to make a photo real and nobody can ever know--there is something to having real stuff. There is, and it helps the accuracy. That's the other thing – you have to imagine what a gutsy, crazy thing this movie is. That's why we are getting everyone together, to sort of build a grass roots campaign. Peter Jackson, he had us all at hello. He's making "The Hobbit"? -Done, "Dark Knight" – done. We know this sh*t. This, we're creating a world, not from scratch, but a world that's entirely new to most Western audiences, and we're doing it in stereo, and we're doing it with a cast who doesn't speak English as their first language. That on paper is like "Okay, that's officially crazy. Don't do that! Don't do that sh*t."
Q: They're not forcing you to shoot an alternative to the potentially controversial ending, are they?
No, absolutely not. Can't do it. You just can't do it. I mean, talk about sucking out the integrity of the whole thing. While we can play with certain things, you can't be blasphemous. You can't say, "Ah well, they just took a good slap on the wrist and called it a day and they will show up in the sequel." You know, you can't do that, so it's a really gutsy move on everybody's part at Universal.
Q: At the end of "300" everyone dies, but they die fighting. This is a really Japanese story, with the ideas of honor and duty are so Japanese in this. How do you get that across for the American moviegoer?
There are two different things I was getting my head around when I started. Emotionally it's a story of honor and revenge, and it's a love story. Those are the two thrusts of the movie, emotionally. Yes, it looks really cool and boy there's going to be big effects, but it's really the story of Oishi's revenge and this is the story of Kira's love story with Mika.
There were a couple of big things I always stumbled across as a Westerner, as an American. It was one, all right my lord is killed and I seek revenge for him. How does that make sense for me as a person? And, we as Westerners, we elect our politicians and most of the time we don't even trust them, so if they get assassinated, "Okay, we'll elect another one." We just have an innate distrust in our leadership. So the idea of when they fall, everything falls and we need to sacrifice for them, doesn't really happen. So the way I was able to tune into it was, to say, "Okay, what if my father was killed? I had to make it a paternal figure that was close, almost like what if my father was killed what would I do? What would you do? What lengths would you go to if your father was murdered? Would you seek revenge?" And then it became a story I could really get into.
As you say, the idea of sacrifice in Western Movies, we don't mind killing people at the end. "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," not a problem. Even "Thelma and Louise," not a problem. But we like killing people by having them go into hail of bullets saying, "F*ck the man." When they're saying "F*ck the Man" and they die? Then it's great! We love it. But the idea of a somber, "This is justice, I did something, and I killed someone and now instead of cheering I have to pay the price." For me, that was the thing that I would struggle with, but I think we're going to have tremendous success. The universe of this movie is set off balance and these men know that in order to right the balance of the universe they're going to have to pay the ultimate price. We educated the viewer emotionally along the way so that going into the last act; they know that this is the end of their time. It's not just "We're going to kill him and then we win." That's a powerful idea and something I Learned through study and talking to everyone in Japan.
Q: The princess, does she in some sense offer that sense of balance to the audience?
There is inherently in it the message of what you do in this life resonates into the next. Setting the world right here is going to resonate for future generations, which is cool. I was reading this Robert Towne article where he said, "A crime—whether it's a murder or whatever it is--that robs you of your future, is actually a sin." So this idea that what has happened, they kill, these men are giving up. You came just at the scene where they're giving up and becoming Ronins, it's kind of a poignant day for you to show up. It's not like they're getting ready for battle scene; it's the big scene. But this idea that their leader dying robs them of a future. In order to regain that, they have to do this.
Q: What were some of the challenges of shooting outdoors? There are big enough soundstages where you could do it in sections.
It's a nightmare. We shot a lot of stuff in Budapest. Basically their biggest soundstages are bigger than Shepperton combined. They even outsize the 007 Stage at Pinewood. We were happily surprised to find that much covered space, because the sets are just huge, but you do kind of want to go outside. Some people like the look of things, like "Immortals" and stuff like that where it looks like it's shot on a stage with a polysterene rock. I didn't want to do that--I wanted to get into some real space. For those castles, it's just too big. But it's been a real challenge, I must say. We're shooting all the night stuff--the third act all takes place at night--and we're shooting on that set and the night is only 4.5 hours long. Again, another thing: stereo, a cast that doesn't speak English as a first language and the nights are only 4-5 hours long.
Q: And it's your first feature.
Right, and that too. Right?
Q: What personally have you changed most in your approach from your commercial shoots?
The marathon is definitely it. I wish I could say, "Oh it's just a marathon and pace yourself…" No. It's like getting beaten with a sledgehammer every single day, just for a long period of time. It has all the intensity of a commercial but it takes 4 months, 6 months.
Q: Are you on schedule?
Pretty much right there. Scorsese was three weeks behind after his first week. Even James Cameron was three weeks behind after his second week, so we're doing really well. The strength of the stereo is that it doesn't feel like a normal movie, at least for me. We're used to seeing "Avatar" or "Up" or whatever it is, "Toy Story in 3D," but it's a CGI film. Yes, "Avatar" had a lot of live footage shot but it really is such a heavy CGI film. This is real people, so I hadn't seen anything like this before. I saw the test of "Hugo," Scorsese's film and I thought, "Okay, that's a whole other world." I see real people, real sets and traditional lighting. Beautiful lighting, but done in stereo. It's not a cheap trick anymore; it's not a gimmick. It's not a horror movie, not a piece of sh*t. It's a high quality film, so that blew me away. It's just a different experience.
Q: How are you using 3D as a storytelling tool? And how aggressively?
It's a funny thing, 'cause we'd go back and forth. We don't want it to be that in-your-face like, ping-ponging a ball against the screen or swords up in your grill all the time, but at the same time I saw TRON and I like the movie but it felt too subtle for me. I think that your eye kind of compensates. You're watching the movie and about 15 minutes in--I'll even be watching stuff, going to the rushes and going "Is it still 3D?" and that's throwing you out of the story, really. I think you have to play with it like music. In the same way you can't just have a bunch of… like in "Transformers." I can't watch a bunch of action; I fell asleep in the second "Transformers." It was the same note for two hours. It doesn't have music to it, so what we're trying to do in this 3D is have music to it, say "Okay, its going to get a little bigger here, then it's going to mellow out then it'll ramp up." I think that'll help you.
Q: There's also a glamour and romance to shooting on film which you can't get when shooting digitally, so do you feel you'll have to add some of that back in post?
Yeah, we're trying to take the curse off of it. Because you're shooting digital. I like film, I like textured film. With this we did a lot of tests early on, just to make sure it's more romantic kind of feeling as you said. Whether it's in the lighting, which is very old-fashioned Dutch lighting single-sourced stuff. All of our approach is a very classical approach to it. The cameras are so big; they're the size of a Volkswagen, so what do you with cameras like that? You have to sort of revert to the way they use cameras with Hitchcock or David Lean or you name it. It becomes that style and approach because I can't do hand-held—the camera's just too damn big.
opens nationwide in 2D and 3D theatres on Christmas Day, December 25. You can read our previous set report here
and an interview with Keanu Reeves here