By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 6, 2013 at 4:02PM
On Monday, we took you on the set of "47 Ronin," Universal's great tentpole hope for the Christmas season. Long-delayed (it was originally set for release last November) and with a troubled production history, the film tells the famous Japanese story of the 47 Ronin, former samurai who spent a year planning their revenge on the man who wronged their master, with two major twists: one is that one of their number is Kai, a "half-breed" played by Keanu Reeves, the other is that the vision of first-time director Carl Erik Rinsch was to set the film in "a dream of Japan," with fantastical creatures and heightened action.
You can get the skinny on the film from our earlier extensive report, but in our day on set at Shepperton Studios back in June 2011, we had the opportunity to talk not just to Rinsch and Reeves, but also co-stars Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano and Kou Shibasaki, as well as costume designer Penny Rose and weapons master Simon Atherton. We didn't have room for everything in Monday's story, so take a look below for everything else we learned from the cast and crew of "47 Ronin," which hits theaters on Christmas Day.
Despite the fantasy elements, this isn't necessarily the weirdest version of the story.
Chushingura is a term that refers to the various retellings of the story of the forty-seven ronin. But as director Carl Erik Rinsch explains, while many versions stick close to real events, there's a tradition of mixing it up: "There's this thing called Chushingura, which is the tradition of the storytelling of the 47 Ronin. So it's not just a historically accurate story, it's taking it and making it your own. There's been the Hello Kitty Chushingura, they've done it with all women. It's like 'Romeo & Juliet.' People have come up with sequels and prequels to what happened, they've had fun with it... So at first, I looked at it and was like, 'This is hallowed ground, I don't wanna fuck up a national iconic story.' And then I realized that that was the fun of it, is to make it your own."
Rinsch believes the story will resonate not just with Japanese audiences, but with Westerners too.
For all the bells and whistles, Rinsch says, there's a strong emotional core to the story, but he did have to find an angle to connect with it. "We as Westerners," he says, "we elect our leaders, and most of the time we don't trust them. We have an innate distrust of our leadership, so the idea of when they fall, everything falls, and we need to sacrifice ourselves for them, it doesn't really happen. But the way I was able to tune into it was, what if my father was killed? What would you do, what lengths would you go, if your father was murdered?... There is inherently in it, a message of 'What you do in this life resonates into the next.' What they do will resonate for future and future generations. I was reading this Robert Towne article where he said that a crime that robs you of your future, is actually a sin."
Keanu Reeves connected to his character straight away.
These days, Reeves is fairly picky with his roles, especially when it comes to blockbuster fare: "47 Ronin" marks his first tentpole lead since 2008's "The Day The Earth Stood Still." But he says that as soon as he was offered the project, Reeves clicked with Kai. "When I first read the script," Reeves told us, "it had the largesse of a Western, and the character that I played was kind of an outsider. I always talk about it as a story of revenge and impossible love, and for drama, it's good stuff. It sucks in life, but in a movie, that's good stuff. So I was drawn to this guy, who's an outsider, who's involved in the culture, but is outside of the culture, who wants to belong. And who has a chance to fight for it, who can belong by fighting for the cause. It's just a good story... I was impressed by the scale and the invention. that was one thing that impressed me too, the scale of it."
Hiroyuki Sanada has a long history with the 47 Ronin.
As a veteran of the samurai genre, it's not suprising that Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays Oishi, the leader of the Ronin, has encountered the tale before. "When I was eight or nine years old, I saw the TV '47 Ronin,' with Toshiro Mifune. He played Oshii. That was my first inspiration. I played it every week, with my brother. 'Who plays Oshii tonight, who plays Kira tonight?' We fought. Every week." But unlike most of the cast, he's also appeared in a version of the story before, too. "I played Lord Asano before, directed by Kinji Fukusaku [the late helmer of "Battle Royale" who directed 1994's "Crest Of Betrayal," which also melded the classic story with supernatural elements, albeit in a very different way]. So this is my second time with the 47 Ronin."
Tadanobu Asano hoped he might be on the side of the angels in the film.
Tadanobu Asano, the star of "Ichi The Killer" and "Thor," among many others, plays the villain of the piece, Lord Kira. But having been familiar with the story since he was "probably five years old, as early as I can remember," he'd long hoped to appear in a version. But he confesses he's a little disappointed to be the bad guy, given his name: "Growing up, my name being Asano, I always viewed it from the point of view of the Asano family [Lord Asano being the master of the samurai who become the 47 Ronin] . So I thought that when the time came to do a part in the story, I'd be on that side. So this being a Hollywood project, and being on the other side, it will be interesting."
Rinsch was keen to shoot practically as much as possible
While the story has drawn comparisons with "300," Rinsch was adamant that he wanted to keep things as grounded as possible. "You do kind of want to [shoot] outside. Some people like the look of 'Immortals' or something like that, where it looks like it was shot on a stage with polystyrene rocks, but I wanted to get into some real space." As such, the shoot moved to London to build huge castle and fortress sets on the Shepperton backlot. Not that it was without its difficulties. "It's been a real challenge," Rinsch admitted. "The third act all takes place at night, and the night [in the summer] is only four and a half hours long."
There were a lot of costumes. A lot.
Costume designer Penny Rose ("Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "The Lone Ranger") spilled the beans on the sheer workload she'd been pumping out with only eight weeks prep time. "988 costumes, and 400 suits of armor. And 13 different variations of helmets." And they went to unlikely sources for putting some of it together, particularly a chainmail expert with an unlikely main source of income. "The chainmail guy," she told us, "has a shop in the North of England, and he makes aluminium rings with rubber rings, to create chainmail. And guess what his main business is? He has a huge trade in the S&M market."
Some of the costumes were influenced by haute couture.
While there's a traditional influence for many of the costumes, Rose says that she was looking to more contemporary influences too. Of female lead Mika, Rose explained, "She's all in pale peaches, pale apricot, pale pale colors, all in silk satins. Every costume is a variation on a theme that frames her tiny face, that was the idea, we'd frame her. They're not authentic Japanese, I've stolen a bit from here there and everywhere, quite a lot of couture. I'm trying to remember whose collection it was, I think Alexander McQueen did a Japanese collection, quite a long time ago, and Christian Dior, in the 1960s. But it was mainly about the fact that Mika is so petite, and so we really wanted to frame her face."