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On Set: Carl Rinsch's Ambitious Blockbuster '47 Ronin' Starring Keanu Reeves

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 4, 2013 at 12:00PM

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.
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47 Ronin, set visit

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.

47 Ronin, set visit


This article is related to: Features, 47 Ronin, Carl Erik Rinsch, Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi


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