Director Carl Erik Rinsch on 47 Ronin set

In June 2011, I traveled to London to visit the set of director Carl Erik Rinsch‘s big screen adaptation of 47 Ronin. (You can watch my video blog about the experience here.) While on set, Rinsch gave us a passionate plea to explain why the 47 Ronin story was an important one to bring to the big screen, and why and how he was trying to make it look and feel like nothing you had ever seen before.

He called it “Kurosawa On Meth,” and explained his choices to shoot the tale in 3D and be more aggressive about the dimensionality than previous Hollywood releases had at the time. He also talked to us about the historical importance of this story in Japan, how he planned to honor the story’s less-than-Hollywood ending, and even about falling asleep watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Read the entire roundtable interview after the jump.

In the interview that follows, Rinsch is very open a couple of times about part of the story’s ending. If you don’t know the classic 47 Ronin story, consider yourself warned for spoilers to follow.

Can you talk about the story of the film?

OK, 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, its an 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.

Most people don’t know of that story in the west. 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. They all commit seppuku, they all die at the end and I thought, “My God, which studio has the guts to make a movie where all of the heroes commit seppuku at the end of the film?” There’s no, 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 Ch?shingura.

Right, I don’t know if you know the difference between “47 Ronin” and Ch?shingura? 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. One year to the day we will seek revenge. And that’s what they did, they sought revenge and they killed lord Kira and of course they had to pay the punishment of that because there was justice and they all died.

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 Ch?shingura, which is the tradition of the story telling of the 47 Ronin. That means Ch?shingura is not just a historically accurate story. It’s taking it and making it your own. There’s been the Hello Kitty Ch?shingura. So, they’ve told the “Forty-seven Ronin” with all women. They’ve told the Forty, you can see it, it’s like Romeo and Juliet, they tell it. You know, there’s the gay Romeo and Juliet and then there’s the gangster Romeo and Juliet. The same thing with “Forty-seven Ronin.” That Ch?shingura is a tradition of making the story your own. People have come up with sequels and prequels to what really happened with the “Forty-seven Ronin.” People have had real fun with it. So in Japan, people will come out with one or two films that are Ch?shingura stories every year, right around Christmas time.

So 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 fuck 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 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. OK, what are some of the fantasy characters I, as a westerner never heard of? I mean I knew of Kirin beer, but I never really, 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 OK, this is an opportunity to do something totally, totally different. So, our version of “Forty-seven Ronin,” our Ch?shingura story is going to be a samurai fantasy epic. I thought, “That’s cool. I haven’t fucking seen that before. Great! Kurosawa on meth.

I’ve never seen that. I’ll do that!” And instead of doing it like 300 was, 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 3-D is because it’s plainer, it almost feels like a composite. So we keep watching these shots, thinking nobody is going to believe them really, that we really shot that. Nobody is going to believe we really built all those sets.

Does that bum you out?

No, because it doesn’t really matter. I’m not really one of those guys build 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. And 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 Middle-Earth? Done. Nolan doing Dark Knight? Done. We know this shit. With this one, 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 – OK, that’s officially crazy. Don’t do that! Don’t do that shit. And, everyone dies at the end – OK…

They’re not forcing you to shoot an alternative?

No, absolutely not. Can’t do it. You just can’t do it. I mean, because that – talk about sucking out the integrity of the whole thing. So, while we can play with certain things, you can’t be blasphemous. You can’t say “ah well, they didn’t really die at the end, they just took a good slap on the wrist and called it a day and they will show up in the sequel.” Maybe they will die in the sequel. You know, you can’t do that. So, it’s a really gutsy move on everybody’s part at Universal.

At the end of 300 everyone dies, but they die fighting. This is a really Japanese story, with the ideas of honor and duty. How do you get that across for the American moviegoer? The ending isn’t sad…

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, OK. We’ll elect another one. We have just 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 OK 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, with the idea of sacrifice in western movies, we don’t mind the 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, “fuck the man.”

When they’re saying “Fuck the Man” and they die? Then it’s great! We love it. But the idea of “OK, 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 in. 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.” It’s we’re going to kill him, sacrifice ourselves and it will set the world right. That’s a powerful idea and something I learned through study and talking to everyone in Japan.

The Princess opens the film; does she in some sense offer that sense of balance to the audience?

There is inherently in it the message: “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 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 Ronin, it’s kind of a poignant day for you to show up. It’s not like the 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.

What were some of the challenges of shooting outdoors? There are big enough sound stages where you could do it in sections.

It’s a nightmare. We shot a lot of stuff in Budapest. Basically the biggest soundstage, they’re bigger than all the stages at Shepperton combined. They’re even outside the size of the Pinewood stage, the 007 stage. 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 the immortals. Stuff like that where it looks like it’s shot on stage with all the rock. 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.

And it’s your first feature.

Right, that too. Right?

You’ve been used to shooting commercials. What has you changed most in your approach?

The marathon is definitely it. I wish I could just say, “Oh it’s a marathon.” 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.

Are you on schedule?

Pretty much right there. Which is a good thing. 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 does feel like some sort of – it doesn’t feel like a normal movie even. We’re used to seeing, at least for me, I’m used to seeing Avatar or Up or whatever it is, Toy Story, in 3-D. 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, OK 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 shit. It’s a high quality film. So, that blew me away. It’s just a different experience.

How are you using 3D as a story telling tool? How aggressively?

It’s a funny thing. We’d go back and forth. We don’t want it to be that in-your-face like, a ball against the screen or swords up in your grill all the time. But, at the same time I saw Tron and I thought, I like the movie but it felt too subtle for me. So how do you find a middle ground? Your eye compensates. You’re watching the movie and about 15 min in, I’ll even be watching stuff, going to the rushes and going “is it still 3D?”

You forget. I never remember it looking 3D. I don’t remember images being in your face.

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, OK 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. Do you all think 3D is going to stay?

From a financial point of view, it kind of has to. From a ticket sales point of view….The one thing about film is that it adds romance and glamour that people are used to. Shooting digitally, I feel like you’ll have to add stuff later. Very realistic shots, but a movie like this, isn’t the glamour lost?

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, hey look at that – 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 lighting, Dutch lighting single sourced stuff, not a lot of those, not special that way. All of our approach is a very classical approach to it. The cameras are so big; they’re the size of a Volkswagen. What do you with cameras like that? You sort of have to revert to the way they use cameras in Hitchcock or David Lean or you name it. It becomes that style and approach because I can’t do hand held, it’s just too damn big. I’m sure I’ll be back.

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