Kazuaki Kiriya Talks LAST KNIGHTS As He Brings His 47 Ronin Tale Home

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Kazuaki Kiriya Talks LAST KNIGHTS As He Brings His 47 Ronin Tale Home
With Last Knights, Kazuaki Kiriya retells Japan's treasured story of loyalty, revenge and sacrifice, 47 Ronin. Moving the action away from his native country to a medieval European land, the masterless samurai of the true life story have become disavowed soldiers of an unfairly disgraced lord. 

Kiriya is right at home in the fantasy epic genre after helming 2004's Casshern and 2009's Goemon but this time the director has abandoned the digital backlots of his previous work to shoot on location in the Czech Republic. The film features Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman at the head of a cast of actors gathered from around the world.

Before the film's opening in Japan, Kiriya attended the Foreign Correspondent Club to show his film and talk about its production.

Can you tell us how this project came together?

It's from the strength of the script. Everything stems from that. After finishing my film Goemon in 2009 producer Jim Thompson gave me this script for Last Knights and I read and it was wonderful. I said, "Let's do this". Unfortunately there was another project called 47 Ronin with Keanu Reeves. It was from the same source, which is Chushingura, the 47 Ronin story. So all the studios rejected producing this film and that left us with only the independent route. It then took us two or three years before we finally got it into production.

But you got Clive Owen on board early right?

Yeah, Clive helped us to get financing definitely. He was the first on board. I sent him the script and he liked it. When he was at Shanghai Film Festival my agent called me and said "Clive's in Shanghai, do you wanna go see him?" I said "alright" and jumped on a plane and went. I was supposed to meet him the day after my arrival, but I went to a bar and there he was, so I introduced myself and spent the whole night talking to him and explaining how I was going to shoot it. After maybe two weeks I got a call from him in L.A. and he was on board. That started the whole process and he waited more than three years for this project. He's a cool guy!

What was your purpose with the tone of the movie and the color, with this almost black and white kind of thing?

It WAS almost a black and white film! Getting the black was tough, the DP and myself discussed it for hours and hours. My reference was Caravaggio the painter, we tried to mimic that. There was a huge argument and a point where we decided not to use artificial lights, only use fire and sunlight, the bare minimum, like a Stanley Kubrick film, but the time limitation didn't allow that. 

So, we ended up using artificial lights but the spirit was only to use natural light. To have that darkness, without it being total black, we had to use so much smoke to achieve it. It's really important to have that smoke everywhere to achieve that black. One day we were shooting a fighting sequence outside of Prague, it was like two hours away from the capital, we used so much smoke that it reached Prague. The cost was $25,000 just for the smoke. To achieve that look... you have no idea... so much time and effort.

The film has a very mixed cast of actors from around the world, what was the thinking there?

There were so many kinds of nationalities, originally the script was written to be played by Japanese actors and it was going to be set in Japan; just a true Chushingura film. Memoirs of a Geisha was played by an Asian cast; a Japanese story with an Asian cast speaking in English. So originally that was the concept, but I asked myself, "Is it interesting?" I thought about Kurosawa Akira's Ran, which is Shakespeare's King Lear but transformed to the Japanese culture. 

So I thought, "Let's do the reversal of that, well the reversal would just be a straight medieval film, which is not very interesting. So I said to myself, "Let's forget the race issue, and lets find actors from all over the world that can act. That was my main point to my casting agent; just get me the best actors from all over the world. We got actors from 17 different countries. 

Morgan Freeman, Clive Owen, Ahn Sung-ki from Korea, Payman Maadi from Iran. Akel Hennie from Norway, they are almost like national heroes, you know. I was very lucky to gather these actors. That was very intentional, I'm hoping that will become a bit of a trend to give these roles to Asian or middle eastern or non... you know what I mean? To break the typecasting.

I read somewhere you initially planned on building your own world as you did in your first couple of films and you didn't really have this middle eastern European bent to it but that once you got the locations in the Czech Republic it became a lot more European.

Yeah, originally it was going top be shot in India. I went there, I spent more than a month scouting and everything was decided. Each corridor, each scene was all marked out, but the production problems... it was not feasible. And that's why it has this medieval touch to it. I don't know, it could have been different, you never know.

There were so many Korean names in the credits for post-production, why did you choose Korea and Korean artists for post-production?

First of all I think Korean CGI teams are great, they were top-notch. The guys I worked with, they did a lot of Hollywood production as well. I think a lot of Asian CGI companies are becoming very vital in the world of filmmaking. And of course because we got financing from Korea, there are tax incentives to use local production. But even that aside, I liked working with them. 

That's something really exciting with world filmmaking; you just connect the production with great artists to make these things. With the music we had an orchestra in Moscow when I was in L.A. with the musical team and we connected on the internet in real time and they just played that music and I gave them the notes right there as we recorded. The CGI was done in Korea, some parts were done elsewhere and my editor is Mark Sanders, who did Gravity, he's in London. I happened to be in Tokyo and we connected on Skype while I was in Tokyo. It's a beautiful thing that's happening in the film world, you collaborate in the true sense.

How did you play with the original story of Chushingura, what elements did you change or keep, for example in the end they don't all commit suicide...

The essence I tried to keep, I worked really hard to keep it the same. On the surface I changed a lot. Costume, art direction, everything was changed and as you pointed out the biggest change was the hara-kiri part.

SPOILER ALERT
At some part I was going to make Morgan Freeman do the hara-kiri, but at the last minute we changed it because, like, the word hara-kiri it already has that cliché, sushi, sumo Japanese stereotype type thing. I didn't want to go there. It is a sacred act, it's called 'self-deciding' in Japanese, jisatsu, so I had Clive Owen's character, Raiden, kill Morgan's character. They are like father and son, so the act itself on the metaphor side is pretty much the same to me. That's how we made the scene, I'm very proud of it, I think the choice is good. We talked to Clive and discussed this on many occasions. Secondly, my grandfather did hara-kiri, he was in the Japanese army during the war and afterwards he did that very act. So that act was very personnel to me. My grandmother suffered a lot because of that. Look, Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, he's the main character in the original story of 47 Ronin, in the true Japanese story, that man and my grandfather kind of became the same to me in these past five years. Somehow that act itself, I just didn't want it to become that kitsch Japanese thing. I hoped the choice was right as I like how it plays. I hope the ending is correct too because in the original story all 47 of them kill themselves and it doesn't happen here. Did I pull my punches? No. I think the spirit is passed down to the lieutenant and all that. I just didn't want to be a stereotype... samurai, geisha sushi, it's beyond that you know? And I think that's the task we accomplished with the project, to transcend that thing and make it more universal and transcendent. It's the spirit of samurai, but the spirit of samurai to me is knighthood in Europe and the concept is in America as well and Africa, china, everywhere, so that's what I tried to do.
SPOILER END

The high production values seen here can now be matched on TV, I'm thinking of one epic fantasy TV series in particular, what do you think that film can still offer over television?

That is a very, very good question about what is now happening in Hollywood and that will now happen in America and Japan as well. It's why films are now getting more and more expensive, hundreds of millions of dollars. 200million is now like normal, and now its reaching 300 million, so I don't know the answer to that. I think that film directors are now asking themselves, "What are we going to do about this?" Are we all going to go to TV? Which is fine as well but that becomes another problem. 

All I can say is that filmmaking, not only filmmaking but the realm of art is becoming very unforgiving. It has to be a certain way, it has to be a certain format, a certain taste, if it's genre it has to be a certain genre. Even in the 80's we had people like David Lynch coming out, which you would never see today. Well I don't want to say never, but it's very difficult in the filmmaking industry, if you make independent small films nobody watches. Look at Japan, it's a serious business there are a lot of talented young filmmakers and they make great small films but nobody's there to watch them. The theaters are all closing because the big companies are... even to promote them you need so much money, who provides that money? 

That's why everything is becoming a business model rather than being about the art. Look at the charts in Japan, it's all about the business model the battle of the business model rather than the songs, and that's happening in the movies. We're being killed, just one genre after another, we're getting killed. What are we going to do about that? I really don't have the answer. One possibility I see is the opening up of China, or Asia as a market. I see a lot of problems but there's a lot of new ways to gather together money to make films and also to promote the films in the new market. In the Middle East this movie was really well received, also in Africa, that new market might offer further possibilities.


Last Knights is on release now in Japan.
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