“47 Ronin” is being billed as Keanu Reeves” explosive return to action-adventure. Although to be fair, the road to the release of this film has been sluggish due to delays and easily google-able post production dramas.
Reeves plays Kai, a half-British, half Japanese ruffian who aids a band of 47 Ronin in their quest get revenge for their wrongfully dispatched master, Lord Asano. Of course there”s a beautiful princess that needs to be saved as well.
The interview took place in early June, 2011. The production of “47 Ronin” had recently moved from giant soundstages in Budapest to the equally grand back lots at Shepperton Studios. The sets that surrounded us were detailed and breathtaking, a little slice of feudal Japan in the suburbs of London.
The discussion covers his immersion into Japanese culture and the complexities of shooting in 3D. In the time since this interview, Reeves has directed and released his own martial arts film “The Man Of Tai Chi” as well as delved into the intricacies of digital filmmaking with the documentary he produced “Side by Side.” Perhaps we can see a little bit of the thinking that molded those two projects in the words below.
Interviewers: What first attracted you to the film?
Keanu Reeves: The story. When I first read the script, it had the largesse of a western. I always talk about it as a story of revenge and impossible love, and for drama that’s good stuff. It sucks in life. But in a movie, that’s good stuff.
I was drawn to (my character) who”s an outsider, who is outside of the culture and wants to belong and who has the chance to belong by fighting for the cause. I found that interesting.
You”ve been involved in this for so long, how has the vision or the ideas changed since Carl (Rinch) came onboard?
In the beginning Carl had some concepts that he showed me. Some boards and looks at certain costumes and temples and some locations and sequences like the Kirin hunt.
Then, when I got to London in January, they had started to realize it and were building it and they had gone from conceptual to pre-vis. I was impressed by the scale and invention. That was one of the things, too, that drew me to the story, you know, the scale of it.
I like the idea of actually being in a place and filming something. I”ve worked in the construct before and I enjoy that as well. But it”s nice to have flesh and blood and walls, even if they’re made out of paper.
Is the approach to the (filmmaking) as unique as the approach to the rest of the story?
I”m really digging the 3D. Oftentimes, when we think of 3D, we think of things coming out of the screen. But actually, there are two (planes). You”ve got this zero (the screen) and you”ve got the negative space, which is what’s being filmed and then the positive space of the audience. You can have things come out, and you can have all of this depth and you go inside that story. You know, it”s like walking onto the stage while actors perform, in a way. So I”ve really liked how they”re using the immersive potentials of 3D. It”s beautiful and they’re taking risks.
Is there any wire work?
I”ve only done one wire so far. It was nice to get in saddle. I had to do this thing where we”re escaping and I have to jump from this kind of elevated element and jump down into these guys, so that was fun. But I don’t get to do some of the, you know, 360 somersaults, this is more kind of earthbound. Yeah.
The 47 Ronin is so Japanese in the way that it approaches honor and sacrifice. It”s very much not what we”re used to in the West. Is Kai sort of the character that lets us ‘in”?
You see some of it from Kai”s perspective, but mostly it”s from the filmmaker”s perspective. And I don’t know if it”s so foreign to Western audiences, the idea of honor and revenge.
What kind of research or work did you do to understand (samurai code of honor) bushido?
Oh, I don’t know if I understand bushido. But for me, it”s I watched a lot of samurai films (laughs.) And spending time with the actors, spending time with Hiro. (Co-star Hiroyuki Sanada) You know, I would just talk about in this scene ‘what can we do?” Hiro gave me a nice afternoon where I said, “Okay, the bows, what are we doing?” You know, so I went to school on the different ways to sit and where to put my hands. Just some of the ways of the samurai.
Have you had conversations (with the Japanese actors) about the version of this story and do any of them have any feelings about the fantasy elements – was something interesting to them?
They all agree. Everyone here who”s doing the film likes the idea of it, likes the idea of a reinterpretation, likes the idea of telling the story but also making a Hollywood movie and making it fantastical.
And to the story, it”s so different, the circumstances, so we”re really playing with some of the bigger ideas.
Feudal Japan was very xenophobic, so obviously Kai”s status as a half-breed is going to be really important. Can you talk about how his race informs the character in the story?
It”s kind of non-race specific. It”s more about “The Other.” And in the story, I”m discovered by Lord Asano and Oishi when Kai is 13 years old. Oishi says, “My lord, it”s a devil.” And Lord Asano says, “It”s a young boy.” So we”re showing Lord Asano as being someone who is not xenophobic, someone who has a bigger kind of idea.
Ako is this kind of Camelot.
And I get taken in, the next sequence when I”m older and I”m a tracker. You know, I”m tracking this beast and they”ve found a kind of utility for me. And we show that I”m treated differently by different people. There’s some samurai to who I”m a dog and then there’s some [to] who, like Oishi, [I”m] a tracking dog … and he needs my help.
So for Kai the part of the story is finding the acceptance of the Ronin, right?
We end up having the same goal, and I think by my actions they learn about Kai, some of his grace, as well as his ferocity, and his commitment to what they’re doing. You know, it”s 47 guys and, in the end, they accept him. So, yeah, I think there’s a kind of – they have the commonness, the common goal, this kind of idea of honor and revenge and I get a certain kind of acceptance.
But there’s a line. You know, I can’t take the princess out for dinner.
“47 Ronin” will hit theaters December 25th.