In June of 2011 Screen Rant had the opportunity to travel with a select group of journalists to the London set of Universal Pictures' fantastical retelling of 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves. (Take a look at our 47 Ronin set report here.)
While there, we were able to sit down with Reeves to talk about learning Japanese so they could do takes in both Japanese and English, what drew him to the story, and how this film compares with some of his previous action films such as Point Break and The Matrix.
Q: Did you actually learn Japanese or just learn your lines in Japanese?
Keanu Reeves: I’m sure Carl [Rinsch] explained that he wanted to have the actors speak with a native feeling. So I try, when we do the Japanese takes, to be as familiar as I can with the dialogue in Japanese. I've been getting some instruction on pronunciation. It’s been fun. To play a scene, it’s so fantastic with the Japanese actors. It must be fun, as well as challenging for them to play their scenes in English. I know personally, it’s always exciting for me, the idea of acting in another language.
But it has its challenges. Often times when we get changes in the script at the eleventh hour, it becomes kind of scary because you’ve worked so hard to figure out this chunk of dialogue and then someone says, “Well, how about this?” and that’s very challenging. But it’s been fun to try and almost have a sense of even a simple expression. I had a line with Hiro Sanada and I just had to say, “You are samurai.” [Says Japanese translation] It had such a different feeling…
Q: What first attracted you to the film?
The story. When I first read the script, it had kind of the largesse of a Western. The character that I played, this outsider seeking to belong… I always talk about it as a story of revenge and impossible love. For drama, that’s good stuff. It sucks in life, but in a movie that’s good stuff. So I was drawn to that. I was drawn to this guy who’s an outsider, who is involved in this culture but is outside of the culture and wants to belong, and who has the chance to fight for it, the way of belonging by fighting for the cause. I found that interesting and a good story.
You've been involved with this for so long. How has the vision or ideas changed since Carl came on board? Has it changed a lot since the original script?
I only saw way in the beginning when Carl had some conceptuals that he showed me. They had some boards and looks at certain costumes, and temples and some locations. Then, to go from storyboards for sequences like the Kirin hunt - there’s the hunt of this beast in the opening section of the film - and then when I got to London in January, [production designer] Jan Roelfs had started to realize it and was building it from conceptual to pre-vis. I was impressed by the scale and invention. It was one of the things that drew me to the story, the scale of it. Have you taken a look at the sets? It’s cool. 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 or plastic.
Is the approach to the action as unique as the rest of the story? How does the training and 3D factor in?
I’m really digging the 3D. The thing that I like about it, and what I’m finding is when I watch it in the way that John Mathieson, the lighting and camera man, is working is 3D…Often times when we think of 3D we think of things coming out of the screen, but actually, you've got this zero, this negative space, what they call the negative space, which is the scene, what’s being filmed in the positive space of the audience. As you can have things come out, you can have all of this depth. With this “traditional classicism,” you get this scene and there’s such a grand story, like those sets. Now you’re looking and you can feel depth and go inside that story. It’s like walking on to the stage while actors perform, in a way. I really liked how they’re using the immersive potentials of 3D. It’s beautiful.
They’re taking risks. There’s grandeur and there’s some real grittiness with the Dejima sequence. So there’s a lot of different looks: locations, the outdoors, the temples, where people live. I get taken to this place called Dutch Island, which has its own thing. So that aspect’s been really great to be a part of that.
Action-wise, late last year I started picking up katana and we had some training. My co-star, Hiroyuki Sanada is pretty fantastic with a sword. Films like The Twilight Samurai, Last Samurai. I kinda grew up with Sonny Chiba. I remember we were doing a camera test and I was like, “So, Hiro, how many samurai films have you done?” And he said, “Twenty.” And I said, “Okkkkay.” Later I asked him, “How many have you done, again?” and he went, “Mmm, 30.”
And one day in Los Angeles in training, he came over because he wanted to speak about the work. He warms up a little bit and I’m taking lessons from this gentleman, Tsuyoshi [Abe] and so he says to Tsuyoshi, “Do overhead strike.” And Sanada goes and there’s the blade against his Adam’s apple. I go, “Okay…there’s the bar.” [laughs] I haven’t reached it.
But he’s so fantastic. What’s great about working with someone who’s so experienced is he’s very generous with help. “Look here, put your balance here, move like this, checking form.” He’s great with all of the cast and everyone, he’s making sure everything’s right. How do you wear your swords? He’s like his character [Kuranosuke] Oishi. He’s this guy who’s looking out for everybody. In the way his character is looking out for Ako, he’s looking out for the cast, he’s looking out for the production.
We've had one fight together and they did these shots on Phantom, which is this high-speed digital camera. I’m kind of like this caveman. In super slow-motion, we have this sequence. Every line is so beautiful and I’m like yelling so hopefully that’ll be a nice contrast. And they’re trying to have traditional two-handed sword. Hiroyuki’s really paying attention to that. And then I've got this other past, I've got other training where I go into one-hand stuff.
Is there any wire work?
There’s one sequence where they’re doing a bunch of it. I’ve only done one wire so far. It was nice to get into the saddle. I had to do this thing where we’re escaping. I have to jump from this elevated element and jump down into these guys. That was fun. I don’t get to do some of the 60 somersaults. But there’s another sequence where they’re doing some wire stuff. This is more earthbound.
47 Ronin is so Japanese in the way that it approaches honor and sacrifice; it’s not what we’re used to in the West. Is Kai the character that lets us begin to understand Bushido? Is that what his role is?
I would think so, yeah. Yes and no. These actors walk on the floor and you get it, you know? On some of the more obvious aspects of it: honor, placement, status, composure, how to express yourself. The idea of honor, being a samurai, one of the interpretations is to serve. Oishi, Sanada-san’s character, does that.
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. I think maybe some of the behavioral collection, but maybe not, I don’t know. In terms of how deep you bow? Maybe. Or when do you reveal something. Like how do you express doubt or intimacy, you know?
What kind of research did you do to understand Bushido?
I don’t know if I understand Bushido, but for me it’s… I watched a lot of samurai films. Spending time with the actors, spending time with Hiro. I 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?” [laughs] I went to school with the different ways to sit and where to put hands and what levels to pay respect. Some of the…like The Way of the Samurai and reading a little bit on Japanese thought and perspective.
As an example, a lot of people have spoken about, “Is what the 47 Ronin did, correct? Should they have fought that night? Should they not have fought that night?” There are some people who say, “They should have fought that night and died trying.” And then there are other people who say, “What they did was okay, they came back.” And that’s that conversation.
Page 2: Continue for Keanu Reeves on The Fantastical Reinterpretation, Revenge & Comparing to The Matrix