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On the making of an epic drama

Capturing 19th century Japanese vistas in New Plymouth, New Zealand, is all about natural aesthetics, claims Director Edward Zwick. The production scale of "The Last Samurai" was huge and even took the shape of a military event.

THE LAST Samurai, Captain Nathan Algren, is a man adrift. The battles he once fought now seem distant and futile. Once he risked his life for honour and country — at Antietam (Maryland) and Gettysburg (Virginia) — but in the years since the American Civil War, the world has changed.

Pragmatism has replaced courage, self-interest has taken the place of sacrifice and honour is nowhere to be found — especially out West where his role in the Indian Campaigns ended in disillusionment and sorrow. Somewhere on the unforgiving plains near the banks of the Washita River, Algren lost his soul.

A universe away, another soldier sees his way of life about to disintegrate. He is Katsumoto, the last leader of an ancient line of warriors, the venerated Samurai.

Just as the modern way encroached upon the American West, cornering and condemning the Native American, it also engulfed traditional Japan.

The telegraph lines and railroads that brought progress now threaten those values and codes by which the Samurai have lived and died for centuries. But Katsumoto will not go without a fight.

The paths of these two warriors converge when the young Emperor of Japan, wooed by American interests who covet the growing Japanese market, hire Algren to train Japan's first modern, conscript army.

Drafting, training, arming and moving troops, the company moved to New Plymouth, New Zealand, in January 2003, after a worldwide location search determined that this was the best locale in which to replicate certain 19th century Japanese vistas.

``Aesthetics is a very important part of the culture, particularly the natural aesthetic, the land,'' says Director Edward Zwick. ``One of the great tragedies is that there is so much less open land available in Japan today. Many Japanese come to New Zealand because of its beauty.'' Citing the countries' similar topography, he adds, ``Because it's a volcanic island not unlike Japan, we hoped to embody here that aesthetic from an earlier age. The Japan we created is one of imagination in that it no longer exists, but I think we got as close as we could.''

The production scale was huge. Between 300 and 600 Japanese extras appeared in the film on any given day and 400 New Zealanders were employed in every department, from wardrobe to construction and set-decorating to camera.

The rest of the 200-300 crew members came from the United States, England, Australia and, of course, Japan — nearly every department included at least one Japanese representative as part of the working crew and/or as a translator.

On days involving scenes with huge numbers of extras, the shooting crew numbered approximately 1,000 and work began at 3 a.m. for many of the hair, make-up and wardrobe personnel, who styled all the sculptural hair-dos, tied the kimonos, hakama and haori in the traditional Japanese manner and fit the armour.

In the search for extras to appear as Katsumoto's loyal Samurai, the casting department found 75 Japanese residents of Auckland, a five-hour drive from New Plymouth. Additionally, stunt coordinator Nick Powell handpicked a group of novice Japanese actors to become his "core" Samurai. None were professional stunt men and only two could ride horses, but all were athletic and enthusiastic. After two weeks of rigorous training, they proved their mettle. The production next staffed the Japanese Imperial Army by finding some 600 extras in Japan and putting them through boot camp to become a credible military force. ``Their dedication and motivation truly impressed me,'' says the film's military advisor Jim Deaver. ``What I may be most proud of,'' says Zwick, ``is that no one got hurt,'' which is always a consideration when filming action sequences of this magnitude, even when every safety precaution is met. ``Likewise, none of the horses were injured — not a turned ankle, nothing. These were remarkable animals, so well trained and loved by everyone.''

The 50 horses were purchased by the production company in New Zealand and trained by an international team of instructors under Horse Master Peter White for four months prior to filming, under the supervision of a full-time veterinarian and a representative from the local chapter of the American Humane Association, Film & Television Unit.

As the horses practiced, so did their riders. White singles out Tom Cruise and Tony Goldwyn as the only two equestrians of the group and estimates that another six or eight riders had some experience but that none of them had ridden under the kind of busy, noisy and crowded conditions posed by filming.

In two months' time, integrating this intensive training into their already full schedules, these men learned enough about horsemanship to ride into Zwick's battlefields with confidence.

Supplementing the action, Visual Effects Supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun (Stargate, Deep Blue Sea) employed CGI to add a rainfall of virtual arrows and the occasional fireball to the frenetic battle scenes. Maintaining that the most effective visual effects are those that remain undetectable, Okun says that CGI and green-screen techniques were also instrumentally involved in a scene in which the Samurai Ujio beheads a man on a Tokyo street.

Production took on the shape of a military event. Under the stewardship of the production's "general," Unit Production Manager Kevin de la Noy ("Saving Private Ryan", "Braveheart"), the storyboards for what were known as the fog battle and the final battle became detailed, strategic battle plans. ``Both the fog and final battles were about strategy and ingenuity,'' says Zwick. As the director points out, when the Samurai appear out of a mist-shrouded forest, descending upon the ill-prepared Imperial Army like ghostly demons, ``the idea was that the Samurai would use the cover of fog for surprise, allowing them to attack swiftly and suddenly, at their discretion. There is also the psychological advantage of using the forest and the fog as cover, so that when they chose their moment to strike they would materialise as if out of nowhere, in their terrifying, ancient armour, with their legendary, lethal swords.''

Zwick based this tactic and those he employed in the final battle on several historical sources, including that of famed Samurai master and martial arts teacher Miyamoto Musashi, who is credited with inventing and perfecting the technique of fighting with two swords and wrote `The Book of Five Rings,' a spiritual and technical manual printed in 1645. The fog battle takes place near Lake Mangamahoe, a public park known for hiking trails and fishing holes and the final battle, which took two months to complete, was filmed on a farm, with vast grassy fields and flanks of forest that provided the perfect location for various aspects of the action.

As in actual warfare, maps were drawn and positions assigned — Samurai here, Imperial Army below.

Surveying his battlefield for the first time, Zwick was momentarily awed. ``It's one thing to plan and imagine what you want on a film, but when you actually arrive and survey the scene there's a moment of `Oh my God, what was I thinking?'" the director admits with good humour.

Supplying the action was a monumental weapons inventory, comprised of both traditional Samurai blades and arrows and circa 1800s firearms, meticulously restored by the production. Prop master Dave Gulick relied upon Japanese sources to ensure the proper usage of various kinds of swords, which was quite specific down to the way in which scabbards were tied and how a certain blade would be worn differently in battle or on the street. Meanwhile, weapons coordinator Robert `Rock' Galotti and his team tracked down vintage rifles and pistols from private collectors and sources around the world, then refurbished them. One of the weapons Cruise carries onscreen in his shoulder holster is an authentic 1851 Navy revolver, a so-called cap-and-ball gun that would have been used in the civil war.

To capture all the elements, Zwick and Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll typically made use of multiple cameras. Perhaps their favourite rig was the crane-held camera, and Toll utilised all kinds — a libra crane, the Chapman and Giraffe and an impossibly oversized rig called the UFO. In the end, these foes have a shared respect of their common, dying past; despite the violence that ensues and this seeming paradox is the basis of what Zwick calls the `film language' of "The Last Samurai".

"The Last Samurai" is being distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company.

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