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The Last Samurai

2003 | Director: Edward Zwick |

The making of The Last Samurai was an extraordinary experience from the beginning. I had always been fascinated by this particular period of Japanese history, so when Edward called and sent the script over, I was so excited.

Research is a very large part of a period film. One needs to know the rules of the time, so you can break them if necessary. I was fortunate to be able to go the Meiji museum and amazing places in Tokyo and Kyoto for research.

It was clear it would be impossible to shoot very much in Japan. We shot at the palace in Kyoto and at the splendid monastery in Enjo-ji, where we received a blessing from the monks (the blessing worked as it rained on the one day we needed rain). The rest of the set was built in New Zealand and on the back lot in Burbank.

The task was immense, but I had an amazing crew. Gretchen Rau was set decorator extraordinaire and I had a wonderful art department in both LA and New Zealand. The building of the village in New Zealand was a combined effort of an incredibly talented New Zealand crew, a wonderful small group of Japanese prop people and my amazing LA crew.

One of the real wonders of my work is how much you learn on each project. This film was so vast and special, it’s almost impossible to pick out a particular day that stood out more than the others. However, there was one day in Japan where it had to be cherry blossom springtime in the morning and fall in the afternoon at the same location – a small temple garden. Each cherry blossom was attached to an armature (the finest in the foreground and the worst in the back.)

We made a second armature which had fall leaves attached to it. They were able to shoot the spring scene in the morning and at lunch we changed the seasons by craning the fall armature onto the existing trees.

This was an amazing experience and opportunity to build something that transported us all back to ancient Japan.