Shooting a Samurai Movie

You would have to carry around some kind of crazy genes if you want to shoot a Samurai movie in Bournemouth, England. As a student. Bournemouth? Where the heck is that anyway? Never mind, I was stupid enough to respond to that ad and send them a demo tape. After sending them two tapes I had that job. That was December 2003.

It takes a lot to shoot a Samurai movie in England. Where do you get the set? Japanese castles, costumes, all the other actors and all the money to support all that stuff? Insanity is some basic requirement for creating big things. I was told to fly in January to train for the fighting sequence.

Matheus, a multiple Dan black-belt Kung Fu Meister and in Shinobinojutsu was going to teach me how to fight with a Japanese sword. He lived in the outskirts of the city, in a quiet place, where he was able to pursue his athletic way in quiet environment. We went into his barn. A place packed with swords, nunchaku and other martial arts equipment. He told me to close my eyes and walk a straight line with my sword in my hands. Wow, it's like Karate Kid, I think. After a short introductory, we began with our fight scenes, cause our time was limited. I stayed in Bournemouth for four days. Peter, the director, and Martin "Marve" showed me all the places, where they were going to shoot the scenes. The Japanese garden, that looked like a cross between Chinese and Japanese culture, a perfect setting, the forest for the night shinobi scene. We also met with the computer graphics guys at the school, who were designing certain backgrounds and CG scenes for the project. Then a girl of the costume department measured my body. After that ordeal, which was quite ticklish, we went to the model department, but we were not able to find the model of the Japanese castle. Too bad. I returned to Germany.

March. I was now flying to Bournemouth the second time. I flew into London Stanstead, where Marve picked me up. They started shooting two days ago and he told me he has not slept the last three days, except for three hours. Wow, now he was going to drive me to Bournemouth, a two hour drive to the south. I got him quick a coffee, which was to me some kind of a life insurance. Marve told me on the way, that everything was working now, even though they had some minor problems, they were shooting great scenes. He was driving a new Landrover, that he had rented. Nice.

Who were Peter and Martin? Peter was a very young, but dedicated director of 21 years. In UK most of the students graduating from film school are his age. He has been shooting movies since the age of 11. In his first film school year, he did a still photo shoot for a class, for which he had depicted a Japanese garden as a scene. Since then, he tells me, it was his dream to shoot a movie in that setting. He has read books about Japanese garden, about the Samurai ways of tradition and Japanese history and created a script that was his fictive world. A world for a movie. His idea caught on. Martin, a thirty something producer, had extensive real world experience as a sales person. With that ability he was able to pull all the strings to organize a taunting task of creating a Japanese setting of the past in this sleepy town of Bournemouth. And soon a team of more than 50 people started moving.

Honey, could you now raise your arms? Sweety, now lift your right leg. Baby, do you feel good? No, that's not part of the lines in this Samurai movie. Those are actually spoken words of the English costume girls here, trying to get me into that Samurai costume. I am not used to it. No. I guess German girls are a bit different. So, like an unarmed dog, waggling it's tail, I enjoy the new environment. Yes, sometimes it is sad to belong to a specie called man.

The costume girls, the set designer, gaffer, sound and everyone else are inside the tent set up on the parking lot of the Japanese garden. It is March already, but at night the temperature is sinking quite low. Matheus my trainer arrives with Tony and Peter, his assistants. We started training and I was wearing my costume for the purpose of getting used fighting in it. He trained me how to warm up, how to hold the sword and other basics. We were training with a wooden sword.

The first day was also my first shooting day. The set designers did a remarkable job on the garden. They had removed all the Chinese looking steel lanterns with wooden made ones and they changed the interior of all the places using many shoji and tatami parts. It looked great. We did a scene in which I was playing a Ronin, a Samurai who had lost his master and was drifting around for money to hire. A villain. The killer. He is plotting out a dark secret with a lord. I am chewing on a small piece of wood, hat raised low, my voice low, full of lust for blood. (I hope it came out that way.) It was cold, the scar on my hand, which Laura and Sara worked on, looked good, but slowly it came off. They created the scar using morticians wax, which task was to cover up certain deformations of a corpse, if it required touch-ups, before being put in a casket for presentation. And guess what, a corpse usually does not move. But, me, I am not dead. My hand, on which the scar was being created, moves and it slowly peels off. Whatever, I try to cover it, so it doesn't show in the scene. Amanda, the camerawoman, doesn't do any close-ups anyway.

It must have been around three, when they drove me back to the Watergarden Hotel. Nice name, thinking that Lotus Flower, the title of the movie, was a flower that floats on water. Anyway, I didn't think about it at that time, since I had been up since five in the morning. I took a bus to the Frankfurt Hahn airport, flew to London Stanstead, drove to Bournemouth and spent a whole day with the film crew. It certainly was a long day.

Hanna, the AD, is flipping. No wonder she had been drinking four Red Bulls, one in which she had four pro plus, those caffeine tablets. Yes, she talks like a hurricane even though it is three o'lock in the morning. Everyone is trying to stay awake. Coffee, tea extra strong, muffin for the sugar level in the blood stream, coke and pro plus. I don't remember which night it was. Sometime towards the end, when everyone has run out of their reserves. We were shooting in a warehouse. You suppose we could do the night scenes during the day. No such luck. First of all, there is noise during the day, secondly, there are windows on the roofs, which were extremely difficult to cover and cutting the light to come in. But everyone keeps on rolling.

Flying high on caffeine, sugar and pressure to achieve something awesome.

Amanda, our camerawoman, does a superb job. She takes her time and does her job with great care. Therefore, we are all patient. Mike, the gaffer, creates an outstanding atmosphere with his lighting skills. Peter the director hammers a wooden gate with wood and bamboo, which looks good, since we had to shoot a scene indoors, that was initially planned to be shot in the Japanese garden. Rain has diffused our schedule. Inside the warehouse is a five meter high, 10 meter wide gate of a Japanese castle. Those who are not well versed with the metric system, consider a wall that reaches almost the top of a big warehouse. They built that stuff. There is also a model 2 meters by 2 meters (6 feet 7 by 6 feet 7) of a castle that is going to be scanned in and used in the computer graphic.

I was sitting there, training with Matheus and Co rehearsing the fight scene. Kenji and I now go at each other with wooden swords. The timing is now almost perfect. No need to worry any more. Or? Is that the moment when someone gets hit? Ouch.

I felt Ok, since I did not stay all night filming in the forest. I was there to train for my fighting sequence with Kenji, who was bound to be at location. I trained 8 days just for that 2 minute long scene in the end. But I gave my best stunt when I fell during a night shoot, flipping over myself, as I was carrying a silver box and running in the dark forest. Yes, no one was asking for it...

Bournemouth is just by the Dover seaside. I haven't been to the sea, even though it was only a 5 minute walk away from the hotel I was staying. On the fourth day, I found time to go there, see the sea and practice a bit swinging the sword towards the endless sea. Do the Musashi thing. Must have looked quite strange. A black haired guy swinging a sword towards the sea screaming Yeyaaaah. No, I did not do the screaming part. But still, weird enough. The sight is beautiful, yet still quite cold. Two wind surfers are on the sea with their wet suits. Must be freezing. I find a restaurant and order sandwich and coffee and rest my wooden sword against a wall.

A Samurai having a Pizza Bread Lunch by the seaside.

Food in England. That's a theme. Well, in January, Peter, the director, and Marve treated me well all the way through, pampering me with great food. Now, I was on my own. On the set food was filling. What can one expect more than that in a student production? And it was not bad. I mean better than eating fast food burgers every day. We had warm meals and actually I was looking for them, cause while I was off set I ate lots of subs, sandwiches and burgers. Drank lots of milk.

I had my digital camera. I had bought it just one day before my flight. Took over 100 pictures. A documentation of the film shoot. Many photographers were on the set too. But I like to take pictures that are snapshots, faces of people working on the set.

Kenji and I were still trying to do the pre-boxing match eye glare. It's five in the morning, outside birds start to sing. It's raining. We fight with vengeance against sleepiness. The camera still adds some last adrenaline to our fight. The swords against the stream of rain. Red color on the swords dripping dangerously. In the end I lie on the ground and the scene is over and rain is still pouring. Heck, turn the water off, damn it. And the costume is rushing to towel me off. We repeated that may be 15 times during that night. Pheeew. And somehow, I don't know how, no one actually knows, falls this guy, who was shooting a documentary of this movie, through the roof of the set and creates a big hole, his leg dangling over the big gate on the wall of the castle. Many are laughing, others are sour, others tired to respond in any way. I belonged to the third group, but thinking now, it was actually quite funny. Almost like Manga. The repair took an hour.

A film shoot is intense. You are huddled together for one project seeing each other up to 18 hours a day. You can't hide yourself. You are exposed to the stress and to the people. Frustration sets in, but you also get to know people well. Especially during student production, when all the enthusiasm is drawn solely by the power of the will of achievement. The last day is nearing. We are all happy about the last day approaching, and then, at the same time, some sadness is creeping into your heart, that this project, after all, is also nearing an end. The sense of family created for that short period vanishes with a single wave only to be traced in the memory of those participated.

What is the end product going to be like? The scenes looked extremely good, the sound is going to be recorded by musicians of Oxford university, the sets looked very good, the details of Japan were were almost perfect, it had it's own flair created by the set designers led by Luke. A flair created by all the ingredients, attributed by all the participants. In the end it is going to create a fictive world, that can draw people into a fantasy world of an ancient Japan.

And thanks to everyone on the production. I really had a great time. Thanks to: Hanna1, Hanna2, Laura, Annabella, Sara1, Sara2, Elizabeth, Cali, Naomi, Bianca, Masayo, Andy, Kenji, Ryozo, Mike, Dave, Luke, Masashi Banzai Fujimoto, Peter1, Martin, Matheus, Tony, Peter2, Eliot, Vincent and all others...