Two of 2003's most prominent year-end movie releases are mid-19th-century stories very firmly rooted in place. Yet The Last Samurai, which is set in Japan at the moment when the island nation was opening to the West, was largely shot in New Zealand. And Cold Mountain, from novelist Charles Frazier's best-selling evocation of Civil War-era Blue Ridge Mountain life, was mostly filmed in Romania's Transylvanian region, of all places. The reasons for each case of geographical impersonation range from the economic to the logistical, but their effectiveness seems unquestionable.
“For three months, they scouted in North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” says Cold Mountain production designer Dante Ferretti, working for the first time with director Anthony Minghella. “Then they decided, because of the cost of the movie, and also because it was important that we have lots of snow, to shoot in Transylvania, which everybody knows because of the vampires.” The filmmakers didn't run across any vampires, but they did find a rolling green Carpathian landscape remarkably similar to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and perhaps closer in its lack of modern development to the 1860s. Three weeks of work in Charleston and elsewhere in the American South helped sell the illusion.
Similarly, Last Samurai production designer Lilly Kilvert, who had previously collaborated with director Edward Zwick on Legends of the Fall and The Siege, took advantage of a remote mountain valley on New Zealand's North Island to construct her 25-structure samurai village, which effortlessly blended with the one Japanese location, a 10th-century monastery. “New Zealand is a series of volcanic islands very like Japan,” she says. “It has a similar topography, particularly on the North Island. There's no space left in Japan, and it's an expensive place to work, so it was impossible to consider being able to build and shoot anything of any scale there. Plus, we had one issue right off the bat — we needed to be in the Southern Hemisphere because we were going to be shooting in winter, and we needed summer.”
Kilvert's Kiwi crew took six months in the pouring rain to build the village, which adhered as closely as possible to the designer's own six months of research. “There are enormous amounts of things you have to do,” she says. “Finding the right cherry blossoms, the right silks, the right wood, which shade of shoji screen will look best on camera. We did a lot of tests with the rice paper because it's basically a reflective material and doesn't throw hard shadows, so we had to find the right density for this light and that light. And then, of course, there's the fact that there's no furniture. So it's entirely about the texture of the walls and floor.”
In the house where Tom Cruise's character, an American army officer being schooled in the ways of the samurai, is held, “we had 15 different kinds of wood, all sandblasted oiled and polished, so we could get some pull out of the surfaces.”
Crops and trees were also planted by greens department head Stephanie Waldron, who had an even more complex task when it came to the climactic battle scene, also shot in New Zealand. “The battlefield didn't look like a set, but it was a set,” says Kilvert. “We knocked down a hill to make it the size we wanted it, we put drainpipes in, and prepared it every day — keeping the grass the same color, repairing the mortar hits, making horse-fall beds, scorching the ground, repairing the ground.”
For Cold Mountain's opening scene at the battle of Petersburg, the art department's responsibility extended to building trenches and tunnels in a field near Bucharest. “In the middle, we built this huge crater, 120' by 90' by 30' deep,” says Ferretti. The historically accurate crater resulted from a giant explosion engineered by the Union side. “We built two, one for the explosion, and the other for shooting all the scenes inside the crater,” the designer says.
While some Last Samurai interiors were shot at Warner Bros.' Burbank studios, Ferretti didn't work on a single soundstage in Cold Mountain. Instead, his Italian crew built the title town, five farms, an abandoned Cherokee village, and the colonial-style house where Nicole Kidman's character awaits Confederate deserter Jude Law's return, as complete interior/exterior structures dotting the Romanian countryside. “A lot of the scenes go back and forth from inside to outside, so it was better to do everything in the location,” says the designer. “We built wild walls for the camera, and for the lights, we could remove the ceilings. We built from scratch, with real bricks and logs. When I did Gangs of New York, I also built everything from scratch; I like to do movies this way.” Even some of the period furniture was constructed from scratch by set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo's crew.
So can we move right in to one of Ferretti's log cabins? Apparently not. “We tore down everything,” he says. “I prefer this, because sometimes you make a big effort on the backlot, and then comes another production shooting something after you, and taking credit.”