The Japanese Yamashiro Restaurant entrance © Judy Sloane
The Japanese Yamashiro Restaurant entrance where the Ninja Assassin interviews took place © Judy Sloane
The restaurant’s interior © Judy Sloane

Usually press conferences take place in either a hotel room at a round table, or in a large convention room, so it was a nice breath of fresh air for this one to take place at the Yamashiro Restaurant, nestled in the Hollywood Hills. Before it began, I went took photos of the historical site which, another journalist told me, served as the Japanese Consulate before World War II.

View of the hollywood sign from the restaurant © Judy Sloane

Participating in the press day were the screenwriters of the movie, J Michael Straczynski (Changeling, Babylon 5) and Matthew Sand (The Red StarBrothers in Arms). They were our last interview of the day – and afterwards the studio provided a wonderful buffet of Japanese dishes. Sorry I can’t share the food with you, but I can share the interview.

What you were hoping to achieve with this movie?

Writers J Michael Straczynski and Matthew Sand © Judy Sloane
Writers J Michael Straczynski and Matthew Sand © Judy Sloane

Michael : All of us grew up on martial arts films, ninja movies, kung fu movies, and you want to, a) give back to that form, but b) interpret it through your own cultural lens. It’s like in the 60s and 70s where Italian filmmakers who fell in love with westerns and they applied their own interpretation to it.

Similarly seeing these films as we were growing up we wanted to present it in our American cultural way. Also we wanted to show the ninjas being serious, to leave the joke of them over the last 20 years, and we wanted to make them scary again. That’s why in the opening scene [the characters] are making fun of it, and you learn, no, you don’t make fun of it or your head will be in half.

It’s very violent, did you write the methods people died in the script or did you leave that to the special effects people?

Matthew: Every person that dies you have to indicate what happens to that person, in terms of living, dying or how they go down, but the specifics of it are left to the choreographer. It’s an action movie and ideally you want to have your lead character’s character revealed through the action. I think Rain does an incredible job of showing who he is by how he moves.

It’s also a love story, was that important to the scenario?

Matthew: Early on in the drafting process we decided that it couldn’t just be flashbacks to him being a kid, there had to be a narrative there, and a love story is an obvious thing. But on a fundamental basis, and like most stories, it’s about a person finding out who he really is. And so having Rain come to terms with the fact that he’s in love with someone and that love was never fully realized, that’s a very classic and powerful story, I think.

Did you come in after Rain came onto it?

Ninja Assassin - Rain and Sho Kosugi
Raizo (Rain) and Ozunu (Sho Kosugi) © Warner Bros/ Legendary Pictures /Dark Castle

Matthew: Rain was there before there was an idea. Rain was the idea.

So we wrote it around him.

Michael : We met Rain when he was shooting Speed Racer, and so we wrote the movie around him.

Does it help you to write it when you know who the star of the movie is?

Michael : Yeah, it helps me. It depends on the actor, if it’s someone who’s a terrible actor it’s very difficult, you’re writing around that the whole time. But with someone like Rain it’s a privilege.

There are nine clans – is that something you researched or made up?

Matthew: I did a lot of research, and I had a great time doing it. There certainly are myths and legends and actual facts around the Ozunu clan and the other ninja clans; I took a number at liberties and made a number of things up.

One of the things that I learned doing research on the ninjas was that they’ve been making things up about ninjas almost ever since the time they entered into the language. In medieval Japan there were practically ninja theme parks.

Is there an actual historical basis for the ninjas? Definitely, did I take liberties with those and amplify those, absolutely.

I loved the bit where the ninjas looked like shadows – was that in the script?

Matthew: That was an early idea, having someone crawl out of a shadow. The metaphor I always imagined was a shark coming out of deep water. It’s spooky and exciting and I think they did a great job with that. It makes the dark almost a character.

Did you write in the supernatural abilities they have?

Matthew: There’s always been a supernatural element to the ninja. They’ve always been credited with superhuman abilities. So we were taking that and amplifying that.

Film Review Online’s LA reporter Judy Sloane

I don’t think the script got lost in the technology, what’s your opinion?

Michael : It’s hard to carve the screenplay out from the movie. I love the movie. Do I love how much the screenplay I wrote is in the movie, yes, but I don’t think of it that way. It’s the finished product that I’m proud to be associated with.

Matthew: That’s why working with the Wachowskis, with James McTeigue and Joel Silver is such a privilege; they don’t lose sight of the story ever.

Are you hoping there might be a sequel?

Michael : Yes, Ninja 8: I’m Still Pissed.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.