It's a warm October day in Sydney's Chinese Gardens, which are currently doubling for a Japanese shrine. A host of silent extras dressed in intricate mourning clothes suddenly scream and scatter as the ceremonial funeral rapidly degenerates into a sprawling melee between mourners, mutants and samurai.
Last year, a handful of journalists from around the world were given access to the set for The Wolverine, Hugh Jackman's fifth film in which he has donned the Adamantium claws of his mutant alter-ego, but the first not to include the term X-Men in the title.
"We really went for something new and different," Jackman explains to us in a break between shooting, the uber-fit actor covered in a combination of dirt and sweat all provided by the make-up department. "The moment the studio agreed to call it The Wolverine I was just thrilled. Rather than saying Wolverine 2, this is a standalone different movie. This is set in a different time, it's a fair way after X-Men Origins"
Jackman, who is also a producer on the film, admits he was never entirely satisfied with the first Wolverine-focused film. "I think for whatever reason, there were a number of things working against us at the time with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. We all put our heart and soul into it. I just honestly - when I watched it - I went: I still don't feel like we've really delivered who my vision of who this character is, and the fans vision as well. So I'm thrilled we've got another shot at it."
"I never thought my run would last this long. Particularly for a guy who can't age, obviously there is a shelf life to playing this role, so I love it and I've always found it fascinating and slightly, I'll admit, frustrating that I feel we've never really delivered what I would say is the core of the character. And I think in this story, I know you get to see the ultimate Wolverine. You get to see who he really is. You definitely see him at his most vulnerable, both physically and emotionally."
Director James Mangold, who had no involvement in that film, speaks to us at the end of the day, satisfied with what he has shot. "Every day you're satisfied, but every day you're pushing for more," he says, "but I love shooting here and I love this environment a lot."
Mangold is revelling in the opportunity to make the ultimate Wolverine film to deliver on Jackman's vision. "I think the opportunity I saw here was a great actor, in one of the roles of his life, who maybe hasn't done it yet. Who maybe hasn't done the one that hits it out. That's a huge opportunity for me, as a friend to go: 'We don't have to deal with nine other members of the X-Men. This is about you.' We can go a lot deeper than I think people have gone before. Both of us were really looking forward to that."
This made the title decision important to Mangold as well. "We're making a standalone film. It fits into the universe, it doesn't deny the world, but it also is its own film. In that way the liberating aspect of the journey to another country has also freed us from the shackles to a lot of standard sequel making. It's just a movie on its own from the moment it fades to the moment it fades out."
For producer Hutch Parker, the Japanese setting exemplifies the isolated quality of the film. "It's akin to taking him to another planet," he says, "because it is so foreign from anything he knows. It puts him in circumstances that are really deeply alien. And the mechanics of that story challenge him in primal and deeply psychological, emotional as well as physical, and manifestable ways that make for the kind of character you hope for, but very, very hard to find."
The film's plot takes place almost entirely in Japan, yet we sit within the correctly named Chinese Gardens, however there can be no suspicion that the film's design team is merely settling for any Asian look they can find in Australia. The gardens are vastly altered with everything from the installation of water-features and bridges to the finest alteration to roof architecture and detailing to ensure an authentic look.
Art Director Ian Gracie knows from experience that an intensely enthusiastic fan-base will study every aspect of his work. "Unless you do it correctly, you can be looked upon as a fool, or not knowing what you're doing. I did a couple of Star Wars films and every time you make the wrong mistake, put the moon in the wrong quarter of the sky, there are a million people who'll jump online and tell you that you're wrong."
While some exteriors were shot on location in Japan, the vast bulk of the production took place in Australia.
To me that's been the biggest handicap of some of these films. No matter how many resources studios pour into them, there sometimes just isn't the ultimate special effect, which is a real live moment.James Mangold, director
There's no question in this case that Hugh's dedication, and his relationship here in Australia, had a lot to do with the consideration to bring the film here," says Parker.
"Frankly, Australia's not an inexpensive place to shoot. Without the subsidies we were able to achieve with the government, it would have been very difficult. The other thing that really helped us was the quality of the crew here. When you're doing as big of a show as we are, and as much of a built show as we are, that becomes hugely important."
"I don't think there was ever a time where we thought we were going to make all of the film in Japan," explains production designer Francois Audouy. "We did consider it, because it's an experiment, but it's such a complicated visual effects movie, with complicated sequences, that it requires a certain amount of studio technology and craftsmanship. So you need a worldwide hub, like a London, or a Sydney, or a Los Angeles."
This notion of the film being an experiment appeals to Mangold, who also directed the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and the Western 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. He believes the risks The Wolverine is taking have spurred him to be even more creative with it.
"This movie is a risky movie," he says. "It's got a lot of foreign language. It's got a cast that's nine-tenths not American. All those things make studios feel that they're taking a little more of a risk. It's a character-based film. There isn't some obvious uber-villain that everyone's heard of who's going to be reigning through the film. A lot of the aspects of the movie become elements of risk [so the studio] have asked us to make it for a little less than some tentpoles might be."
That suited Mangold down to the ground, a director who is combining the latest camera technology with decades old lenses to achieve a unique look, a method he also used when he directed Walk The Line.
"I didn't want it to feel like every set-up is some kind of studio set-up, or every fight is only about cables and rigging. I wanted it to feel gutsy and handheld and very urgent.
"I make dramas and because I'm not by trade a tentpole filmmaker, the thing I'd like to believe that I'm bringing is the same attitude that I've been bringing making Walk the Line or 3:10 to Yuma. That in a sense, the scene work is excellent, the moment to moment reality of these characters living, breathing, loving, touching, turning, feeling in pain is real, not bulls--t.
"To me that's been the biggest handicap of some of these films. No matter how many resources studios pour into them, there sometimes just isn't the ultimate special effect, which is a real live moment."
Not that there won't be a wealth of big action scenes, after all it is still an X-Men story, if not branded as such.
"My whole difference is I don't want [action] for gimmick's sake. I don't want to just think up crazy new … I think that sometimes that's already gone too far. Some things I have seen in some of these movies, I don't believe they can do that. It's the computer-aided credibility has been strained for me. When I read comics, I love believing what my heroes can do, but I love believing that they're still flesh and blood. The whole thing wasn't painless.
"You get hit, it hurts. You get cut, you bleed. For me the instantaneous nature of healing is something that I think got carried to such an extent that I felt like it's almost like there's no stakes for the character. What I wanted to find again was this idea that it hurts to be Logan. It's not free of pain."
Mangold describes the project as making a noir film in Japan. "I watched samurai films and thought about this idea of the ronin, a samurai without a master, which is exactly what Logan is. A kind of hero without a purpose, a hero without a mission. Does he even have interest in a mission anymore? Or is he so bored with the way mankind keeps fucking up that he has almost decided to recede? I think that's a really interesting place to start a film and a really interesting place for this character to go on a journey."
The plot, based on a particular X-Men comic book series that is a favourite among many fans, sees Jackman's unkillable hero meet up with a Japanese man whose life he once saved. Now old, he offers Logan the opportunity to forego his immortality.
"I waited in a way 12 years for this chapter in this saga, for this samurai story," says Jackman. "From the very first week I had on [the first] X-Men, I was reading this comic and [producer] Lauren Shuler Donner and I were saying, one day, hopefully we get to do this story.
"Wolverine's a character who's at war with himself, as much as anything. In a way you could say his greatest enemy is himself. In this movie, you definitely see him at his lowest point. He's without purpose. He's without a reason at the beginning. Through the samurai story and through being in this foreign land, he's fired to embrace who he is — or not, I won't give that away.
When Mangold met with Fox, he says he wrote on the back of the script "Everyone I love will die" and the curse has informed the film ever since.
"The story I wanted to tell was about a man who in a way felt cursed. And that everyone he'd ever cared about in the world, whether it be the people he fought with – as part of the X-Men - his wife, or others had perished. This idea we all kind of yearn or wish for immortality, but the curse of actually having to be on the Earth like a god forever is its own purgatory, its own hell."
Populating Logan's Japan
"We did a lot of searching for cast," says Mangold, "we wanted some really original faces" around Jackman in The Wolverine and he has certainly achieved that.
Parker is ecstatic with the cast Mangold has assembled. "We've literally on a number of occasions pinched ourselves; can you believe we're making this movie with this group of people at this time? Because it's very bold creatively to make a movie with as much of an international cast. That's a blessing. To really choose the best possible people for a role is something that doesn't always happen. Sometimes there are other issues that come into play, that drive casting and the process, and I'm thankful to Fox, really, that they allowed all of us to go about that.
Rila Fukushima - Yukio
A model in Japan, this is Fukushima's first acting role.
"I was taking acting classes on and off when I was modelling but I've never done anything until now. Yeah, I definitely fell in love, it's a completely different process from modelling.
"It's really interesting to see how Hugh spends [time] between the takes. I actually learned how to eat more, because he does stunts a lot and eats every couple hours trying to keep his energy up. Every time I look at him, he's eating or exercising."
Tao Okamoto - Mariko Yashida
Okamoto is another model turned actor for the film.
"I've been modelling for over ten years but I never really imagine myself acting, ever. Somehow, they were looking for a Japanese girl for this role and I'm sure they look for a lot of good actresses and they couldn't find the right one for them. Then, I think they opened the gate a little bigger and I think they started looking from models, like me. That's how I was found. "
Svetlana Khodchenkova - Viper
A Russian actress most recognisable in Australia from a role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Khodchenkova chased the role from afar.
"I found out about the audition, and I sent in a video. I had an audition in Moscow, then I went to Los Angeles, then I had one more audition in Australia. It was a long way. I didn't really have any special preparation. I still did dancing, sometimes ballet, because it's good for the body to have nice muscle memory.
"Sometimes we have crazy moment, with the director giving me directions and I'm going, 'Oh my God! What is he saying? I need someone to translate!' It's a little bit hectic now and then, but it's funny."
Hiroyuki Sanada – Shingen Yashida
Unlike some of his Japanese co-stars, Sanada brings a wealth of acting experience to the film, known on set as the George Clooney of Japan. "I think this is the time to open the door to the world. A lot of Japanese industry people think the western culture is too far, too hard to get into. But for me, I had a lot of experience with working with a foreign culture."