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Lights, camera, action for Oregon nursery products

Soon-to-be released movie “47 Ronin” features plants grown in Oregon

It may or may not be a box office hit, but the new movie “47 Ronin” starring Keanu Reeves, in theaters across the country on Christmas Day, has an interesting co-star– Oregon nursery products. The movie depicts a group of samurai warriors without a master in 18th century Japan. The producers wanted the set to look like Kyoto during that time period with a touch of the mystical, which is why the call was made to source trees and shrubs from Oregon.

“It just so happens that Oregon’s climate is conducive to producing nursery plants that can recreate the Kyoto landscape,” says Theresa Yoshioka, international trade manager with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “Oregon is unique in that it can produce plants that can be grown across the United States, much of Canada, and many other places around the world, including Japan.”

An Oregon consultant with ties to the nursery industry has played a leading role in bringing plants from the state to the silver screen. The “47 Ronin” story may be an old tale, but modern technology has paved the way for Oregon nursery stock to find its way to Hollywood.

“In today’s movies, everything is in HD (high definition) and they can’t use fake plants like they used to,” says Don Richards of Lake Oswego-based Applied Horticultural Consulting, Inc. “It’s too expensive to use digital technology unless all of the set for the movie is done digitally. So the production companies buy plants, bring them onsite, use them maybe two or three times, and then discard them. For nurseries, it’s a perfect repeat business customer.”

Earlier this year, Richards happened to be in Burbank, California visiting with an old high school football buddy who is now a Warner Brothers cameraman. The friend called two weeks later.

“He said he had the perfect job for me,” says Richards. “The property department at Warner Brothers was looking for plant materials to use on movie sets.”

Instead of hiring a local company to make fake plants out of concrete or styrofoam, the demand now is for the real thing, which is a good deal for a nursery state like Oregon.

Since spring, Richards has been working under contract on four different movies, helping source nursery stock from wherever it is most appropriate. for the specific film. For “47 Ronin”, the property manager had a storyboard that outlined the background, including the trees and shrubs to be used. He asked Richards to find corresponding plants.

“They wanted plants to depict old Japan and were looking for traditional looking plants,” says Richards. “Because of the difference in climate, California doesn’t grow as many of these types of plants. In this case, Oregon grows as many, if not more, Japanese maple varieties than they do in current day Japan. We were able to find these types of plants pretty easily here in Oregon.”

The movie is adorned with Japanese maples, Japanese red pines, Japanese umbrella pines, Japanese hydrangeas, oriental hellebores, and Japanese sword fern. Each of the red pines are sculptured by topiary specialists in Oregon to make it look like the plants had been worked on for a hundred years. The scenery makes the movie viewer truly believe they are watching a scene out of Japan circa 1703.

“Depending on the movie, plants can be in the background and be digitally replicated or can appear individually in close up scenes where you can see everything as if you could touch it,” says Richards. “In several scenes, some of them action scenes, you’ll easily notice formal Japanese gardens where the action takes place in temples or Shogun strongholds. Many of those plants came from Oregon.”

Richards is bound by a confidentiality agreement with the studios, but confirms that the plants used in the movie were purchased from four Portland-area nurseries. He was given a budget, didn’t ask for a discount, and laid down thousands of dollars in cash– a mere drop in the bucket of a reported $170 million film.

Richards admits getting the Oregon nursery material into California was a challenge because of the need for larger-sized plants. The producers wanted the plants to look in the movie like they had been growing for many years. With the help of the participating Oregon nurseries and exceptional assistance from ODA nursery inspectors to get the necessary phytosanitary certificates, the plants were able to cross the border into California. ODA inspects and certifies that the plants are pest and disease free, meeting all interstate regulations.

“Logistically, it’s a lot easier to get the plants from California itself,” says Richards. “This was a unique opportunity because of the specific need for Japanese-style plants. California is very strict with its phytosanitary regulations which limits some of what we can provide from Oregon. The greatest opportunity, I believe, is for movies shot in Oregon or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. If the Oregon film industry does well, the Oregon nursery industry will do well.”

Richards has worked on another movie, the science-fiction flick “Riddick”, released earlier this year, in which he bought $15,000 in plants, none of them from Oregon. Imagine his surprise and disappointment when not a single plant that he purchased was ever used on the set. That won’t be an issue with “47 Ronin”. Richards has seen parts of the movie in early release trailers and recognized Oregon nursery material.

“Especially in some of the action scenes, I knew right where those plants came from,” he says.

The movie is released by Universal Pictures in collaboration with Warner Brothers Studios, H2F Entertainment, Mid Atlantic Films, Moving Pictures Company (MPC) and Stuber Productions.

Richards also had the pleasure of meeting the star of the movie, Keanu Reeves.

“He’s a very nice guy,” he says. “He’s a lot more Ted from ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ than he is Neo from “The Matrix.”

Rubbing elbows with Hollywood stars is not the usual activity for a horticulturalist. But Don Richards is doing something that promotes Oregon agriculture and hopes to put more of it on the “Big Screen” in the future.

For more information, contact Theresa Yoshioka at (503) 872-6600.

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