Interview with Tomek Bagiński (2023)
Knights of the Zodiac live-action movie (2023) — director
JBox: How did you get involved with this movie? Had you heard of Saint Seiya before this project?
Tomek: It’s actually quite a long story. I knew the title, I’ve seen some episodes, it was very very popular in Europe, as you know, and it was also popular in Eastern Europe [for those who don’t know, Tomek is from Poland]. It was not as big as, let’s say, Italy, or some other countries south of us, south of Poland, but it was still popular, and I’ve seen some of the episodes. So it was not completely unknown, but also, I wasn’t, like, very very deeply involved in this world.
I actually worked on a different project with Toei before, and the work was going so well that at some point they asked exactly the same question: “What do you know about Saint Seiya?”. And I was like “yeah, you know, I know some things”… like, about the greek mythology, I knew how the armors are important, who are the main characters and things like that. And then they said, “Take a look, maybe you can help us work on this story, maybe you can help us work on the script”. It was, I think, 5 or 6 years ago, so it was a while ago.
So, I took the script, gave them my notes, and at this stage it was just, you know, kind of a friendly thing, and they liked it, and we started to work on this together. And many many years later, many drafts later, because this world is so big and so complex, there are so many characters and so many stories to tell. Many years later we had our first day on set, finally shot it, and now we have the movie, which is super exciting.
So, now I know a lot more. Now I am very deeply involved in this world, but we still have people who are, like, involved deeper into this world, they know very… everything about this. If I have any very deep lore question, I can always ask somebody from Toei, and I can always ask the people who created it.
Also, we had some feedback through the production, through the drafts, from the original author of the manga, Masami Kurumada. And he was, like, cheering us on a lot and giving us some really really important feedback about the… [about] what is important in the story, what is important in Saint Seiya.
You’ve been working on it for 6 years?
T: Yes, but it was “on and off”. Film development sometimes takes a long, long time. It’s the time when it’s a very very small group working mostly on the script and mostly on, like, further decisions, like where to produce it, how to approach it. A lot of things are involved at this stage because you have to think about the budget, you have to think about a lot of elements, you have to think about how to make the story accessible to the audience who maybe don’t know Saint Seiya and this was probably our biggest challenge because the world of Saint Seiya is so big.
With dozens of characters, a lot of backstories, a lot of traditional, like, stories within stories, there’s a lot of seasons to watch and it’s a really complex big world, and when you create a first movie in this world you also have to make it accessible to people who’ve never heard about it.
With dozens of characters, a lot of backstories, a lot of traditional, like, stories within stories, there’s a lot of seasons to watch and it’s a really complex big world, and when you create a first movie in this world you also have to make it accessible to people who’ve never heard about it. So, on one level it has to work for fans, and we have to be very careful to keep the elements which are important to the fans, elements which fans love, but, at the same time, we don’t have to explain to the fans what is Cosmo, we don’t have to explain to the fans who the characters are, how the world was.
So we had to, first of all, make sure it will work for the fans, but at the same time we have to explain a lot of things: how this world works, who Seiya has to be protecting, who is Seiya, what is Cosmo, all this stuff for you, for the fans, is like, yeah, obvious, like easy. But what we found is that we have to explain every single element for people who don’t know the story.
J: And that sounds pretty hard to do with Saint Seiya.
T: It’s very hard. It was a lot. For stories which are so connected with certain lore — when you have a lore, like a previous story, a previous world –, then usually it’s quite a lot. Although I’d never had a project where we had a lot of knights, a lot of backstories, a lot of elements, and then we started to, like, read it to, like a blank slate and what we learned is that somebody who doesn’t know this world will not understand anything.
So, we had to find, like, an entry point. And for us… and I don’t want to go deeply into the story, like, I don’t want to spoil anything… but our entry point was the origin story of Seiya and wanted to focus on him, instead of a couple of iconic moments from the original manga and anime.
And once we kind of simplified the starting point, we started to bring some elements back. Because then we knew “Ok, this is the main story, this is our core, this is what we want to tell, and then how many other characters can we introduce? How many other things can we introduce?”, either in the background or with Seiya. And we ended up with, I think, a pretty good story and pretty good script. I don’t want to go too deep on the content.
J: Oh, of course. I kind of really like the idea of an origin movie about Seiya. So, I was actually excited about that. I was a bit worried that the live action would just cut most of this beginning part, I really like the beginning of the story. So, I’m kinda excited to see this.
T: Yeah, I mean, of course, there will be some changes. There was, like, 40 years, or 30, I don’t remember now… I think 40, which have passed since the first edition and first stories in this universe. So, we had to kind of find a way to make some of the things work for today. But I think we are still quite close to the core and to the tale of the original.
How involved with the movie is Kurumada-sensei? Does the script, clothing design, and so on get any approval from him?
T: He was involved in several stages of the film. So, when we were reaching certain moments, like key milestones, key moments, we were always asking [him] for his opinion and we had some really really good feedback from Mr. Kurumada… about the armors, also about the story, and also about how to approach it.
For me, I think the most important note we had… Because first we started like going into very, very kind of superhero-ish design, very like super high-tech stuff, and then he said “hey, it’s like… first of all, the main inspiration was actual knights and actual armors”. So we had to find “ok, how can we use this inspiration lore?” and make the armors [structurally] based a little bit more on Medieval armors but at the same time make them look fantasy and make them closer to the Seiya universe with very very emphasized shoulders.
It’s a super important shape, and at the same time it’s very difficult to do it for the armor. Because making this movement, going up and down with the hand [arms] when it’s not animation, [when] it’s like a living person, then it’s like a lot of rigging inside, a lot of things which have to work in the shoulder to make it work, because this type of big shoulder really limits the movement of the elbow. So, there are some things we had to circle out.
But yeah, we were having some consultations with the author, he’d seen the movie, he had some notes, we also know what to do in the future if the movie is successful and we know where to go with the armor design. But one of the things I love about Saint Seiya and its armor design is that it’s not like locked in stone: those armors evolve. They evolve from season to season, they evolve… from how much more the characters can control Cosmo, the more evolved armors can become. And it’s a very very cool idea.
Saint Seiya is loved in some parts of the world, but still not as popular in others. How to manage both excess of anticipation for some fanbases and the need to introduce the series to others?
T: I mean, it was the reason it took so much time to work on the story because every time we were happy with the script, we were kind of testing it with the people who don’t know, say, at all. And, very often they were coming out, coming with, like, questions and confusion and “oh, we need to explain this, we need to add a little bit of like, scene, which will, uh, explain another element”. And yeah, it’s tough, tough work.
But at the same time, it was very very cool and exciting and then… I kind of fell in love with this world. Fell in love with those characters. There are so many great stories in this world, and I just feel that… I hope that this love will be visible. I hope that there is heart in this movie because of it.
Talking about the fans, are you checking the feedback after the trailer and some images were released?
T: A little bit, but at the same time…. Uh…. there is this great, great quote, I don’t remember who wrote it, but it’s: “it’s wrong to be too excited about good feedback, and it’s also wrong to be too depressed about bad feedback”.
So, you have to kind of, I’m not saying ignore it because, for me especially, fans are extremely important and I, I really want people to love this movie. But at the same time, there will always be somebody who will not like some elements of the movie. People are different, and we are making this movie for, like, for a huge audience. So, there will always be somebody who will say, “oh, I don’t like this element”, “oh, you should do it this other way”. And the funny part is sometimes they will be even right, and I know it, but you know, it’s a film. It’s a moving machine.
It’s like, okay, this is the, the budget we had, this is the time we had, this is the story we had, and we had to focus on it, make it work, make it the best possible. And then, hopefully, a lot of people will love it. So, I’m checking feedback, but I’m also not like going deep into feedback because then it’s very, very easy to start losing confidence in what you are doing. And I’m pretty sure it’s true for me, it’s true for the rest of the team that we did everything which was possible to make this movie as good as possible. And, of course, there is always room for improvement, but I think it’s a really, really great story.
How was the cast chosen? Were any elements from the manga and/or anime taken into account during the casting period?
T: Yes and no, because we wanted to go with an international cast where it was possible and we tried to some level, not fully, not 100%, but to some level, kind of honor the origin… the place of origin of this story. So, we knew that, for example, Seiya had to be coming from Japan. Like very, very early we decided that it had to be that, which of course was not that easy because there are only a few young [Japanese] actors who speak fluent English, for example.
So, we had to be very, very focused upon the right one. And I’m so excited about Mackenyu [Seiya] because I think… he is, like, super popular in Japan and he doesn’t have to be more popular, but I think, with this movie, people will see that he’s a world class actor, a world class superstar, and he can handle this type of movie also in this language. So, I think that’s super cool, super good that we had him.
And then we were looking… The tough part was that it’s easy to find established actors, like, at a slightly older age, but we knew that the Knights had to be young. This was important for us, that we need actors, we need character, we need stars who are young and already have some popularity, already are recognized. And this was our key for looking for our younger cast members. And then of course we need a few characters who our younger cast is interacting with. And, with those we could, we could go for names and we were very lucky to get Sean Bean [Alman Kido], we were very lucky to get Nick Stahl and Famke Janssen [Guraad]. And, actually, when I’m coming back in time in my head, I cannot believe how lucky I was with this cast. It’s like the best cast you can have for this type of movie.
Every Saint Seiya project is unique in some way. What makes this movie unique? What can it add or change in the series universe from now on?
T: It’s a hard question without, like, saying any secrets of the story and, without revealing any plot points. So, first of all, on this scale, I think, nobody did Saint Seiya before in live-action. So, that was like a big change, because suddenly… for example, it’s very easy to animate those like very big armors. But then when you fit it to a normal human proportion, you have to spend a lot of time to make it work. Because it’s just a human, it’s like… but it’s much more grounded. It’s much more connected with our reality. So, we had to solve a lot of challenges connected with this.
I think there are elements which will be quite recognizable, there are scenes which people know very well from the past, there will also be some stuff which is new… But for me, the most important thing, and I think it is there, it’s the heart and tone which we targeted and we were really, really focused to get the tone right, to get this balance between big action and big fights, but also show that Saint Seiya is not only fights, it’s like mystical, magical, but also like very internal element of Saint Seiya, which is connected with the training, which is connected with his… like emotional connection with Athena and I think for us it was the most important to show that to know that “okay, it’s a fantasy action movie, but it has heart”… heart which I think is sometimes lost in those big spectacles.
And sometimes this heart, this more intimate element of the world is getting lost between explosions. And we didn’t want that, we wanted to keep it. And I think it’s there. So, you’ll see, you’ll experience it for yourself..
NOTE: Our questions were originally formulated in Portuguese and translated to English by Laura “gasseruto” Gassert, who interviewed Tomek remotely and later transcribed the interview. The text was also adjusted by a native English speaker in order to provide a smoother reading experience.