From Hong Kong to Hollywood

A conversation with John Woo

To be fair, on Broken Arrow, the studio was great too. All the executives gave me a lot of respect. And they loved my work, and they were happy with the footage. But there were some other people .... Some of the producers were playing power games, and there were a lot of big-ego things going on. So when the budget got a little tight and we had to cut some things, they suggested that we cut out some of the best stuff. So that's why the story wasn't very complete. At one point, somebody did a dirty trick -- they thought they'd be pleasing the studio -- and changed something without letting me know. [In a really pained voice] It was awful. And then, of course, it made the bosses so angry they had to come back and ask me to reshoot and fix it. It was ridiculous. There were some really old guys on the crew who had been around a long time -- some had been in the business over 25 years -- and they said they had never seen such a mess. They had never seen a person make so much trouble. There are some really bad people in Hollywood -- not a lot, but there are some. It was just bad luck.

Klein: Playing each other's roles must have been really challenging for the actors. Could any actor have resisted these parts?

Woo: On some earlier versions, some did. But, after Broken Arrow, John and I wanted to work together again, so we sent him the script, and he loved it. After we got John, we tried to figure out who we could get to match John -- the body and the face, but more importantly an equal actor, so they could play against each other. John suggested Nick Cage. And I had also dreamed for a long time of working with Nick Cage; on Tears of the Sun [a project that fell apart after nearly a year's work] I suggested using Nick Cage. John and Nick admire each other so much; they both wanted to work together in a film for a long time. After we met, we all felt this cast was going to be unbelievable.

Klein: How did they prepare for these complicated character issues?
Woo: Nick and John and I spent some time rehearsing all in one room and having a long discussion about the characters. They both created the characters and then talked to each other and imitated each other. For instance, John threw out some ideas for when he was playing the good guy, then Nick would make some suggestions for John as a good guy. Then, during the shooting, I did some experimenting: Most of their scenes were separate, so whenever I finished shooting with one of them, I'd cut his scene together fast and show the scene to the other one, so he could see how he was playing the character.

These two actors, I have to tell you, it was the most wonderful experience I've ever had: They have no jealousy. They were so polite and humble and respectful of each other. Every day, whenever they came to the set, all they talked about was the character and the scene. Even if one of them wasn't in the scene, he'd often be on the set, talking to the other to see how he worked ... to learn from him. They were like two brothers ... actually better than brothers, because there were no fights or jealousy. They were just happy to be working together.

Klein: The intensity of the performances is reminiscent of your Hong Kong films.

Woo: At first, they were playing the emotional scenes a little more subtle -- the traditional American way. But they really wanted to do something a little more real. So, after the first day, I said, "Let's try it another way -- my way. You want to cry, just cry; you want to laugh, just laugh. You want to hit the wall, do it. You want to smash the table, smash the table. You want to sit down, just sit down. Just do it exactly how you feel." Wow! That opened everyone up. It made John and Joan Allen and Nick Cage very happy, so we tried it that way. Some people think that's maybe too over the top, but it gives the actors a lot of room to explore themselves.

So we only do one or two takes for each setup. And then that was it. And everyone felt great, because all the emotions were real. And it kept things interesting for me: I've already seen the whole movie in my mind, so I like to have new things happening every day. I usually see the actors move first, then I set up the cameras. But, sometimes, after I've set up all those cameras and we're shooting, suddenly they'll come up with something from their instinct. They'll just do it -- usually something that wasn't in the script or in the rehearsal. That really excites me.

Like the scene in the clinic, when Sean Archer wakes up, having become Nick Cage. In the rehearsal, he looked in the mirror and got up and laughed and got mad and grabbed the stand and smashed the mirror; that was it, and it was great. But, when we were shooting, he got up and laughed and got mad and smashed the mirror and suddenly he turned, yelling and screaming at his friends, "Fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou!" That part came from his instincts at that moment, and he went off-camera yelling at the people and changing his lines. I was so surprised. It was great. And I felt great about it. Of course, then I had to say, "Nick, sorry about that, but none of the cameras caught it. How about we do it again?"

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