From Hong Kong to Hollywood

A conversation with John Woo

It's late in the day on June 9, and I'm about to talk to John Woo about Face/Off, his new action film with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. We are meeting at a sound facility in Los Angeles, where the director is only now finishing the final touches. Woo's still putting in long days: The film, Paramount's big summer hope, is due in thousands of theaters across the country two weeks and four days from this very moment -- a split second with millions on the line.

"There's still the final mix and the credits and some of the optical shots," Woo says. "Dissolves, fade-in, fade-out, special effects shots. We need three more days on it. We finish Friday; the prints have to be in the theater two weeks later. I think the complete version works much better."

I've seen the unfinished version, and can testify that it works well enough already. Face/Off should delight rabid Woo fans because, unlike Hard Target and Broken Arrow, it has the elements of Woo's Hong Kong films that attracted Hollywood attention in the first place -- not just the exciting, juiced-up action choreography and editing, but also the deeply felt character conflicts that always lie right beneath the flashy surface.

The film is set in the near future. John Travolta plays Sean Archer, a cop who catches and nearly kills master terrorist Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). Since Troy is comatose and the police know he has left a bomb somewhere in a public place, Archer must try to wheedle the information out of Troy's imprisoned brother. The only way he can get his confidence is to become Troy; he has his own face surgically replaced with Troy's and is put in prison with the brother. Of course, while he's there, Troy rouses from his coma and steals Archer's face and identity, moving in on his wife, his family, and his job, obliterating all evidence of their true identities. So, while Cage is nominally the villain and Travolta the hero, for three-quarters of the movie they're playing each other's roles.

If Broken Arrow, which also starred Travolta, was a Hollywood studio movie more than a traditional John Woo movie, Face/Off is something new -- a real John Woo Hollywood movie. It has bigger-budget production values and a more convoluted plot than anything Woo did in Hong Kong. But it also has something unheard of in American action fare -- rare style and real emotionalism. Woo films may be bloody, over the top, even silly, but at their heart, they have ... heart.

Andy Klein: Can you give me a quick history of this project?
John Woo: I was approached with this five years ago, right after I came here. At that time it was at Warner Brothers with [producer] Joel Silver, and he offered it to me. But the first version was totally science fiction. It was set 200 years from now or something like that. So I told him I wasn't ready for a science-fiction movie yet; I had no idea how to make it. I wanted to keep making more emotional things -- something I'm good at. So I passed on it.

Then, somehow, while we were shooting Broken Arrow, the project went to Michael Douglas and Steve Reuther's production company; it became a Paramount picture. Michael approached me with it again just before we finished shooting Broken Arrow. And I found that the script had changed: It was a little closer, not as futuristic. There were still a lot of science-fiction things, but after I reread it and found a lot of emotional, human stuff here, I changed my mind. It had become very close to the things I usually do: I always like characters who are in between good and evil. I don't like perfect guys. Which may be why Broken Arrow and Hard Target didn't work as well: The heroes in those movies were pretty traditional, perfect guys -- not my usual kind of character.

I really didn't think the story needs that much science fiction. I learned a lesson from Broken Arrow, where we spent so much time and money on all the special effects that there wasn't much time left for the drama. I suggested we take out 90 percent of the special effects and focus more on the story and the characters, particularly since we had great actors. I wanted to make it more real and human and to push back the time almost to the present. And they accepted it, which made me feel great, because that meant I could go back to my own style.

Klein: This time around you got to work more like you did in Hong Kong, where you would get your approval and then go off and make your movie without interference, unlike your earlier American projects.

Woo: The studio was very understanding, very supportive. They left me to do whatever I wanted to do. It was a totally different thing. There was very little political jostling. Broken Arrow made a lot of money, which made everything so much easier. And, by then, the producers and the studio really understood what I do in my movies.

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?"

That kind of happening really excites me. And that's what I usually do. It's really the same thing I did in Hong Kong with Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung. That's why this movie really touches a lot of the audience -- because some of the moments were so real, and not as black and white as in the script.

Klein: Your more rabid fans may still expect your Hollywood films to be exactly like your Hong Kong films -- even down to Chow Yun-Fat flying through the air with both guns blazing. But you've done a lot of things in your career. Would you have continued making the same kinds of films if you had stayed in Hong Kong?

Woo: I don't think I would have done too many more. I probably would have done a couple, but I always want to change and try something else. I love that the fans are so much supportive and so appreciative of my style, and, whether in Hong Kong or here, I would always keep my own style. But not always the same topics. It depends on my mood and how I feel about the world and the society.

That's why I suggested Face/Off focus more on the human stuff: That just matched how I felt. Like the year I made Bullet in the Head [a heartfelt blood bath from 1990], it was just after the Tiananmen Square massacre. And the year I made A Better Tomorrow [the high-grossing 1986 film that created the "heroic bloodshed" genre], I was just so down at the time: I had failed for three years before that movie. So I wanted to do a movie about man's real dignity and honor.

Klein: How does Face/Off reflect your mood?
Woo: Face/Off mainly was about family -- where a man sees his family almost falling apart and he fights to get them back. It was almost exactly how I felt at this time. Because, before I came here, about five years ago, I was working like crazy; me and my family had been separated a long time, and I had a lot of family problems. My children hardly saw me every day, so they were beginning to hate me. I was getting nervous, because my family is my whole thing. That was one of the reasons I wanted to move here. After I moved here, things were back to normal, because people don't work on the weekends, and we live pretty far from the city, and after work I could have a lot more time to spend with my family. So we got to talk more and ... have a reunion. We can get together again. We're a lot more happy than in Hong Kong. That makes me feel so great.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.