John Woo Interview

07 January 2009

Hong Kong gangster flick king takes on Hollywood

Hong Kong gangster flick king takes on Hollywood

Now this is irony: While talking to John Woo, the legendaryHong Kong shoot-'em-up director whose films usually go through more ammunitionthan a small regional war, the subject turns to his heroes' predilectionfor large-caliber Beretta handguns.

"Do you have one?" I ask.

"No, I have never fired a real gun," says Woo."I just like the look."

Noticing the registered surprise on my face, he tries topad his gun story a little. "I have a fake one," he offers. "Theprop guy made one for me with wood."

In San Francisco to promote "Face/Off," his newcat-and-mouse thriller that hinges on a cop and criminal (played by JohnTravolta and Nicholas Cage) literally swapping skins, Woo seems comfortablewith this firearms paradox. His interest in guns lies solely in their effectivepresence on the screen.

"I feel the Beretta is a great character," hesays seriously. "It's so strong and elegant. The other guns look dumbto me."

Getting down to brass tacks, he adds, "Also the goodthing I like -- how many bullets can it fire? Seventeen bullets? You canfire 17 bullets. When you continue firing it's like...the drum beat. Likemusic."

It's not the first time music has been used to describethe gunplay in Woo's movies. While candidly bloody in his approach to violence,Woo's trademark shoot-outs -- which in some films have gone on for as longas 30 minutes -- invariably have a sense of orchestral movement. Like aheavily-armed ballet, the characters in his movies dance, duck and dischargetheir weapons as if choreographed to Tchaikovsky.

"I was so much fond of musicals when I was a kid,"he says in his methodical and slightly reserved English. "I like touse visuals to tell a story, rather than the dialogue. So when I'm shootinga scene, I'm so much concerned about the lighting and the camera movement-- how to make the scene more moody. I never liked long dialogue. I feellike I'm painting, not making a film."

Like a painter, Woo has a distinct visual style that beganto develop in the 1970s when he was turning out assembly-line fight picturesfor the hungry Asian Kung Fu market. He also directed a string of successfulcomedies and even set a Cantonese opera to film in 1975.

But Woo had an itch to make a gangster movie. "I alwayslike to make a movie like Humphrey Bogart," he remembers. "Thatwas my favorite."

In 1983 he changed studios and began work on the poundingHong Kong thrillers that put him on the cinema map.

In 1989 he directed "The Killer," a complex chasestory about an obsessed cop pursuing a professional assassin who has madehimself vulnerable by helping nurse a beautiful woman he accidentally blindedduring a botched hit.

Largely considered his most passionate work, through thecourse of the film the killer and the cop discover they have much in common,like loneliness, nobility and determination.

Emotions tend to run high in Woo's movies. His heroes andvillains are not the heart-of-stone loners that populate American actionfilms. After two Hollywood projects ("Hard Target" and "BrokenArrow") that he says were complicated by studio politics, Woo considers"Face/Off" a return to his brand of complex, character-drivenmorality plays that just happen to feature enormous shoot-outs.

"Audiences want to see real feelings, real people,"Woo says in explaining why his films, while far exceeding the physicalrequirements of the action genre, are dense with recurring themes of redemption,regret and sacrifice.

Woo says the "Face/Off" script started out asan effects-heavy futuristic tome with somewhat cardboard characters.

"The first draft was frustrating. I told the studioI love the concept, but I want more character, more humanity. If thereis too much science fiction, we lose the drama."

So he re-located the picture to present day and added tothe back-story a reason for Travolta's FBI agent to have a monomania regardingCage's terrorist. In the opening scene we find out the terrorist was responsiblefor the death of the agent's young son.

After an accident leaves the Cage in a coma, Travolta electsto surgically swap faces with his nemesis in order to go undercover (thetwo actors essentially swap roles). Woo sites the way the surgery scenedeveloped as an example of how he encourages his actors to create strongemotions without the "long dialogue" he eschews.

"After the face operation," Woo says, "whenNic Cage is seen taking off the bandages and looking in the mirror, heis getting pain, but laughing. He hate to look at himself (with this killer'sface) and he smashed the mirror.

"Suddenly, while we're shooting, he turned and yelledand screamed at his doctor. That wasn't in the rehearsal. That came fromhis own instinct. At that moment, suddenly he feel like he need to screamat those people and I was shocked. It feels so great."

Woo sings the praises of both Cage and Travolta, an actorhe also worked with on "Broken Arrow."

"These two gentlemen, they work together so well.They respect each other. They learn from each other. They both spend alot of time to develop a character, to create and design something theycan learn from each other" since, because of the face-swapping, bothactors play both roles.

But don't think for a second that weighty emotion and attentionto character take any screen time away from the bellicose action in a JohnWoo flick.

He has become famous for emblazoning his fight scenes withgratuitous impossibilities -- bottomless rounds of ammunition, guys whoget shot a dozen times and still come back for more. Certainly he's notthe first to ignore the laws of physics and medicine in this way, but Woolends to his toying of believability a raucous charm that makes fallaciesforgivable.

In "Face/Off" he crashes an exploding jet planeinto an airport hanger and follows it with a 10-minute gun battle -- andthat's just in the first reel.

Although heavily influenced by old Westerns -- his charactersalways have two handguns, often holstered like a saloon gunslinger -- thereisn't a boardwalk showdown yet filmed that can hold a candle to what'sbecome known as the John Woo Stand-Off.

First used in "The Killer," this visual callingcard pops up in "Hard Boiled" (his last Hong Kong picture) andagain in "Face/Off." Invariably it involves the hero and thevillain standing face-to-face with their heavy-duty handguns trained directlyon each other's foreheads. The scene is usually domintated by an uncomfortablyserenity and thick with a seemingly never-ending tension that has builtthroughout the picture. To Woo it represents a balance of humanity.

"The stand-off is my trademark," Woo says witha Cheshire grin. "In my theory, I always feel no one is perfect inthis world. There is no real good guy or bad guy in this world. You cansee yourself in the bad people. The bad people can see themselves in thegood people. So that's why I created the movement of the stand-off scene.No matter if it's a good guy or bad guy, they're all equal."

Woo's next project is a heist caper for Paramount withChow Yun-Fat, the charismatic star of all his best Hong Kong thrillers.But Woo confesses he'd like to try his hand at a genre 180 degrees fromhis beloved gangster movie.

"Yeah, I'm dreaming to make a musical," he sayswith a nervous smile. "I wish I could make a movie like the 'WestSide Story'." John (Travolta) and I have been talking (about) tryingto work on a musical together."

Now that would be something to see.


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