John Woo on John Woo: My hits — and misses
With his new epic adventure Red Cliff almost here, the master director guides a candid tour through a career full of pistols, doves, and Chow Yun Fat.
A BETTER TOMORROW (1986)
While he had previously directed over a dozen films, A Better Tomorrow was Woo's breakthrough, becoming a massive success in Hong Kong.
"This movie was an experimental film. It was one of the first [Asian] gangster films that dealt with true emotions. In Tomorrow we tried to use actual feelings and input from the creator, myself, to tell the story, and I really believe that's why it had so much success. It was also my turning point, the first time I had the chance to use my own technique and my style to tell a story. I put all my idols' images in it. The sunglasses were from Ken Takakura, the raincoat was from Alain Delon, and the way Chow Yun-Fat held the guns, that was all Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood."
THE KILLER (1989)
This action flick, also starring frequent collaborator Chow Yun-Fat, was the first to get a legitimate release in the West, introducing Americans and Europeans to the joys of double-fisted pistols and slo-mo doves.
"The Killer helped me to reach the outside world. Before that movie I'd never known how the people in the rest of the world saw me, how they felt about my films. So, when all of a sudden I started getting good reviews and all those people in the West said they loved it, it was so exciting. I almost cried, I was moved so much. I based part of it on Le Samurai, by Jean-Pierre Melville, which is one of my favorite movies. The main character was just so cool in it, and I knew that I could take it and use it to create my own kind of cool."
John Woo left Hong Kong with a bang with Hard-Boiled, which featured some of the most relentlessly slam-bang sequences in action cinema, capped by the impossibly explosive hospital shootout scene.
"It was a tough movie to make. It took 150 shooting days. The idea was to create a Hong Kong Dirty Harry, so all the action was a bit crazy and wild and ruthless. The final sequence, the gun battle in the hospital, took one and a half months to shoot. We had built the set inside an abandoned Coca-Cola factory. It was a night scene, so we had to shut all the windows, and we shot it day and night. We were way over budget and over schedule, so we didn't stop shooting. We were working 36 hours a day. We didn't step outside of the factory for two or three weeks, so we wouldn't know if it was nighttime or daytime until the craft service guy came in and told us it was time for breakfast."
HARD TARGET (1993)
Hollywood came calling and Woo answered, coming to America to helm this Jean-Claude Van Damme-in-the-bayou vehicle. Wary of a (in their eyes) first-time director with limited English skills, the studio put Evil Dead auteur Sam Raimi on the set to take the reins at a moment's notice.
"I found out quickly that it isn't easy making a film in Hollywood. I was pretty shocked to find out [Van Damme] had so many final approvals: script approval, final cast approval, final edit approval. Fortunately, Sam Raimi yelled at the studio, 'Let Mr. Woo do his own work.' He sorted everything out. Still, it was so unlike what we did in Hong Kong. There, the director is everything. Only the director can say yes or no, which is how it is in Europe, too. But in Hollywood, that's not the way. That's the thing I hate the most, and I've never gotten used to it. I tried to make that movie in more of a Hong Kong film style, but it didn't work. It wasn't my story, and also it wasn't my kind of feelings, so the movie turned out okay, but not particularly good. I guess I still had a lot to learn."
Woo's third Hollywood feature proved to be the charm. Face/Off, a big budget switched-identity shooter starring Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, was a critical and box office success, taking in over $245 million worldwide. However, Woo had originally turned it down when it was first pitched to him.
"The script, when I first saw it, was too sci-fi. It had a great concept but I knew nothing about special effects and I had no interest in making a movie like that. I told that to the producer, Joel Silver, when I said no. A few years later, they approached me again and I said that if they could change it into a human story, I'd do it. So they got the writers to take out 90 percent of the sci-fi and make it into more of a drama. That really excited me, because that's what I'm really good at. And that's why I think the film came out so well."
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II (2000)
Taking over the franchise from Brian De Palma, Woo threw everything he had into this motorcycle-laden second installment of the high-grossing Tom Cruise series.
"When I met Tom, he told me he wanted the Mission: Impossible series to be directed by different directors. And he didn't want it to be a brand like the James Bond movies. That gave me a lot of freedom. Even though it was a sequel, I didn't have to follow anything other than Tom's image. The style, the action, the feel — that all was my own, and if you watch it with the first one, you can see how different they are."
John Woo's contribution to the war movie canon, this tale of Navajo code talkers in World War II was a financial disappointment when it was released in 2002.
"The main themes of Windtalkers are friendship and understanding. Unfortunately, the studio wanted a John Wayne movie, just a typical American hero film with explosions every few minutes. I had to make them understand that this wasn't a story about heroes; it's a story about a man and his own demons, trying to redeem himself from war. I made the movie that way, but some people in the studio didn't appreciate it and, in the end, I guess neither did the audience."
Another in this decade's wave of Philip K. Dick adaptations, Paycheck — stricken with poor reviews and a post-Gigli Ben Affleck — had some wondering whether, for everyone involved, the film's title was all too apt.
"I was fine with the sci-fi in Paycheck because there wasn't too much. I had intended to make an Alfred Hitchcock-style movie out of it, something more about suspense and thrills than guns and shooting, but unfortunately the script wasn't written that way. It didn't work well for the suspense, and it didn't come out the way I wanted it to be, not as Hitchcockian. But at least it was nice working with Ben Affleck."
RED CLIFF (2009)
An epic in all senses of the word (it is the most expensive Asian-financed film in history), Red Cliff marks Woo's first return to Chinese-language cinema in 17 years. Shown in China in two parts totaling over four hours, the film has been trimmed to a single release for Western markets.
"I've spent five years of my life on this movie. It's been exhausting, but definitely worth it. I wanted to make an Eastern blockbuster, to show that it's possible to make something for Asian audiences that is just as good as what comes out of Hollywood, but I also wanted to make it universal. Americans might not know all the history of the battle like a Chinese audience might, but there's enough action and story and good characters so it doesn't matter. With this movie, I've gotten to take what I've learned in Hollywood and apply it elsewhere."