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From Hong Kong to Hollywood 

A conversation with John Woo

Wednesday, Jun 25 1997
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.

About The Author

Andy Klein


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