Hong Kong and Vine

Facing off with Face/Off director John Woo

Face/Off, director John Woo's new action film with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, is Paramount's big summer hope. Five years ago, when Warner Bros. offered Woo the project, he passed on it--he didn't want to do science fiction, preferring something more emotional, he says. Later, producer Michael Douglas brought it to him at Paramount with a new script that mined a deeper emotional vein. "I changed my mind," says Woo.

Set in the near future, the film depicts a cop (Travolta) and a bad guy (Cage) who, for different purposes, surgically exchange faces. So, while Cage is nominally the villain and Travolta the hero, for three quarters of the movie they're playing each other's roles.

Unlike Woo's other U.S. releases (Hard Target and Broken Arrow, also starring Travolta), Face/Off should delight his fans because it's full of the elements from his Hong Kong films that attracted Hollywood in the first place: juiced-up action choreography and editing, plus deeply felt character conflicts lying just beneath the flashy surface.

If Broken Arrow was a Hollywood studio movie more than a John Woo movie, Face/Off is a real John Woo Hollywood movie. I spoke with Woo at a sound facility in Los Angeles as he was putting final touches on the film.

New Times: Why did you decide to do Face/Off when it was offered a second time?

John Woo: 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.

NT: 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.

JW: The studio 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 more than 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.

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

JW: 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 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.

NT: How did they prepare for these complicated character issues?
JW: 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.

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