Hong Kong and Vine

Facing off with Face/Off director John Woo

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.

NT: The intensity of the performances is reminiscent of your Hong Kong films.

JW: 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 [the hero] 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.

NT: 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?

JW: 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, it was just after the Tiananmen Square massacre. And the year I made A Better Tomorrow, 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.

NT: How does Face/Off reflect your mood?
JW: 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 [United States], 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.

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