Director John Woo.
JOHN WOO: NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of Venice Magazine.
Picture if you will: Several years ago, I'm sitting at home. It's late at night. I'm bored. I decide to surf my local cable system, sifting among the usual offerings of long-forgotten re-runs, grade Z exploitation flicks and programs offering some inbred yokel in overalls giving a blow-by-blow on how to re-build an engine manifold for a 1961 Chrysler. Then I come upon a movie with two Asian gentlemen who are having a heated argument in not-so-badly dubbed English. "Cool," I think to myself, "a cheesy chop-socky flick from Hong Kong with horribly dubbed lines like 'You think you know kung-fu, you son of a pig's cousin?!'" I settle back, resigned to settling on eighty minutes of unintentional laughter.
But wait...that was a really cool shot and...hold on, that lead actor with the baby face is really exciting to watch and...Wait! Let me get my breath back after that, the most incredible shoot-out I've ever seen since the finale of The Wild Bunch! This is no chop-socky flick! This is...well, genius!
What is this movie?
More important, who made this movie?
Answer #1: The Killer.
Answer #2: John Woo.
From that moment on, I was a devoted convert to the cult of John Woo-ism. I sought out his films feverishly, whether they were being screened in sometimes laughably malaprop-filled subtitled prints at Laemmle's Monica theater, or were pulled off the shelves of the late, great Video Archives (better known as the Quentin Tarantino School of Film) in Manhattan Beach, John Woo movies, with their operatic blend of Sam Peckinpah violence and Douglas Sirk romanticism, became a staple of my filmgoing diet.
John Woo was born in 1946 in Guangzhou, Canton Province, China. His family emigrated to Hong Kong in 1950, fleeing the Communist rule of their native land. After college there, he began his film career in 1969, apprenticing at the Cathay and Shaw Brothers studios. At Shaw Brothers, he directed his first feature in 1973, The Young Dragons, a martial arts film. That same year, he secured a long-term contract with the Golden Harvest Studio, where he worked for two decades.
While he worked consistently through the 70's, making action films and comedies, he made his mark with the elemental gangster film A Better Tomorrow (1986). This film provided the model for his subsequent features: anguished and sometimes brutal central characters (often portrayed by actor Chow Yun-Fat); a serious-minded story about loyalty and betrayal; and graphic, cathartic violence--in which Woo invented the now widely-imitated "two gun" technique, where the hero (and sometimes villain) battles multitudes of enemies with a blazing gun in each hand. No filmmaker since Sam Peckinpah has had such a profound influence on the way action films are shot and directed and, as a result, Woo's films quickly gathered an American cult of critics and fans; The Killer (1989), became the highest-grossing Hong Kong film in America since Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon in 1973. His pictures after A Better Tomorrow fed Woo's reputation for technical proficiency and visual imagination. They included a sequel (A Better Tomorrow II, 1987); an epic film set during the Vietnam war (A Bullet in the Head, 1990); a heist comedy (Once A Thief, 1991); and Woo's final Hong Kong film (which many consider his finest) Hard-Boiled (1991). In 1992, he relocated to the U.S.; his first American feature was Hard Target in 1993, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. In 1994, Woo formed WCG Entertainment with partners Terrence Chang and Christopher Godsick and, under their banner, directed Broken Arrow in 1995, followed by directing and executive producing Fox Television's Once A Thief The Series, based on his feature film. Woo's third American feature Face/Off opened nationally on June 27.
With Face/Off, John Woo returns to his roots of Hong Kong filmmaking, with its complex, bigger-than-life characters, operatic shoot-outs and no-holds-barred camerawork and stunts. Starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage as a vengeful federal agent and his nemesis who, for reasons that have to be seen to be believed, are forced to switch identities, the film is, by far, the best film of the summer, and Woo's best American film to date.
As is usually the case when you meet one of your idols, there is a mixture of nervous excitement, along with the apprehension that you might be disappointed in what you find. Happily, John Woo puts both fears to rest almost as soon as you meet him. During both occasions when we met to talk, Woo was a gracious host, ushering me into his Westside office and offering me a beverage, which he himself pours and serves. A humble man who carries himself with the quiet, yet self-assured strength of a Zen Master, John Woo reflected on his long journey from the slums of Hong Kong to international fame and success, along with a variety of other subjects...
How did you become interested in film growing up in Hong Kong?
JOHN WOO: When I was a kid, since my family was so poor, we were even homeless for quite a while, my mother was a big fan of the American movies. She would always save some money to take me to the movies. And as a kid, I always felt like I lived in hell, the slums of Hong Kong were horrible. I always had this dream of living in a better place, a place with no crime and violence, a place where people only care about each other and appreciate each other...and I could only find that dream in the movies. And that made me have a very early love of the movies, especially musicals. I remember the first musical I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz and it was so wonderful...my mother took me to all the classic films. Then when I was 11 yeas old, I knew I wanted to be a part of the movies...I would take a piece of glass and I would brush some images on the glass, like cowboys or a Chinese hero like a Monkey King, and then I took a torch, would shine it through the glass, and project the image on a wall. I would move the torch up and down, and the image on the wall seemed to be moving! I think at that moment, I found my interest and love of making films. When I was in high school, I joined a (acting troupe) where we put on plays...we did about eight plays...then when I was about 19, my family couldn't afford for me to go to college anymore. At that time, there were no film schools in Hong Kong, so all I could do is learn from movies. We were lucky, because we could see all the film masterpieces from all over the world--that's one of the great things about Hong Kong...so by the time I was quite young, I knew all about filmmakers like Fellini, Antonioni, the French New Wave, Jean-Pierre Melville, Stanley Kubrick, Hitchcock and Sam Peckinpah...so when I was 19, I started working with a group of young people who were also fascinated with movies and we started making experimental films. That was a very interesting time. It was also during this time I started working at a studio as a script supervisor.
This was at Shaw Brothers?
Yes, Shaw Brothers. I worked my way up to 1st A.D.(Assistant Director) and I worked with a great master named Chant Chit. He was the king at the time. He was equal to (the great Japanese director) Akira Kurosawa...he made a lot of period films, always about friendship, honor, loyalty. He also created a lot of big stars...and I was so lucky. I worked with him for about two and a half years, then I got my first chance to direct a movie in 1973.
Hong Kong cinema in the 80's had a real renaissance. What was it like working in that atmosphere?
Well, at that time, Hong Kong had sort of a "new wave" going on in terms of its filmmakers, so it was exciting. I was going through a transition myself then. Before that, I used to be a comedy director, and I just hated it! I wanted to change, because the kinds of movies I really wanted to do were dramas--something from the heart like Jean-Pierre Melville or Humphrey Bogart used to make. But the studio wouldn't let me do it. So I changed over to another studio called Cinema City to make A Better Tomorrow in 1986, with the help of my friend Tsui Hark. And that movie really changed my life. It broke all the records, made a lot of money and helped me establish myself as a director all over the world.
The thing I noticed with Face/Off was that you really returned to the style of your Hong Kong films. It seemed with your previous American films, Hard Target and Broken Arrow, like you were restraining yourself a bit. But with Face/Off, you really come out with, no pun intended, both guns blazing. Do you feel that way as well?
Yeah, yeah. I'm really grateful to Paramount because they gave me so much freedom on this film...they let me do whatever I wanted to do because they like my style. Also because of the nature of the script, the script was exactly what I like to do with two very different characters, who also have something in common. There's no real good guy or bad guy in my films. The film's also about friendship and dignity and honor and family.
Those are themes that seem to run throughout a lot of your films. Do you think that comes from the fact that you did have a poor childhood and you had to depend on your family and friends quite a bit?
Yeah, there's so many things...I love to use things that I experienced in real life--but that doesn't mean I was a gangster! (laughs) But I like to put as many real experiences into my films as I can. Like when I was a kid, my family was so poor, they couldn't afford to let me go to school until I was 9 years-old. And it was very rough on the street. Almost every day, I had to fear the gangs, or I'd get beaten up by a gang, and I had to struggle very hard to survive. I was so lucky that I had great parents, and a church. My parents were very tough on me so I'd live straight, and made sure that I lived with dignity. That's also why I'm so grateful to the church. My church was the only place where I could hide, where I could cry, where I could talk to God, and where I could feel not lonely. I was also sponsored by an American family through the church and that is how my education was paid for. Me and my brother and sister for six years. I'll always be grateful to those people that helped me and my family and my church. So my movies are about being grateful and trying to be good to each other. Chivalry. If you do something good to me, I will give something back. That's how I learned. From church. From the Bible. From our culture. Like when I first started making films, I was a big success. I made several hit movies and then I help others, I helped other people with their careers like Tsui Hark, Michael Hoy, Jackie Chan...I was so happy to do that because I feel that in this world, people only succeed by helping each other. You can never work alone...then, for a long time after that I was down. My career was down. Some people even said to me "John, you're finished." And then, I was helped by Tsui Hark, he helped me back and helped me produce A Better Tomorrow. I try to put all those qualities back into my characters. And of course, some people after I helped them, stabbed me in the back. I put that in my films, too. So most of my films are based somehow on my real-life experience.
People have said that you and Chow Yun-Fat are Asia's answer to Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. Any plans on working with him again in this country?
Yes, my next project. I hope we have no problem of scheduling because he is getting busy right now. The project is a light comedy, sort of like To Catch a Thief, The Thomas Crown Affair, Topkapi, Butch Cassidy, films like that.
Why a light comedy?
Some people see me only as an action director. I just want to let people see the other side of me, because I can be very funny. The other thing is, I have learned a lot from the U.S. The culture, the people, the way of thinking, and the sense of humor. There's a lot of humor in Face/Off and when I found I could do that well, it gave me a lot of confidence to try comedy again.
How did you and Chow Yun-Fat start working together? Was A Better Tomorrow your first film together?
Yeah, at that time Chow was already a huge TV star in Hong Kong. But he'd never made a successful film. Some people even called him "box office poison," even though people recognized him as a great actor. I had never met him before casting A Better Tomorrow. It was at that moment that I said to myself I wanted a person who looked like a modern knight. This person had to have a great heart. I wanted to create a new kind of hero, a hero who can stand for me, can speak for me, and also can speak for the audience, someone close to the audience, not like a superhero. I had always heard that Chow liked helping other people, children, his friends and a man with a heart like that, well, he's my hero! (laughs) So I chose him based on that. Then when we met, we had a long talk and found that we had a lot of things in common. I found that we were both old-fashioned. We both believe that in the old times, people were nicer. They cared more about people, more about family and more about each other. But then the world changed and the people are getting more selfish. So I think we both feel that we want to bring those values to our films and remind people about them, so maybe we can get some of them back. I also find Chow, my idol, resembles a lot of the classic idols of movies: Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Cary Grant, all the great images, all are Chow Yun-Fat.
Any favorite stories about working with Chow?
During A Better Tomorrow, most of the scenes we shot weren't in the script, you know why? We were both so down. We were both in the same boat because we'd both been failing for quite a few years. For one scene we were having trouble with, I asked Chow if he'd ever had a similar experience in real life. Chow remembered once several years earlier when he'd been insulted by a gang boss. And he said he felt dishonored and he cried and felt so angry...So I said 'Okay, let's forget about the script. Let's put that experience into the scene' and I let him make up the dialogue. And we did that a couple more times during the film, and I think that's one of the reasons why so many people were touched by that film and by his performance and by his character, because he brought so much truth to it. So that's why I like working with Chow, because we have so much in common. The same thing with John (Travolta) and Nick (Cage), we are all very old-fashioned.
Who are some of the other filmmakers who've influenced you?
Hitchcock and Fellini come to mind. Fellini was such an incredible visual storyteller. Everything he did was with images. Just beautiful. And his films are so much like him. When you're watching them, you can really feel Fellini. Very personal work. Hitchcock, of course, I learned everything about suspense there is to know from his films. The other person who comes to mind is Arthur Penn.
Another one of my heroes, as well.
Arthur Penn's films take such a strong point of view. They're so powerful that way.
Ever see The Left-Handed Gun, his first film?
Oh, I love The Left-Handed Gun! Great film! And The Miracle Worker. And, of course, Bonnie & Clyde is a classic. I really think that he and Sam Peckinpah made everything change. I think both have a lot of romance in their films--very romantic films. The other person who influenced me the most is Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai). He is a true master. I also like Francis Ford Coppola very much. I love his first film The Rain People. I like William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) also very much. He did so many amazing experimental things in what were supposed to be mainstream studio films.
I love Friedkin's work. One of my favorite movies is Sorcerer, his remake of the French film Wages of Fear.
I love that film! That was such a good film, and so underrated when it was released. Again, he took that film and really made it his own, with his own characters. I still watch that film and feel so sad for the characters. It's such a tragic film. Then of course there's Stanley Kubrick and David Lean, another one of my idols.
You're known for your incredible action sequences. How long does it take you to shoot an action sequence? I'm thinking especially of the opening scene in Hard Boiled with all the bird cages.
That took nine nights.
Every action scene I make, the whole scene is all in my head. I know exactly what I'm doing and what I want. It's choreographed all in my head already before we start shooting. Some scenes take longer though, like one gun battle scene in Face/Off we did took two weeks. The speedboat chase, including second unit, took four weeks.
What do you think the affect will be on the Hong Kong film industry when China takes control of Hong Kong on July 1?
It's unfortunate because I've been out of Hong Kong for five years, but from what I've heard, it's going to be a little tough for Hong Kong film in the sense of topics that they can deal with. It won't be that bad as long as the movie never involves any politics. I think action and comedy will be unaffected. In the beginning, everybody will be a little insecure, because they won't know what to expect, then the Chinese government will let them know what they like and what they don't like. So the Hong Kong film business might slow down a little initially. After the first year when everything's settled down, I think it'll be fine, because I don't think China will want to hurt the business, because they need it. I can also see it might be a good thing because change is always good for new movements. What I mean is, now that there's a little chaos happening, many film people have left and this makes room for many young, new people to take over, who will create an entirely new kind of Hong Kong film. It will create more opportunity for a newer, younger generation. I also believe that China is changing. They're getting a little more open, I think. They also realize that they need friends in the whole world (laughs). When the people of Hong Kong really see the change as being good, I think their confidence will come back. Also, Hong Kong's people are very smart, very tough. So once they figure out what the new policies are, they'll do their best to work within them. They're survivors. I also hope that China keeps their promise to keep everything in Hong Kong the same.
What do you think the likelihood of that is?
I don't know...I have heard that they are going to be very tough on the media, on TV, on the newspapers...it's just going to take time. I only hope that the new government will respect the people and what they want. I think that China will become much more open. Even now in China's major cities, particularly Shanghai, are going through major changes. They work very hard, want to catch up with Hong Kong. Maybe even do better than Hong Kong. China has a great potential for everything: business, culture, art, everything. The country is so beautiful. But for me, of course, I only wish our country to become more strong, more beautiful.
Do you think you'll ever make another film in Hong Kong?
I don't think so. I think I've done enough there--for over twenty-five years I made films there. Here in America I feel I have many more opportunities, especially now that I have all this wonderful support and so many projects. Another thing, after I left Hong Kong, I decided to concentrate on projects that were more international. I'm trying to combine the new things I've learned here in America with my own culture. If I went back to Hong Kong right now, I'd have to start all over again and un-learn everything from the past five years. I don't even understand the new language in Hong Kong now! Or how the people think...In America you can say anything that you want, create anything you want. In Hong Kong, unfortunately, you have to be careful of everything you do and say. And this I don't like.
Even before the Chinese take over, you mean?
Yes. Yes. You can never make anything about politics or mainland China without it being sensitive. There was always the fear of making them angry. Of course for an artist, you want to go to the movies and see something expressed how the filmmaker feels about the people, about the country, about the government and the answer in Hong Kong was always "No!" If I had to go on making just action and comedy for the rest of my life, I'd rather die! I want to do something more.
Do you see yourself making a politically-themed film in the future?
Not really. I'm not that interested in political films. Sometimes in my movies, I'd have some political feel, like in Bullet in the Head, how I felt about our country, about Hong Kong...but here I can make any kind of film I want. Although I would like to make a film in China...it's so beautiful. So much history...
So you'd like to maybe make an American-backed movie in China?
Yeah. I have a project in development in Paramount. An epic about 19th century China and American soldiers and missionaries that try to help the Chinese government fight some rebels. It's a true story. It also has a very strong love story. Not a political film. Tom Cruise is very interested in it.
We've talked before about some of the filmmakers who've influenced your work. How does it feel now when you look at the work of the new generation of filmmakers, and they've all been influenced by you?
I feel flattered. I'm still learning from people myself. I think we're all in a big family in the film business. I have learned so much from the west and your filmmakers here. Now that I can see people getting something from me, it's like coming full-circle. Actually, we are learning from each other. I know now I'll never feel lonely ever again, like when I was a kid, because I have all these friends all over the world!
What was the genesis of the "two gun" technique that you made famous?
While we were shooting A Better Tomorrow, I decided to stage a very classic gun battle scene and I wanted it to be unique, unlike any in a Hong Kong film ever. I'm very strongly affected by the music in films. I wanted the gunshots to have a very strong rhythm, like a drum beat. I especially liked the look of the Colt .45 because the gun is so pretty, but it doesn't hold that many bullets...when they showed me the Beretta (handgun), which looks similar to the Colt .45, I asked how many shots it held and they told me "seventeen." I thought 'Oh, that's great.' Because the scene was about the hero entering a restaurant with fifteen guys inside that he had to fight. Now one gun with seven or eight bullets against fifteen guys isn't going to work, so I suggested using two, which held seventeen shots each. And also two guns continuously firing is just like a very strong drum beat. And also a little bit of that came from the western--the cowboy with two holsters strapped on. Then we said, two guns are still not going to be enough, so I had the hero hide guns in flower pots inside the restaurant that he could grab when his first two ran out of bullets! (laughs) So we had two handguns basically acting like a machine gun, with continuous firing and a strong rhythm.
Tell me some more about how making films in Hong Kong is different from making films here--in addition to having more freedom.
There's good things and bad things about working here. The good is that everything is so much more well prepared. Here you have to have a complete script, with everyone knowing what they're doing...you have to stick to the schedule here. The bad here is that it's too complicated to make movies here. It's not about the studio--it's about the people. The people make everything so complicated. Whoever's got any power, they will use it. So many games...
In Hong Kong is there more of a familial feel to making a film? You're all in it together?
Yeah, yeah. There you're all in it together. Here, there's too many voices. (laughs) Some people want to change this and that and they spend too much time on arguing and meeting...and you can waste months doing that. And every time, it's just a repeat of the same old thing. And sometimes it's about ego. And sometimes that can hurt the movie. But in general, I think that the great thing about America is that there are so many talented people and most of the people here are really very professional. Everybody has great passion and dedication. They all are educated from film. And the government and the whole of society really seems to support and love the business. It makes things so much more convenient. They'll give you whatever you want, from the police, the fire department, the neighborhoods. The other good thing is that there are so many talented writers. And it's a free country, so you can have a choice! I feel like a real artist working here. In Hong Kong, on the other hand, everything is so simple. It's so simple to work with a studio. You only need a couple meetings to discuss the storyline, the budget, the cast, then we're on our own. Everybody just wants to make a movie, and nothing else. No games, no ego and no politics. And most Hong Kong films are shot with no scripts, just an outline.
None of your Hong Kong films had scripts?!
Well...my films usually did have completed scripts. But I'd rewrite a lot on the set. And as a result, most Hong Kong films go way over budget and over schedule. If you create on the set all the time, adding more things, the money is gone, gone, gone. You spend more and fall behind. Another bad thing in Hong Kong, you have to work very hard, fight very hard, and survive by yourself. The government doesn't really care about the film business or give any real support to the business. Do you know in Hong Kong, we don't even have a film library? We have no history. Although I've heard in the last couple years they have started to collect and store the films...but all (the government) cares about is the tax. Whenever you set a camera up on the street and you get any sort of a complaint, particularly from a foreigner or the British, the police will throw you out--no matter who you are. Only me and Jackie Chan would get a break (laughs) because they respected our work. But most filmmakers are very poor in Hong Kong. We work like beggars and get no respect from the government. That's why in my movies you'll see we shot most of the scenes in a studio, or in a warehouse, or far away from the city. But they open wide for foreign film crews, for British film...and it's not about money, we'd pay them the money. There's just favoritism there--lots of it, for foreigners. I don't think they even have any idea the impact Hong Kong films have on the rest of the world. But, that all happened before I came here. Now I hear it's getting better.
It sounds like America is your home to stay.
Yeah. I really feel like as a filmmaker, I want to keep making movies where I can say what I want to say, shoot where I want to shoot...here if I want to shoot on the street, the police will block off the whole area for you, for free! Not just here, but in New Orleans, Toronto, Vancouver...I was so happy the first time it happened I almost cried! It's so wonderful to just be able to do my own thing.
Any advice for first-time directors?
Just do it. Do whatever you want, how you want. Also try to direct your first film from your own script. I think that way the film will be much better--and more original.