John Woo couldn’t miss.
The godfather of gun fu, who helmed a number of balletic, bullet-riddled Chinese actions hits — A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard Boiled among them — before taking his talents to the States, was coming off four consecutive Hollywood smashes. First came the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target, a play on The Most Dangerous Game; then, John Travolta-starrer Broken Arrow, about a rogue terrorist armed with a nuclear bomb; the face-swapping flick Face/Off, pairing a very game Travolta with an even more game Nicolas Cage; and Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible 2, which grossed $550 million and remains his highest-grossing film.
Then, at the height of his powers, and with the juice to make any movie he wanted, Woo chose to direct Windtalkers, a $100 million epic about Navajo code talkers who helped U.S. forces win a series of crucial battles against Japan during World War II. The studio (and censors) made Woo trim 20 minutes from the film, and it bombed. Next came Paycheck, a Philip K. Dick adaptation starring Ben Affleck, that bombed even harder. After that, the scripts stopped coming. And John Woo, one of the finest directors of his generation, became persona non grata in Hollywood. So, he returned to his native China, where he directed the acclaimed two-part war epic Red Cliff, about the fall of the Han dynasty, and some hit-or-miss action films.
After a 20-year absence, Woo has finally returned to America with Silent Night. And he’s in fine form. The film centers on Brian Godluck (Joel Kinnaman), a father whose son is killed by a stray bullet during a gangland shooting on Christmas Eve. When his initial stab at revenge backfires, and Godluck finds himself in the hospital with a bullet wound to the throat, he spends the next year rehabbing and training, and on Christmas Eve, sets out to kill all the L.A. gangsters responsible for his son’s death. It’s a thrilling action spectacle that keeps you on the edge of your seat without a single word of dialogue. To quote John Wick, “Yeah, I’m thinking he’s back!”
In a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone, Woo opened up about his 20-year gap between Hollywood movies, working with Tom Cruise and Nicolas Cage, and rising from the slums of China to become a filmmaking legend.
What made you want to return to America after two decades away?
After Paycheck, I couldn’t get any good scripts anymore, so I went to China to make a couple of movies. Some worked. Some didn’t work well. But I was still looking for a new script to direct. When I came back to America about four years ago, I got the script for Silent Night. I was so excited. In Hollywood, I had been established as a “big movie” director, and there are so many good smaller-scale scripts that never came to me. My partner would always say, “John, you’re a big director! These are too small for you!” But I like trying things that are smaller and more personal. And not just action. I really enjoy making a human story, but I’d never get it. I wanted to tackle Silent Night as my first film here because I was excited by how it had no dialogue. It would allow me to use my visual technique and sound to tell a story. And I love challenges, so I didn’t care about the budget or anything like that.
It struck me as similar to Sean Archer’s arc in Face/Off in terms of the trauma of losing a child. There’s even a scene where Joel’s character grabs a child and thinks it’s his dead one.
I didn’t notice it, but I think you’re absolutely right! I related to the story: An innocent kid got killed by a gangster, and it was so sad. I thought it could happen to any family.
Especially in America.
Especially in America. I tried to change my style a little bit. My style is usually fancy and, for the action and the characters, a bit over-the-top. For this one, I wanted to make it more realistic. In this film, our character, Joel Kinnaman, is not a superhero. He’s just a man from your neighborhood.
He’s a man from your neighborhood if you live next to the gym.
[Laughs] I think Joel Kinnaman did a great job in the movie. He went deep inside the character and worked very hard. I had only have seen one of his movies: Child 44. But I truly admired his professionalism. And he did all the action by himself.
You cast Kid Cudi — or Scott Mescudi — as a detective in the film. Do you listen to his music at all?
Sometimes! When we tried to cast his role, he surprisingly said yes when our producer got in touch with him because he loved my movies. All he wanted was to hold two guns, so I gave him two guns! Young people love me! He’s such a humble guy, very nice, and very collaborative. No attitude.
I’m from a mixed family and in Silent Night and several of your other films, from Mission: Impossible 2 to The Replacement Killers to The Big Hit, there have been interracial couples at the center. It’s still not a very common thing to see in studio movies and certainly wasn’t back then. Was that intentional on your part?
Oh, yeah. That’s what I intended to do. I try to work with all different kinds of people, and some people don’t have enough chances to work. My next project is a non-action drama about the earliest Chinese immigrant who came over to the United States as a hard laborer — a slave — working for the railroads and was from a mixed family. This is a special true story. He was a Chinese guy, and after he had worked for his “master” for over ten years, he went to Columbia University in New York to form a Chinese cultural learning center. Since I’ve had the opportunity to work in America, I see myself as a bridge from the east to the west. It will be my most ambitious project.
When we talk about inclusion in your films, I’m also reminded of Windtalkers. That was a movie where, when it came out in the early 2000s, nobody was really doing studio movies that cast Native Americans in prominent roles, and certainly weren’t doing movies that highlighted Native Americans’ heroic contributions to this country and its history. And this was at a time when you could’ve probably done any movie you wanted.
I was so excited about the project. For human beings, no matter what kind, they all have something very special about them, and have made great contributions to the country. And especially this story about the Navajo people. [The U.S. Army] was using their language as a code during World War II, and because of the code, they saved a lot of human lives — and a lot of American soldiers. I wanted to work with real Native American people and not like in the usual Hollywood movies where they have a white man playing a Native American. That’s no good. We needed the real Navajo people who spoke the real language. Some of the Navajo actors were not trained actors, but they did a great job.
To go back to you not getting scripts after Paycheck: You’d made so many hits for Hollywood and it took only two underperforming movies for Hollywood to turn its back on you. Do you feel you were treated unfairly?
I think it was a lack of understanding. People only see me as an action director, and I got fed up with it. I got fed up with big-budget movies. The big-budget movies always have bigger problems. The numbers look great, but when you walk on the set, you have to make all these things work. And also, there are too many people involved. Everyone is giving you notes. And when I wanted to have a smaller-scale script and a more human story, they would never send it to me. So, actually, I felt a little upset and disappointed, and that’s why I stopped doing Hollywood movies for a while and went over to China.
When you talk about too many people involved in studio movies, I’m reminded of Mission: Impossible 2. I heard that Tom Cruise tried to lock you out of the edit. Is that true?
Actually, he couldn’t do that. But after the movie finished, he went to Australia for vacation and then he wanted to put a camera in the cutting room to see our work because he wanted to know what we were doing, and we didn’t allow him to do that. He changed his mind. I said I needed to cut my film without any interference, and he understood.
I wanted to ask you about the MTV Movie Awards parody Ben Stiller did with you and Tom Cruise around Mission: Impossible 2. Ben Stiller appears as Cruise’s longtime stunt double and there’s a scene where Stiller is standing in for Cruise on MI:2 getting punched repeatedly in the face and the camera cuts to you and you say, “Harder.”
[Laughs] It’s so funny! It was all Ben Stiller. He wanted me to do it. I’m not a good actor. I was so shy. But he insisted that I do it and gave me a couple of lines. It was very fun. Tom was happy and everybody was so happy with it.
Face/Off is a favorite. Were there standout scenes for you where Nicolas Cage went off the page and really took a left turn improvising? I read that he improvised the early scene where he’s in disguise as a priest headbanging and acting nuts.
Let me put it this way: I had a great time working with Nicolas Cage. In the scene where he tries to convince his wife [played by Joan Allen] that he’s her husband, it was so painful because she was not believing him. And then he talked about this joke they shared about when they were young and her going to see the dentist and they took out the wrong tooth. He didn’t like what the script had written, so he suggested: “How about when I talk about the joke, I do it with tears and with pain. Can I do that?” And I said, “Of course you can do that. You’re an actor. You need to have freedom. You can do whatever you want.” So, he tried another take where he told the joke with tears, and I let him make a choice, and he picked the one with tears. He said, “That’s great! Usually, a studio will ever let an actor make changes like that. There are so many rules for the actor.” I said, “Not in my movie! You can do whatever you want. Feel free.” And when we shot the opening scene where he’s disguised as a priest and did the crazy thing, I thought, “That’s the devil.” That was what I liked and what he liked. Actors in my movies feel free to do what they want, and I always encourage them to try. In Mission: Impossible 2, Tom thought his hair would look beautiful if it was long and moving around in slow-motion.
Where did the idea of the face waterfall in Face/Off come from? Do you do that to your kids or something?
That was my idea. There are two actors who are switching identities, so sometimes it’s Sean Archer and sometimes it’s Castor Troy, and they change a lot. I was afraid the audience would struggle to tell who is who. So, I created the hand gesture for the family of Sean Archer — the hand touching the face to symbolize happiness and comforting each other. The audience loved it!
The first film I saw of yours was Hard Target. I’m curious what it was like to work with Jean-Claude Van Damme, who is notoriously tough to work with. I heard he demanded that you have a separate camera on him during the entire filming of that movie that just shot his muscles in close-up. Is that true?
[Laughs] Yeah. That is true. He cared so much about his looks. He always wanted to look better and look cool onscreen. And whenever he fought or kicked, it looked so beautiful. He didn’t cause too much trouble for us. He just wanted to look handsome!
There’s a scene in Hard Target where Jean-Claude Van Damme is holding a snake with one hand and then punches it in the head with the other and knocks it out. Whose idea was that?
That was my idea, and it was a fake snake — not a real one. I always like putting some humor in my films. Growing up in Hong Kong, I’ve seen so many English movies. I love to watch them. And many of them had a good sense of humor and made me laugh, and it’s in every kind of movie — war movies, melodramas, artistic movies — they all can have a good sense of humor. Hong Kong movies got influenced from all the English movies, and so Hong Kong movies have everything: action, drama, romance, a sense of humor. And Hong Kong audiences love to laugh.
I’m reminded of The Killer, which has great moments of humor that break up the bloody action scenes. The first time I saw The Killer as a kid, however, they did such a bad job dubbing it in America that it made the movie tonally confusing. The characters were calling each other “Dumbo” and “Mickey Mouse” and I was like, “What the hell is going on?”
Oh yeah. I was so sad about that. Hong Kong movies didn’t have much of a market in terms of worldwide release, and no one really cared about the [dubbing], and so we’d just get some random people to do the job who didn’t really care. So, when my movies A Better Tomorrow and The Killer drew so much attention to the Western world, we were so surprised because it had never happened before. And we tried to fix the dubbing, but it was too late.
Have you seen David Fincher’s The Killer yet? And did he ask you if he could name his film the same thing as yours?
I didn’t. I heard his movie was adapted from a comic book, you know? And it has the same name. It must be a coincidence.
Are you still planning on doing an American remake of your The Killer?
Oh yes. I’m working on it now. We’ll go back to Paris in January to finish the rest. The reason I wanted to do the job is because the writer came to me with an idea of making the Killer a woman. It’s Nathalie Emmanuel. She’s wonderful. So direct and so into the character. That’s what excited me. And the story has a little change: It won’t be a tragic ending, but a happy ending. Things are different from the old days. In the old days, you could have a tragic ending. But now, people want happy endings.
Are you a fan of the John Wick movies? They’ve certainly borrowed from your work.
To be honest, I like to watch them and like the style — particularly their use of color. The cinematography is very stylish. There are long fight scenes that look like a comic book, and I feel excited about it.
How did you become a filmmaker? Growing up in a housing project in China, it must not have seemed very feasible to eventually make movies in Hollywood.
When I was young, I made quite a few experimental films. My dream was to be an art director or a cinematographer. That would have been enough for me. I never dreamed of being a director! In 1973, a friend of mine got financing from a rich guy to make a movie, but my friend didn’t know how to direct, so he asked me for help. At the time, I was an assistant director for Chang Cheh. I actually wasn’t ready yet. I was too young — only 26 years old — but I wasn’t afraid to try. So, I tried to make a kung fu movie that was very low-budget [The Young Dragons]. Jackie Chan was one of the stunt coordinators. Unfortunately, after we finished the movie, it was banned because it was too violent. But the bosses [at Golden Harvest Studio] loved it. So, they hired me and gave me a three-year directing contract. I was so happy!
Because I was raised in a slum, I’d get beaten up by the gangsters. And whenever I got beaten up, I’d go to the church and felt safe there.
I see the Jean-Pierre Melville movie poster behind you. I read that it was Melville’s Le Samouraï that drew you to the gangster genre?
Yes. It was my favorite movie in the world. I tried to make a similar kind of movie for 10, 15 years, but the studio wouldn’t let me do it. The market at the time was kung fu and sex. That’s all you could do — nothing else! But I’m greatly influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville. It wasn’t until 1985, after my good friend Tsui Hark produced A Better Tomorrow and it became a huge success, that my next movie, The Killer, finally allowed me to do an homage to Le Samouraï.
Early on in life you wanted to be a minister. What role do you feel religion, or Christianity, plays in your films?
I’m a Christian and a very sincere one. But when I’m working and directing a movie, I forget I’m a Christian. I’m just the director of the movie. I’ve never had any conflict in my mind or in my heart. I just make the movie. The other thing is, when I was a kid, I really loved the church. Because I was raised in a slum, I’d get beaten up by the gangsters. And whenever I got beaten up, I’d go to the church and felt safe there. All those ministers helped a lot of poor people. They gave them comfort and love. I was so moved by their behavior and I wanted to do the same thing in the future. I wanted to try to help people. When I was in high school, I was in a Christian school and went to missionary class. There was a big library there with a lot of art books and movies. So, I did try to be a minister when I was 17. But my schoolmates, especially those studying in the missionary class, they told me, “John, you’re too artistic. You need to go study art.” Because I was crazy about movies. It’s all I would talk about: the French New Wave, old Hollywood movies, German, Italian, and Swedish movies. I was so obsessed with movies.
I know we discussed The Killer remake and your film about one of the earliest Chinese immigrants to the U.S., but are there any other unrealized projects you’re dying to make?
A big Western. An epic Western. And I’ve already gotten a script. It’s a wonderful script. It’s not a spaghetti Western. It’s a pure Western, kind of like Sam Peckinpah. It’s a much more human story.