AUTOMATICS FOR THE PEOPLE
Choreographed violence to turn Sam Pekinpah green in his grave. Slo-mo art. The biggest stars. The biggest guns. The definitive article. Adam Smith comes face to face with the King from Kong, FACE\OFF'S JOHN WOO. An old-fashioned moralist. With this thing about guns.
John Woo doesn't like violence. It upsets him. And after he gets upset he gets angry. "Sometimes I'm shooting an action sequence and I can relate to it. I get very emotional." He muses in stilted, but precious English. "I relate it to what's happening in the real world. For example if I'm shooting a scene where the hero is fighting with some bad guys and I've heard on the radio about some little child getting murdered by some maniac or some people getting killed in the streets it makes me very angry. I get pretty upset. And I'd bring that to the scene. I'll look at the bad guy as the murderer and then I'm thinking, Let's beat him harder, let's hit him with more bullets."
It's hard to imagine John Woo angry. Today, the picture of Oriental civility, he's sitting bolt upright in an uncomfortable chair - rejecting the more comfy looking sofa - and greeting Empire with a firm handshake and a slight bow. That this is the man described as "the Martin Scorsese of Asia" by no less a critic than Jean-Claude Van Damme; the man whose debut American feature had to be sent back to the MPAA seven times for cuts to the violence before they could give it the commercially viable R rating as opposed to the NC-17 kiss of death, and the man who when faced with an actor who refused to fall flat on his face onto a concrete floor, performed the gag himself before head-butting the ground repeatedly until the terrified minion begged him to cease. But here's the secret. For a film director who throws around a claret around in a manner that would have Sam Pekinpah (incidentally one of his heroes) purring gently in his grave John Woo is a bit of an old sentimentalist.
"One of the things that attracted me to the script was the family values component," he says when asked about his latest and most triumphant slice of explosive action, Face\Off. "My films are always concerned with family, friendship, honor and patriotism. I think this kind of morality might be a bit old-fashioned but I think it's worth trying for because there is a lot good things in the past. People were a lot more caring about each other, they knew how to respect each other and they use to love their family and their country and somehow that changed. I like to bring back all those good old things in the films."
All of which, with some viewers, might sit a little awkwardly with the incredible levels of slaughter that characterize his films. In a John Woo movie, bullets kill people. Lots of them. Extras do not get up rubbing their heads after being shot as if victims of nothing more than a heavy night on the town. Nor does the flying lead miraculously avoid nixing innocent bystanders. He estimates a body count well into the 80's for Hard Boiled. But even in these hyper sensitive times, he gets away with it. Possibly because the sequences are so breathtakingly choreographed that the scale of the slaughter is overshadowed by the precision and bravura with which they are staged. Witness the enjoyable loopiness of one of the Woo trademarks - a character simultaneously firing two guns while flying through the air. It turns out that choreographed is the right word. "Yeah I intended the two-handed thing," he confirms, with excessive modesty given that it is a motif that would be lifted by American indie directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. "It looks pretty much like a ballet dancer diving through the air. It's a move that looks so elegant. It was from the movie A Better Tomorrow, my first gangster film. This guy had to walk into a restaurant and deal with 15 guys. So I suggested we use two guns. I just needed more bullets. And I liked the sound. The continual fire is like a drumbeat, a very strong musical feel. So that's were it started and then in The Killer (his first international success starring Honk Kong superstar and look time Woo collaborator Chow Yun Fat) I just let my hero fire and fire." He pauses for a second obviously enjoying the memory, then remembers something. "Oh it was actual four guns. He hid two in the flower pots."
Born in 1948, in the Guangdong province of Canton, South China, John Woo emigrated with his parents to Honk Kong aged four. A decade or so later he eschewed film school, working then instead with low grade jobs in the tremendously productive Hong Kong film industry. His first films were straight martial arts flicks one of which, The Hand Of Death launched Jackie Chan on an unsuspecting world. But it was in 1989, with The Killer, that Woo's own blend of homely mortality, lavishly staged, razor edited action and intensely inventive technique (slo-mo and steadicam that would indeed be worthy of Scorsese) that would make his name internationally. Hollywood, aroused from it's provincial slumber by the screams of appreciative audiences in the know, took a look at the work of the Hong Kong wonder child - dubbed no doubt - purchased him a one-way ticket to Tinseltown, then proceeded to mutilate that with which they'd originally been so impressed. First there was Hard Target, a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle which, possibly through excessive cutting to garner the R rating, or possibly through Woo's lack of confidence in his new environment (at this point he spoke English poorly), showed little bravura or invention that had characterized his earlier movies. He followed it up with Broken Arrow, slightly better, but still suffering from studio interference. They just wouldn't leave him alone to do what he does best. "I'm very happy with Broken Arrow," he says when asked about the Slater\Travolta starrier. "It's not a perfect movie but I'm still proud of it."
Critics and particularly Woo aficionados were less happy. Seeing in it only
a fraction of the hyper-kinetic mayhem that they knew he was capable of delivering.
"Maybe, I worked with some of the wrong people," he admits when pressed. "Some producers started making trouble with the film. They tried to do their own thing. They made some changes without letting me know which made it confused. The other thing was that it was a pretty big special effects movie. We had spent so much time and money on those effects that there wasn't much left for the drama. So all the drama scenes had to be shot in a hurry. Sometimes I was getting 45 minutes to shoot a scene. That was so unfair."
And the lack of the Woo trademarks? The slo-mo, the whiplash editing? "The editor and some of the producers were very old-fashioned. They didn't like slow motion. They wanted to cut the film similarly to Speed (with which it shared a screenwriter Graham Yost). But it was such a rush we didn't have time to fight for it."
The result was a disappointingly flat movie, whose opening shot - a slow zoom into a boxing ring from above, is it's best and possibly the only true Woo moment. But there were no repeats of editorial fiddling with his next project.
"Face\Off was totally different. We had a great producer, Michael Douglas, and a very understanding studio. They gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted. So I could change things whenever I wanted." Changes including the insertion of an exploding jet engine called for at a couple hours' notice and, in the closing sequence, a stuntman was required to do a bit of barefoot water-skiing because Woo thought it would look cool. It's the kind of last minute inspiration which - though common on his Hong Kong movies - had the studio in a bit of a tizz.
"I used to like working with a smaller group of people," he nods when asked if he missed the early days of working on the hectic production line of Hong Kong cinema. "We got used to being able to change all the time. We could make everything happen right away. In America the scale is so big, that if you try to change something people panic. In the opening scene of Face\Off, we had John Travolta crashing into the tail of the plane. I shot it then thought, "This isn't strong enough. I need it to be more powerful." So I said, 'Hey, how about we blow up the engine?' The producer is getting into a panic. He's saying, 'Oh John… that's going to take four more days to shoot.' I said, 'No no. I'm going to do it because it's never been seen before.' So the crew and the stunt guy were all very excited and they did it for me in only half a day. They did the explosion and John flying and firing at the engine.
It's was Woo's on the spot improvising that also delivered one of the most astounding scenes in any of his films. In the middle of the movie a full-blooded gunfight erupts, but is played out in balletic slo-mo to Somewhere Over The Rainbow, heard through a strangely serene child's headphones.
"When we were shooting the scene - it was a scene with no obvious good guys or bad guys, they were all just killing each other - I was watching and got very emotionally involved. I had a very strong feeling that I was so frustrated with people in the real world are killing each other. I hate to see that happen. So I came up with this idea. Let's change the subject. Have the hero put headphones on the little boy and have him listen to the music. To have a children's song in the middle of a violent scene. The idea was to get across that children are so pure and peaceful and are a sigh of hope and they are destroyed by a violent world. And we can try and save this beauty and try and send a very non-violent message. And Over The Rainbow was my favorite song - when I was a child The Wizard Of Oz was the first musical film I saw. After I edited the scene the studio was shocked, but they loved the scene. I'm so glad they left it in because it gave the killing scene so much meaning." Music (along with the likes of Sergio Leone and Pekinpah - Woo was described as the most exciting thing to happen to action cinema since the latter by Quentin Tarantino) is a great influence.
"When I design an action sequences I listen to a lot of music and the music often gives me a lot of inspiration. It helps with the tone, the tempo or even the meaning of the scene. But I still like to create on the set. When I see a table I'll figure out how to use the table. If I see a bench I think, okay let's have our hero slide down the bench and have him shooting back out with his two guns, to create a spectacle out of it…"
The interview draws to a close with chat about the increasingly intrusive use of CGI ("I hate it, it always looks fake to me") and working the second time with John Travolta (John's great. He's very respected on set. And he keeps everyone entertained. He's a very funnyman…"). Empire asks about his latest project, which it turns out he doesn't feel like talking about. It will no doubt feature some of the now familiar Woo themes: honor, friendship, loyalty, cute children - for all we know ickle fluffy bunnies. Possibly all of the above. Having eight shades of shit blown out of them.
TRANSCRIPTED BY THOR MAGNUSSON