LOOK WOO'S TALKING
With help from John Travolta and Christian Slater, Asian action king John Woo aims his Broken Arrow at the box-offices bull's eye.
John Woo is resisting the urge to dance.
The soft spoken Asian director, whose hard-charging Hong Kong action movies (The Killer, Hard Boiled) make the average Stallone-vehicle look like a six year olds tricycle, is trying to explain how he comes up with the bullet-and-blood ballets that have become his calling card. 'When I was a kid, I was fascinated by musicals and cartoons - especially musicals. I'm crazy about them" he muses. "So, I've got a strong feeling for rhythm and body movement. When I'm deciding how to do an action sequence, it seems to me I'm creating a dance scene." Those who have seen Woo's films know exactly what the director is talking about when he speaks of the exquisite appeal of well-choreographed mayhem. His deft touch with destruction makes it easy to understand why 20th Century Fox trusted him with one of their highest-profile projects, the 70 million dollar actioner Broken Arrow, which stars Christian Slater and John Travolta as dueling stealth bombers.
In hiring Woo, whose Asian films have become revered touchstones for such up-and-coming auteurs as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, Fox may have been trying to recreate the success of there 1994 hit Speed. Broken Arrow's script is done by Graham Yost, one of Speed's writer's, and several of Speed's key players, from the stunt coordinator to the film editor have signed up to work with Woo. Perhaps producer Mark Gordon who was also on the bandwagon of speeding Keanu Reeves to success, thought that hiring the Hong Kong native, would work the same magic that hiring Dutch director Jan De Bont did.
Whatever their reason's, Woo is glad to have a second shot with making an American movie (his first was the Jean-Claude Van Damme head kicker Hard Target). "I've gotten great support from 20th Century Fox," Woo says, "I also have a lot more pressure on me - the studio has quite some high hopes for the project, so I've got to make it good." So high are the hopes of the studio that, as with Speed, the studio has moved up the project release date - Broken Arrow will now fly in December instead of next spring. But unlike Speed, which starred up-and-coming-and relatively inexpensive, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, Broken Arrow features some of Hollywood's highest paid talents, John Travolta and Christian Slater. The genial Travolta who garnered an Academy Award nomination for his turn as Vincent Vega in last year's Pulp Fiction, plays villainous B-3 pilot Vic Deakens, who holds an American city hostage with a purloined nuclear weapon.
"I think John is really going to surprise the audience. He's a likeable
bad guy, which is a hard thing to do,"
Enthuses Woo; "John really has a very special gift, especially with his eyes. He can look at you so charming, but sometimes when he stares at you he can have the eyes of Satan. I didn't want to make a typical bad guy. I wanted the audience to feel this could be anyone - your neighbor, your colleague, your friend."
Christian Slater, who turned down a role in Sylvester's Stallone's Assassin's to work with Woo, plays straight-arrow pilot Riley Hale, who, along with park ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis), wages an epic battle with Deakens through the arid landscape of the Southwest to a explosive climax on board a moving train. Despite the demanding nature of the role, Slater was game for all challenges the film presented. "We worked very well together, and sometimes (Christian) gave pretty good input, not only on the action, but he also came up with new lines that made scenes work better." Woo says. " Stealth bombers to helicopters to trains to humvees to boats - you name it we rode it," says former football player Howie Long, who plays Sergeant Kelly, Deacons partner in crime.
"At one point I had gotten knocked off one ladder (on the moving train), and had fallen on to the other ladder, and was hanging by my legs dangling underneath the train. I had a strap on my waist that you can't see, but that was just for insurance. Hanging by one arm and dangling and pulling my weight back up - that was a bit of a rush." Long, an acting novice, one day inadvertently gave Travolta the ride of his life while they were shooting a scene. "We were driving the Humvee and John was riding shotgun, and there were two other actors in there too and the stunt coordinator told me, 'You've got to punch this thing, whip around the corner and slam on the brakes.' I had warned John, but the stunt guys sitting over by the camera said that (Travolta and the other actors) looked like three crash dummies when I slammed on the brakes. But they were fine and we just got out and continued the scene." Woo, modest to fault, says he can't pick out his favorite action sequence in the film, and instead saves his praises for the gung-ho cast: "The performers are all so great. The thing that will excite the audience the most is watching them." But being on a Woo set, despite its familial atmosphere, certainly isn't for the faint of heart. "Sometimes when I'm shooting I get a little crazy," Woo says with a sheepish chuckle. "For the last sequence in Hard Boiled, we had more than 15 bombs going off everywhere and we had seven cameras set up in different position. So we had the explosions going off one by one, and the actors running through the explosions. When I saw the explosions looked so great and the fire looked so great, I pushed the cameraman and said 'Pick up the damn camera and go into the fire!' The explosions were still going off, so I pushed another cameraman to take his camera off the dolly and run into another explosion. They got pretty good shots for me," Woo laughs, noting that the cameramen emerged from the shoot unscathed. " When I'm shooting sometimes it feels like a drug. Of course I never take drugs, but the feeling is…." He stops, temporally at a loss for words.
"Anyway, I'm just very into making movies." Woo, whose given name is Wu Yu-Sum, nurtured that love for movies in his native Hong Kong, where he was born into a poverty-stricken family 49-years ago. "When I was in high school I dreamed of being a film-maker, but my family was so poor that they couldn't afford for me to go to college," Woo remembers. Even if he had the money to go to college, Hong Kong didn't have a film school at the time, so "all we could do was learn from the movies. In the 60's and the 70's we had a lot of opportunities to see great movies from everywhere, from France and Italy and the States. I also used to go to every library and bookstore to steal the film books. I was so poor I couldn't help it- I needed to study them, I stole the film books, the art books, the philosophy books, and that's how I learned film theory." After getting his first movie-related job as a script supervisor, Woo worked his way to the top of the Hong Kong film industry. At first he directed comedies, then in the mid-80's he segued into the ultra-action flicks for which he is best known. No-ones who's seen his 1989 actioner The Killer could ever forget the evocative candle-lit church, filled with fluttering doves, in which the film's key showdown's take place, or the imaginative sequence in which two rivals at the home of a blind woman nearly kill each other while pretending, for their host's sake, to have a sedate cup of tea.
Stylish flourishes that are equal parts French New Wave and John Wayne epic made the director god to young filmmakers like Tarantino and Rodriguez, who have both put blazing guns in each hands of their actors in key scenes - a signature Woo touch. For Woo, the reverence in which he is now held by the latest crop of American directors is part of a long cycle in which the film industry renews itself. " I think it's like a cycle - in the 1960's and 70's, I was so influenced by Western directors, by Sam Pekinpah, Martin Scorsese, Jean-Pierre Melville, Stanley Kubrick, Francois Truffaut, Arthur Penn, Now having those young filmmakers like my movies completes the circle." And coming to America to make movies completes a cycle that, for Woo, began with reverence for all things American - from Pekinpaw to musicals. Like the film masters he reveres, Woo hopes with Broken Arrow not to just give people a hell of a ride, but to provoke an emotional reaction as well. "At the beginning of Broken Arrow, the two pilots (Travolta and Slater) are friends, then they turn on each other. It's a theme of tragic friendship," he says.
"Some people see me as an action director, but action is not the only thing in my movies. I always like to show human nature - something deep inside the heart."
TRANSCRIPTED BY THOR MAGNUSSON