John Woo has seen a lot in Hollywood. He's finally back for more.

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John Woo has seen a lot in Hollywood. He's finally back for more.
The director John Woo in Santa Monica, Calif., in November 2023. At 77, Woo, whose success in Hong Kong eventually led him to Hollywood blockbusters like “Face/Off” and “Mission: Impossible II,” is quick to dismiss any claims about him as a giant of cinema. (Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times)

by Brandon Yu

NEW YORK, NY.- When John Woo was a child, living in the dangerous slums of Hong Kong, he had two sanctuaries: the church and the movie theater. Both provided respite from a world of poverty and intense violence.

At the local theater, Woo and his mother would watch American Westerns and escapist fantasies like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” At night, he would use a Chinese brush to draw storybook images on a piece of glass. He would use a flashlight to illuminate the glass and, shifting the light, project moving images onto the wall. They were, in essence, the first movies he made.

Considering the twin forces of his early life, it’s no surprise that the enduring motif of the revered action filmmaker’s career became the image of fluttering doves, which originated from an improvised decision he made on the set of “The Killer” to signify spiritual purity. That 1989 film, starring his frequent collaborator Chow Yun-fat, proved a major work that established both Woo’s style and our notion of modern action cinema.

If that idea conjures certain tropes — the stylized slo-mo of bullets blazing and the melodrama of brotherhood amid bloodshed — what became cliches were first shaped in large part by Woo’s vision. He always saw action sequences, he recently explained, as akin to a dance. And yet, even as his “bullet ballet” films went on to influence popular culture makers, including the Wu-Tang Clan and Quentin Tarantino, Woo said he never particularly cared for action films.

At 77, the director, whose success in Hong Kong eventually led him to Hollywood blockbusters like “Face/Off” and “Mission: Impossible II,” is quick to dismiss any claims about him as a giant of cinema. “I’m just a common filmmaker,” he said. His latest movie, “Silent Night,” starring Joel Kinnaman, is a new experiment for him: an action revenge story with virtually no dialogue.

In two wide-ranging sessions — at Lionsgate Studios in Santa Monica, California, and his Los Angeles office — Woo spoke about building his career, giving Nicolas Cage creative freedom, managing Tom Cruise and missing star-driven films. These are edited excerpts from our conversations.

Q: You had made over a dozen movies in Hong Kong before your breakthrough, “A Better Tomorrow,” the 1986 gangster film starring Chow Yun-fat. Why was that such a hit?

A: I really wanted to make a movie like Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï,” starring Alain Delon. When I started (“A Better Tomorrow”), the script was so weak. (Filmmaker and producer) Tsui Hark said, “John, how about you put your own dialogue into the movie?” So I rewrite the whole script and made Chow Yun-fat’s character look like Alain Delon, like Cary Grant. “A Better Tomorrow” was my first auteur movie.

Q: That led to your next film, “The Killer,” widely influential in action cinema. Did you feel you were making something different?

A: I got total freedom. The main thing was I shot the film with no script. We didn’t have enough time. (It was) hard to get anybody to understand what I (envisioned). The movie was dedicated to the old-time French gangster films. Even the executive producer couldn’t understand what I’m asking when I’d describe scenes to them. Fortunately I worked with a really good actor, Chow Yun-fat. I shot and wrote scenes at the same time and let him improvise. (If his character had been) betrayed by his girlfriend, I asked, “Have you ever been betrayed by a good friend? What did you say? Let’s put that in.”

Q: Were you consciously trying to create a new kind of stylized action?

A: For Hong Kong action movies, quite a lot of directors didn’t know how to shoot fight scenes, only dialogue, and when it comes to action, they leave it to the stunt coordinator. Those movies always became two different styles. I didn’t want that.

I found that martial art action looked pretty much like a dance. It has a rhythm, and the rhythm is so precise. I learned from that. My gunfight action sometimes looks like dancing and like kung fu. I (don’t) especially like action film — actually I like human drama — but it is fun to make. When I was young, I loved to dance, so sometimes when I’m making an action scene it just feels like I’m making a dancing sequence.

Q: What led you to Hollywood? Was that the goal?

A: No, I never dreamed to come to Hollywood. When I was making “Hard-Boiled” (released in the United States in 1993), I got the call from New Line and 20th Century Fox. I was so surprised. They loved “The Killer” so much. They kept sending (scripts). In Hong Kong, all we could do is the action movie or melodrama and nothing else. I got bored. So I took a shot and came to Hollywood.

Q: Was it difficult to transition into Hollywood?

A: Yeah, really difficult. I thought (Americans) were familiar with my style. So when I shot “Hard Target” (1993) I was using the Hong Kong style to make an American movie, which didn’t work. (At) the premiere, the young audience, when they saw the slow motion, it made them laugh. Half of the audience left without finishing the movie. I made a decision: If I ever have another chance, it should be like an American movie, but with one-third of my style.

Q: Was “Face/Off” (1997) when you figured out how to do both?

A: Yeah. Originally “Face/Off” was a sci-fi movie: 200 years from now and half of the Earth has been blown up. When I met the (executive) producer, Michael Douglas, and his partner, they wanted me to do the movie badly. But I said I’m not good at sci-fi — if you can change the script, take out all the science fiction, special effects. They changed it.

Q: “Face/Off” is memorable for the big performance that Nicolas Cage has become known for. Was that more of your direction or his interpretation?

A: I usually give my actors a lot of creative freedom. There was a scene when Nicolas Cage as the good guy tried to convince his wife to believe he’s her husband. He talks about a joke to bring back her memory. The first take he would act pretty normally. I said, “How about you try it the other way? You speak the joke with tears.” He said, “Can I do that?” I said, “Of course you can do that; you have total freedom. You do one take without tears and do the other take with tears and then I will show you on the monitor and let you make a choice.” He came up to look at the monitor: “I want that one.” He pointed at the one with tears. He felt so free. He said, in Hollywood they have so many rules. The actor cannot change anything. Especially for a hero, cannot have tears. Usually when they shoot a hero, when they got tears, they turn away from the camera.

Q: Did you find that it was easy to work with American stars like Cage and John Travolta?

A: Very easy. They gave me quite a lot of great respect. Even Tom Cruise. Everybody said he’s the most difficult actor in the business. (Laughs.) I didn’t think so. Whenever you came with a good idea, he would listen.

Q: He wasn’t as intense as people have said he was on “Mission: Impossible II” (2000)?

A: I know that sometimes Tom is very demanding. He likes to control things, and he got the final approval for everything. He’s got so much power. But sometimes he also listens. A lot of people were expecting me and Tom would have some kind of fight someday because we came from different backgrounds, different styles. But I’m a man with a lot of patience. I feel Tom sometimes is just like a kid — like a kid wants more candy.

We did a scene when he’s climbing on a 2,000-foot-high cliff. We have three stunt doubles; they’re all great climbers. I said, “OK, from this side jump over to the other side, only one cable.” He said, “No, no, let me do it.” I said, “Why? No, it’s too dangerous. There are no protections. What if you made a mistake?” “No, John, believe me, I can do it.” He’s begging me and he’s got tears. He did the whole thing without a double. He said, “The audience will notice when you use a double. The body movement is so different from mine. Even from the back, they know it wasn’t me.”

Sometimes I’d set up the camera and he (has some) other idea. The crew, they’re all looking at me, and I know it’s going to be trouble. I brought him to the back of the set, and I told him, “My camera angle will make you look great, very pretty. You just trust me.” And he understood. Then I brought him out to talk to everybody: “Our idea is to put the camera there.” He didn’t lose face.

Q: I imagine as both a producer and the star of the film, there’s a certain level of control he wants to have.

A: Most of the time he was so cooperative. The only thing is that he is so concerned about the rating. Sometimes, I want him to fight with two guns. He worried we might have a rating problem (if you) shoot that many guys. I said, “Tom, just believe me, just do it. You’ll look handsome. So elegant.” And then the other crew said, “If you don’t do it, why work on a John Woo movie?”

After he did one shot, he feels so good. “OK, John, give me more!” Every action piece, it was a new experiment for him. For the future “Mission: Impossibles,” he’s increasing all the danger and getting more and more crazy — that all started from “Mission II.”

Q: Why did you leave Hollywood?

A: After I shot “Paycheck” (a 2003 Philip K. Dick adaptation), I couldn’t get any better scripts. There’s a lot of good scripts, but a much smaller scale, much smaller budget — they never came to me. I got fed up. Those big movies involve so many problems.

Q: What made you come back now with “Silent Night?”

A: It was three years ago when I came back from China, and I felt so excited to read it because the whole script (had) no dialogue. It’s a great challenge for me.

Q: This is your first independent film. Is it harder to get a studio movie made?

A: Yes, because the Hollywood system, as I know, only the Marvel kind of movie (is getting made). You can’t do anything else. But after the audience has seen too much of that kind of movie, they’re fed up. That’s why “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” made a lot of money. It’s proof the audience really wants to go back to see the real movie that’s close to the heart, close to the mind. I don’t mean that those big Marvel movies are no good. But I think audiences (are) changing now.

The superhero era also may have changed our relationship to movie stars. Individual stars may not hold as much power.

With all those big-event movies, they put all the big stars in together, like they put all the eggs in one basket. They are big stars, but you don’t feel (it). They kind of waste what the movies used to be: Only one or two (main) characters — they can deliver much better performances. That makes them look like a real star.

Q: What do you think of the style in action movies today?

A: For “Silent Night,” I cut down on almost everything I used to do. I would like to go back to more realistic fighting scenes. I try to do it against what is popular now. The big special effects. All those big Marvel (movies), I’m not totally against them. I just feel they do action way over the top.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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