a long talk

‘My Films Had So Much Anger’

John Woo reflects on a career driven by action, ambition, and artistry.

John Woo and Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible 2 (2000). Photo: Jasin Boland / Paramount / Kobal / Shutterstock
John Woo and Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible 2 (2000). Photo: Jasin Boland / Paramount / Kobal / Shutterstock
John Woo and Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible 2 (2000). Photo: Jasin Boland / Paramount / Kobal / Shutterstock

More than three decades ago, John Woo reinvented the action movie. He did so not just with his deliriously choreographed action scenes, but with his unabashedly melodramatic tales of violent men who bonded with their adversaries. His revolutionary Hong Kong “heroic bloodshed” films — A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), and Hard-Boiled (1992) being the best known — broke through in the West in the early 1990s, influencing everyone from James Cameron to Quentin Tarantino. Right around then, Woo himself came to the U.S., making his Hollywood debut with the Jean-Claude Van Damme-starring Hard Target (1993), a modest hit that has, over the years, come to be regarded as a classic.

At their best, Woo’s American pictures showcased his ability to blend mind-melting action scenes with a kind of romanticism and emotionality genre films often looked down on; in that sense, Face/Off (1997) remains unmatched. The mixture worked financially as well: Broken Arrow (1996), Face/Off, and Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) were all big hits. But then, Woo’s style of filmmaking seemed to vanish, as the world of action divided itself into gritty, self-important shakycam on one side and elaborate, VFX-infused fantasy and sci-fi on the other.

Now, it’s fair to say that we are undergoing a revival and re-appreciation of Woo’s work. The Criterion Collection recently released his 1979 film Last Hurrah for Chivalry. A Face/Off 4K comes out next month. (One for Hard Target came out a couple of years ago.) Most importantly, Woo has finished shooting a new film, Silent Night, starring Joel Kinnaman, his first American feature since 2003’s (underrated) Ben Affleck-starring Paycheck, and he’s preparing to shoot another. When he pops up on the Zoom window, the first thing I notice is an enormous poster of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Magnet of Doom (1963) on the wall behind him.

I see the Jean-Pierre Melville poster in the background.
Yeah. He was my hero. I loved his movies. I stole from two of his movies, Le Samouraï and The Red Circle, when I made The Killer. He was the biggest influence on me.

When were you first exposed to his films? 
We didn’t have any kind of film school in Hong Kong, so we had to learn from movies and foreign film critics. We studied them in the library. We had a community, a group of young people who would get together and make experimental films. We watched great movies at the Italian, French, and British embassies. Art films were showing in commercial theaters back then. That was how we learned the movies. I learned so much from European films in my 20s.

How did you get into the film industry? 
It was tough for film-crazy young people like us to get into the business. If you didn’t have a relationship with anyone in the business, you’d never get a chance to work. I was lucky. In 1968, there was a film-studio manager who was the first one to study movies in Italy and had an open mind. When he came back to finish up as chairman of one of the biggest studios in Hong Kong, he hired young people like us into the business. My first job was script supervisor for a film. Later I changed to another studio, Shaw Brothers, where I worked with one of my favorite directors, Chang Cheh, as a script supervisor and assistant director. I worked for him for almost two years, then I got the opportunity to direct my first film when I was 27.

Probably the best-known film from your early period is 1979’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry, which just came out as part of the Criterion Collection. How did you develop the action scenes in the film? 
I learned so much from my great master, Chang Cheh — especially how he worked with his stunt coordinator and the way he used camera movement. When he passed away, the people who followed him for decades, like the stunt team, were all out of work. So I grouped them together again and made Last Hurrah for Chivalry as a tribute. I tried to pay tribute to Akira Kurosawa. I really liked the Chinese swordsmen in ancient times, who had the true spirit of chivalry. I was fascinated with four very famous assassins in ancient China and their code of honor. I used their story as a base, then created my kind of hero.

In Hong Kong back then, there was a lot of competition. While rewatching other movies, if we saw something we liked — a new fight technique or concept — we wanted to improve on it. I’ve never learned kung fu. I’ve never learned any sword-fighting. But I’m crazy about dancing and musicals. I wanted the action to look beautiful, exciting, and elegant. And I went with my instincts. Like, the character of the drunken swordsman [in Last Hurrah for Chivalry] was me! When I was young, I was a drunkard. But I believed I had a code of honor. I wanted to do good and defend justice.

In my movie, at the end, the two men have to work together, and the emotion — the love, hate, and everything — it’s all there in the fight. But I wanted to show some kind of humanity. In the film, the drunken swordsman sacrifices himself for a friend. That always moves me. Even when I was making gun-battle movies, like Hard Boiled or The Killer, they had that kind of spirit. That’s my philosophy of life. Life is beautiful as long as you have real friends.

How do you see Last Hurrah for Chivalry now?
I still love the movie, but I feel I was a little too ambitious. I was too young. I hadn’t learned enough. I think the dialogue is a little too cheesy. When you understand Chinese, the dialogue is too modern. It doesn’t sound like a classic movie. Many of the dialogue scenes looked like they were shot in a police station — like you’re watching a play, not a movie. But in general, I still love the movie. Before Last Hurrah for Chivalry, I’d always wanted to make a movie like Le Samouraï. But the studio always said, “You just started. It’s too early to make that kind of movie. Those kinds of movies are poison. Nobody wants to watch them.” At the time, the most popular movies were what we called “fist” and “pillow” movies. The fist was kung-fu, martial-arts fighting. And the pillow was a sex film. So I was frustrated. All I could do was make some kind of kung-fu film and a comedy. I like comedy, but I don’t have that kind of passion. I made eight of them, but they didn’t look like comedies, because my films had so much anger.

Where did that anger come from?
I had so much anger about society. Rich people were getting richer, and poor people were getting poorer. The criminals were nearly untouchable, and good people never got true justice. The studio still didn’t let me make the real movies I wanted to make. So I put all of my anger into the comedies. When people came to watch my movies, they didn’t know if they should laugh, cry, or be angry. But I don’t regret it, because I feel, as a filmmaker, you’ve got a duty to serve the truth inside your heart. No matter if it’s a comedy, action, or a love story, I’ve got to bring my true feelings into the film. I don’t want to hide and be happy. If I’m not happy, I don’t want to do something to try to please anybody.

Later, I met my good friend Tsui Hark, a brilliant, talented filmmaker. I recommended him to a new studio. Then, in 1985, because I had helped him start his career, he returned the favor and supported me to make A Better Tomorrow. I put all of the French elements into the film. At last, I really could do whatever I wanted.

That period from A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head to The Killer and Hard Boiled was a pivotal time for you — when you developed this revolutionary style. How did that come about?
Well, in the late ’70s, with the Hong Kong New Wave coming up, all of a sudden, the whole business changed. The fist and pillow movies didn’t work anymore. There was a young audience, a new generation, and they wanted something new. We had some open-minded financiers and producers who trusted us, which gave us a lot of creative freedom. And we knew our audience, because the market is so small: only Hong Kong, Taiwan, and some Chinatown theaters in foreign countries.

But for me, it was hard. I came from the old-time movies like the French New Wave. It was hard to talk to the crew about Federico Fellini, François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Melville. It was hard to let people know what I was really thinking. That’s why I feel like a lot of our movies shot without a script. Like The Killer. There was no script. It was all in my mind. But this was a good thing as well, because I could control everything myself — like Stanley Kubrick. The studio gave me a reasonable budget, and I told them how many days for the shoot and what the story is about, then I could totally control the budget, crew, and everything. I love to shoot on soundstages. Every day, I just shut the door and made my own film. The financial people never came to the set, never asked anything. And the audience loved it.

Chow Yun-fat in Hard Boiled (1992). Photo: Rim/Courtesy Everett Collection

What was it about Chow Yun-fat that first drew you to him? 
He’s a great actor, but we also have a lot of things in common. We both came from very poor families, and we struggled by ourselves. When I was writing A Better Tomorrow, all of the dialogue came from my heart and life experiences. When he read the dialogue, he said, “Hey, it’s my dialogue! I have these same kinds of feelings.” He had been a failure for three years. People had been laughing at him. Every one of his movies was a flop, and I was in the same situation. People were laughing at me. So he thought my dialogue was speaking from his heart. Then, when I gave him a raincoat and sunglasses, he looked like Alain Delon or Ken Takakura. My two idols! He’d never fired a real gun, and he hadn’t learned any martial arts. He had never punched a guy before.

You guys were thinking of working together again for a while. Do you think that could happen?
It’s hard. The hardest thing is to get the right script. And we got old. I would still like to do something like Clint Eastwood. Like, a main character that’s going back to the old days.

As I understand it, when you made Hard Boiled, you were often making the story up as you went along. But you were dealing with such elaborate action set pieces. How do you get through something like that when it’s not all planned out? 
Well, there were two reasons I wanted to make Hard Boiled. At that time, in 1990, Hong Kong gangsters were out of control. They had firearms, weapons much more powerful than the police force. They were robbing banks and shooting people on the street. It made me want to create a Hong Kong Dirty Harry — a person who had the guts and the power to go against all of those criminals.

Originally, it was a story about a serial killer, a psychopath, who was murdering babies. This was really happening in Japan. I read news about people who would sneak into the supermarket and put poison in baby food. I was so upset and angry. Where was the justice? So I created a story about a Dirty Harry to try to catch a psychopath who was murdering babies. But after I started shooting, I thought, Oh wait, maybe this is not a good influence for the audience. Some people might learn from the movies! So I changed my mind. Tony Leung was supposed to play that role, the psychopath. I changed my idea, made him an undercover cop. I gave up the idea of shooting babies.

Then, after that, the Gulf War happened. The war in Kuwait. This made me very angry and made me change the story. The second half is pretty much a war movie. It wasn’t like the usual criminal or gangster film. I put the biggest gun-battle scene in a hospital, which was being attacked by a huge army. They’re stuck in a war zone — like in Hanoi.

The action sequences were all sort of by instinct. The opening action scene in the teahouse — we shot that before we had a story or script. The real location was gonna be torn down in two weeks. The teahouse was a memorable building. It was historic. Everybody in Hong Kong knew it. So I had to shoot it before they tore it down. I made up a scene — Okay, Chow Yun-fat is a cop, a Dirty Harry, and these guys ambush him. Then when I walked into the location, saw the bannister, the stairs, I thought it’d be nice to see our hero sliding down the bannister, then shooting the others. It looked great, you know? I made up the rest of the story afterward. It was fun to make that movie. It wasn’t fun for the financier. It took 150 shooting days, and we went way over budget. But it made money.

Tell me about how your first American film, Hard Target, came to be. By this point, a lot of people in the West had seen your films and were interested in you. Why Hard Target
Before that, I had never dreamed of coming to Hollywood. In 1991, when I had just started shooting Hard Boiled, all of a sudden, I got a phone call from Oliver Stone. He and A. Kitman Ho had a production company, and they offered me a very interesting script. It was kind of like a martial-arts movie but with a lot of great philosophy. Oliver Stone loved A Better Tomorrow. And I liked him. When I came to his office, I said, “My English is pretty poor.” So he told everybody, “Read his mind.” With a smile. Everybody was excited. And I wanted to try something new. But Warner Bros. wanted to give me even less money than what I got in Hong Kong, so the deal didn’t work out.

Then later, I got a phone call from Universal. Jean-Claude Van Damme, producer Jim Jacks, and the writers all flew to Hong Kong to meet me and ask me to make Hard Target. In American films, every kind of movie had its own audience. The action fans only watched action movies. The comedies were only for the family. The melodrama was for whatever intellectual audience. What they liked about my movies was that they felt like I put all kinds of elements into an action film. My films had good action scenes and were very emotional — with a lot of humanity and a sense of humor. So they wanted me to make Hard Target more like a Hong Kong film with all of these elements. It was maybe not a good idea. We had a test screening, and it was horrible. After 15 minutes, some people left the theater. People couldn’t stand the violent shots, then when they saw some of the slow-motion stuff, they felt, Oh, it’s a commercial! I realized some would never get used to that kind of style. So, uh, anyway, it was nice to learn something. I’m really surprised and grateful that people still remember Hard Target, and so many people now love it.

How do you like it? 
I like it. I like the original cut, which was never released by the studio. The version that people see had been cut by the studio.

For a while, there was a much longer cut circulating on bootleg VHS. Is that your preferred cut — the original?
Yeah, maybe!

John Woo and Jean-Claude Van Damme on the set of Hard Target. Photo: Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock

What was it like working with Van Damme?
Uh … well … he … I think he liked movies, and he liked to do a good job. He was, you know, quite popular at that time and a little too busy. He got so many phone calls! Whenever we were shooting or eating, he was always talking on the phone with the other studio, talking about his next picture’s deal and about money. On the set, we had to spend some time waiting for him after he talked on the phone. Anyway, I think he’s very serious about his work, and he’s smart. He can fight, he’s charming, and he’s kind of a romantic. He was willing to try new things. Even if an action scene looked pretty dangerous, he still wanted to go for it. And he loved my movies. He loved Hard Boiled. He loved The Killer. He always wanted to be better than Chow Yun-fat.

Is it true that he wanted a camera focused on his muscles?
Yeah! He was so concerned about his hairstyle and good-looking angles and liked to have an extra camera to shoot his muscles. He was like a big kid. My specialty is: I know how to make my actors look great. I know how to find the proper angle to make them look beautiful. Because I love my actors. I respect my actors. The actors in my films are everything. Every actor, I try to find a different angle or some special lighting to make them look great. And I like to stand beside a camera to watch their performance. At that moment, I don’t care about the background, the color, or the lighting. I just want to look at the eyes. And I’m so happy when they do something unexpected. I tried so hard to make Van Damme look great, and he knows it. Even Tom Cruise — he understands it. John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Chow Yun-fat, everyone in my movies — I try to make them look great.

Tell me about Wilford Brimley. He gives a delightful performance in Hard Target, and that shot of him riding away from the exploding house — I saw the movie in theaters the day it opened, and we all cheered when we saw that shot. 
I didn’t really know him before we worked together. He was highly recommended by my stunt coordinator Billy Burton, who was a good friend of his. I didn’t know he was a big star. He was a funny guy and a very respectful person, and he had a great sense of humor. He tried to make everybody happy. I was so young. I didn’t know how to talk to him. When I tried to talk to him, I felt so small, even though he was pretty short. I didn’t know how to tell him what to do. But he was just, “Haha, don’t worry, son. I can do this and that and that.” He was so humble and never got mad. Then for the explosion shot, he asked to do it himself. He wanted to do the running through the house, then the big explosion. He wasn’t afraid. The whole performance came from him. I learned so much from him. He liked to talk about the old times, a lot about movies, a lot about life.

Face/Off might be your most popular American film. You were talking just now about trying to put actors in the best possible light, and one of the things I find so fascinating about Face/Off is you’re not afraid to let Cage and Travolta go totally over the top. 
First of all, it was a sci-fi movie. The movie was set about 200 years from now. I took out 99 percent of the special effects and changed it to ten years from now to try to make it more realistic. In the meantime, I started to make it like a comedy. Or a comedylike movie, not a real comedy. I’m a big fan of MAD magazine. The characters in my movies sometimes feel like characters from there. The whole thing is so ridiculous. People who can change their faces — it’s so unreal. But I had to make it a believable story, so that’s why I let my actors be carefree and do whatever they wanted. Before we started filming, Sherry Lansing, the chair of Paramount Pictures, had a meeting and gathered all of the producers and important people from the studio and said, “All I want is a John Woo movie, and nobody needs to give him any notes.” I was so shocked and surprised. I got to have so much creative freedom.

In the meantime, I was inspired by Travolta. He was just like his character, Sean Archer. He always came to me — “John, don’t feel upset or anything. It’s only a movie. Let’s enjoy life.” We used that kind of attitude to make the film, and the two actors worked together so well. They spent about two or three weeks rehearsing with each other. They were imitating each other, walking and talking — even the laughs, the crying, everything. They made it a lot of fun. The freedom. That’s why I make a film.

On the set of Face/Off (1997). Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

The boat chase at the end of Face/Off is spectacular, and one of the things I love about it is that you can see the stunt doubles’ faces. It’s not Travolta or Cage. That actually enhances the scene for me, because that tells us it’s not being faked. 
Yeah, I never like to hide it. The audience understands that the most dangerous action is usually played by the stunt guy. Tom Cruise likes to do all kinds of risky action scenes, but there are not many people like him. And I didn’t want to do digital faces. I just tried to maintain the beauty of the action. If a shot looks beautiful and stunning, I want to keep it. It’s about the film language. You can see, in my action scenes, I never like to do the quick cut or second camera.

One reason I like to keep making action movies is because I have a high respect for stunt people all over the world. I think they have a true spirit and great professional honor. If something is memorable, beautiful, or challenging, they love to do it. In some way, I feel they have the same qualities as a ballet dancer.

It sounds like you didn’t get that kind of creative freedom again, even though Face/Off was a huge hit. 
The others, they’re all right. Even if they gave me notes, they still let me make the last decision. The only thing they were concerned about was the violence — usually. “Oh, for the Hong Kong movie, you can shoot as much as you want, but in this country, can you cut it down a little bit? Not more than five shots instead of a hundred bullets in your film.” I understood, and I sympathized. I mean, in this country, there were some Asian gangsters robbing a jewelry store in an Asian area. When they caught them and asked them why they did that, they said, “We learned from John Woo movies.” They learned it from Bullet in the Head. This was many, many years ago, but I still feel pretty bad. So when the studio said it didn’t want to give any bad influences to younger people, I calmed down a little.

Is there a film from your American period that you wish people would take another look at?
Windtalkers. There were not many people who really understood that movie or liked it. It was not good timing. The movie had to be released in 2001. Then 9/11 happened, so they had to push it. They were so afraid audiences wouldn’t want to watch a war movie at that time. I had a conflict with the writers. I said, “My kind of movie is usually about friendship, respect, and honor.” But the writers didn’t feel good about that. They said, “The enemy is the enemy. The enemy has to be destroyed.” I tried to make it a human story. The audience didn’t expect a movie about friendship. But I’m still proud of that movie.

Your style of action filmmaking was so influential in the ’90s and 2000s, but then, in the mid-2000s or so, there was a move toward a harder, “realistic” handheld aesthetic. Did you sense that at the time? That’s when you went to China and did Red Cliff. 
Yeah, I sensed it. I didn’t like it. At the time, I couldn’t stand to see everyone doing the same thing and using the shaky camera and fast cuts. Even the drama movies were always using a handheld camera. I couldn’t read the actors’ faces. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I couldn’t pay attention to their performances. I had a problem with that kind of style. Whenever I watched that kind of movie, whether in a theater or on DVD, whenever I saw the camera shake, I stepped out. I left the theater. I couldn’t stand it. I think it’s not a real movie. The reason I went to shoot a Chinese movie is because I had been asked to help Chinese movies have more of a world market. I didn’t feel I got old or anything like that. I just didn’t like the new changes.

You just shot another movie, Silent Night, is that correct?
Yeah. Very interesting movie. The whole movie is without dialogue. It allowed me to use visuals to tell the story, to tell how the character feels. We are using music instead of language. And the movie is all about sight and sound. The budget was a little tight, and the schedule was tight, but it made me change my working style. Usually, for a big movie, a studio movie, we shoot a lot of coverage, then leave it to the cutting room. But in this movie, I tried to combine things without doing any coverage shots. I had to force myself to use a new kind of technique. Some scenes were about two or three pages, but I did it all in one shot.

It’s almost like you’re finally doing a musical. 
Yeah. Yeah. [Laughs]

How do you view your American period now? Is there anything you would have done differently if you had to do it all over again?
I’ve learned a lot of things. I learned how to shoot an action scene with CGI and other technical things. I think all of us, including the actors, no matter if they’re American or Chinese — we all have the same kind of emotion and humanity. But in Hollywood, it feels safer, because everybody is so professional. In Hong Kong, they just shoot the movie even without a script. But I’m still learning. Every movie is a learning process for me. This is a great world. Everybody deserves to learn.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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‘My Films Had So Much Anger’