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Interview: John Woo

Working 'Cliff'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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For a time, John Woo was one of the world's most successful and celebrated filmmakers. He helped revitalize the Hong Kong film industry in the 1980s and 1990s with some of his groundbreaking action masterpieces; American audiences were equally impressed, and Woo was invited to Hollywood. (This was just before Hong Kong reverted back to Communist Chinese control, when many filmmakers were leaving the country in hopes of retaining artistic freedom.) His career in Hollywood was not quite the same, despite making hits and at least one critically acclaimed film, Face/Off (1997). Some of his films were ill-timed, like Paycheck (2003), which came shortly after Ben Affleck's doomed Gigli, or Windtalkers (2002), whose theatrical version was inferior to the director's cut Woo was eventually able to release on DVD. Others, like Mission: Impossible II (2000), were dismissed as trash by those who were unable to see the beauties within.

Many of Woo's fans had left him by the mid 2000s, but now he has staged a "return to form" so powerful that his old reputation should be restored. It's Red Cliff, which has already opened in a four-hour version in China and become the highest-grossing film of all time there. Americans are getting a shorter version, which plays beautifully by itself and never feels rushed or chopped. During the Han Dynasty, the evil Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) embarks on a campaign to wipe out two rebel forces, with the might of the emperor's army on his side. Representing the two rebel armies, strategist Kongming (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) team up to battle Cao Cao; together they use wisdom and cunning against the villain's brute strength. The movie depicts several smaller, individual attacks and battles before building up to the final showdown. Forget Braveheart and Gladiator. This is truly graceful, dazzling, glorious epic filmmaking of the type not seen since the 1950s.

In October of 2009, Mr. Woo came to San Francisco to talk about the film. The following is an edited transcript of a round-table interview, including myself and three other journalists.

Q: Can you please talk about this 2-1/2 hour version, as opposed to the four-hour version that played in China?

John Woo: For the Asian audience who are more familiar with the characters, we could have a much longer time for developing the characters and the relationships between them. American audiences are not as familiar with the characters, so we decided to focus on the main story. We made the decision before we started shooting the film. I didn't get much involved with the editing because it's just like cutting my flesh! It was hard. So I let my editor do the job, and I must say that he did a very good job. He made a good cut, and it has the same kind of spirit.

Q: It doesn't feel choppy or short.

JW: I'm very pleased with both versions.

Q: You have been working on this for 20 years. How has your thinking on the material evolved?

JW: I grew up with this story. There are so many heroes I admire. The one General, Zhao Yun, who saves a little baby in the battle. He was famous for that scene. He was quite a character. He was very brave, loyal and also a man with honor. That character inspired me a lot. I used it for Chow Yun-fat in Hard-Boiled, when he saves the little baby from the hospital in the gunfire. So you can see how much I love it. The other thing was the battle on Red Cliff was the most famous battle in Chinese history. Most Chinese and even the Japanese and Koreans, they all know this part of history. It shows how a small army can defeat a larger and more powerful enemy through a combination of teamwork, intelligence, courage, friendship. I think that kind of a topic is very encouraging. It makes an interesting movie. I also want to show the audience that the ancient Chinese battle tactics, strategy, formation; it you put it on the screen, it will be exciting. Also, I have been working in Hollywood for over 16 years. I have learned from so many great people. I have learned a lot about technology. It's about time to take what I have learned from Hollywood, to Asia. There are so many talented young people in China. They have a big passion about movies. They know everything, but they're eager to learn. They want to work on a big-budget, Hollywood-type movie. It allowed them to learn some new skills and use some new equipment.

Q: Can you please talk about the process of writing and revising the script?

JW: I intended to make this movie more international, even though it was based on Chinese history. We didn't know how the people from other countries, how they feel about the whole thing. I suggested to make a lot of changes in the characters. I wanted to make them more human, rather than superheroes. In the real history, those heroes became icons, and some of them even became gods for the Asian countries. Everyone is so serious about them. I wanted a modern viewer to be able to relate to them. I suggested we add some humor, and increase the female roles. In the book, there was not much of a female role. Some people were against this idea. "It's not history." I told them, I'm not making a mini-series for the history channel. I'm making a movie! So that's why we spent that much time to work with different writers. One is good with dialogue, one is good with history, one is good with structure...

Q: Why was it important for you to have the two tough female roles?

JW: The movie is all about teamwork. I thought the female should have a major role in that. I also wanted to show that classical women, who were known for their beauty, also had a strong personality. Just like women nowadays. Very brave, independent, intelligent. Sometimes they do a much better job than a man. My daughter does. They also have a heart for their family and their country. They can do the same thing as a man. Those are my ideas. The princess, for the Asian version, she had a lot more story. She has a love affair with an enemy soldier. She's not only brave and smart, but she also has a heart. Her story brings up the anti-war message. There's no winner in a war. I think that's the way that you make this movie more international. The Western audience is so familiar with the kung fu and gangster movies; the kung fu is just a part of our culture. We have more important and more interesting things. This is not just a Chinese historical movie. You also have music, the art of tea, even the football game. I wanted people to know that the game was started in China. About two or three thousand years ago, they used the game to train soldiers in teamwork, speed, etc. It's true.

Q: No matter how much you prepare, epic filmmaking is always a challenge. What was your most innovative solution?

JW: We have 2000 people working on the set, 700 crew, 1500 soldiers, hundreds of horses. Twelve camera crews working on the set, four units, second unit, special effect unit, stunt unit. We all worked in the same area. It was huge. We had a big challenge with the weather. We worked against the worst weather. We started in the hot summer and people got heat fever. When we shot the fire sequence, it was very cold. We were working on ice and frozen ground. We had a storyboard and we planned for everything. We had a great team from the United States, we had a special effects team from Korea, we had people from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan. Everyone worked together. Everyone had a strong view. They all learned from each other. They all worked together as a family. They were good people, so I have no worry. It's hard to find a way to finish it, to get the work done.

Q: Do you prefer the preparation or the shooting?

JW: Oh, I prefer shooting. It took us 1-1/2 years of preparation. Too long. I miss the old days in Hong Kong. I would shoot a movie without a script. Like I shot The Killer. We just looked at a picture. I think so fast. I think much faster than I talk. So I just get a rough outline and everyday I just let my crew know, "OK, tomorrow I need 30 stuntmen and 50 extras." "What's the story about?" "I don't know!" And then I figure out some lines and give it to the actors, and then, "Let's shoot it." I have the whole movie in my mind, but I have to explain it to the crew. Not anymore.

Q: When you first came to Hollywood, I was hoping your style of clear, beautiful action would catch on, but today everyone uses the shaky/choppy method. It was a real pleasure to see your style once again.

JW: That's what I like. Maybe I'm a little old-fashioned. There was a European film and the director shook the camera, because it was the style. He shook the camera for a good reason. And so many people learned from it. Now movies do it the same way, no matter if it's a melodrama, or a tension moment or an action moment, they're shaking the camera. It makes me sick. It's hard to tell what it's doing. I keep asking, why do they need the big star to do this? I like to make the film the traditional way, calm and easy and let the audience think, rather than tell them what I feel.

Q: When are you going to make your musical?

JW: I have a script. For twelve years. It's a very emotional, very exciting story. It's a gangster musical. But you have to find a studio. And they keep saying, it's not much of a market right now. It's an American story. I almost did Chicago. They offered it to me. But unfortunately I had a scheduling conflict. I was busy on Windtalkers. I want to remake Le Samourai. I'm trying to find a writer. I'm doing negotiations, the copyright, the contract... It's exciting. Another one is Marco Polo. It's an American film. In China, I'm developing a project called Flying Tigers. It's a pirate story, a friendship between a Chinese and an American.

Q: Red Cliff has had an extraordinary response in China.

JW: I'm so glad the movie has really drawn the audience back to the theater. Usually people would rather stay home watching DVDs. A lot of young people are only interested in watching Hollywood movies. They have the best quality and more money and big stars. And they don't care much about local film. So that's one reason I made the movie, the story and the scope and the sound. I wanted the audience to know: you've got to see it on the big screen. They loved to see the movie in the theater, and they want to see other films! And now they're building more theaters!

Q: If there were no more pigeons or doves, what would you use?

JW: I would use a butterfly.

October 16, 2009

Partial John Woo Filmography:
Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)
A Better Tomorrow (1986)
A Better Tomorrow II (1987)
The Killer (1989)
Bullet in the Head (1990)
Once a Thief (1991)
Hard-Boiled (1992)
Hard Target (1993)
Broken Arrow (1996)
Face/Off (1997)
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
Windtalkers (2002)
Paycheck (2003)
Red Cliff (2009)

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