Combustible Celluloid

Interview with John Woo

Shooting the Breeze

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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I discovered John Woo back in 1992 when I caught showings of his best-known films The Killer and Hard-Boiled. I remember my jaw hitting the floor and my eyes bugging out of my head in amazement, and I knew that the way I watched films would never again be the same.

It was only later that I took the next step and rented what I have come to consider Woo's masterpiece, the Vietnam War story Bullet in the Head (1990). It's a devastating, sobering and emotionally clobbering portrait of three friends who expect to make a buck off the war, but end up testing their friendship and their very humanity.

Viewing that film made me realize that Woo was not just an action director, but a filmmaker proficient in the poetry of human movement, and the emotional results thereof.

Nevertheless, since he came to America in 1993, Woo has been viewed by nearly every American as just an "action director," and Woo himself finally wants to prove them wrong. To do so, he has taken on another serious drama, a war film not unlike Bullet in the Head called Windtalkers, which opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.

Windtalkers takes a cue from history and incorporates World War II Navajo code-talkers into its tale. The Navajo were recruited into the war effort to use their own language to transmit coordinates and other information over the airwaves. The Japanese never cracked it.

In the film, Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater play American soldiers assigned to protect two code-talkers, played by Adam Beach (from Smoke Signals) and newcomer Roger Willie. Woo, Slater and Willie recently visited San Francisco to help promote the film.

Willie, who has four years of military experience, was impressed by the fact that the film had so many cultural advisors to make sure that the Navajo language, rituals and culture were accurately portrayed. "We've come a long way," he says. "In the past, films used actors who were not native." (See Burt Lancaster in Apache for an example.) "On this film, for them to actually go out to Navajo country to look for Navajo actors, that tells you a lot."

Woo shot the opening and closing of the film in Monument Valley, which is a famous location for old Hollywood Westerns and Civil War movies. Woo connected with the area on a more spiritual level, and hit on the idea that he could juxtapose it with the war images. "There's a sense of holiness," Willie says.

Slater plays the well-adjusted, happy-go-lucky "Ox," so named in the script because he was originally a "big, giant, lummoxy character," Slater says. "We had to tailor it a little bit and make him from Oxnard, CA. It went against the type for that sort of character, and it just made it fun for me. It just felt right. He seemed to have a really good heart."

After 1996's Broken Arrow, Windtalkers marks Slater's second collaboration with Woo, a director known for working again and again with actors like Cage, Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung and John Travolta. "This was more comfortable, and I felt safer," Slater says of the association. "There's almost a telepathic communication. He knows what I can do and what I can bring, and I know a little bit more about he works. It feels great."

"I was so grateful that he still remembered me!" Woo adds with his trademark humility.

Woo's earnestness does not appear to be an act. The only time he gets serious is in talking about the art and craft of movies.

Upon hearing that his director's cut of Bullet in the Head was not available on video in America, Woo explains that he never really gets a true "director's cut." "The original version was 2 hours and 50 minutes, but the studio makes you cut it to 2 hours. When I came to America I tried to buy the film and put all the scenes back. I checked at the lab and at the studio, and all the extra scenes are gone. In the Hong Kong labs, they never keep the extra scenes. They throw them away like garbage. They make so many movies, they have no room to store this footage."

For that reason, he says "I never feel satisfied with my movies, and I never watch them."

And so Woo did not consciously think of Bullet in the Head while working on Windtalkers, but the spirit was there. Indeed, Cage brought the script to Woo on the basis that he had seen Bullet in the Head and dreamed of being in a movie like it.

After accepting, Woo went to one of his own heroes for inspiration, the late filmmaker Samuel Fuller, who made at least two great war movies, The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Big Red One (1980). As a result Windtalkers has a ragged, do-it-yourself feel that many glossy war movies lack.

To be sure, some fans may find that Windtalkers does not look like the usual John Woo film, using shaky hand-held cameras instead of his usual smoothness and grace. But this is all part of Woo's plan to get away from his "action director" label.

Nevertheless, he can't help adding little personal touches, such as the scene in which Cage gets drunk on sake and begins confronting some of his deep, painful demons. During the scene, he stumbles through a graveyard and he pours his drink on the graves. Woo explains that in China, this is seen as a "salute to death."

The inherently humble Woo continues to dream of doing many other kinds of films, including the ever-looming musical. He says he almost got a chance to direct the film version of Chicago but had already signed on to do Mission: Impossible II.

"The trouble is -- I know I have some kind of power, but I never know how to use it. I'm not that kind of filmmaker," he says, waving off any compliments of greatness. "When I'm on the set, I just concentrate on the movie."

June 17, 2002

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