Interview: John Woo
by Kevin Kelly Dec 6th 2009 // 9:02PM
When I was in college in the 90s in Austin, Texas, I used to frequent a video store called “I Luv VIdeo.” The locals all called it “I Heart Video,” though, because of their distinctive sign. They had an amazing array of video tapes from all over the world, including a huge section of Asian cult hits. This is where I was introduced to John Woo and his movies like Hard Boiled, The Killer, and Bullet in the Head. The man is an amazing director, but since moving to Hollywood his work has been erratic. For every Mission: Impossible 2, there’s a Windtalkers. For every Face/Off, there’s a Paycheck.
Red Cliff is his first film since Paycheck, and it’s a triumphant change for Woo as he moves into epic storytelling with a film so large it had to be split into two parts. Unfortunately, American audiences only received a cut-down version of both films, but Woo says that the full version will be coming to DVD soon. Right now, you can catch Red Cliff in theaters (it opened nationwide in the US on November 25) or On Demand in some markets, and I can testify that it is still a very satisfying film to watch. This is a huge movie with a ton of action, a great story, and it’s good to see Woo returning to his Asian roots.
Read on for our full interview with John Woo just after the break.
Cinematical: American audiences probably aren’t familiar with the historical legacy of the Battle of the Red Cliffs. How big is that story in China? Does everyone know it? Are people taught it when they are children?
John Woo: Yeah. I think most of the Chinese people are familiar with this part of history and story. We have learned about it since we were a child. Beside the Chinese, the other Asian countries like Japan and Korea, and even Thailand, you know, the people, they have all learned this part of history. And in Korea and Japan, they even use it as material for the school.
Beside the movie, they also had made it in several different ways, like computer games, comic books. It is extremely popular in some of the Asian countries.
Cinematical: That’s hard for us to fathom. I mean, our country is barely over 200 years old. This is a story that’s been passed down for thousands of years.
John Woo: Yeah. I think what the Chinese or Japanese people like about it is the old heroes in the story; they are so famous. They have got the fame of loyalty and honor, and they serve their country and protect their family. And some of the heroes even became Gods. The other thing is about the strategy. One of the main characters, Zhuge Liang is the most brilliant mind in China. What he had created or invented about the war tactics, the strategy, his intelligence; you know, people learn from him. People even use it for doing business nowadays, especially for Japanese. They use his tactics for doing business and success. He is just like a God in Asia. So I also grew up with this story, and there are quite a few heroes I really admire. There was a soldier who was saving a baby in the middle of battle in the movie. He was famous for that. And actually, it was the original inspiration for Chow Yun Fat in Hard Boiled.
Cinematical: Oh, sure. The hospital scene.
John Woo: Yeah. He was saving the little baby in a huge gun battle in a hospital.
Cinematical: So that is originally taken from the Battle of Red Cliffs?
John Woo: Yeah, yeah. I like the character. I admire him so much. He was so loyal to his master. He was very brave, very intelligent, and a lot of the Chinese people love him.
I was going to ask, you spoke about the strategy. How much of that did you take liberty with and how much was based on actual fact?
John Woo: The turtle formation was fiction. I made it up. Originally, it was Zhuge Liang’s, the strategist, idea. But his formation is kind of like a square shape which looked pretty dull to me. It is a huge square shape of soldiers with a little pattern inside and they were using different kinds of weapons and techniques to fight with the enemy. They were just advancing and it didn’t feel very interesting. So I changed it. One day, when I looked at the picture of turtles, then that gave me an idea. So I had decided to make it look like a turtle shape, and also, with a little pattern inside of the circle, trapping the enemy inside and beating them.
So it is a combination of original idea and my idea. But for the final battles, like the burning ship, was from the history. And also, there was the idea from Zhuge Liang, and the idea was they were using ten little boats, rammed them into the enemy’s navy of 2,000 ships. Because of the wind, the 10 little boats set the entire enemy’s navy on fire. So it was an extremely famous battle in Chinese history. Everybody knows it. So it was quite a challenge to make it on the big screen. [laughs]. And for the arrow scene, also, that was from the book. I just changed a little bit. I changed it to make it a little more funny. The three major battles, they are all based on the history, and then I had to make some changes.
Cinematical: The American version that we are seeing is different from the version that was released in China, which was a lot longer and was released in two parts. First of all, did you oversee the cut that we are getting, and what are we losing? What are we not going to see?
John Woo: Originally, there were two love stories. One is the General Zhou Yu, which was played by Tony Leung; a love story with his wife. And the other love story is the little princess; why she was sneaking into the enemy’s camp as a spy. And she also had a love story with an enemy young soldier. It is quite a tragic love story. At the end, the young soldier got killed; because the young solider is so innocent. He knew nothing about war and he sacrificed. And he also didn’t know why he got killed. So it had a pretty strong anti-war message in it. But for the length of the movie, so we had to lose that part.
We also had trimmed down the side characters a little just trying to tell one story. And also trying to focus on the main storyline and key characters. The American audience, they are not as familiar with this part of history and the characters, so that is what we decided to do. And then I just let my editor do the job. Basically, I didn’t want to lose too much. But I must say, my editor did a very good job. It didn’t look rough. It didn’t feel to have lost anything. I am very pleased with short version.
Cinematical: Are there plans yet to release a DVD here in the states that will have the entire film?
John Woo: Yeah. We will release the Asian version on DVD. You also have quite an interesting thing to watch.
Cinematical: The press notes say, “This is the most expensive Asian financed film ever made.” Is this the most expensive film you have worked on? I mean you have worked on some really big films? Was this budget even larger?
John Woo: I have worked on much bigger budget films in Hollywood, like Mission: Impossible 2. And of course, it cost a lot more. But for Asia, this is the most expensive movie ever. It cost $80 million. It is a really, really expensive film. It was worth it because for both the Chinese crew and all of us, we have learned a very good experience. It also proved we have the ability to make a big budget Hollywood style movie in China. There are really a lot of great, intelligent filmmakers in China. They really can do so many things.
Cinematical: It sounds like the audiences in China have really been going for it.
John Woo: Yeah. I think the movie really drew the audience into going back to the theater. Before, most of the young people in Asia, they only loved to watch a Hollywood movie. And they all feel only the Hollywood movies are worth watching because they have a much higher budget, much better technology, much bigger stars, something like that. This movie really has changed peoples’ minds and has let the young people know that no matter what kind of movie, Hollywood or Asian movie, they are worth watching.
Cinematical: This movie got you to work with Tony Leung again, although I had been reading that originally that part was going to be played by Chow Yun Fat. How did that happen and how did Tony come aboard? And what happened to Chow? Did he just have to drop out for other reasons?
John Woo: I think it is all about the contract. Chow and I have wanted to work together for so many years. He loved the project. Unfortunately, the contract didn’t work out. His agent had a hard time making a deal with the production company. And then Tony came aboard. Tony, he is sort of a good friend. He is so concerned about me. In the beginning, he just tried to comfort me and tried to do some help. And I said okay. How about letting him play the role even though he is going to make it different? So I think Tony is also perfect for the role.
The day he called me, he was extremely tired and his health wasn’t in good shape, because after he had worked on the Lust, Caution movie, he was so afraid he couldn’t do a good job with it. But for this movie, he would like to do it for a friend. So I was so appreciative. And after he thought about it, then he came aboard for the part. So mainly, he wanted to do it for a friend. He didn’t want to see me frustrated. Anyway, our friendship in between Tony and Chow, I still greatly admire him as one of the best actors in the world and he is still a good friend. We are still looking for some other project to work together in.
Cinematical: Wow, that’s a good friend to step in like that. He did a great job in the role.
John Woo: Oh, yeah. I think Tony, he got more mature and even more charming. He has great charisma and has a great heart. He really cares about his friends. In real life, he really cares about others, just like what he did in the movies. So I had to change the character. I just wanted Tony to play himself. The way he treats his friends and his soldiers in the movie, that is like he treated me. It is really nice to work with Tony again.
Cinematical: So when did you actually start filming the movie?
John Woo: In the middle of 2006.
Cinematical: Looking at some of the battle scenes when there are literally hundreds or thousands of soldiers on the screen, did you do some CGI work with that or was it literally a lot of extras?
John Woo: It is both. Fortunately, we had great support from the Chinese government. We got hundreds of soldiers to work on the set. And then we had the stunt people from all over the country. So we did most of the live action and then we CG’d adding more people. We also had built about 25 battleships of different sizes and CG’d the rest of it. So I think the CGI team that came from the United States, they did a very good job and we had a very good CGI supervisor, Craig Hayes. He cared about the movie and he had also been studying this part of history. And he knows all the characters, even better than some of the Chinese crew. So he was so involved. We had drawn all the action sequences on the big scenes, and we had spent a lot of time and a lot of energy to work on all those big scenes.
Cinematical: Your name seems to be swirling around a lot of different projects. What is next for you? Do you have something immediate, or do you just have several things that you are looking to get going?
John Woo: I have several things working at the same time for the moment. For my next project, it is called The Flying Tigers. It is a story about the American volunteer group working with the Chinese Air Force in World War II. And they were named The Flying Tigers. They are helping the Chinese to fight the war. They have a lot of great contributions for the country. And the Chinese people were so grateful to them. Mainly, the story is the Chinese and American pilots’ story. Mainly, it is a story about their friendship and their contribution. It is also going to be a pretty big budget movie. It will involve a lot of big battle scenes. So it is quite a challenging project.
Another one is a Chinese martial arts movie which is going to be a tribute to Akira Kurosawa. It is going to be my first martial arts movie. And then another two projects which are developing in Hollywood. One is called Marco Polo. And another one is a French one we call La Samurai. And I am also trying to making 3D movies. After I watched 17 minutes of Avatar when that came out. It was so amazing! I couldn’t shut my eyes. So they are encouraging me to make another one about an Asian Chinese mystery story.
Cinematical: So you think you might make a 3D movie? Any of these could be 3D, or you would do something specific for 3D?
John Woo: It is another Chinese story called Journey to the West. The main character is the Monkey King. But anyway, that is just a thought. There are so many good stories I could make into 3D movies.
Cinematical: We have been hearing a rumor that Tom Cruise is attached to one of your films. Is that true or can you even say anything about that?
John Woo: No, I don’t think so. I would like to work with Tom Cruise again, but I also have overheard he is pretty interested to do The Flying Tigers. I also overheard they also have another script. So I still need to find out. I don’t have much to say about it.
Cinematical: You worked on the video game Stranglehold, which reunited you with Chow Yun Fat and was a sequel of sorts to Hard Boiled …
John Woo: I forgot to tell you. We are going to make that into a movie.
Cinematical: I heard that was the plan. So that is good to know that is still moving along. Are you involved in any other video game properties or are you working on anything in the game area?
John Woo: No. I don’t have that much time, even though I want to make one again. But for the moment, I also am producing two movies. One is shooting in Taiwan. One is shooting in Shanghai. So I am quite busy these days.
Cinematical: Yeah, you are a busy guy. Where do you live now, in the states or are you back in China now?
John Woo: I still live in Los Angeles, but I spend quite some time in Beijing. I have got work here. So I am going back and forth.
Cinematical: I was reading a quote where you said, it was some time after Paycheck, and you said it was difficult to get good scripts after that movie came out. Is that still the case? Did you mean Hollywood scripts by that?
John Woo: I think I have been stereotyped as an action director in Hollywood, so all I got were the action scripts. I always want to try something else. For example, I also worked to make a comedy or a love story, but it is hard to convince the studio. I think that not many people believe in me to make a good love story. So I was a little bit frustrated. I also think the studios are getting dry. They lack some good and new material to work with. I am sure you can see … whenever they show a good story from any Asian country, they remake it right away.
I mean in Hollywood, they are also looking for some new thing, some new material. That is one of the reasons why I go back to China, because China has so many good stories. It also has such a great history. There are so many good stories that haven’t been discovered. So I just feel like I could do something I really want to do, like the movie Red Cliff. It is really hard to make it in Hollywood nowadays. I also like The Flying Tigers. I also have tried to make a love story like Dr. Zhivago.
Cinematical: Hollywood studios are just full of remakes right now. It is sometimes kind of frustrating.
John Woo: Also, what I have heard is they are only interested in making either the big budget CG movie or a very little budget comedy or something like that. There is no middle-class movie right now. It is hard to make a movie about something like tany poetry, love story, or something like that. The market is quite different right now.
Cinematical: Are there any directors you enjoy watching? As busy as you are, do you have time to go to the movies?
John Woo: To be honest, I don’t have much time to watch any movies. I really love Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire. I also still love to watch Tarantino’s films. And also, I love to watch young directors’ movies. Not only from Hollywood. I have seen quite a few good European films.