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MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II: John Woo, Part 3
We conclude with the director's comments on directing action, working with stunt men, and protecting innocence.
By Craid D. Reid
June 16, 2000
In Part One of my interview with the unpretentious Woo, he talked about his next project WIND TALKERS, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 and Tom Cruise's efforts as a stuntman and rock climber. In Part Two, we learned that the final pugilistic parley between Cruise and Dougray Scott was really a last minute replacement for the original finale: a downtown Sydney car chase and fight on top of an SUV roof, followed by a climactic car dive into the ocean. After discussing his admiration for Alfred Hitchcock, Woo elaborated on his ubiquitous use of doves and closed by briefly discussing why Stuart Baird was called in at the last minute to help with the editing.
MI2's box office is rapidly approaching the $180-million of its predecessor, no thanks to the film's script. The saving grace? John Woo's unmistakable eye for action, which creates frenzied exaggeration by sometimes being flagrantly outrageous. As a choreographer, he knows how to manipulate his characters with smooth contrasting elements; he comprehends when to let chaos rule and when to dictate orderliness while preventing the audience from losing sight of the story amidst the melange of flying bodies and virtuosos of pyrotechnical firepower. He's addicted to freeze frames, Leone-esque close-ups (also used by Zhang Che in his sword films) of the eyes thinking in gazing stares, fixing emotional transitions about to happen. Marked with tonal turning points from wrenching emotion to crude comedy to hard, violent action, a Woo film is just not a Woo film without his patented dramatic triangular structure, which usually includes at least two points of this tri-fectorate equation pointing guns defiantly pointed at one another's head. To Woo, it's a powerful metaphor for a ruthless world of paralysing choices.
Woo's sheer joy in filmmaking is infectious. He thrives in the kinetic freneticism of beautifully executed tracking shots, the bewitching allurement of city lights mirrored on glass panes, the frail poetry of freeze frames and the gutsy power of parallel editing. So besides discussing how he developed his eye for action, the last part of this interview focuses on how Woo plans to avoid the trap Hong Kong filmmakers are falling into in Hollywood, why he cast the shy Chow Yun Fat for his ultra-violent gangster films, and he comments on the importance of his stuntmen.
FANDOM: HONG KONG FILMMAKERS LIKE JACKIE CHAN AND, RECENTLY, YUEN WOO PING, JET LI AND SAMMO HUNG ARE FINDING MAJOR INROADS INTO HOLLYWOOD. BUT WHAT THEY'RE DOING HERE IS NOTHING COMPARED TO THEIR HONG KONG FILMS; THEY'RE JUST REPEATING THE SAME THINGS. HOW ARE YOU AVOIDING THAT TRAP, SO THAT SOMEONE DOESN'T WATCH YOUR FILMS AND SAY, 'OH, WE'VE SEEN THAT IN THE KILLER
WOO: Well the thing what I try to do is choose the right topic. The material is very important because I see myself as not only about doing action; I always want to try doing different things. WIND TALKERS will certainly be a different thing. [laughs] When you make an American movie, you have got to make it look like an American movie, and it should be different. That is what I'm thinking. So if the topic is different, the action will automatically become different. Like with BROKEN ARROW, it's a different kind of action compared to what I did in FACE/OFF, where the action is pretty dramatic and not just a little token thing. But in MISSION II, it is about life and death for the fight, so that's why I ended up creating a fist fight. But of course when you do a war movie, the action will be different. Maybe some of the filmmmakers from Hong Kong, they thought that the American people love their Hong Kong movies and love the Hong Kong kung- fu, so that is probably why they keep doing the same thing. But when you get down to it, actually it really only works for a smaller market, but for a bigger market you really have to change and use different materials in order to do different things.
I THOUGHT CHOW YUN FAT WAS WONDERFUL IN 'ANNA AND THE KING.' I'M CURIOUS, HOWEVER; FOR AN ACTOR KNOWN AT THE TIME FOR HIS TAIWANESE LOVE STORY FILMS, HOW DID YOU EVER CAST HIM AS A GUN-TOTTING GANGSTER?
Before I made A BETTER TOMORROW, the first film I used him in, I really did not know Chow that well; all I knew was that he was a well-known TV star in Taiwan. Writing the script, his character Mark closely represented me. I was really down on myself, so it was essential to create a hero, a real man, that a had a lot of heart. When I read in the newspapers how Chow was often helping orphans, well, that interested me. A man with a great heart is to me, a real hero. So I spoke with Tsui Hark [the film's producer] about him, and he of course agreed with my suggestion. Besides, we both really liked him. After we met him, I actually saw a lot OF my film idols in him like Bogart, Eastwood and McQueen. He doesn't practice martial arts, doesn't know how to punch someone, but he is a good dancer--something I also like doing. He's a smart guy and really gets into his roles, and as you know we have often worked together because we have this good chemistry between us.
NOW JOHN, YOU DON'T PRACTICE MARTIAL ARTS OR SHOOT A GUN; IN FACT, YOU'RE A VERY NON-VIOLENT MAN, YET YOU HAVE UNBRIDLED PASSION FOR ACTION. WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?
When I was a child raised in the slums of Hong Kong, every day I had to deal with gangs. I mean I really had to fight to survive. Each day was a struggle. My family was very poor, and we lived in a bad neighborhood, surrounded by drug dealers and gamblers. I got to see too much violence. But I was fortunate to have great parents. My father was a Chinese scholar and he loved Chinese culture very much, and he taught me to live with dignity. For a number of years, we were also homeless and had to live on the streets, and my parents couldn't afford to send me to school until I was nine. Actually, there was an American family who sent money to my church, and it was that money that paid for my school fees for about 6 years. It's strange that I've never met them. We ended up moving around a lot, and once there was this big fire where we lost everything, so without their help I would have been a different person. So this is why I'm also fond of the church. Then during the Hong Kong riots of '57 and '67, bombs were being set off everywhere, and I would see people getting shot by the police. It was disastrous; the times were sad. That's why in my films, my heros help people and sacrifice themselves for others. This is how I put realistic feelings into my characters.
In terms of action, I just love doing action. I see it ballet and use the music within the scenes. I start action with lots of emotion. So for example, if I'm doing a scene where the good guy is shooting at the bad guy, I will think of something saddening by reflecting on my childhood when I witnessed people being shot on the streets. This in turn makes me feel angry, then sad, then very upset. So then when I put together the scene and see my hero shooting at people, I try to imagine that the people he is shooting at is a killer, or a murderer or some kind of a warlord. So essentially, I'm transferring my past emotions of anger into the bad guy being shot at. But on the other hand, I also like to have fun because action to me is like a cartoon, and as a kid I used to watch too many cartoons and cartoons can be very violent.
But the action and violence in my films aren't always real. I mean, let's face it: in real life no one who gets shot at spins around like a dancer before they die, and nobody can dive or fly from the second floor of a building and shoot a guy on the way down. But the other thing I'm doing to create my action is the way I place my cameras, and then when I edit my shots it's like doing a musical. And finally, I constantly challenge myself that in each action sequence I do, it must be better and over-the-top.
AT THE MTV MOVIE AWARD LAST, YOU GOT THE AWARD FOR BEST ACTION FILM YEAR FOR FACE/OFF
. DURING YOUR ACCEPTANCE SPEECHAND YOU ARE ONE OF THE FEW DIRECTOR THAT DO THIS--YOU ACKNOWLEDGED THE IMPORTANCE OF STUNTMEN IN YOUR FILMS. I CAN GUESS THE ANSWER, BUT WHY DID YOU DO THAT?
One of the reasons I like to make action films is that I truly and deeply admire all the stuntmen, especially for their spirit. I mean, that is how I got influenced by Zhang Che's films (FIVE DEADLY VENOMS, ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, KID WITH GOLDEN ARM). While I was working with him I learned a great deal about martial art coordinating and action direction. I'm sure you've heard of Liu Jia Liung (36 CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, 18 WEAPONS OF KUNG-FU); well, he and his partner were good friends of mine, and so I learned a lot from them, too. They were the first kung-fu directors to make kung-fu films where they used the reactions from Western movies and mix them up with the old classical Japanese action films. They also created that look where Chinese kung-fu looked like dancing. So this is how they started, and they made great contribution to action movies. And even though the stuntmen learn it in a different way, they have the same kind of qualities that I've seen in ballet dancers. I love the spirit, their brave attitude and that they are always taking chances and risks.
PLUS IN HONG KONG, THEY GET PAID VERY LITTLE, GET NO RESIDUALS OR STUNT ADJUSTMENTS, EVEN IF THEY DO THE SAME DANGEROUS STUNT OVER AND OVER.
That's right. And they also will do this impressive-looking action even though it is just a for a few seconds of film. What they sacrifice is so much, but they make a scene look so powerful and meaningful and exciting. So I admire what they do and it's representative of their spirit. You hear about them getting hurt or getting killed and their sacrifices, and they do it only for the movie. So I have a lot of admiration for them.
In FACE/OFF, one of the stuntmen almost got killed by accident. It was the stuntmen who fell off the boat and was tied to the raft. His head went down first and was dragged under the water upside down and his faced slammed into the bottom of the boat. When the boat stopped he was able to climb up. He almost died. So these moments really move me and touch me. I really appreciate their work, but in the mean time they really sacrifice their lives for their stunt, and their work makes my films look good. So that is one of the reasons why I like to make action movies and I like to work with the stunt people. I actually see them as brothers or sisters. Just like the car racers, they do their race and the car goes so fast and I see it as they are going into the unknown future and destiny. They don't know if they are going to win, lose, or the car flips. And at the last moment, no matter if they win, lose or get hurt, they all have tears of joy or tear of sadness in their eyes. At that moment I am touched and moved by them.
STUNT PEOPLE ARE VERY TIGHT, ALWAYS HUGGING EACH OTHER.
We all care about each other, and that's why when I do action sequences, I never speed up the camera; I shoot at normal speed or slow motion. That is why I like to shoot them in slow-motion, to show the beautiful moments of action and their expressions.
A FINAL QUESTION, AND I'VE GOT TO THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE ON THIS LONG INTERVIEW.
That's no problem; it's nice to speak to you.
THANK YOU. DO YOU HAVE ANY PERSONAL CAUSES?
Save the children. To me every child is an angel and deserves to have the chance to grow up beautifully. A Chinese saying is, 'When people are born, they are all pure and innocent.' So I like to protect the children. This is one of my many causes. Thank you, Craig.