Capone talks RED CLIFF and other acts of violence with the great John Woo!!!
Published at: Nov. 23, 2009, 11:54 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I actually contemplated making this interview part of my AICN Legends column, but we didn't really have enough time to cover the necessary career ground to qualify. Still, no one in their right mind is going to turn down 25 minutes with the master John Woo, especially when I get to talk to him about what I consider his return to form--the Chinese war epic RED CLIFF, which goes into wider release this weekend. The only bummer about the two-and-a-half-hour features is that it's not the five-hour, two-part version that played in Asia earlier this year. But that version will be mine very soon, and I can't fucking wait to watch it.
One of the most distinct memories I have about discovering a filmmaker for the first time was going into a tiny New York movie house in 1990 and seeing the trailer for THE KILLER. I didn't know who John Woo or Chow Yun-Fat were, but the trailer was about as blood soaked as any action movie trailer I'd ever seen. There was no narration or English-language title cards beyond the name of the film, and I had no idea what the movie was about. All I knew was that I had just witnessed some of the most elegant and flawlessly choreographed action clips I'd ever seen. A few weeks later, I returned to that tiny screen to see THE KILLER, and my life and definition of what made an action movie was changed forever.
In the months that followed, I found out more about John Woo. Found copies of A BETTER TOMORROW 1 & 2, and caught early screenings of BULLET IN THE HEAD and HARD BOILED. When Woo made his way to America, I was both thrilled and nervous. Would America ruin a good thing? HARD TARGET, BROKEN ARROW (the film that gave this site its name), and FACE/OFF seemed to show a real sense of Woo adapting to Hollywood while still making these insane movies his own. As long as the doves were around, I knew things would be okay. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II was a weird turning point, and while I don't whole-heartedly dismiss it the way some do, it's not a film I'm eager to revisit. WINDTALKERS and PAYCHECK just kind of hurt. In between this big-budget movies, Woo found ways to stretch his creative muscle by directing TV movies/pilots, shorts, and video games, but RED CLIFF represents Woo at his finest, making his first period film in decades, and still reminding us that no one knows how to stage large-scale action sequences better than he does. He's also still the king of one-on-one combat.
Every journalist has a list of dream interviews--people that we hope we're lucky enough to talk to before we die but probably won't. I have such a list, although I've never written it down. It just kind of sits in my head and acts as inspiration at times. Woo has been on that list from Day 1, right up there near the top. He's the sweetest man with a great sense of humor about all things, especially his career. He's a dedicated film geek himself and a consummate watcher of all movies, new and old. Maybe you should just consider this an unofficial entry in the AICN Legends canon, just to be on the safe side.
Capone: I would not presume that you know our website, but it's called Ain’t It Cool News. It’s named after a line in from…
JW: Oh, yeah yeah. FACE/OFF… No, wait, BROKEN ARROW, I’m sorry. I knew that. It’s a pretty famous line from the film.
Capone: That’s right. Immediately the first question I had upon watching RED CLIFF was “How do I get my hands on the longer two-part, five-hour version,” because that’s all I care about right now, seeing the whole thing. Can you tell me about the decision to cut it down to one film? Is it just for America or is it everywhere else, but China?
JW: It’s for the Western world. In Asia, most people are so familiar with this part of history and the characters, so we could have a longer time to develop the characters and the relationships between them. And for an Asian audience, they want to see more, however for the Western audience who are not as familiar with our history and the characters, I think we decided to focus on the main storyline and the key characters. We were afraid to do it or that people would get a little confused, because we have got so many characters [Laughs]. That’s why we had to make two versions, but no matter what it’s still the same movie. I’ve gotten some good feedback from the Europeans. They really enjoy the movie, and they have no problem with the history.
Capone: It’s been a very long time since you have done a period film, and I know that this has been sort of a passion project of yours for many years. Why was now the right time to go back to China and make this film happen?
JW: First of all, I have been thinking about making this movie for over 30 years, and for so many years we couldn’t get the budget, we couldn’t get the technology, and we didn’t have any support from anywhere, so it was really hard to make in the old times. Then after working in Hollywood for over 16 years, I really learned a lot from so many good people, and I have learned a lot with technology and how to produce a big movie, you know?
I think it’s about time to bring a new experience into Asia and let the young people learn something about it. About five years ago, I met some young filmmakers in China--I find they have a great passion about movies and they want to learn everything. Even though they have great knowledge about filmmaking, they all wanted to work on a big Hollywood-type movie, so they really could learn a lot. So, that’s why I chose this topic. Besides that, it’s a very good story with so many famous war scenes, and by working on those scenes, these young filmmakers could all really learn something from it. The other thing was we also brought in some great technicians from the United States to let all of those young people work with them and learn from them, and also just let them learn from each other. I think that was a good thing, yeah.
Capone: That was you many years ago, wasn’t it, watching Western films and admiring a lot of those film? That’s not that different than what you did 30 years ago or however long ago it was. Having no knowledge of these events personally, this is one of the best films that I have ever seen that explained the strategy of war before they actually fight. They talk about it and they plan it, and most films will just go right into the battle, whereas this film actually takes the time to strategize and plan out who is going to do what. I have never seen that, to this degree before. Is that something that you were trying to do differently than maybe what some other action directors might do?
JW: Yeah, I think that would help the audience feel more interested, and also it came from the history and the book, THE ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS. Most of the Chinese and even the Japanese know that kind of a strategy. Some people even use that idea for doing business.
Capone: You're talking about THE ART OF WAR, correct?
JW: THE ART OF WAR, yes! So I’m very cautious about this. I really care about it, and I think that sometimes in films the thing that’s more interesting than the action is the whole idea of strategy. One of the main characters, called Zhuge Liang, he was the one who came up with all of those ideas. He was famous for that, and because I had never seen this on the screen, I thought it’d better be done very detailed like, and so I also had made some changes to add my ideas--like the Turtle formation.
Capone: Yeah, the Turtle formation!
JW: Originally it was a square-shaped type. But I changed it when I was looking at a turtle’s shell, I was said, “Let’s make the formation like a turtle, because it will be more fun and interesting.” I wanted a strategy… I worked with the writers trying to figure out how to make it more beautiful and exciting, you know?
Capone: Right. A lot of the action that you have done up to the point of this film was very much about one on one with two men together. To do something this epic in scale, was it a tough transition, or did you find it liberating in some way to have that much of a canvas to paint on?
JW: Since it is a war movie and also all about teamwork, so for the combat scenes and all of the action sequences, I wanted to shoot it as a group fighting, rather than one on one. It’s pretty different from my usual film. In the movie, there are so many different kinds of heroes, and I think that people would like see how they work together and how that’s more important than anything.
Capone: The turtle shell formation actually reminded me a little bit of… They did something kind of similar in 300, where they put their shields up over their heads and in front of them. Have you seen 300?
JW: I saw it, but actually I got the idea from another film. Have you seen CLEOPATRA?
JW: They were the first ones to use the shields and in a square shape…
Capone: Oh, okay.
JW: And going through the gates. There’s a lot of torches and arrows shooting at them, and I thought that was pretty amazing.
Capone: So CLEOPATRA was the inspiration. That’s wonderful. So does moving into this kind of film mean that you are done with the world of cops and gangsters, or is this just something you wanted to do one time?
JW: I would still like to make a film… What I feel…. I would still like to make some gangster movies, like one of my next projects is I’m trying to remake Jean-Pierre Melville’s LE SAMOURAI.
Capone: That’s right. I heard about that!
JW: We are planning on doing that and are looking at writers to work on the script. It’s co-financed by the Japanese and the French. I want to make different kinds of movies, and I also want to make my first martial arts movie as a tribute to Akira Kurasawa and King Hu. I also want to make a love story in war. I just want to do what I feel.
Capone: If you are doing a love story, Tony Leung is an expert in some of those love stories… He’s done a few with Wong Kar Wai, so he’d be a good choice.
JW: [laughs] It’s nice to work with him again.
Capone: Yeah, it’s been a while.
JW: He’s gotten more mature and even more charming. He’s very calm, steady, and stable and he had to become a different level in acting. He also reminds me of Gregory Peck.
JW: He’s got a similar smile and that elegant attitude.
Capone: And great hair like Gregory Peck, too.
Capone: Has it been enjoyable over the years, since the Western world discovered you with THE KILLER and HARD BOILED, to just watch almost every action movie that comes out of this country borrow from some of you style--the Mexican standoff, the sliding across the floor shooting, two-handed gun battles-- which people are basically copying at this point?
JW: Honestly, I feel like we are all in a big family, learning from each other and influencing each other, so I think it’s a very good thing. I think that’s the real joy of making movies, when I see something good from Sam Peckinpah or something good from David Lean or Tarantino, you go “Oh!” Then I will use it in my film. I think it’s nice. You know like Alfred Hitchcock, he always could invent some kind of new technique in every one of his movies, so people learn from it. I have learned from it and use it in my action movies, so that’s a very great thing. Even though some young filmmakers have gotten some inspiration from my films, it’s great to see that they also have their own style. I have so much joy in watching their films.
Capone: Do you still make a point of going to see new films, as well as revisiting some old films? Do you still go to films as often as you can?
JW: Yeah, but it’s hard for me to watch a film in a theater, but I watch DVDs. Recently, I have seen quite a lot of European films. I’ve seen some new movies from Germany and France, Belgium, even Iran. I also see new movies from Hong Kong and Korea and here in the United States. I really care about the younger generation and we need more of their blood. We need more young filmmakers to make some new movies, so I really watch for that.
Capone: I think the South Korean and even films from Thailand are really exciting right now. I think they are some of the best ones I have seen lately.
JW: Also in Japan, a film that became one of my favorites, DEPARTURES. It’s a wonderful movie. It’s always nice to watch some of the new movies from new directors and it gives me a lot of joy and a lot of hope.
Capone: Are you still developing films in Hollywood, as well as in China, at this point? Can you tell me about some of the things you’ve got that look promising, that might actually get made.? You have a lot of projects that you seem to have your hand in.
JW: My next project is called FLYING TIGERS. It’s going to be a co-production with a Hollywood studio and China Film Group. It’s a World War II movie. It’s a story about an American volunteer group of fighter pilots that were working with the Chinese Air Force to fight the Japanese, and they won the world. It’s based on a true story. Another project I’m developing in Hollywood, as I said, is we want to remake Jean-Pierre Melville’s LE SAMOURAI, and another project, which maybe this isn’t the right time to announce, but it is about Marco Polo. Another one, which I’m only a producer, is a remake of THE KILLER, which is going to be directed by a Korean director, called Jae-han Lee (or John H. Lee). It’s an English-language film. So that’s all I’ve got developing in Hollywood, but in China, like I said, my next project is most likely FLYING TIGERS and I’m also working on my first martial arts movie.
Capone: Does it have a name yet?
JW: I don’t have a name yet.
Capone: I have to ask about RED CLIFF, how many of those ships did you actually build?
JW: 25. I had to have big and medium and small. I had them build 25 different sizes of ships, and then we did it all live action filming on the ships, even with fire, but we used CG.
Capone: Yeah, there are hundreds of them, but yeah I had figured since there were different sizes and since some of those had to be real, but 25 is a lot though!
JW: And they were the actual sizes from history.
Capone: Right. I love some of the small touches and unique weapons that I have never seen before, especially in that sequence with the ships and the fire, there are so many things in that seen that I have never seen before, in terms of weaponry. Was that well researched and documented, or did you kind of add your own touch?
JW: Yeah, we did a lot of research, but we also had to create some new inventions. At that time, it was before they had invented dynamite, so everything got used, like the spear and the arrows and swords and then we came up with the idea of using the fireball. We made it up, but in general, all of the weapons that the heroes are using are mostly swords.
Capone: Right. Well thank you so much for talking to me. I really enjoyed the movie and I will enjoy watching the long version, too.
JW: Thank you very much. Have you seen it?
Capone: No, but I know someone who has it, so now that I’ve seen this version for review, now I’m going to go back for the whole two-part version.
JW: I hope you enjoy it.
Capone: I can’t wait. Thank you very much.
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