The Big Bang: Interview with John Woo

by Soyon Im with Dave Davies and Chris Brown

What better way to spend a four-day Fourth of July weekend than to to celebrate the work of John Woo, the director who brings in sparks and booms to the fantasy screen more audaciously than anyone else. While fans were scurrying for tickets to "Red, White and Woo," a retrospective series put together by Scarecrow Video and shown at the Seattle Art Museum, we -- Chris, Soy and Dave -- were doing our best to keep cool as we talked with The Man about the larger things in life: movies, friendship, Chow Yun-Fat and ambitions of shooting a historical epic that would remind nations less of their boundaries than their peoples.

Q: You're known internationally as an action film director, which here, in America, puts you in a category with Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and to a smaller extent, with Jackie Chan. How do you feel about being put into such a category? JW: Hmmm. [Laughs]. I don't think we are alike, and I don't want to give people the impression that I'm an action director. In my movies, I always want to show something about human beings, something about human nature.

Q: So why did you pick Van Damme to star in your first American movie?

JW: That's a long story. About five or six years ago, I got many offers from Hollywood studios. The producer and script writers [for "Hard Target"] flew to Hong Kong to see me and they asked me to do the picture. [Van Damme was being considered to star.] Van Damme wanted a change, he wanted to prove himself as an actor. And he asked me to do the film. I thought I could do some magic. I know myself; I'm pretty sure of my abilities of how to make an actor look great on the screen, make him look like a hero. I thought I could do the same thing with Van Damme, like how I used to do with Chow Yun-Fat. So I wanted to help him. At the same time, I wanted a new experience, of working in Hollywood, so I took the chance and chose to do "Hard Target." The original script was pretty good. And I did try to do the things that I did with Chow Yun-Fat and tried to make Van Damme look different.

Q: Who else were you considering?

JW: Kurt Russell. But he was busy at the time.

Q: You talk about trying to show something about human nature in your films. In "The Killer," "A Better Tomorrow" and "Hard Boiled" the themes of friendship, honor and loyalty are very prominent, perhaps as prominent as all the shooting action that goes on. Are the friendships that you portray reflective of your own beliefs of what friendships should be like?

JW: I truly believe in friendship. When I was young, I got a lot of help from a friend. I guess I'm pretty traditional. In old Chinese stories, people sacrifice themselves for friends. They have so much honor and sense of morality. These are qualities I've always admired. When I was kid, our family was living in the slums. We lived in a very bad neighborhood, with drug dealers, gamblers, prostitutes. My family was very poor and couldn't afford to send me to school. And then when I was nine, I got support from an American family and from church. They paid for my school fees and that's how I got educated. So I'm very appreciative of the people who have helped me.

I grew up wanting to do things that paid back society, to help. In high school, I wanted to be a minister, but it didn't work out for some reason. But I've always believed in friends helping eachother, appreciating each other and caring about each other.

When I was in high school, I was part of a group. We couldn't afford to go to college, so all we did was get together and learn from movies. The people who knew more than I did introduced certain movies to me; we made experimental films together. This really helped me to learn about movies. I still keep in touch with some of these people.

When I started in the film business, when I became a pretty strong comedy film director, I also helped a lot of young filmmakers, to help them get jobs, find movies to work on. And before "A Better Tomorrow," when some of my movies flopped and I was at a low point, one of those young directors helped me out. Without people's help, I couldn't have made it. Everything in my movies, about friendships, family -- it all comes from real life. Of course, not the stuff about gangster wars; actually, I don't know much about gangsters.

Q: It's interesting that you talk about Chinese chivalry and this give-and-take between friends. Some of your films focus on the friendship of two very strong-willed men. Do you ever think about putting a woman in a strong role to play opposite your leading man?

JW: Yeah. I've always wanted to make a very strong female character. In the past, I did try to make strong female characters, but somehow, it never worked out. For example, when I was shooting "The Killer," the original concept was a triangular love story, and the female character was supposed to be very strong, very brave and very smart, even though she's blind. But the actress, [Sally Yeh], didn't concentrate on this movie, and she gave me limited time to shoot. She was more focused on her singing career and more concerned about her boyfriend. She'd go out with her boyfriend during the shooting. While we're shooting a scene, she'd say, 'John, I have to leave at 7 o'clock because I have a date with my boyfriend.' While we were shooting the church scene, the final scene, she only gave us three days to do it, and she went away with her boyfriend to ski in Switzerland. So that forced me to change the script and focus more [on the friendship between the two men].

In "Hard Boiled" and "Broken Arrow," I tried again to bring out the female, but the scripts weren't going that way.

Q: Which female star could you see yourself working with in Hollywood?

JW: About a couple of years ago, I met Sharon Stone. I like her a lot. I think she's a great actress. I'm sure she can play a very strong female character and we're looking for the right material to work on together. Also, Sigourney Weaver has offered a project to me which is based on a Japanese comic book. It's a very interesting female character. She looks evil, but is good at heart.

Q: In the States, people tend to peg Chinese films and Chinese filmmaking as either action-oriented (like those of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee) or as traditional-style films (like those of Wu Tianming, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou). How do you feel about this limited perception, and what do you think about the works of the Fifth Generation filmmakers from mainland China?

JW: To be honest, I haven't seen much of those movies. I've seen only a couple of Zhang Yimou's and Chen Kaige's movies. I think the movies from China are more traditional and closer to our own culture. I think the Fifth Generation filmmakers did a good job. But my kind of movie is kind of mixed, and combines something from the West. The big difference between Hong Kong and China is that Hong Kong has been very influenced from the West. So I myself have been influenced from watching earlier European, American and Japanese films by Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, Scorcese and Sam Pekinpah. There are a lot of interesting films from the West, and I always like to combine some things from the East and West in my movies.

Q: A lot of the films you made earlier in your career aren't of the action genre. Do you think about going back to making other sorts of films, or do you want to continue making action films?

JW: I never think about going back to working on the same type of movie, I always try to go for something new, something that I've never seen before. Like, I'm looking forward to doing a musical.

Q: A musical? Give us some details. JW: A musical like "West Side Story" or "All That Jazz," "Cabaret," those types of musicals. A musical, or a love story, or a western. I also have a plan to do a Chinese movie. I'm thinking of making an epic in mainland China, based on a famous civil war about 3000 years ago in China, "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms." It's the most ambitious dream for me. I've got to do that movie before I die. [Laughs].

After I left Hong Kong, I felt pretty sad about our country. Our people nowadays are so divided. People in mainland China, people in Taiwan, people in Hong Kong, the Chinese people overseas, they all do not get along with eachother. I think that's so sad. I want to use that epic as a metaphor of today's situation and as a reminder that we've got to give up the hatred.

Q: Sounds like a good project. Would you use a cast of Chinese people?

JW: Yes, from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan.

Q: How difficult is that right now, just the logistics of doing a film like that? Aren't there many restrictions against foreign and joint-venture projects in mainland China and Taiwan?

JW: I think they could open up. They'll open; they'll get together.

Q: So would Chow Yun-Fat be in this movie?

JW: Oh, yeah.

Q: What initially drew you to Chow Yun-Fat? What qualities did you see in him?

JW: First of all, I think Chow Yun-Fat is a great actor. I like his performances; he's so natural. He looks great too, just like a dream hero -- tall, elegant, romantic. [Chow] reminds me of a lot of my own idols: Ken Takakura, Steve McQueen, Cary Grant. I see those idols in him. [Chow and I] also have a lot in common. We have similar thoughts about the world, about people, about life; we have the same kind of beliefs. And we're both old-fashioned. [Laughs.]

When we work together, we have the same goals. So on the screen, when you're watching Chow Yun-Fat, you also see [a part of] me. I put myself into the character, so in some ways, he represents me.

Q: Are you planning to work with him in the U.S.? JW: Yeah, in my next project. We'll work together again, and I'm going to write the script.

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