John Woo put Hong Kong cinema back on the map with the blazing gunfire of A Better Tomorrow (1986), A Better Tomorrow II (1987), The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990), Once a Thief (1991), and Hard Boiled (1992), among others—and many of them featuring breakout star Chow Yun-Fat. Hollywood called for 1993's Hard Target, followed by Broken Arrow (1996), Face/Off (1997), Mission: Impossible II (2000), Windtalkers (2002), and Paycheck (2003). Woo returns to Chinese cinema in a big way with the historical epic Red Cliff, which is not only the most expensive film made in Asia to date but also crushed Titanic's Chinese box-office record. I spoke with Woo at San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel.
Groucho: In a way, you’ve been thinking about this movie for twenty-two years, right? You intended to make it much earlier if you could have—
John Woo: A matter of money, yeah. Too much.
Groucho: How was your thinking about the material evolved in that interim, and can you also talk about the development of the script?
John Woo: I grew up with the story. There’s so many heroes that I admire, like the one general called Zhao Yun, who is saving a little baby in the middle of all the battles. And actually, he was famous with that scene. He was quite a character. He was very brave, very loyal, you know, and also a man with a code of honor. That character in that inspired me a lot, and I used him for Chow Yun-Fat in Hard Boiled.
JW: You know? That guy. Chow Yun-Fat. He’s saving the little baby in the hospital, in the middle of gunfire. That was actually from that character, so you can see how much I love it. And the other thing was that the battle on Red Cliff was the most famous battle in Chinese history. Most of the Chinese and even the Japanese and Korean, you know, they all know this part of history. And also it shows how a smaller army can defeat the larger and more powerful enemy through the combination of teamwork, intelligence, courage, and friendship. So I think that that kind of topic is very encouraging. It can make it into an encouraging movie. And I also want to show the audience the ancient Chinese battle tactics, strategy, and formation. You know, put it on the screen [and] it will be, you know, exciting. (Laughs.) And about the other hand, since I’ve been working in Hollywood for over sixteen years, I have learned from so many people. I have learned a lot about the technology. I think that it’s about time to take what I’ve learned from Hollywood now into Asia, ’cause I’ve found that there’s so many talented young people in China. They have great passion about movies. They know everything. But they all eager to learn. They all wanted to work on the big-budget, Hollywood-type movie. It can allow them to learn some new experiences and to use some kind of new equipment. This is really nice. I think the topic of Red Cliff is good for everyone.
G: You took a few tries to develop the script, though, right?
JW: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We took two years for developing the script and thirteen revisions. (Laughs.) So quite a long time, yeah.
G: Was that a process of whittling down, or what made it so difficult to find the right—?
JW: ’Cause the—I intend to make this movie more…international, even though it was based on the Chinese history. Some of the writers they were only good at the dialogue, some rather stick with the history, and some didn’t know much about the outside world—they didn’t know how the people from other countries, how they feel about the whole thing. Then I suggested to make a lot of changes, like all the characters. I wanted to make them more human instead of the superhero. In the book, in real history, those heroes became…icons. Some of them even became gods for the Asian country. So they are very serious, and everyone is so serious about them, and no one want to make jokes with them. I think that’s not—that’s the kind of character I like, you know? I rather want to make all those characters more…human and let the modern viewer…relate to them. So I suggested to add a lot of the humor. Also increase the female role, which that wasn’t from the book. In the book there was not much of a female role. They were pretty much like the chattel. Always stay behind. So, there was some of the writer that couldn’t accept this idea. They say, “Oh no, no, no! This is not from history! Oh no, no, no.” I told them, I’m not making a TV series for History Channel.
JW: I’m making a movie! A movie should [have] its own message. So that is why we spent so much time with different writers. One is good at dialogue, one is good at history, on is good on the structure. But, anyhow, so that’s why I didn’t take much of the—follow the book…
G: No matter how much you prepare, and I know you prepared for years before filming, epic filmmaking is always going to be a challenge—
G: I’m sure. What was your most innovative solution to a problem that arose during production?
JW: Mmm. We—actually to make everyone feel like we’re all in war, every day we are fighting with the enemy. “We—all we—we got to win!” (Laughs.) “We gonna—“
G: Little pep talks.
JW: Yeah, yeah. That’s it. So I—we have to—it’s a very challenging project. Every day we have so much work, and we have two thousand people work on the set. We have seven hundred to fifteen hundred soldiers playing all the fighters, warriors. We have hundreds of horses. We have twelve camera crews work on the set every day. So we have four units: second unit, special effects unit, stunt unit, first unit. And we all work in the same area. So I thought huge! We also need to challenge with the weather. We work against [the] worst weather. Just like the movie!...We start really hot summer. A lot of people got heat fever. And while we’re shooting the burning ship sequence, it was in very cold winter. People were suffering in the wind, suffering working on the ice, frozen ground. So the whole crew, they are very strong-willed ’cause we have a storyboard and well planned for every scene. We have a great team from United States, the research facts. We had a special effects team from Korea, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan—so everybody work together. Everyone had a strong will. They know what to do. And the good thing was they [were] all learning from each other. They all worked together as a family and so I worked with the good people so I had no worry. (Laughs.) I just tries to find a way to finish to get our work done…
G: It’s like you’re the general yourself, really, marshaling all those forces. Are you like Hitchcock in that you prefer the preparation, or you prefer the shooting?
JW: Oh I prefer shooting. It took us one and a half years of preparation. Too long. You know, I missed the old day in Hong Kong, you know? I shot movie without a script. You know, like I shot The Killer. You know, once in a while, somebody want to remake a film and they were asking me—they asked for a script. I said, “I don’t have a script. You just look at the picture and dictate what you saw on the screen; that’s dialogue.” So in Hong Kong, you know—because I think so fast…much faster than I could talk—so…I just got a rough outline and everyday, you know, I just let my crew know: “Okay the set, tomorrow [on] the set, I need thirty stuntman and fifty extra. Actor, I need Chow-Yun Fat, Tony Leung, okay.” That was it! “What’s the story about?” “I don’t know.”
JW: You know? “But I only use three days.” “Okay, okay.” And then I’m on the set. I’m writing, I’m thinking, figure out some line, and I give it to the actor. Okay let’s shoot it! Let’s shoot it right away! And so—because the whole movie was in my mind, but to have to explain to the crew…“Listen to me—ahhrrrhhhh, okay,” and then I’m writing for the next scene. That’s just the way I work. But not (laughs), not anymore…
G: When are you going to make a full-fledged musical? You love musicals.
JW: Yes. Actually, I have a script.
G: Do you?
JW: For twelve years, you know, I’m paying my own money. It’s a script with—very emotional. It’s a very exciting story. It’s a gangster musical. (Laughs.) But it’s hard to tell a studio, ’cause they think—they keep saying, “There’s not much of a market right now.” That’s—my story is pretty complicated. Also, it’s a pretty big-budget movie…Hollywood. It’s an American story.
G: Chicago…the Oscars! You know?
JW: I almost did it.
G: It would be the Best Picture.
JW: Unfortunately, schedule conflict. Originally, they tried to approach to me [for Chicago]. I was busy on Windtalkers. I was shooting Windtalkers, so I couldn’t get a job…
G: People are so used to CGI now. Is there any shot in the movie that you would want everyone to know, “Look there’s no CGI in this shot! We did all this for real.”
G: There’s quite a few probably.
JW: Yeah, yeah. Quite a few, yeah. But I must say, the CGIs in this film work pretty well. I was so amazed the shot—
G: The pigeon shot.
JW: The pigeon shot. The camera followed the pigeon. I think of the way to introduce the geography from both sides. So the idea was since we shot the street from location, like the Red Cliff was in San Francisco, and the enemy’s Los Angeles. So I figured out using the bird and connect them together. And then we CG the river, CG the battleship, and then—I think the shot it is very real. Sometimes—and that shot has become one of the most expensive CG shots in film history.
JW: It’s so long…
G: Thank you…
JW: Thank you so much. I’m so glad you like the movie.