Skip to main content

Director John Woo.

Director John Woo grew up in Hong Kong and directed numerous films there before coming to Hollywood. He has established himself as a master of action thrillers and is known for his elaborate action scenes. Woo also directed the American films Broken Arrow, and Hard Target." His new blockbuster film starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage is called "Face/Off." It's in theaters now.




Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on July 10, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 10, 1997: Interview with John Woo; Interview with Mike Werb and Michael Colleary.


Date: JULY 10, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071003NP.217
Head: John Woo
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, John Woo, is the director of the new hit action film "Face/Off." It's Woo's third American film, having made 26 movies in Hong Kong, including comedies, martial arts films, and gangster films.

Some of Woo's Hong Kong movies, especially "The Killer" and "Hardboiled," developed a cult following in the U.S. Quentin Tarantino was one of Woo's early champions.

Woo made his first American film, "Hard Target," in 1992. Woo followed that up with "Broken Arrow," which like the new film, stars John Travolta. In Face/Off, Travolta plays FBI agent Sean Archer, who is pursuing psycho-terrorist Castor Troy, played by Nicholas Cage.

In a complicated plot twist, Agent Archer goes undercover, taking the identity of terrorist Troy, after government plastic surgeons transplant Troy's face onto Archer's. But then terrorist Troy forces the doctors to give him Agent Archer's face. So the good guy now wears the face of the bad guy and vice versa.

Travolta and Cage have a ball with this identity swap. Here's a scene shortly after the transplants. The terrorist, now posing as the FBI agent, has come to the agent's home. He walks into the agent's teenage daughter's bedroom and instead of being the strict father, he's leering at her lecherously and looking approvingly at her cigarettes.


ACTRESS: Chris left those here.

JOHN TRAVOLTA, ACTOR: Well, I won't tell mom if you don't.


ACTRESS: When did you start smoking?

TRAVOLTA: You'll be seeing a lot of changes around here. Papa's got a brand new bag. Owooo. I do the jerk, oow. I do the swim, mmm.

GROSS: I asked director John Woo how he cast John Travolta and Nicholas Cage.

JOHN WOO, DIRECTOR: When I got a script, the first person in my mind was John Travolta, because I truly believe by John playing a good guy, he's so much convincing and it looks so real. And then after the switch, when he became a bad guy and he will definitely bring a lot of fun, and he look so charming, while he's playing a bad guy.

And then me and John was suggest using Nicholas Cage, and for myself, I always dreamed of working with Nick Cage because I found he's not only a great actor, he also is a man with a great heart. You know, he's really care about the other one and care about everything, and also very serious for -- about everything.

So I -- and then after we put them together and that make us feel these two gentlemen, that really -- the perfect match.

GROSS: It's so much fun to watch them take on each other's characteristics after they've traded faces and traded personalities. Did you make any suggestions to Cage and Travolta about what they should copy from each other?

WOO: Yeah. Before we start shooting, we'd spend some time for rehearsing to create the character, to decides lots of different thing for the two different character. Like, I had decide some gesture, you know, for them.

And the other things, most of the funny thing was create by John and Nick. So, like the way Nicholas Cage walk and the way he talk, and it just look so funny. And John was imitated from him, you know, how he walk, you know, and how he talk.

So they work really hard on rehearsing. And the other thing is that I also did some experiment, and then during the shooting, I show all the cut scenes to both actor, let them to watch each other's scene, and then to let them to learn and imitate from the tape.

So they were never make any confuse, and they go with the characters well.

GROSS: That was interesting, an interesting idea -- to show them outtakes that weren't going to be used in the film.

WOO: Yeah, because, you know, not much people will like to do that. With some director would rather, you know, keep a secrets, you know.

GROSS: There's a scene toward the end of Face/Off in which all the characters each have their gun out and each person has their gun pointed at somebody else, so everybody's got a gun pointed and everybody's got a gun pointed at them.

You had a very similar scene toward the end of The Killer, in which the two men who have been pursuing each other through the film have their guns drawn on each other in a stalemate.

And Quentin Tarantino borrowed that at the end of "Reservoir Dogs." How did this become an almost signature shot for you?

WOO: Well, I just wrote it so, you know, all mens are equal, you know, no matter the good guy or the bad guy -- and they all only have one chance to live or die, you know.

While making The Killer, I tried to create a moment to show they all mankind -- they all pretty much the same. You know, whether they good or bad. And also the idea was came from the Mad magazine "Spy vs. Spy."

GROSS: No, really?

WOO: Yeah, yeah. I'm a big fan of the Mad magazine and the cartoon, you know. You know, the Spy vs. Spy -- the black and white bird, against each other. But even though they are enemy, but actually they are friend. So I tried to create a equal moment to show that, so that's why that became my trademark.

In my theory, I always believe there's no really a good guy or bad guy in this world. I think all the mankind, they have a -- they all have a very special quality.

GROSS: So you read Mad magazine when you were in Hong Kong?

WOO: Oh, yeah. Is a -- I read the Mad magazine for years. I'm a big fan.


WOO: Yeah.

GROSS: Now, a lot of people describe your action scenes as looking beautifully choreographed, and you've said that you've been very influenced by Hollywood musicals...

WOO: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ... in how you do the action scenes. What Hollywood musicals do you particularly love that have influenced your action scenes?

WOO: Well, mostly the old classic musical like "Singin' in the Rain" -- it's lots and lots of Fred Astaire's musical; "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers;" "West Side Story;" "All That Jazz;" you know, and "The Wizard of Oz." I have seen a lot -- lots of musical. And besides the musical, I also a big fan of the cartoon. So that's why my kind of action sometimes pretty much like a cartoon.

GROSS: Well, it is like a cartoon in the sense that no matter how much a person is knocked down and beaten up, he springs back up again to fight some more, if he's the leading man. If he's a secondary character, he's probably going to get killed.

WOO: Yeah.

GROSS: But you know, some people would say that that's a bad thing because it leads people to think that violence doesn't really hurt and that violence doesn't really kill people; that violence can be fun.

WOO: Well, I think some people may be a little too serious about the -- my movie. You know, actually, the action in my movie I always feel is pretty much like the ballet dancing or the cartoon.

To be honest, I have never intends to selling violence. And actually, I'm not a violent guy, you know. I have never learned any kung fu and I've never fight with any people. I've never fired real gun in my life.

You know, I just make it fun. You know, maybe the way I show it usually a little too strong. Before I start, if I figure of something, you know, something from the news, something from the newspaper, like if I read something like a little child is murders, or some, you know, some people are being killed, you know, by a madman or by a gangster or somebody who lost their life in a war, that will usually make me very angry -- very angry and painful.

And then I put that emotional into the scene, and I will let my hero hit the bad guy harder and harder, you know. So, since -- so much emotional, so that's why the impact so strong.

GROSS: My guest is director John Woo. His new movie is Face/Off. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is John Woo, and he directed the new film Face/Off. He's directed several movies in America, but had a long career in Hong Kong before coming to America just a few years ago.

In talking about how dance films -- how musicals have influenced your action sequences, I would imagine that was even more true in some of the Hong Kong films in which the fighting was martial arts fighting and you were doing a lot of, you know, hand-to-hand and foot-to-hand...

WOO: Yeah.

GROSS: ... kind of combat. That's very choreographed.

WOO: Yeah. Yeah, I -- some of the kung fu film, they are very choreography and also pretty much like dancing as well. 'Cause most of the Hong Kong director or stunt coordinator, they have been trained by the Peking Opera, so they are very good at those kind of, like, dancing action, you know.

GROSS: Were you trained by the Peking Opera?

WOO: No, never, never.

GROSS: Do you dance? Do you dance at all?

WOO: Yeah, I dance a little. When I was in high school, I was a ballroom dance instructor. I taught the folk dance, waltz, tango, you know. So I am -- I feel myself as a dancer, you know.

GROSS: That's great.

WOO: So that's why -- so that's why when I say that, you know, while I'm choreographing the action, it seems like I'm dancing, you know. I'm dancing with the actors.

GROSS: Now what were some of the things that you did with the camera and with the speed to make the fight scenes more dramatic? Things like slowing up or -- speeding -- speeding up or slowing down the scene?

WOO: Well, each shot I would like to set five or six or three or four camera, and each camera have a different kind of speed. You know, like one is the normal speed; the other maybe 120-frame; the other maybe 60-frame. And then I put them together see how it look, how it feel.

And then I edit with with a sound track. I mean, I -- it means I cut with the music. I usually use a sound track to cut with the scene, so when the mood or when the music rhythm go, that will usually give you the feeling to use the normal speed or to using the slow motion, you know, or slow motion shot.

So and then after we put the whole scene together, to go with the music, see how it feel.

GROSS: Is there -- are there an action scene or a fight scene that you can break down for us, almost shot by shot, and tell us how you made it?

WOO: Well, it's hard, you know. Of course, the first begin, we did some story-board, you know, but I, you know, I just use it for a reference. And in Hong Kong, you know, I have never use any story-board. So because I like to create everything on a set.

When I'm -- when I go to the set, I would like to see what I had. And so I usually choreography everything by myself, sometimes with my stunt coordinator. And I put myself, I'd say, a character -- as a hero.

So if I -- I usually see how I feel first. OK, for example, if I'm in a lobby and ambushed by 20 guys, OK, and I only got two guns in my hand, so how could I deal with those 20 guys?

So I need to figure out for myself first, and then I will choreography and my stunt coordinator and demonstrate with my stunt man. And then I will -- I will rolling on the ground and get up and shooting some guy on the left side, and then I spin around, jumping in the air -- and taking care of some of the guy on the right side.

I would like to keep the beauty of the body movement -- keep your look great if I am spinning in the air, then I would like to put some other two guy up on a ceiling, and then I shoot them in the air, you know. If I feel I could do that, it would make me feel my actors also can do them.

GROSS: When you were making martial arts movies, did the actors ever accidentally hit each other really hard and hurt each other?

WOO: Oh, yeah. In old time, yeah, you know, in some of the -- actor wasn't a real kung fu guy, you know, so they'd hurt each other by accident, you know. It's a -- it almost happen. You know, it always happen, you know, it's like the -- once a while for the Hong Kong martial arts film, they went crazy.

You know, they -- like Jackie Chan or Sam Mo-hong (ph) -- those kind of movie. They like to, you know, hit the guy real. They really kicking the guy and beat up the guy. You know, I -- sometime, I mean in the mid-'70s, you know, that people used to like to do that. So some actors would really get hurt.

GROSS: Have you ever had an actor or a stunt man hurt while shooting a scene?

WOO: No, never. I always concern about the safety -- safety first. So -- and I also know how to use the camera technique to make it look great and avoid the dangerous.

You know, only a -- sometimes, they gets slightly hurt, but, you know, a little cut, but it doesn't mean anything and I have never like my actors or stuntmen risking their life to do all those dangerous thing. I mean, it isn't worth it, you know.

I always believe movie is about editing, camera, and lighting and the drama. It's not about risking your life to do some crazy thing, you know. So -- but in Face-Off, there's a scene -- the speedboat chase -- you know at the ending?

GROSS: Yeah.

WOO: One of our stunt double, you know, he double for Nick Cage, you know -- the shot was, he fell on the boat and dragging alongside the boat and then he flip up to the ski -- you know, that famous scene. And he almost got killed in that shot. Because the first time, when he fell, and his head went down first, so his head hit the side of the boat and he lost conscious about a few seconds, you know. And he almost lost his life.

GROSS: Well, how did that make you feel?

WOO: I feel very upset. I feel -- and I did try to stop him and want him to do it again. But the guy is so brave, you know, he -- because that was his idea, you know. He want to make it -- he want to do a great job, so he try it again, so.

GROSS: Now, when you're making an action film like Face/Off, every new action sequence is supposed to top the one that came before it. It's supposed to get just more and more exciting and climactic. What do you consider to be your most exciting moment in Face/Off?

WOO: Every moment.


Yeah, I enjoy every moment in Face/Off. But the most exciting moment was in the middle of the movie. The huge gun battle scene in a loft. You know, the "Over the Rainbow" scene?

GROSS: Yeah, the -- right, the...

WOO: Yeah.

GROSS: ... the song that you're hearing is Over the Rainbow because you're hearing the cassette that a little boy is listening to as this violence erupts behind him, and he's listening to a recording of Over the Rainbow, so that's the music on the soundtrack.

WOO: And you see all the violence. So the idea with the scene is anti-violence, you know. I try to -- you know, every action sequence, I intend to send some message. So while we shooting the scene, I just hate to see, you know, the people killing each other and the good guys are the bad guys and the bad guys are the good guys, you know. It's so boring.

And then I came up with the idea, you know, how about to put a children's song into a violent scene, beside to tell a message that's anti-violent, and also can show how the violent destroy the purity, you know.

GROSS: John Woo directed the new film Face/Off. He'll be back in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with John Woo, director of the new film Face/Off. He grew up in Hong Kong, where he made over 25 movies before coming to Hollywood. Now, you moved to Hong Kong from China with your parents when you were three or four years old.

WOO: Yeah.

GROSS: What was the neighborhood like in Hong Kong where you moved to?

WOO: It was really bad, you know. I was -- I raised in a slum, you know. They did -- we live in a very bad neighborhood, you know, like a drug dealers, the gambler, the prostitutes, and the gangster, you know. And every day, I got to deal with a gang.

I even beat up by the gang quite often, you know. So I have to struggle very hard and fight very hard. You know, I got to fight back to be survive. It was rough.

GROSS: Were you good at fighting back?

WOO: Yeah. You got a feeling like to live or die, you know. So I was so lucky to have a great parents. My mom and dad, they taught me go for straight. And then also got help at a church.

Since our family was so poor, they couldn't afford me to go to school. And there were an American family, they send the money for a church to support my school fee for six years. That how I got education.

GROSS: Now, I understand that your house burned down when you were young.

WOO: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Where did you live after that?

WOO: We were living on the street for one-and-a-half years, like all those homeless people, you know. So -- but we have never have any self pity, you know. And my father usually give me a lot of encouragement. So I'm so proud of my parents, you know.

GROSS: When you were growing up in Hong Kong, what were the movie theaters like?

WOO: In the old time, the -- everybody -- I mean, most of the Hong Kong people, they were so -- so much crazy about theater. You know, they love movie because since we all poor, you know, the only entertainment is to watch a movie. And in old time, the parents can bring the child into a theater for free, you know. So I usually sneak into the theater to watch every movie.

GROSS: You lived in Hong Kong until, what, four or five years ago. You've made most of your movies in Hong Kong -- most of your movies so far. Is one of your reasons for moving to America the takeover of Hong Kong by the Chinese?

WOO: No, no, not really. You know, about five years ago, I was invited to come to this country. Since my movie The Killer draw a lot of attention, you know, from the studio. The Universal Studio, they were so much interest to working with me.

So I -- and then I took a chance because I just felt since I already work in Hong Kong over 25 years, I think I've done enough. You know, I really need to learn something more, something new.

So that's why I come here. And the other reason is -- was about my family, you know. In Hong Kong, I work crazy, you know. I work seven days a week, 18 hours a day. And I spend most of time in the office and in a studio. So my children, they were barely can recognize my face and they getting to hate me, you know, because they have never got a real love from their father.

So -- and that really scare me, because I -- the family is the most important thing to me. So that's why I decided to move to the states. But when we move here, I find that people here, they never work, like, on a weekend, you know, and so everything back to the normal.

GROSS: What have been the most difficult things to adjust to about working in Hollywood?

WOO: About a system, you know, because at a first beginning, I have never know they were so complicate -- everything so complicate in Hollywood. And also, there are so many people involved. And I have never get used to there are so many producers and so many meetings -- just lots and lots of meeting. And it could take six or seven months just for meeting, and repeating the same thing.

And I have never know the star got so much power. You know, the star can control the script and also could control the co-star, you know, everything. And just a little confused to me, because I always feel for making movie, should be simple. Everything got to be simple. And also, to make a movie should be a lot of fun.

The other thing was there was a different feeling about heroes. When I got here, I'd been told in the American movie, for the American hero, you know, they never die; they never cry. And the hero got to be very straight.

And then I said: well, it kind of boring, you know. I -- my kind of hero usually in between the good and the bad, you know. Is -- but the great thing I have found in Hollywood is that all the studio, they're really, really open and they really gave me a lot of great respect.

The other thing is I also found that the people here, they are so much professional and dedicated.

GROSS: John Woo, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

WOO: Oh, thank you so much.

GROSS: John Woo directed the new film Face-Off. Coming up, we meet the screenwriters.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: John Woo
High: Director John Woo grew up in Hong Kong and directed numerous films there before coming to Hollywood. He has established himself as a master of action thrillers and is known for his elaborate action scenes. Woo also directed the American films Broken Arrow, and Hard Target." His new blockbuster film starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage is called "Face/Off." It's in theaters now.
Spec: Movie Industry; Asia; Hong Kong; John Woo
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: John Woo
Date: JULY 10, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071002NP.217
Head: Hollywood Screenwriters
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: My guests Mike Werb and Michael Colleary wrote the new film "Face/Off." They wrote their first draft back in 1990. Werb also wrote the Jim Carrey hit "The Mask." Colleary has written screenplays for Roger Corman.

Face/Off revolves around an identity swap in which the good guy and the bad guy swap faces through state-of-the-art plastic surgery. The identity swap leads to some wonderfully entertaining acting from John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, but it is a pretty improbable premise for which the writers had to come up with a medical explanation.

Well, here's the doctors describing the procedure to a skeptical FBI agent played by Travolta.


ACTOR: This is a state-of-the-art morpho-genetic (ph) template. The inside is modeled on your skull; the outside exactly like Troy's. Then we fit his face on top -- not a replica, but the real thing. Then we simply connect the muscles, tear ducts and nerve endings.

JOHN TRAVOLTA, ACTOR: So you want to take his face and mine...

UNNAMED ACTRESS: Borrow. The procedure's completely reversible.

TRAVOLTA: You think that I want to do this? No. No.

ACTRESS: There's no one else, Sean.


ACTRESS: You have lived and breathed Castor Troy for years.

TRAVOLTA: I'll get his gang to talk. That's what I do.

ACTRESS: What if you can't? The bomb will blow, and Castor Troy will win.

GROSS: The screenwriters told me they came up with the identity swap idea because they were interested in the good and evil aspects of man.

MIKE WERB, SCREENWRITER: Michael, in particular is a Joseph Campbell (ph) nut, and I'm kind of a mythology nut. And we decide -- I mean, what greater trick could Zeus play on two men who are so obsessed with each other than to have -- force them to become each other? And that was kind of the initial conceit.

GROSS: Now, what happens in this is that Nicholas Cage's face is surgically removed and transplanted onto John -- no, let me say this again. No, that's right.

WERB: Well, that's true too.

GROSS: I just think it's so confusing.

WERB: You're having the same problem that we had describing to people. What we ended up just doing was telling people that they switch identities.

GROSS: Right, but they switch faces, too, through this complicated plastic surgery, which is absurdly improbable...

WERB: Yes.

GROSS: ... I mean, there's no scars; there's no swelling; there's no black and blue marks; no nothing. How much did you have to worry about the credibility of the plot?

WERB: Well, amazingly enough, when we started writing this in 1990, it was more far-fetched than it is today. In fact, there was an article recently in some national paper about how in the next 10 or 15 years, you know, the technology will exist to pull off things like this.

Now, granted, the swelling -- obviously, the swelling issue and the scarring issue...

MICHAEL COLLEARY, SCREENWRITER: No pun intended with the pull-off.

WERB: Yeah, exactly. You know, that that stuff sort of tests the limits of plausibility.

COLLEARY: But one of the things that came to us when -- after we'd come to the plot -- come up with the plot, a -- somebody that we know had a horrible hang-gliding accident, and they actually took his face off and reconstructed the underlying tendons and muscles and bones and cartilage, and then put it back on.

So, and we took it a step further.

GROSS: One of the things I love about the film is watching Cage and Travolta exchanging mannerisms and personalities. It's a real acting fest. Did you realize the acting potential, within the idea of the identity swap?

WERB: Well, initially, we had written it for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. This -- keep in mind, this was in 1990, and of course, they were sort of the biggest heavyweights around.

But after the project left Warner Brothers, Michael and I really started to talk more and more about the psychological underpinnings of what the film was really about. And Paramount very much encouraged us to write that story, and the more we wrote that, we realized, you know, this is probably the only film in Hollywood history in which two actors get to play good and evil and they don't have to play twins.

GROSS: How did John Woo get to direct this movie? You had written the movie in 1990. John Woo has been in the states for a few years. This is, what, his third American movie?

WERB: Yeah, correct.

COLLEARY: This is his third American film.

GROSS: So how did he get to direct Face/Off?

WERB: But his first Hong Kong film is here now in the states.

COLLEARY: It was -- yeah, there is actually an interesting story about John Woo's involvement in this movie. When the project was at Warner Brothers from 1991 to nineteen-ninety -- I guess...

WERB: Two.

COLLEARY: ... late '92, Joel Silver was the producer and he actually offered it to John Woo when John first came to Hollywood. Now, Mike and I had never heard of John Woo.

We came a little late to the Hong Kong awareness -- awareness of Hong Kong cinema. And I actually saw the trailer for "The Killer" here in L.A. in the New Beverly Theater, and one night by coincidence, and just couldn't believe what I was seeing.

WERB: Actually Michael went back to the -- and paid to get into the last revival house in L.A. just to see the trailer.

COLLEARY: Yeah, the next night because I still couldn't be sure. And so when the film came, Mike and I went to see it, and we realized that John Woo is just the -- was the perfect director for Face/Off. It just had all the same -- the themes and ideas that he seemed to love in his films were just by coincidence in Face/Off.

But of course, we had no idea he would ever...

WERB: Even read it.

COLLEARY: ... ever read it, let alone direct it. And finally, I guess in early '95, we met John -- Mike Werb's agent and John's agent are the same person, the same agency -- the William Morris Agency -- and we were able to meet John and he -- we expected to meet this very kind of, you know, Sam Peckinpah-esque.

We'd seen a lot of his films by then and, you know, this John Huston, hard-drinking, gun-totin' guy. And of course, what we met was extremely polite, courteous, thoughtful man, and a real film nut and a guy who loves musicals.

And he just couldn't have been less than -- you know, in reality -- than the person we envisioned, and he complimented us profusely on the script for Face/Off and we were just so flattered and thrilled. But of course, he was going off to make...

WERB: Well, at that point, we walked away thinking that was absolutely the highlight of our careers, was just to meet him and spend an hour chatting with him, and that still, he was making "Broken Arrow" and we never really dreamed that he would actually do the movie.

COLLEARY: And it -- but as it turned out, you know, we had another director on the movie and it was -- seemed to be going another way, and that, as it often happens in Hollywood, just didn't work out and John became available again and signed onto the film.

And of course, John and John Travolta got along so famously on Broken Arrow that John Travolta was, you know, very happy and willing and wanted to work with John again, which is unusual in Hollywood. You don't tend to see the same actors working with the same directors, unless it's DeNiro and Scorcese and so forth.

But we've just been very fortunate in those ways.

GROSS: You know what I wonder, like, when you're writing an action scene with a lot of explosions and stunts and so on, do you write, you know, like: Good guy chases bad buy; mayhem ensues; lots of explosions -- parentheses: Director, you figure it out.


WERB: No, we never do that, even if he doesn't do -- even if the director does not film what we write, we always write it in extremely detailed manner; all the beats that -- and, you know, also pacing the timing as best we can. The scenes ended up being certainly a lot longer and a lot more poetic than could be written in the screenplay.

GROSS: When you're writing a scene like the climax in Face/Off where there's a boat chase and boats are getting destroyed; things are getting blown up; there's a lot off stunts in the water -- do you have any idea what it's going to cost when you're doing it?

And when you're writing it, do you have, like, the cheap Roger Corman version in mind as well as the expensive big -- you know, the expensive version in mind, too?

WERB: I'll let Michael answer that since he's worked for Roger. I've worked for Sam Arkoff (ph), but you...


COLLEARY: Interestingly enough, and I actually can reference Roger Corman. In this case, I did have several meetings with Roger on an action film. It was my first job many years ago.

WERB: "Rescue in Lebanon."

COLLEARY: Yeah, "Rambo Goes To Lebanon" was basically it. And Roger had the same answer, interestingly enough, that Steven Reuther (ph), who of course, was executive producer of the film, in partners with Michael Douglas, and you know, just a hugely powerful man used to making big-budget films -- they always say the same thing, which is: just write it, and we'll worry about, you know, making it work later and paying for it later and they really want your imagination to -- as a writer -- to just cut loose and do the best you can.

Because if you stumble upon a gag or a stunt that is really crucial in the story point, or just for the fun of it, they will try to find a way to make it work.

GROSS: I want to get back to the premise of two people exchanging faces and exchanging identities. I know, like, when I was a kid, I'd sometimes borrow a sweater from a girlfriend, and I'd feel like her. I mean, you know, I'd feel like somewhat transformed by seeing this article of clothing that identified with her on me.

So one could only guess what it would feel like to be wearing somebody else's face. Did you try to imagine what it would be like to wear somebody else's face?

WERB: Well, it's funny you ask that, because we actually spend -- if there's a business call or even a personal call that I really don't want to take, but the person doesn't know my voice, Michael will take the call and act like he's me. And I've done that for him, and we spend a lot of time doing that.

I think subconsciously, that generated a lot of this plot.

COLLEARY: When we first started out, there was a lot of unscrupulous Hollywood types who would take advantage of film students and so forth.

WERB: Now all gone, of course.


COLLEARY: Yeah, there are none left in Hollywood. But -- so occasionally, you know, when we were starting out, we didn't really know how to deal with people really giving us the full-court press, so we would try to help each other out that way, a little bit.

GROSS: When you were writing the screenplay, before you knew that it was Nicholas Cage and John Travolta who would be playing the two characters that exchange identities, did you write in little bits of business that would be associated with each of the characters, so that the actors would have to pick up on those and then exchange them after the identity exchange?

WERB: Yeah, we did. From the very first draft, we realized that in order for this to work -- in order for the audience to buy the conceit of this movie at all -- there would have to be very distinct differences between these two characters.

And one of the things that we'd set up which are -- some of which are still in the movie and some of which are not -- but John -- Sean Archer, the FBI agent, is very emotionally distant. He does not smoke. He does not drink. He does not swear. He's a very uptight person.

On the other hand, the Castor Troy character -- the assassin -- we made very distinctly an extremely passionate lover of life, albeit very cruelly, but this is a man we described in the screenplay as a walking hard-on. And he drinks aggressively and he makes love aggressively and he is, in a way -- an odd way -- much more full of life.

And when they have to switch roles, of course, the hero has to learn how to do all those things that he's completely unfamiliar with.

COLLEARY: And we gave the reader a lot of, you know, cues with dialogue. For example, there were certain catch phrases that, you know, that Castor would use, you know -- that some of, as Mike said, some made it into the film in some variations. One of Castor's lines was "I have a confession to make, but you aren't going to like it." And he used to use that right before he'd generally kill someone.

So there, you know, so there were certain -- we would take certain words and put them in one character's voice and then when they switched faces, it would come out of the other actor's mouth -- the same words.

WERB: Like the secretary in the FBI office, she's worked for the hero for years and he still calls her "Miss Brewster" (ph). When the bad guy returns as the FBI agent in disguise, he starts calling her Kimmy (ph) and slapping her ass and doing all sorts of sort of sexist things that the hero would never have done.

GROSS: Right. Are there things that Travolta and Cage came up with that really surprised and delighted you?

WERB: Oh, almost everything. From the first time we met them, we met them at a party, a sort of get-acquainted dinner party last august. And even up to that point, no one was really sure if, physically, people would ever buy the switch.

And we were just astonished and thrilled when John and Nick sat beside each other at dinner and just the shape of their faces and the way they cocked their heads and so forth.

And after dinner they started -- they started to mimic each other. They started to talk about "well, I'm going to walk like this" and Nick, you know, "you walk kind of bow-legged" and "John, you do this."

COLLEARY: We had a real Hollywood moment that night. It was very strange for us to suddenly see the movie actually come alive well before we actually -- it was actually went into production. John and Nick, we were introduced to them. We started talking for -- to them for maybe a minute or two, and very quickly we were lost to them.

And they started quoting lines from the screenplay and started talking about getting into character, basically. And they, you know, Nick would go: "oh, John, whenever you're picking up a glass or whenever you're talking, you, like, do this with your hands." And then Travolta would say: "Nick, you walk exactly this way when you're really angry."

And then they would do it. They would start doing each other, and they were in profile and despite the fact that they look quite different head-on, we could see that the -- you know, they're about the same stature and they have many sort of physical attributes that are similar. And we were totally lost to them. We looked at each other, also in profile, and shook hands behind a palm tree.

And we -- it was just great.

GROSS: My guests are Mike Werb and Michael Colleary. They wrote the screenplay for the new action film Face/Off. Back after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guests are Mike Werb and Michael Colleary. They co-wrote the screenplay for the new film Face/Off starring Nicholas Cage and John Travolta.

John Woo, the director, is -- has only recently acquired English as a second language, 'cause he's only lived in the states a few years. Were there parts of your script that you had to explain to him because they're based on colloquialisms or in-jokes that someone not very familiar with English just couldn't get?

WERB: That's funny you ask, because we had a -- we spoke to his assistant one day...

COLLEARY: Oh, this is funny.

WERB: ... who was going through the script making a list -- she was actually -- John had gone through the script and circled all the kind of swear-words he didn't understand.


COLLEARY: I think that once -- I think at one spot, Terry, there was a reference to a G-spot.

WERB: Yes, a G-spot.

COLLEARY: That needed to be explained.

WERB: To John, and so, yeah, we -- he -- John's far too polite and discreet to ask us directly because, you know, he didn't want to chance offending us on some level, which of course, he never would. But yeah, he took care of that.

I mean, he's very conscious of the fact that he -- his English -- you know, it's funny because his English is quite good. But he doesn't seem to have all -- he's getting better now, but when we first met him he didn't seem to have a lot of confidence in it.

COLLEARY: Actually, I think he did. I think he's just more comfortable with us.

WERB: Yeah, that's true too.

GROSS: A question for you about violence in action films. Do you worry about the amount of carnage in this movie? And that, you know, young people seeing it might get immunized to violence, 'cause every -- you know, so many people die?

COLLEARY: We were very nervous about a lot of the violence and take responsibility and took responsibility for a lot of it, too, and had many discussions among our -- just the two of us -- about it. As Mike said earlier, that opening flashback scene -- you know, when we first started writing it, that was going to be kind of more hinted at and suggested, originally, and of course, ended up being the first scene of the film, and very powerfully done.

And we were concerned about that. We were very concerned about Eve being raped. I mean, we -- to us, that was by far the most horrible thing in the film.

WERB: It's interesting that most people that see the film don't seem to realize that she is being raped in the movie and that was -- that took us a -- although it's a short scene, that took us -- that was one of the longest and hardest scenes for us to write.

COLLEARY: Because we just -- in fact, when we were conceiving the movie and plotting the movie, we were trying to find a way not to have that happen, but we realized that if we were going to be true to the dilemma and true to the situation, at a certain point that's what happens. When you write at a certain point, this -- you know, the story takes over and the characters take over. And there was really no way to do that without severely damaging the structure of the film.

WERB: If the bad guy does not fool her, he can't possibly fool anyone for any length of time. So we had to have that scene, but that was a quandary that, as Michael just said, the story demanded.

COLLEARY: So we -- so, yeah, I mean -- we definitely were concerned and we were happy, in a sense, that the film for an "R" rating 'cause we felt like that would keep younger kids out of the movie. And it is disturbing, there's no doubt about it, even though the movie is done in a kind of a over-the-top operatic fashion. It is something that we think about and John Woo thinks about quite a bit.

GROSS: You wrote the screenplay together in 1990. That's when the first draft was written.

WERB: Correct.

GROSS: Are you still partners? Are you still working together?


WERB: Well, as Michael says, now that we're successful, we only talk through our agents and on radio shows.


COLLEARY: Right. But no -- yes we are -- we do still work together. In fact, we're writing John Woo's next film together. And we've hung in there pretty well as partners, and we've been friends for a long time, even longer than the partnership.

WERB: That was one of the rules that we set up when we first decided we were going to write a script together, and Face/Off was our first screenplay together -- was that the friendship came first. And if that was ever threatened, we'd stop writing together.

Fortunately, it's just brought us much closer.

GROSS: I guess that's because you have good agents.


COLLEARY: That's right. They translate everything very, very well.

GROSS: Well, congratulations on your success with this film.

WERB: Thank you.

COLLEARY: Thank you so much. This is ...

GROSS: And thanks so much for talking with us.

WERB: Oh, we really are thrilled to be here.

GROSS: Mike Werb and Michael Colleary wrote the new film Face/Off.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Mike Werb; Michael Colleary
High: Screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary first collaboration is the script for "Face/Off" which they wrote in 1990. The two attended UCLA film school together. Webb wrote the screenplay for "The Mask" and Colleary's first writing jobs were for Roger Corman and Cannon Films. Since they wrote "Face/Off" they've worked for every major studio and their TV credits include "Darkman3 - Die, Darkman Die!" for MCA and "Bump in the Night" for NBC.
Spec: Movie Industry; Screenwriting; Face Off
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Hollywood Screenwriters
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue