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Director John Woo Brings Hong Kong Action to American Screens

Film critic John Powers reviews "Face Off," which stars Nicholas Cage and John Travolta.


Other segments from the episode on June 27, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 27, 1997: Interview with Conan O'Brien; Interview with Sonia Ascoli-Israel; Review of the film "Face/Off."


Date: JUNE 27, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062701np.217
Head: Conan O'Brien
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:00

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

This September, Conan O'Brien will begin his fifth year as the host of NBC's "Late Night." When he first took over David Letterman's spot, critics and audiences were skeptical that he'd last. After all, O'Brien had made his reputation as a writer not a performer. He wrote for "The Simpson's" and "Saturday Night Live." In his college days, he was president of the Harvard Lampoon.

He just didn't seem all that comfortable in front of the camera. But O'Brien eventually caught on, achieving what "Washington Post" TV critic Tom Shales described as one of the most amazing transformations in television history.

I spoke with Conan O'Brien last October. We talked about some of the sketches on the show, like when they transformed Late Night into an action movie.

CONAN O'BRIEN, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN": We'd do a piece that we call "New Directors." And it's a piece where basically we come back from a commercial and I say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a wonderful director on our show, Liz Plonka (ph), a terrific woman who does a great job, but it took us a while to find her. And in that period when we were looking, we tried out many different directors."

And this is basically just an excuse for us to do a genre parody, where we then say: We tried out one director who was really famous for his blaxploitation films in the early '70s.

And then we'll cut to how that director did the show. And it will be very absurd. Andy and I will be played by two black people, and you'll that kind of "punka, chunka, chunka, chunka, wunka, chunka, chunka, chunka" bass playing in the background.

And, you know, we'll start -- the two black actors will start talking about someone's moving in on their territory uptown. Then they'll run out of the building, and you'll cut to bad '70s footage of running gun battles.


And at the same time, we'll -- then we'll say: Then we tried someone out who had kind of a -- he was a young student of Sam Peckinpah. And then we'll cut to, you know, me and Andy basically, you know, having a huge running gun battle, you know, and then the gun battle -- and we'll really use guns and we'll use exploding squib (ph), so it looks like we're shooting each other. We'll shoot it a lot like an action movie, and then suddenly when the action dies down, I'll introduce "my first guest tonight is Al Roker" -- and it bleeds into a talk show.

So we've done things like that where I think people get a lot of bang for their buck.

GROSS: What makes it all so particularly funny, too, is that you're so not the action hero -- you know what I mean? There's no way you'd be like the muscular leading man, and the action (Unintelligible).

O'BRIEN: Now why would you say something like that?


O'BRIEN: That's not how I see myself at all. That's -- wow, you're the first -- I have a bunch of -- I have a bunch of people around me who all used to say: "Conan -- that's how people see you, as the ..."; and then I come on National Public Radio and have my delusions popped right here in front of everybody.


GROSS: Oh, yeah, it's cruel.

O'BRIEN: Well, I think that's -- that brings up, I think, an important element of the show is a lot of my sense of humor -- and this isn't a moral choice or anything -- but my sense of humor since I was 5 years old has been, a lot of times, to make fun of myself or to find myself absurd.

And so we'll write a lot of -- we'll write a lot of pieces where, you know, it is my sort of, you know, attempt to play the hunky action hero that's, you know, that's the joke. Or it's my, you know, it's the fact that the joke is basically that it's me. Do you know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

O'BRIEN: That I'm not, you know, the professional 11:30 talk show host; that I'm the kind of -- I'm the guy who's on at 12:30 who probably, you know, looks a little young to be having one of these shows, and the first two seasons my suits were ill-fitting. Do you know what I mean? We sort of exploit that kid who's dressing up like an adult, doing a show with his pal.

GROSS: Conan O'Brien is my guest.

When you started doing "Late Night," you didn't have a lot of experience as the person on-stage at the microphone. You were the behind-the-scenes writer ...

O'BRIEN: Mmm-hm.

GROSS: ... for most of your experiences. Did you have any sense of how you would look on TV?

O'BRIEN: I didn't have a sense of how I would look on TV as much as -- the best sense I had is how I would be in front of an audience, because for years, starting in 1985, I had been working on stage as an improviser -- as an improvisational performer in sketches, doing sketch comedy in front of audiences. I had done a stage show in Chicago.

And, you know, at the time, it made a much more dramatic story to say: This guy's a writer; he's never been a performer. In fact, he doesn't want to be a performer; he's being forced to do this by the government. It made the whole story much more compelling.

But the truth is, I had really had no -- I had not had TV experience, but I had had -- the whole reason that I was confident was that I knew what I would be like in front of people. I knew what I would be like in front of an audience. And I knew that if we had a live studio audience, which we do -- we have about 210 people in the audience -- I knew that I was -- that I could sort of come alive in front of people and I'd always been that way.

And as far as what I would look like on TV, I really didn't have that great a sense. I had done some TV work, and so I had kind of an idea, but certainly I'd never seen myself that much on television.

GROSS: So when the show was first on the air, did you watch yourself every night to get a sense of ...

O'BRIEN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ... what was working and what wasn't?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, yeah I did. And once I got over the shock at just how fat my Irish head was -- which it took about a month to recover from, you know -- I, you know, I then started to -- you just make adjustments. That's what these shows are.

GROSS: What adjustments did you make?

O'BRIEN: I mean -- well, you make a ton of adjustments, a lot of them visual adjustments. OK, the lighting's all wrong. I'm wearing too much makeup -- I look orange. My hair -- I don't know if anyone, if your viewers remember, but my hair for the first six months was very high. You know, I have -- I'm a big rockabilly fan so I use to, kind of got into the habit of combing my hair up and out, sort of like Eddie Cochran (ph) or something.

And so for the first six months of the show, I had this giant pompadour that was knocking klieg lights out in the studio. You know, just this huge giant pompadour. So -- and that was frightening viewers. So I combed my hair down a bit.

So you make small changes like that, and then you, you know, you make a million adjustments in terms of what comedy works and what doesn't work. We used to do comedy during the interviews. You know, I'd be talking to a guest like Mary Tyler Moore and then I'd have her participate in a piece of comedy, and then continue with the interview.

And it just didn't work. It just was jarring and uncomfortable. And so, we learned. You know, we phased that out. And whenever a sketch would really work, I'd examine: Why did that work so well? Why was I so good in that? Why did that feel so good?

And you try and learn from that and say: OK, let's increase the number of sketches like that we do. Let's decrease -- and that process still goes on today. I look at early shows now, I mean we're only talking -- we're talking three years ago, which in most people's lives -- I mean, most of the people listening right now think "oh, Conan O'Brien, yeah, he's that new guy." To them, three years isn't that long.

When I pop in a tape of an early episode now, it's like looking at a kinescope of early television, because I look completely different.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

O'BRIEN: My relationship with Andy is very stiff and formal, and the suits are too tight and my voice is at a different register. And some of the sketches -- some of the sketches, I think, still today, I think are brilliant and great, and I think there's a lot about the show early-on that -- I think the reason we're on the air is that there was a lot early-on that was very good. But there was also stuff that was just insanely -- what the hell were we thinking?

GROSS: When you were writing on "Saturday Night Live" or for "The Simpsons," did you ever think: I should be in front of the camera; I'm at least as good as these guys I'm writing for?

O'BRIEN: I never actually -- I never thought when I was working on Saturday -- I always wanted to perform and I wanted to be someone who was in front of the camera, because I knew that that was -- that I had some facility for that and I wanted to do it.

But I never -- when I was working at "Saturday Night Live," I knew that -- first of all, I was writing for people like Dana Carvey, John Lovitz. And they're just, you know, much better sketch players than I am. They're 100 times better. I don't do impressions. I don't have nearly the range that they have as performers.

They were doing something that I did not really aspire to, and that I knew, deep down, that's not really what I do. I'm not, you know, I'm -- I don't have like a ton of characters like "The Church Lady" or "Hans and Franz." So when I was writing for them, I never thought: I could do what they do better. I wasn't that stupid.

And when I was at "The Simpsons," everyone I was working for was a brilliant voice-over artist. These people were really great actors who could create these characters; these -- just these voices alone that would bring a character to life. And I knew, well, I can't do that. I don't have a good voice. I have the voice of a 14-year-old boy, you know.

So I didn't think I could do better than them. Instead, I knew that, well, you know, I'm not -- and I used to struggle with this -- but I'd say: I'm not really an actor; I'm not really a standup; I'm not really a sketch player.

What am I? I know that I'm kind of funny when I just am myself. And I know that I like to interact with people. And I love to be in small comedy bits. And basically I ended up probably getting the one job that I'm -- I'd be qualified to do, which is a little bit of everything.

GROSS: My guest is Conan O'Brien, host of NBC's "Late Night." More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: You took tap dance lessons when you were 9 years old.

O'BRIEN: That's right.

GROSS: That was your idea to take them?

O'BRIEN: Yeah. No, it was not forced upon me by anybody. That's the sad part. I think the story is much less frightening when you say: Well, my parents made me. But it's scary to think that a 9-year-old boy says: Mom, Dad, I want to be a tap dancer. You think: What is with this kid?

But I...

GROSS: I find it really endearing that a 9-year-old would want to learn a form that's become pretty archaic.


O'BRIEN: Well, see, it's very funny because I had a very archaic -- I knew when I was very young that I wanted to be in show business.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

O'BRIEN: And my view of show business was based on the movies that they ran on Channel 56, which is the UHF station in Boston, or was the UHF station in Boston when I was growing up.

And they used to show movies from the '40s, like "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "On The Town." You know, they would show these movies, and as this little kid, I didn't have a sense of, well, this movie was made a long time ago. I didn't know. I'm still, to this day, not that bright.

But I would watch these movies like "Yankee Doodle Dandy" with Jimmy Cagney, and ...

GROSS: I grew up on that, too.

O'BRIEN: ... yeah, and he's like singing and dancing and tap dancing. And I thought: If you want to be in show business, you gotta be able to have, you know -- tell a joke, put a song across, but most importantly, you have to be able to break into a 10-minute tap dance at any moment.

And so I went right to my parents and said I gotta take tap dancing lessons. And they, you know, they considered that for a few days, and they said: All right, he really wants to do it.

So they hooked me up with a guy named Stanley Brown, whose since passed away. But he's this -- he was this older black gentleman who had been the -- he'd been the protege of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the great tap dancer who'd been in all those Shirley Temple movies.

So I really got hooked up with the master. And I remembered I was this 9-year-old, really pale, round-faced kid with bright, bright orange hair who would -- my Dad would drop me off on his way to work on Saturday mornings. He'd drop me off in a part of Boston that's right near the Berkeley School of Music.

And I would walk up this, like, rickety old 10 flights of steps into his dance studio. And it would be all, you know, 25-, 24-year-old black men and women, and then one, like, orange-haired freckled kid sitting there, holding his shoes in a box.

And I would study, and I did that for a number of years until Stanley Brown passed away. And then I got this huge growth spurt. I grew to six-four in like a day. It was like I was irradiated or something. I grew very tall and lost all my coordination and just sort of it fell by the wayside.

GROSS: Did you have a nice sense of rhythm when you were 9?

O'BRIEN: I -- since we're on radio, I'll just say yes I did.


GROSS: Right.

O'BRIEN: Of course, I don't have to back it up. Yes, I did. And by the way, I'm extremely handsome right now for those of you who can't see me.

GROSS: You know, your sense of show business -- I think this is maybe parodied a little bit on a sketch of the Jerry Lewis Telethon -- and then you come on and you're singing "Consider Yourself" from "Oliver."

O'BRIEN: Yeah, yeah. We basically took footage of Jerry Lewis introducing an act on his telethon, and then dropped my voice in, so that it looks like Jerry Lewis is introducing a wonderful new talent, Conan O'Brien. And then you cut to me, and we match the studio so it looks like I'm right there.

And I'm wearing a gold tuxedo jacket and I, you know, and a bow-tie -- a sparkling bow-tie -- and I -- the band kicks in "Consider Yourself" from "Oliver." And I go into this really over-the-top version of "Consider Yourself."

And then we cut to actual footage of Jerry Lewis wincing. You know, so it looks like -- and we cut to the board with all the tallies and the totals for the telethon donations is actually plummeting. It's actually going backwards.


GROSS: Now, did you think when you were 9 that you'd actually be on the telethon in a gaudy suit singing "Consider Yourself?" Was that your idea of what the future would be as an entertainer?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, I think that was my -- I used to do -- I think like a lot of people that later go on to do perform -- be performers -- I used to do -- I would do -- host a television show in front of the mirror in our -- on the first floor of my house. That mirror, you know, the mirror's still there. But I would stand in front of the mirror and I would say: Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the program, good to have you here. And I would invite my guests on -- it was always, you know, my brother and my sister.

They were actually very good shows. We got top guests back then in front of the mirror. We had Tom Cruise on when he was eight. So...


GROSS: Did you sing on your show?

O'BRIEN: I just always -- I -- again, I had this very corny antiquated idea of what show business is. And I think actually you can see there's an element of that on the show that I do now, on the "Late Night" show, is There is kind of like a lot of singing and performing and puppets and, you know, we do a lot of that kind of show business. You know, there are elements of the show that really are sort of from a by-gone era.

GROSS: Well, I think your show has the best late night theme.

O'BRIEN: Oh, thanks.

GROSS: Music theme. Yeah, I really like it a lot.

O'BRIEN: I like that theme, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, now, did you have a theme for your show in front of the mirror?

O'BRIEN: I think we just put on a record, you know, whatever record was around. So it was, you know, it was probably some record my parents had. But yeah, we had, like, you know, 76 -- I used to think, like, you know, that song 70 -- you know, I think my -- this was before I could go out and buy records of my own. You know what I mean?

GROSS: "76 Trombones"?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, you know, so you'd have to use your parents' records. And so obviously it was always -- it was records that I would not go out and buy by myself. It was like "The Glenn Miller Orchestra" -- da, da, da, da, dun, dun, da, da. You know, and then the minute I had the ability to go out and buy records on my own, the theme changed. But...

GROSS: Conan O'Brien is my guest.

So you know I really wish FRESH AIR could borrow from your show?

O'BRIEN: OK, go ahead.

GROSS: The Emergency Guest.

O'BRIEN: Oh, yeah. I know. I think every show would like one of those.

GROSS: Every show would like one. Why don't you describe it in case some of our listeners are not -- yeah.

O'BRIEN: "Emergency Guest" is -- and we haven't done it in a while, but it was a bit that I always really liked, where we come back from commercial and I say to Andy: "Andy, our -- the guest that we're supposed to have right now, William Shatner -- his car broke down on the way from the airport -- he's not going to be here. We don't have a second guest."

And then he would say: "Well, Conan, there's just one thing we can do. We gotta use the emergency guest." And I go: "You're right, old friend."

And we cross over to the side of the stage and there's a big glass box that says "Break In Case of Emergency" and inside is a mannequin wearing a tuxedo. And we smash the glass. Andy takes the giant mannequin out; puts it in the guest seat. I press a button, and it goes: "Hello there, I am your emergency guest."

And then it continues to talk. It talks just like a phony Hollywood celebrity, and starts to say things like: "Please, don't ask me about my relationship with Cher; that's strictly personal. We've got to help the rain forest. If we don't do something, who will? "Planet Hollywood" is opening up. I have one in Cairo. I hope you'll all be able to check it out. I'm really excited about my new movie."


O'BRIEN: And then the running joke is, I try and talk and he cuts me off and says: "Show my clip; show my clip; show my clip; show my clip." So I go, "OK, here's the emergency guest's clip." And we roll the clip. And it's a real movie clip that we made starring the mannequin.

So you'll see the mannequin riding a horse and you'll see actors shooting at it. And they really got involved. I mean, we started to do emergency guests where he'd say "show my clip, show my clip" and we'd show the clip and it would be a scene where we'd get Eli Wallach -- I mean, we'd get like real heavy-hitters to be in this.

And they're saying, they're yelling -- and the emergency guest in this one scene, I remember, is dressed as a boxer and he's in the locker room and Eli Wallach is there, turning in this great performance saying: You've got to do it kid; you gotta go out there. And then we'd shoot a boxing sequence with the mannequin, and...

So, I always loved that because that bit always went farther than you thought it would. And I remember the thing that excited me most when I was a young TV viewer was when you got more than you thought you were gonna get. You know, when you were watching SC-TV, when you were watching Johnny Carson and the bit had more layers to it than you expected.

It was this real excitement, like, my God, they went to a lot of -- where -- now the camera's following him outside and, you know, there's more to this than I thought there was going to be. This isn't just the garden variety bit.

And that was a bit where I knew if I was 16 or 17 and I was watching emergency guest, the fact that he actually had a clip and that it starred Eli Wallach and that the emergency guest is doing a stunt on a horse would blow me away. I'd be really excited.

GROSS: Conan O'Brien, what a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks so much and congratulations on your success with "Late Night."

O'BRIEN: Oh, thanks for -- yeah, thanks for having me.


JERRY LEWIS: I'm referring to a singer who is now entering his fifth decade as a performer, and is he hot. All the young people are now finding out what all the older people found out when they first heard him, and now he has a whole new audience and so does he deserve this.

O'BRIEN: Conan O'Brien, ladies and gentlemen.


Consider yourself at home;
Consider yourself, part of the family
I've taken to you so strong
It's clear we're going to get along


(Unintelligible) have to be (unintelligible)...

GROSS: Conan O'Brien begins his fifth year as host of Late Night in September. Our interview was recorded last October.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Conan O'Brien
High: Late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien. He took over David Letterman's spot in 1993. Now nearly four years (September 13, 1996) since becoming host of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," he's become a household name. Previous to that, O'brien was a writer for "Saturday Night Live." His sketches included "Mr. Short Term Memory" and "The Girl Watchers." He was also a writer/producer for "The Simpsons." (Originally aired 10/30/96)
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Conan O'Brien
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: Conan O'Brien
Date: JUNE 27, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062702NP.217
Head: Face Off
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Move over, Schwarzenegger and Stallone, there are two new action stars in town. John Travolta and Nicholas Cage star in the action thriller "Face Off," directed by John Woo (ph). Our film critic John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: Back in the late '80s, people began realizing that the world's most exciting action director was the Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo. Insanely violent and deliriously emotional, his movies were like operas, but with shoot-outs instead of arias.

When Woo moved to Hollywood, his fans worried that the system might turn him into a studio hack. And these fears seemed justified by "Hard Target" and "Broken Arrow."

But Woo, it turned out, was just paying his dues and his new movie "Face Off" could have been made by nobody else. Funny, exciting, and exuberantly acted, it's the closest thing to a Hong Kong movie ever made in Hollywood.

John Travolta plays Sean Archer (ph), an FBI agent obsessed with killing the terrorist who murdered his son. That terrorist is Castor Troy (ph), a gleeful sociopath played by Nicholas Cage.

For reasons too baroque to explain here, these mortal enemies wind up having their faces surgically exchanged, so that Travolta becomes the terrorist Castor, who now looks like Archer; while Cage becomes the good guy who looks like the bad guy. The loser in this swap is the FBI man who gets tossed into a maximum security prison where nobody's about to believe some story about switching faces.

Meanwhile, the evil Castor is having a ball, becoming a hero and sleeping with Archer's wife, who is nicely played by Joan Allen. Happily amoral, Castor even comes on to Archer's teenage daughter -- at one point sauntering up to her bedroom and grabbing a pack of cigarettes from her desk.


UNNAMED ACTRESS, AS DAUGHTER: Thurus (ph) left those here.

JOHN TRAVOLTA, ACTOR, AS CASTOR: I won't tell Mom if you don't.

DAUGHTER: When did you start smoking?

CASTOR: You'll be seeing a lot of changes around here. Papa's got a brand new bag. Oww!



POWERS: Woo has few rivals when it comes to action, and there are some terrific scenes here, including an amazing shoot out at a church.

But these scenes are less thrilling than they might be because Hollywood has already stolen and overused many of Woo's trademark images, such as guys flying parallel to the floor with both guns blazing. Typically, though, Hollywood hasn't stolen what keeps Woo's work from being cynical: a big, goofy sentimental streak redolent of the early silent movies.

Woo believes absolutely in his character's visceral love for their family and friends, and his movies are all about what happens when these primal loyalties get tangled up in the struggle between good and evil.
Nothing could be more Woo-ish than this story about a cop and a killer having to cope with crossed identities.

Travolta and Cage are perfect for such a swap because they both have a knack for seeming ambiguous. Both are able to cry; both are able to kill with a smile. Travolta has the flashier and more entertaining role. The evil Castor thinks it's kind of cool to have a new identity, and Travolta clearly relishes the chance to show us Papa's brand new bag.

The actor cuts loose from his familiar suave style and starts hamming it up as the crazy Castor, which means he's also doing a Nick Cage impression. Travolta turns Castor's wickedness into such a giddy dance that he initially threatens to steal the whole movie. But eventually Cage makes a comeback, not least because Archer is the more interesting character.

For while Travolta plays a guy who enjoys fooling around with a new face, Cage must do two opposite things at the same time. He must show us Archer's desperate attempt to seem like the cocky, brutal Castor. And he must make us feel Archer's agony at being forced to play this role.

Perpetually torn between tears and maniacal grins, Cage's face looks like it's having a nervous breakdown. He makes us see that Archer is coming to understand evil, far more than Castor is learning about goodness.

Now, I don't want to leave you thinking that "Face Off" is some sort of masterpiece. It's too formulaic for that. But it is incredibly enjoyable. And it serves as an intelligent antidote to moronic spectacles like "Conair," "Speed II," or the new "Batman," which are all about big commotions.

"Face Off" is about big emotions and big, juicy Hollywood acting. This is one action movie whose real fireworks come from the stars.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

Dateline: John Powers; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Film critic John Powers reviews "Face Off," starring Nicholas Cage and John Travolta.
Spec: Entertainment; Movies; 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: Face Off
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.

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