Heroic Bloodshed: John Woo on Action with a Beating Heart

Chow Yun-Fat and friend in John Woo’s Hong Kong action classic, Hard Boiled (1992).
Chow Yun-Fat and friend in John Woo’s Hong Kong action classic, Hard Boiled (1992).

Hong Kong action legend John Woo on his inspirations, filmmaking philosophy and the most dangerous stunt of his career. 

Only a handful of directors can say that their work has changed filmmaking forever. John Woo has done it twice. As a young upstart in late ’60s Hong Kong, Woo was working as an assistant director at the hallowed Shaw Brothers studio by day and absorbing the rebellious spirit of the French New Wave at night. 

As a fledgling director in the ’70s, he worked with the brightest stars Hong Kong had to offer, sharpening his skills on comedies and martial arts films made within the restrictive parameters of the HK studio system. But, as he tells Letterboxd, “in my heart, I thought, ‘I can do it like François Truffaut.’”

Woo recently received a Career Achievement Award from Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, a place where Asian filmmakers have been sharing their work with an appreciative North American audience since the late 1990s. As the festival writes on its website, “Without John Woo, there would be no Fantasia.” And indeed, the shape of both East Asian and American filmmaking would be very different if Woo had never had the courage to follow his heart and create a new style of action known as “heroic bloodshed.”

A Better Tomorrow (1986) ignited the international careers of its star, Chow Yun-Fat, and director John Woo.
A Better Tomorrow (1986) ignited the international careers of its star, Chow Yun-Fat, and director John Woo.

Woo’s ’80s filmography is full of characters who inhabit the seedy, bullet-ridden underworlds of modern Hong Kong, but who behave according to the chivalrous code of old-fashioned wuxia knights. Combined with Woo’s talent for hyper-kinetic editing and hyper-dramatic imagery—doves, a symbol of innocence drawn from Woo’s Christian faith, come up a lot, as do billowing curtains—the results marry action and emotion in a way that electrified audiences and made Chow Yun-Fat a star upon the release of Woo’s A Better Tomorrow in 1986. 

After a string of internationally successful films like The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992), Woo took his talents to Hollywood in the early ‘90s, where his excessive yet heartfelt blend of melodrama and violence was met with confusion from US critics. It wasn’t until Face/Off (1997) that America learned to really appreciate the filmmaker. But by then he had already begun to grow weary of the studio interference inherent in Hollywood. 

John Woo watches Nicolas Cage take aim in a production still from Face/Off (1997).
John Woo watches Nicolas Cage take aim in a production still from Face/Off (1997).

He returned to China to direct the four-and-a-half-hour war epic Red Cliff in 2008, and hasn’t made an English-language movie since. He recently completed principal photography on his next film, Silent Night which, despite starring actors like Joel Kinnaman, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi and Catalina Sandino Moreno, will not have a single line of dialogue, instead using action and images to tell the story. Still, it’s difficult to find a contemporary action movie, from Hong Kong or Hollywood, that doesn’t have his influence in there somewhere. (Would we have gotten a Michael Bay without a John Woo? Doubtful.)

An action scene should tell a human story. If it doesn’t, the scene won’t work.

—⁠John Woo

If his experience has made him cynical, however, Woo doesn’t show it. A conversation with the action legend the day after his career-spanning talk in Montreal reveals an incorrigible romantic and a self-proclaimed auteur who believes in making movies that come from the heart, and images that dance.

He also shares details about his upcoming attempts to bring chivalry back to the big screen, and his belief in the power of Eastern and Western cultures sharing ideas with one another. 

What was the film that made you want to become a filmmaker?
John Woo: The French New Wave, and especially François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. I was really touched by those movies, and the way they made them. They were just using a handheld camera, and shooting the whole movie on the street or inside someone’s house. They weren’t building any [sets]. The focus was on the characters, and their concerns. When I was first learning about movies, I got so much inspiration from them. I thought, “if the New Wave can do it, you can do the same thing.”

In Hong Kong in the 1960s, there were no film schools, and there weren’t very many chances to work for a studio. But in my heart, I thought, “I can do it like François Truffaut.”

The French New Wave, especially François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), was a game changer for John Woo.
The French New Wave, especially François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), was a game changer for John Woo.

Speaking of the studios, later on you ended up working for the martial arts director Chang Cheh. What did that experience teach you about directing?
[Cheh] saw me as a friend. He came at me with respect. He was a screamer, but he only yelled and screamed at the others—never me. [Laughs.] I worked for him as a second [assistant director], but really my only interest was working in the post-production of his films. And he trusted me, so he let me cut the film with the editor and then he came in to watch the result. That’s what I was doing. I wasn’t on the set much. Editing helped me learn more about film. 

John Woo with his Career Achievement Award at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
John Woo with his Career Achievement Award at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

You’re well known for your action editing, and how masterful it is. Was that something that you learned during this time?
Yes. I also learned a lot from the stunt coordinators [on those films] and the way that they staged action. 

In your films, there are heightened emotions and heightened action. What’s the relationship between melodrama and action in your filmmaking? Do you need one to have the other?
I think it should be natural. I always believed in what [Akira] Kurosawa said: An action scene should tell a human story. If it doesn’t, the scene won’t work. It’ll be a bad scene. And I believe that, because his movies are so emotional. 

So that’s why when I think about my action sequences, it’s all based on how I feel about [the scene], and the kind of message I want to send. For a fight, I try to find the emotion [that comes] from the character, or from the scenario, or something like that. Then I bring them together, to bring the action as it relates to the emotion. The action should come from the human story.

Talk about blocking! Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off (1997).
Talk about blocking! Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off (1997).

Does it affect the way that you block a scene, or the choreography, depending on the emotion that you’re trying to convey?
Yes. Many times, almost 90% of the time, I’ve choreographed the action by myself. I never learned kung fu, and I have never fired a real gun in my life. But I love dancing. When I create an action sequence, I feel like I’m shooting a dancing scene, like for a musical. I’m using musical theory to shoot the action. 

I didn’t like how most of the other film directors in Hong Kong didn’t know how to do action. They didn’t know how to shoot it. They’d just give it all to the stunt coordinator—setting up the camera, the editing. Whatever they decided [was fine]. The director would only do the drama and the dialogue scenes. So Hong Kong action movies usually looked like they were directed by two different people, and I didn’t like that. 

I didn’t like it because I wanted all of the action to play on my emotions. It all had to come from my mind. And I never needed any rehearsal, or preparation—I just needed to tell the producer, “Here’s how many men I need, and how many days I need to shoot.” And then that was it. Most of the action I created on set. In Hong Kong, I could control everything, like Stanley Kubrick. I controlled the whole production—the stunt work, everything.

I think of myself as an auteur more than anything. I think that every frame of the movie should all be coming from me. Just like a painter or a writer, every color I use should all be my own idea.

—⁠John Woo

That is unusual. In Hong Kong, sometimes the stunt coordinator is more famous than the director.
Yeah, yeah. Exactly. 

Was this because of your interest in the French New Wave? Because they were all auteurs.
Yes. I think of myself as an auteur more than anything. I think that every frame of the movie should all be coming from me. Just like a painter or a writer, every color I use should all be my own idea. And I’m the writer as well, so… Of course, this would only work in Hong Kong. In Hollywood, sometimes you have to listen to somebody else. [Laughs.]

John Woo gives Tony Leung a point-and-shoot lesson on the set of Hard Boiled. 
John Woo gives Tony Leung a point-and-shoot lesson on the set of Hard Boiled

What do you look for in a leading man? You’ve worked with so many great ones over the years: Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Tom Cruise…
I always liked the movies of the ’60s and ’70s. My screen idol was Cary Grant. So there was Cary Grant, Alain Delon, Ken Takakura, Steve McQueen… all those [star] images.

When I’m looking for a cast, a male lead, I need to find someone who has a similar quality to Cary Grant or Steve McQueen. Now, Chow Yun-Fat—he reminded me of Alain Delon and Ken Takakura. He’s got that kind of look. I liked the actors who dressed well and wore a nice suit, like Cary Grant. I never liked the actors who were sloppy, who had long hair in a ponytail. I won’t take those kinds of actors in my films. I need to find someone that’s close to my image of Cary Grant—he’s got to have a clean cut and dress well and be elegant.

So, an elegant but masculine type of thing?
Yes. I like actors like that.

Leading men, take notes from Cary Grant. Woo’s screen idol is seen here with Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946).
Leading men, take notes from Cary Grant. Woo’s screen idol is seen here with Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946).

Is there a place for chivalry in contemporary action movies, or is this a different time and it doesn’t work as well anymore?
It’s a different time. But I am trying to bring it back. I am currently planning two projects that are about chivalry. One is a television project. The writer and I both miss the good old time stories about chivalry, and are trying to bring back that kind of spirit.

Then I have another project. It’s based on a true story. It’s called Dean Lung. Dean Lung was a Chinese guy in New York in the 1870s who worked for a white master as a servant. They worked together so well, and they had a lot of camaraderie and learned so much from each other. And then when [Dean Lung] retired, he donated all of his savings to New York University to build a Chinese learning section. But even though it was all of his savings, the money still wasn’t enough. So his master helped him by adding more money [to the fund] to fulfill his dream. So it’s a pretty good story, I think. 

I’m always trying to make that kind of thing—projects with a chivalrous spirit, and also movies that let people from the East and the West learn from each other. 

This free climb ain’t free: Tom Cruise in the opening stunt of Mission: Impossible II (2000).
This free climb ain’t free: Tom Cruise in the opening stunt of Mission: Impossible II (2000).

What’s the most dangerous action scene you ever shot? Was there ever a moment where you said, “We probably shouldn’t be doing this?”
I think the most dangerous and scary moment was when we were shooting Mission: Impossible II, and Tom Cruise climbed 2,000 feet up a cliff by himself. And he didn’t allow me to use any stunt doubles to do it. He wanted to do all of the action by himself. It was insane! 

He was begging me to do that scene. The first time [he asked] I refused, because I was angry and worried. But he was begging me to do it. I was so scared, I couldn’t even bear to watch the monitor. But we set it all up, and he’s climbing up there by himself, and I’m sitting there praying, “Jesus, please don’t let anything happen.” He had no protection, so it was very scary, very dangerous. But the scene turned out really great.

You’re sitting there going, “I don’t want to be the man who killed Tom Cruise.”
I didn’t let the studio know about it. Or the insurance company!


John Woo received the Career Achievement Award at the 26th Fantasia International Film Festival, taking place in Montreal from July 14—August 3, 2022. His next film, ‘Silent Night’, is expected for release in 2023, and Woo will also helm a reimagining of his own 1989 film ‘The Killer’ for Peacock. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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