John Woo: 'After Paycheck, I Couldn't Get Better Scripts'

After building a trailblazing career as an action director in Asia, John Woo left for Hollywood over fifteen years ago to make megabudget films like Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II. Still, the director always intended to return to his home country and bring his blockbuster knowledge to bear on a Chinese production, and he's done just that with Red Cliff, a massive war epic taken from Chinese history. The film was such a success in China that it outgrossed Titanic there; it'll have its Stateside debut next Friday through video-on-demand services before opening in theaters November 20th.

I sat down with Woo last week to talk about Red Cliff, his career, and his departure from Hollywood after directing the Ben Affleck thriller Paycheck. Part of our conversation (about what two English-language films might lure Woo back to the States) was published on Movieline last Wednesday; here's the rest.

Until you made Paycheck in 2003, you were turning out nearly one American film a year. You haven't made any since that film, and in fact, you have another Chinese-language film scheduled after Red Cliff. Was that a intentional break from Hollywood on your part?

Yeah. After Paycheck, I couldn't get better scripts. You know, I've been working in Hollywood for over thirteen years. I've learned a lot from so many great people, and I thought it was about time to bring the experience of what I've learned here to China, for the young people. In the meantime, I wanted to fulfill my dream since Red Cliff was one of my dream projects. I was trying to make this movie for ten years, so I think it was the right time since we could get money and we had the technology. I grew up with the story and I'm so familiar with these characters. I feel like they are my heroes. I also love this part of history because it's so encouraging: A smaller army can defeat larger and more powerful enemies with a combination of teamwork, courage, and integrity. I was fascinated by the strategy and cleverness in their tactics.

Was it difficult to make?

It was quite difficult! It was the first experience [at that scale] for everyone, especially for the Chinese crew. They had never done anything like that before, so we had to start from the beginning. Fortunately, we had got a great team from the United States, and we also had some great people from China. We got support from the army, and I felt, myself, like a general. [Laughs] We had to spend about six months training, training the stunt men, training the horses to do the formation...

How involved are you in that training? Do you check in periodically?

A little bit. Mostly it's my stunt coordinator. I walk onto the field and tell them what I want and sometimes let them know how to fight and do horse falls. It took some time. It took some time to do everything.

You wanted to make a big, Hollywood-style blockbuster in China, but how are the crews and practical concerns different when you're working over there as opposed to here?

I think the mentality is pretty much the same...they have the same equipment, the same knowledge of making film. The only difference, I think, is that to make a movie like this in Hollywood, the people are more professional and efficient. All those people have been trained at making this kind of movie and they also have a great knowledge of this kind of thing. Everything's much easier. The people here are so dedicated and they love movies and know how to make every shot work.

In China, they can do all that, but they just need more time and more training to make everything work. The young filmmakers in China, they all have a great passion about movies and they're eager to learn. They want the opportunity to work on a big budget Hollywood movie. The people in China, they usually work seven days a week, fourteen to sixteen hours a day. They work real hard, but it's not right for me. Also, the horses in the United States have been trained for movie scenes, but in China, we had to start from zero. It took two months to teach them formation and horse falls and stunt work. You know what? For almost five years, I only worked on this one movie.

Well, it's enormous.

I didn't take any money.

Well, there's another difference from Hollywood.

[Laughs] Well, you know, the movie was over-budget, so I paid for it. All I wanted was for everyone to finish the movie. Anyway.

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