John Woo: interview

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A sprawling military epic with a cast of thousands, ‘Red Cliff’ marks an impressive return to form for 62-year-old action legend John Woo. After more than a decade of diminishing returns in Hollywood directing films such as ‘Mission: Impossible II’ and ‘Paycheck’, Woo returned to his native China to make this film based on one of the country’s best-known historical legends.

Was the story of ‘Red Cliff’ one you discovered growing up?
‘I read the comic books, “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. I admired the heroes. They had a spirit of chivalry, they were brave, very loyal and very smart. When I grew up I started to read the books, and particularly loved “The Battle of Red Cliff”. I tried to make it into a movie right after I’d done “A Better Tomorrow”, about 22 years ago. But we didn’t have the money, we didn’t have the right location, we didn’t have the techniques, so we had to wait.’

It’s been five years since you last made a film.
‘It took me two years to get the script right, because I hadn’t come to China often so I didn’t know much about the people here. And then we spent one and a half years prepping the movie. We had people from the US, from Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, all working with the Chinese. So we took a long time to decide everything. I was so serious about this project. And I must say this was the hardest movie I ever made. All the crew in China, they really gave their heart for the film.’

Did you know when you were writing that the movie would be shortened for international audiences?
‘I was aware in advance, from the distributor. They said foreign audiences couldn’t watch a film with subtitles for five hours. So we had to lose quite a few characters and simplify the story.’

There were problems with casting?
‘We wanted Chow Yun Fat for the main role. He’s a good friend and a great actor. He loved the story and wanted to do it, but somehow the deal didn’t work and he left on the first shooting day. It caused a lot of confusion. But fortunately Tony Leung gave me a call, he wanted to help. It made the whole crew feel relieved. But even though this happened, I’d still like to remain friends with Chow Yun Fat. I’m a great admirer. I just have to make a deal with his agent!’

Do you think the story has relevance for each new generation of Chinese people?
‘Yes. Young people nowadays have so many frustrations, especially in Asia. They need to be encouraged.
I changed the storyline and made it a very encouraging movie, to try to cheer up the young people. And since the whole movie was about teamwork, I thought the women in the movie should play a very important role. They represent peace and love. One woman tries to use a cup of tea as a very elegant way to beat her enemy and stop the war. I wanted the movie to send an anti-war message. Some older people may not feel happy at these changes. But the books are not the Bible, you know?’

Are you finished with Hollywood?
‘I still have projects in Hollywood, but I would like to keep my main focus in China. Right now, I’m working on a love story set about 1,800 years ago in a small, very beautiful country between Mongolia and China, a country that disappeared, like Shangri-La in “Lost Horizon”. I also want to bring one of the most famous Chinese books, “Journey to the West”, to the screen. The problem with Hollywood was, after I made “Paycheck” I couldn’t get any good scripts. And making a movie in China is much more simple. I just walk into the studio and tell them: I would like to make a movie called ‘Red Cliff’”, and they say “Okay, it’s done!” We don’t need six months of meetings.’

'Red Cliff' opens on June 12.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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