Hollywood’s Best Film Directors


John Woo

In "Hollywood's Best Film Directors," we go behind-the-scenes with some of Hollywood's biggest names. They talk about their lives and work, explaining what makes them so successful. The series includes heavy-hitters Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan, among others.

AIRED: March 08, 2021 | 0:26:00

Man: Action.


Action. Got it. Cut!


Narrator: This great Hollywood director

was born very poor in Guangzhou

but became the youngest Chinese director ever,

having great success with such films

as "A Better Tomorrow" and "The Killer."

Quickly chased by Hollywood, his first American movie

was "Hard Target" starring Jean-Claude van Damme.

Then Tarantino convinced John Travolta

to star in his next project, "Broken Arrow."

And he teamed up with Travolta again,

putting him face to face with Nicholas Cage in "Face/Off."

Established as a leader in the action genre,

he followed that up with "Windtalkers"

and "Paycheck" starring Ben Affleck.

And thanks to his collaboration with Tom Cruise,

he enjoyed a monumental, worldwide success

with "Mission: Impossible 2."

He then returned to China to make the biggest budget

and biggest box-office success that country has ever seen,

"Red Cliff."

Hi, I'm John Woo.

You're watching "Hollywood's Best Film Directors."

I'm in Beijing. I've just finished my new movie

"The Crossing."

I enjoy working here.

I've got a lot of friends and a lot of things to do,

so I'm pretty happy in Beijing.


Well, I was born in China, Canton,

and our family moved to Hong Kong when I was 5.

Having a tough life, you know,

living in a very bad neighborhood

which was very much like "Slumdog Millionaire."

You know, if anyone has seen the movie,

you can see how awful it was.

I got to fight every day.

I got to fight with the gangsters

because, you know, and I fought very, very hard.

Every morning, I got to grab something as a weapon, you know.

I got to live like a tough guy, you know.

When I was 3 years old,

I was very, very sick.

I was sick to die,

and all the doctors asked my father

giving me up,

because they said, "The child is hopeless."

But my father didn't.

And he look at my eyes, and he said,

"He is a genius, and I'll never give up my child."

So, he spent his fortune, and he sold everything

just to bring my life back.

He wanted me to be tough.

He wanted me to be strong

and not afraid of anything.



How's the camera for -- For Howie?

Yeah, for Howie. Very good.

There's one thing I never forgot, you know.

My father hate movie.

He never like it,

and he felt a movie is fake.

And asked me,

"Don't believe in movies."

But my mother was a big fan.

She love movie, and she love all kind of movie

and especially the American movie.

So she always took me to the theater

without let my father know.

So, and then at that time,

the theater was always crowded.

And they were so nice

that they would let the little child for free.

So, when my mom took me to a theater,

I sit on her lap and she holding me,

while watching the movie with me.

I remember my first American movie

was "The Wizard of Oz,"

you know, Judy Garland's movie.

I love the song. I love the costume.

I love the color, you know, and I love the dance,

and I was so happy about watching it.

Since the family child

watch movie for free, so when we want

to go to see the movie without parents,

if they find us, they usually kick us out of the theater

or beat us up.

"Hey, what you doing, guys?" You know, I said,

"Oh, he is my father, right?" "Oh, he's your father?

But you don't look like him," you know.

And then he give me a big punch on my face.

But I still didn't want to give it up.

I went, ran to outside theater. It was a old theater.

There was a door with a little crack.

So I continue to watch the movie by the crack.

So I stay there.

That's - I just crazy about movie.

Man: And action!

I was so happy when I got my first job in a film.

And then, at the time,

I finally got involved in movies for the first time.

I was an extra in King Hu's "Sons of the Good Earth,"

you know, the movie.

So, at that time,

I think was my first time to see a big director,

you know, a big director like King Hu.

And I was so short. He was so tall.

You know, when I look at him, he was just like God, you know.

Man: Okay, here we go.

I love acting. I love performances.

My first wish in the business

was I wanted to be an actor,

wanted to be a character actor.

At that time, my idol was James Dean and Elvis Presley,

so my performance was pretty much like James Dean.

But, unfortunately, at that time,

all the famous actor

was 6 -- They all was 6 feet tall,

you know, and very handsome, very good-looking.

I gave it up, you know, when I was still young,

and then I turned to be a director.


Well, for my first film as a director,

I was not prepared at all.

It was in 1973,

the year of the death of Bruce Lee.

I was only 26 at that time,

the youngest director in Hong Kong.

And everyone said that I wouldn't make it

because I was too young, you know.

So, it made me nervous, very nervous.

Fortunately, I was working with the experienced actors,

and the actors loved me, you know?

But I was still nervous.

First time when we started scene,

I just set the camera,

talked with my actors.

But after I set the camera with the dolly...

[ Grunts ]

I didn't look like a new director,

and I looked like a pro, you know?

So that made everybody feel comfortable.

and when an actor really acting, very serious acting,

in my camera,

that make me feel I made it.

Man: Action.


Action. Got it. Cut!


Before "The Killer," for that I still need to thank Tsui Hark.

You know, he really had gave me a lot of creative freedom.

And he was the producer.

But before that movie,

I had never dreamed to go to Hollywood.

And when we were young,

we just liked to learn everything from Hollywood.

And then "The Killer," you know, it was a film

dedicated to a couple of my favorite director

like Jean-Pierre Melville

and Martin Scorsese.

I just love their movie. I just love their style.

So, my good friend Terence Chang, he bought a copy

of "The Killer" to every film festival.

All of a sudden, I've got a few call,

phone call, from Hollywood.

The first one was a call from New Line,

the chairman of New Line.

And the second call was from 20th Century Fox,

and then Oliver Stone.

And then, you know, other producers name I forgot.

So I even set a meeting

with Oliver Stone in Paris, you know.

So, we have a very nice conversation.

He wanted to produce my first Hollywood movies,

even though it didn't work out,

but I still, you know, very grateful, you know.

I didn't know what to do.

All of a sudden, I got so many offer.

It made me feel so surprised.

And then my friend Terence Chang said,

"Okay, how about -- Let's go look to try."

So, I took a chance to go to Hollywood

and to accept my first American movie,

"Hard Target."

I was so happy to have a chance to work in Hollywood,

and they were all so kind to me.

And they gave me a lot of great respect,

and everybody treat me like a master.

I'm actually planning to do another one with John Woo,

but not for about nine months.

I'm gonna do some other films in between.

In "Face/Off," since I have got a successful movie

called "Broken Arrow," I --

So it had established myself

as a Hollywood director at the time.

So, and then I have a chance to meet Michael Douglas,

which is one of the producers in "Face/Off."

They offer the script to me.

At the time, the chairman of the studio, that's Paramount,

the chairman was a very fine lady, Sherry Lansing.

She believe in me, and she love my movie,

and she told everyone,

you know, so, "All I want is a John Woo movie."

And we also have got great support from the actors --

John Travolta, Joan Allen, Cage.

So I have a great time, you know, on "Face/Off."

Since the movie was a very successful movie,

and it had made quite a lot of money,

and also I had became one of the Hollywood director.

[ Crowd cheering ]

At that time, after I had met Tom Cruise,

at the time, he was still shooting a film in London.

All of a sudden, I got a call, you know. He wanted to meet me.

So, when I flew to London from Brazil,

to find this out, to find him,

Tom Cruise so generous, so humble,

and such a nice man.

And then he with his family, with Nicole Kidman and two kids.

The two kids came up to me

and, you know, surrounding me,

and that made me to have a good feeling.

Then we have a nice talk.

He had asked me to make "Mission: Impossible 2."

And what Tom Cruise wanted,

he want every episode directed

by a different style director,

a different director with a different style.

So, it was great, you know, because he liked my style.


With pre-production,

I usually like to spend a long time to prep movies.

Every movie was a running process for me, you know.

So, I need to spend a lot of time to do the research.

No matter what kind of movie I make, you know,

I always like to do a lot of very detailed research.

Like, even though while I'm shooting "Mission: Impossible 2"

you know. The other thing is just same

as the other directors.

We work with a storyboard, even more detail.

We have a storyboard for every scene

and a location scout, you know.

If I wanted to do some, you know, kind of action,

like the motorcycle scenes,

I watch a lot of documentary about motorcycle race,

you know, something like that.

You know, I need to read a lot of books,

especially while I'm making the historical film, you know.

I have to read a lot of other books or tapes,

and I try to do the real thing.

I like to spend four to six months for the pre-production.

[ Laughter ]

Where did it hit you?

It was extremely tough for making a movie

like "Red Cliff" in China, especially when I try to use

the Hollywood way to shoot the film.

So, 'cause I also want people learn something from Hollywood,

some good experience from Hollywood.

It means that we have spent a fortune

to bring in almost 2/3 of the team from Hollywood, you know.

And then we also spent a fortune to train the local people,

even to train a horse,

train a horse how to run in order

or how to do the fall, you know?

All I want is to make an international film,

international story.

While we are shooting the war scene,

in the story, it was winter, so everybody, every soldier,

they had to wear the really thick clothes.

So, there were a lot of people, a lot of stunt men,

even the soldiers and the camera crew,

they got a fever. But in the meantime,

since everything was so new and our new crew was so big,

and we have so many special effect, too,

we had way, way over budget.

And I took the blame by myself, you know.

So I gave up my salary to finish the film.

Not only that, I also had borrow.

I took from my saving.

I also borrow a couple million dollar

from my own saving for the movie,

to finish the movie.


Tom Cruise, he like high,

and I never like high, you know. I was so scared.

You know, when we were shooting in Sydney,

and he find a building, "Oh."

He was asking, "Which is the tallest building in Sydney?"

So, we find -- There's a building.

It was about 50 floor high,

and he wanted to jump from that building.

And everybody said, "It's crazy. No one could do that."

And after we set up everything and after the safety thing,

we just tried to shoot.

All of a sudden, it got stopped by people from the government.

But we do need the scene because we need the scene

as an opening, you know. So, "What do we do?"

And Tom Cruise said, "Let's move to Utah,

you know, the Grand Canyon. I want to climb on a cliff."

Okay, okay. So we went there.

It was 2,000 feet high.

We had prepare three stunt double.

All of a sudden, Tom said, you know,

"I want to do it by myself." I said, "No, no." I said,

"No way, because you are so valuable," you know,

and I cannot let him to take the risk.

You know, it's so high.

He said, "No, no, John. Please." And he said, "Please."

You know, he asked me like a child asking for candy.

You know, "John, please let me do it.

I could do it. Believe me."

I said, "No, no, no. I've got four camera.

One is stick out from the cliff.

Two are from the helicopter. One take a tight shot.

You know, the blade very close to your head, you know.

He said, "No, no, no, I do it."

And then his mom was there.

So, and since he ask me so seriously,

and my stunt coordinator said, "John, it's gonna fine.

We have a team of good people who will take good care of him.

You know, Don't worry." "Okay, okay, okay.

Just one shot. Just one shot. Just one shot.

Just let him out a little bit closer to the top.

Not too low."

And he just climb without any fear,

without anything, and he hanging himself.

It's really hanging off of a 200-feet-high cliff

and look at the view, you know.

And I was so nervous, and his mom was so nervous.

I got to hold her mom.

I said, "Mom, don't worry. It gonna be fine.

Don't look at the monitor.

Stunt double will replace him, and he will be safe.

Mom, don't worry." [ Chuckles nervously ]

And actually, and I wouldn't dare to look at the monitor.

I just, "Oh, are we finished?"

And then the helicopter shot,

he kept getting closer to Tom. "Not yet. Not yet.

John, it's a very nice shot." I heard from the info,

"We've got to get closer to get a more tighter shot."

So, the blade was, you know, flipping,

and almost hits Tom's hair, you know.

So, at last, they got very tight on him and then pull out.

I was saying, "Cut. Oh."

That's fun.


When we had mentioned to use John Travolta to play the role,

and I thought that, you know, it wouldn't happen,

you know, because John Travolta is a big star, you know.

I don't think he has seen any of my movies,

and I didn't think he would like to work with me.

We were trying to get in touch with John Travolta.

He took a long time to give us the answer.

In the end, at that moment, Quentin Tarantino came to help.

We were friend, you know? He love my movies, so,

and he try to persuade John

to take the role.

So, the way he did it, he carried a copy of my movie

"The Killer," went to Travolta's home,

show the film to him and the film with no subtitles.

So when he saw the film, and he speak the dialogue to John.

"Okay, now I follow the guys."

And he speak the dialogue to let him understand the movie.

So, he just says, "Yes."

Man: Action.


Action. Got it. Cut!


I'm a big fan of Jean-Pierre Melville,

the French director in the '60s and '70s.

I learned so much from his films.

I liked his films.

His films usually have not much dialogue.

One of his films, "Le Samourai,"

had not more than 15 or 20 dialogues, you know.

The other filmmakers is like David Lean.

David Lean's, oh, how to forget "Lawrence of Arabia."

I learned a great master, you know.

It's my lifetime master is Stanley Kubrick.

Everything he made is a new creation.

[ Speaking native language ]

I have a couple of my favorite film, you know.

The first one is "The Killer."

You know, "The Killer," it was the first time

I come to so much creative freedom.

I did whatever I feel. I did whatever I want,

and I'm so glad that a lot of people like it

and a lot of people have learned something from that movie.

You know, I feel proud of that.

Another favorite film is "Bullet in the Head."

"Bullet in the Head' was really an underestimated film,

you know. I have gave my heart.


I'm very proud as a filmmaker.

Wherever I go, wherever I work,

you know, I've got a lot of great respect.

It has made me proud as a filmmaker.

And I love to start over again from China.

It's such a great country. You have so many great history,

so many great story.

And there are so many likable and adorable young people here,

especially people who love film, you know.

They work very hard, and they learn very fast,

and I think it will help the Chinese movie.

It would help the Chinese movies getting more better and better.

[ Baby crying ]

I'm so grateful for all my fans. Movies are my life.

A lot of my creative ideas came from real life,

friends', family's stories

and things they'd experienced.

I'm shooting my life

and the life of people around me.

So I always encourage young people to experience life

in order to make films.

Don't be in a rush to be a director.

If you don't understand life,

the movies you make will be shallow.

Live life first, then make art.





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