Iain Blair
Issue: November 1, 2009


HOLLYWOOD — Director/writer/ producer John Woo was born in Guangzhou, China, and moved to Hong Kong with his family when he was four years old.
At age 19 he began making experimental films and then spent over two decades in Hong Kong at the center of a thriving film industry, directing more than 26 feature films and creating a series of inspired romantic and violent gangster dramas that broke box office records.

Fast forward quarter of a century and Woo’s still breaking box office records; his latest film, Red Cliff, was released as a marathon five-hour, two-parter in Asian markets (part one opened in July ’08, part two in January this year), and when the first part was released it went on to gross over $124 million US and broke the box office record previously held by Titanic in mainland China. Starting this month, a radically shortened two-and-a-half hour version is being released in American markets.

But when the action-meister started work on Red Cliff, he was understandably both excited and a little nervous. On the one hand, the war epic, which reunites Woo with action star Tony Leung for the first time since the 1992 classic Hard Boiled, seemed tailor-made for Woo.

After all, the acclaimed Chinese director of such action films as Mission: Impossible II, Broken Arrow, Face/Off and The Killer, has built a reputation for expertly handling elaborately-choreographed stunts and over-the-top action sequences. But the project, set in ancient China some 1,800 years ago, also presented enormous aesthetic and logistical challenges to Woo and his team, which included his longtime producer Terence Chang, and DP Lu Yue, shooting Woo’s first feature film in mainland China.

Here, the director talks about making Red Cliff, his love of post, and the emergence of China as a filmmaking powerhouse.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
JOHN WOO: “The story is a very famous one, not just in China but throughout Asia, and basically I wanted to make an epic. I always wanted to make a film like Lawrence of Arabia or Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus or Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. So it’s very nice to finally be able to try it, and even though my film still has to be compared to a masterpiece like Lawrence of Arabia, I’m very happy to attempt it (laughs). And I wanted to show that in China, we can make an epic of the same scope and quality of a Hollywood film.”

POST: What were the main challenges of pulling it together?
WOO: “Even though it’s actually the most expensive film ever made in Asia, not just China, it was pretty easy getting the financing. We got huge financial support from Japan, and we also got money from Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. People in Asia love movies so much and there’s a lot of confidence there in the market, so it wasn’t a problem. But getting the script right was very hard and it took me two years in the end and 13 scripts and revisions.
“The film is very complicated and there are so many different stories and characters in it. Also, I wanted to make the story more appealing to international audiences. All Asians are very familiar with this story and part of history, and they all know the characters. But Western audiences don’t know about it at all. So it took a lot of work to make it work for both Asian and Western audiences, so they’d understand it all and feel excited. It’s based on the Chinese book “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” and we tried to keep it as true to the historical facts as possible.”

POST: The film was cut by three editors — Angie Lam (Hero), Yang Hogyu (In Love We Trust) and Robert Ferretti, whose credits include Die Hard 11, Rocky V and Highlander: End Game.” Tell us about the editing process.
WOO: “This film was so big and complicated we needed different editors, so one could focus on the drama and one could focus on the battle scenes, and then Angie Lam and Robert worked together at the start to pull it all together. But then Robert left after he’d finished working on part one, and we brought in David Wu from Canada who helped me work on part two. We cut it all on Avids and did the editing in Beijing, and then did the sound in Australia. The editing took a long time, over half a year to finish.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
WOO: “It took a very long time as we basically had to post and mix three different versions. For the longer Asian version we did all the post for part one in Australia, at SoundFirm in Sydney and Melbourne. The reason was because we love the mixers there and also the facilities, and it was also before China had built this huge new studio, China Film Group, in Beijing, with 16 massive soundstages on a back lot that’s the same size as Universal’s. And they have all new equipment shipped in from the States and Canada, and a state-of-the-art mixing stage, so it’s a very big deal. So for part two, we did all the post at the new studio and hired the re-recording mixers Steve Burgess and Robert Mackenzie from Australia to come over and work on it. For the international version of Red Cliff the film was mixed at the Huirou Film Base studios located approximately 35km north of Beijing city proper.”

POST: Do you enjoy the post process?
WOO: “I love it, but the truth is I love shooting even more. I love being on the set and watching the actors and seeing it all come to life. I began my career as an actor, so I know how they work and I particularly enjoy all that. But of course post is the most important part of the process in bringing it all together, and the whole movie is all in my head when I shoot, and actually I edit in my head while I shoot, so I know exactly what the film is going to look like in post.
“Of course, there are always surprises when you start editing, and you can make lots of changes, which affect all the ideas you had in your head. So in that sense, post is like a learning process for you.”

POST: Your visual effects supervisor was Oscar-winner Craig Hayes, who joined The Orphanage after co-founding Tippett Studios, and whose credits include Jurassic Park, Robocop and The Matrix: Revolutions. What did he bring to the mix?
WOO: “I’d never worked with him before but I’d seen all his work, obviously, and he came highly recommended by the guys at The Orphanage [which has since closed].
“He’s such a nice guy and he’s so smart about visual effects and he knows everything, but the most important thing for me was that he really cares. After he got the script, he studied the history and read a lot of books about the period, so he knew all the characters and the story better than a lot of the Chinese on the film! That’s very unusual.
“So when we started to design all the CG shots, he was able to solve a lot of problems since he knew it all inside out. If I’d mention a particular shot I wanted, he knew exactly how to deal with it. And sometimes we’d run into a budget problem for the visual effects. If we went a bit over, I’d sometimes suggest cutting a shot, and he’d always say, ‘No, no, John — it’s a great shot, let’s just try and make it work. We’ll find the money somewhere else and keep the shot.’”

POST: How many visual effects shots are there and how did it break down?
WOO:  “There are hundreds — I lost count — and The Orphanage did most of the shots. Pixel Magic and Café FX also did work and we had a huge team of animators, compositors and so on. We didn’t do any visual effects work in China. Although I use a lot of visual effects in my films, I don’t really enjoy working with them that much, but I really enjoyed doing them on this film.”

POST: How important are sound and music to you?
WOO: “They’re more important than dialogue often, and good music can give you a lot of inspiration. I always like to listen to music while I’m shooting, and especially when I’m cutting the film. And for this, I wanted a very international feel to the music, which is why I chose Taro Iwashiro, the Japanese composer, pianist and conductor, to do the score.
“I didn’t want it to sound only like a Chinese film, but like a film for people in every country. And we had the Australian and Chinese teams working together on the sound mix because one of the main reasons I wanted to make this film was to try and draw the audience back to theatres and make them feel, we’d better see this on the big screen and get the great sound. People watch DVDs of movies at home, or on their computers, and they don’t know what they’re missing. That’s why I designed such huge battle scenes with great sounds, to make audiences realize it’s a special experience.”

POST: Do you have any interest in shooting digitally?
WOO: “To be honest, I’m not that excited about it. I still prefer film and I just feel that no matter how good the digital format gets, a movie’s a movie and you’ll never replace the look and feel of film. Of course the whole post process now is digital, and that works really well and makes it more efficient and cost-effective, but I will always shoot on film if I can.”

POST: What’s next?
WOO: “I have several projects I’m developing, including one in China called The Flying Tigers. It’s a true story about the American volunteer pilots who fought with the Chinese against the Japanese in World War II, so it’s another epic, although the main focus is on the friendship between the Chinese and the Americans. We’ll have a lot of air fights. So there’ll be a lot of CGI combined with real planes. I hope to start shooting that next summer in China.”

POST: What’s your view of Hollywood right now? Healthy or sick?
WOO: “I think all the big studios are struggling at the moment, and the bad economy has taken a big toll. It seems that they’re only interested in making either the big-budget sc-fi or fantasy films, or the very low-budget comedies. All the films in the middle have gone, and it’s a pity. But I’m optimistic that the business will come back, because everyone in the world still loves to watch Hollywood movies — and not just the ones with amazing visual effects, but the heartfelt ones as well.”