Premiering out of competition at the Venice Film Festival last week before traveling to Toronto, John Woo’s breezy, tongue-in-cheek actioner Manhunt sees him return to his roots in genre filmmaking and delighted fans on both continents, including our own reviewer out of TIFF.
We had the honor of speaking with the iconic director in Venice about making a movie in Japan, how he collaborates with action choreographers and, of course, those white doves.
How does it feel to be regarded as a legend of action cinema?
John Woo: I’m not a legend. I’m just one of many filmmakers. I know I love film. I love being part of the filmmaking world. I’m not trying to be humble when I say this but I’m very much still a student. I still like to learn from my fellow filmmakers, from world cinema. I learn so much by watching other people’s work.
May we conclude from the beginning and ending of Manhunt that you’re feeling nostalgic about classic cinema?
Well, the film Manhunt itself is a tribute to Ken Takakura [the iconic Japanese actor who starred in the 1976 film adaptation of the same novel]. It’s also a tribute to the oldies. You can tell from the style of the movie, how it almost feels like an old Japanese film. Even some of the colors we tried to tune into old-time Fuji colors.
Personally, I love old movies. For me the 1960s and 70s were the best years of cinema. So many masters, so many great films. I’m still inspired by them. In comparison, today’s movies seem emptier.
The 1976 original is very serious, masculine film. In comparison you put a lot of humor into this one. Can you talk about staying true to and deviating from the original film?
Because we didn’t get the rights, we could not remake the 1976 film but only make another film based on the same novel. It has the same storyline but we had the freedom to add in new scenes, new characters. In any case, I like to tell stories in my own style. For me the original film was too serious. That’s not my style. I like my action scenes to have more of a comic book sense of lightness.
With Manhunt you seem to be looking back quite self-consciously at some of your earlier films. Is this meant to be one for those fans?
It’s definitely for the fans, but also for myself. I had made too many big-budget movies and I got fed up doing that. A few of these big-budget films I did went on to become hits, so I got labeled a blockbuster director and I never liked it. As you can imagine, the more money you get for a project, the bigger the pressure. It takes away some of the joy of the creative process, the fun of making films. You have to deal with numbers all the time. I hated that and wanted to go back to making smaller films, something like The Killer, if only for the creative freedom.
Manhunt feels a bit like a John Woo greatest hits collection, with car chases, fist fights, sword fights, and massive shoot-outs. Did you enjoy creating any particular action scene the most?
I like the jet ski chase and also the scene where the two male leads are handcuffed together and both shoot with their free hand at the same time. It looks pretty much like a man holding guns in both hands.
Speaking of that amazing scene, was that your idea or the idea of the action choreographer? How do you work with the choreographers in general?
Most of what you see is my idea. When I was younger, I used to choreograph all the action scenes myself. I would jump on a table, dive onto the ground and shoot this way and that. Those days many Hong Kong directors didn’t know how to shoot action sequences and had their choreographers shoot them. So you notice two different styles within the same film. I didn’t want that. So I controlled everything, designed everything, and even operated the cameras and did the editing all by myself. Of course I need a stunt coordinator, but mostly I provide them with the ideas.
Also I care deeply about how my actors look on screen. None of the actors I’ve worked with were trained fighters, including Chow Yun-Fat, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage. Tom Cruise is a special case. He’s so good at it. But you do have to tell them how to hold a gun, how to fight, how to react, so I did it all myself, because I know how to make them look good. I know how to create a hero on screen. Even the heroines in Manhunt, it was me who designed the action specifically for them.
Can you talk about what inspired you to use white doves in your films in the first place?
When we were shooting the final scene of The Killer on the church set, I was trying to find a way to show the true spirit of the two protagonists – the cop and the killer – in a movie this heroic and romantic. Both have been misunderstood by the world and I wanted to figure out a montage or a shot that would somehow reveal their true character. It suddenly occurred to me to put some white doves in the scene. When our hero was shot, I cut to the white doves flying over and it looked beautiful. When those two shots were edited together, somehow the viewer could feel the heart of the movie. Also, these guys have done some bad things in their lives but their souls got saved in the end, which I also wanted to express through this image.
It wasn’t easy to shoot the pigeons though. Obviously they never did more than one shot and kept flying away. So we had to buy some new ones every day. But anyway, since it worked out well, it somehow became one of my trademarks.
Are there advantages to going back to working in Asia?
I like to shoot movies in different countries. I’m so happy to have shot Manhunt entirely in Japan, which was a great learning experience for me. Also the volatile relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese people is well-known. I hope by doing this I can send a message that we can still be friends and work together. That’s another reason why I did the film in a humorous, fun way. I try to not take things too seriously. Life is too short. We should try to find ways to appreciate and not hate each other. My next project, also a killer-themed movie, will be shot in Europe, which is something I’ve never done before.
What was the experience like shooting in Japan?
I love the Japanese crew. 90% of the crew working on this movie were Japanese. They were very professional and could work 12 to 16 hours a day without any complaints. They enjoyed the filmmaking process. Also the Japanese people really amazed me. All those crowds you see in the big set pieces, none of them were extras. They were all volunteers. And they brought their own costumes too. They came, participated in the scene, and just went back to work the next day. Some students also worked on the film for free, they just wanted the experience. That really moved me.
On the other hand, I must say it’s not always easy to shoot in Japan, because there are so many rules. It’s hard to shoot any scene on a business street, for example. But the local government did give us as much support as they could.
On a personal level I was very happy to finally shoot a film in Japan as I’m a huge admirer of Japanese cinema.
The use of CGI has become standard in action films these days. Do you prefer CGI or physical stunts?
I still prefer physical stunts. Unless we can’t get the actors together on set, then we’ll have to shoot them separately with a green screen.
Will we ever see a James Bond movie by John Woo?
I met the producers many years ago and they expressed interest in having me do it. But somehow that never came about. I look forward to doing it someday. I really love James Bond.
Manhunt premiered at Venice Film Festival.