John Woo On His Return To U.S. Filmmaking, New Project About Columbia University Donor Dean Lung & Remake Of ‘The Killer’

Speaking to Deadline from Fantasia Film Festival (Montreal, July 14-August 3), where he is being honored with a career achievement award, Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo revealed details of his recent return to U.S. filmmaking – feature films Silent Night and Peacock’s reboot of his iconic 1989 action thriller The Killer – as well as an upcoming passion project about the man who helped establish Columbia University’s East Asian Languages & Cultures Department. Woo wrapped Silent Night, produced by Thunder Road and Capstone Studios, in Mexico in May. The film stars Joel Kinnaman as a father on a mission to avenge his young son who was killed in the cross-fire of gang violence. Kid Cudi, Harold Torres and Catalina Sandino Moreno also star. NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock recently announced Woo’s English-language remake of The Killer as part of its first slate of original films.

Fantasia is screening Woo’s 1992 classic Hard Boiled, one of the films that helped blast Hong Kong action cinema into the international stratosphere, as well as Face/Off, starring Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, one of several films he directed in Hollywood after making the transition in the mid-1990s (along with Hard Target, Broken Arrow and Mission: Impossible II). He returned to Asia in the mid-2000s, when mainland China’s fledging film industry was first starting to take off, where he directed two-part historical epics Red Cliff and The Crossing, as well as Japan-set crime thriller Manhunt, which premiered at Venice film festival in 2017.

Q: You seemed to have a lot of projects in development in Asia a few years back. Why decide to return to the U.S. to make a film?

JW: There were a couple of topics I wanted to make in China, but it was difficult to get the finance and I couldn’t find anything else I wanted to do. When I got the script for Silent Night from Thunder Road, I thought it was very unique and just loved it. What attracted me is that the script doesn’t have any dialogue – the whole movie is totally visual, you’re using visual images, sound and music to tell the story – so for me that’s something pretty new. If I’d stayed in China, I would probably still be making the same old things, another war movie or action movie, so even though this film has a pretty small budget and a tight schedule, that was fine with me. I also got to work with a wonderful actor in Joel Kinnaman.

Q: What stage are you at with the remake of The Killer?

JW: We originally tried to hire another director to shoot it, but couldn’t find anyone, so I took on the job. We maybe shouldn’t call this The Killer, because we’re making a very different version, as the lead character [an assassin played by Chow Yun-fat in the original] will be played by a woman. We’re doing the casting now. We were talking to Lupita Nyong’o but she had to pass so we’re looking for somebody else. The story is similar to The Killer, but we can say it’s more of a story about friendship than a love story.

Q: What was the project you were finding difficult in China?

JW: One topic was about the Flying Tigers [a U.S. volunteer group working with the China Air Force in the Second World War], a very big Hollywood-style, big-budget action movie. But it was a complicated film, we’d have to build old Flying Tiger planes and use a lot of VFX, so it was hard to get financed. It would have had a budget equal to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour.

Q: Do you keep in touch with the Hong Kong film industry? What do you think about the current state of Hong Kong film?

JW: I haven’t lived in Hong Kong for some years as I’m living in Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about [the Hong Kong and Chinese film industries]. I think they need to make some changes, especially in Hong Kong, as it’s becoming limited creatively. We need to come up with more new stories as we have too many gangster films, and a few smaller lifestyle dramas, so we should think about what changes we can make, because otherwise the market is going to get smaller and smaller. Then of course the big problem is that they need more money – more investment in Hong Kong film, including investment from mainland China.

Q: After such a long break from working in North America, what was it like shooting in the U.S. and Mexico?

JW: People are still the same, I still get the same respect and all the crew worked so well together. I wish I could make all my movies in different countries. I’m on a mission to learn from new people, and learn from some other cultures, and also make a movie in Hollywood that’s like a bridge; to bring in the culture from China and the culture from the West and try to blend them together. There’s a couple of stories I’m working on. One is based on a true story about a Chinese guy, Dean Lung, who worked as a servant in New York in the 1870s, and his relationship with his master. He donated all his savings to Columbia University so they could set up a Chinese language and culture course. Then he convinced his master to also donate. They still have his picture displayed at Columbia and the course still exists. Hopefully, stories like this can increase understanding on both sides. We’ve got the finance, an American-born Chinese businessman is investing, and hired a writer for the film.

Q: How are you finding the audiences at Fantasia?

JW: This is my first time in Montreal and the fans are very supportive. I just found out that this festival started out by showing a few of my Hong Kong films, then they got a lot of support and started developing the festival, so I’m proud to be a part of their family. But there’s a lot of other great Hong Kong films and I hope these can start to appear around the world as well.

By Liz Shackleton for