Few artists have had a bigger impact on modern action cinema than John Woo, whose pioneering Hong Kong masterworks of the late ’80s and early ’90s—A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head, The Killer, Hard Boiled—employed balletic slow motion, two-fisted gunfights, and florid melodrama to push the genre into breathtaking new terrain. He was the grandmaster of sleek, sexy carnage, all of it infused with the beating heart of a romantic. Woo’s subsequent relocation to Hollywood led to further triumphs, led by 1997’s Face/Off and 2000’s Mission: Impossible 2, both of which boast his inimitable aesthetic trademarks and stand as apex examples of his gift for shoot-’em-up stylization. At his professional peak, he was a genuine trailblazer, reimagining familiar cops-and-crooks sagas in exhilaratingly brutal and emotional ways.
Still, America wasn’t a perfect fit for Woo. Despite the aforementioned star-driven hits, more than a few of his films—be it 1996’s nuclear weapon thriller Broken Arrow with John Travolta and Christian Slater, or 2002’s WWII Navajo drama Windtalkers with Nicolas Cage and Adam Beach—underwhelmed with critics and audiences, in part because they lacked his formal and narrative hallmarks.
Increasingly frustrated by a system that wanted to pigeonhole him as merely a maker of slam-bang big-budget affairs, he opted to head back to his native Hong Kong following 2003’s Ben Affleck-headlined Paycheck. There, he spearheaded the historical epics Red Cliff and The Crossing before dipping his toes into familiar waters with Manhunt, a 2017 thriller that reminded international moviegoers that few have ever been better at crafting electrifying and lyrical “gun-fu” showstoppers. It was proof that, even in a 21st-century landscape populated by films inspired by his classics (such as the John Wick and Extraction series), he’s a one-of-a-kind who’s lost none of his distinctive flair.
Now, 20 years after he departed the U.S., Woo returns with Silent Night, a streamlined affair about a working-class man (Joel Kinnaman) who loses his only child in a drive-by shooting and responds by going on an urban rampage of revenge against the gang-bangers responsible for this needless tragedy. In many ways, it’s a straightforward and vicious slice of pulp fiction, albeit with a twist—no one speaks during its entire 104 minutes.
That gimmick allows the focus to remain throughout on the director’s signature aesthetics, from copious slo-mo and firearms combat to at least one conspicuous sight of Woo’s beloved birds. A distillation of everything that defines a Woo film, including its over-the-top poeticism, Silent Night will no doubt bring out his legions of fans when it arrives in theaters in time for the holidays on Dec. 1.
Before that long-awaited debut, we spoke with the legendary filmmaker about giving Hollywood a second chance, the allure and challenge of making a wholly dialogue-free extravaganza, and the state of his English-language The Killer remake.
Was the appeal of Silent Night that it gave you an opportunity to do something unique within a familiar action-movie framework?
I think the film is a new experiment for me. I got the script and I was extremely excited about it. I loved the idea of no dialogue. I admit I have a special gift for visual storytelling, and I always prefer to use visuals to tell the story more than the dialogue. So I was excited. Even though it was an independent film and the schedule and money were a little tight, I think it was fine. As long as you have a good script and you also have great actors, I was pleased. I’m so happy.
From a directorial standpoint, what was the most challenging aspect of making a completely mute feature?
The biggest challenge is, how do you use the visuals and the sound to tell the story and make the audience understand and be moved by the whole story? That’s very challenging. I was very reliant on the music. I think music and the soundtrack is a better language. But in the meantime, the visuals and the editing are also a great language. The other good thing is that with no dialogue, it makes the audience a little more focused on the actors’ performances. They will concentrate on their faces, and even look straight through their eyes, and enjoy their expressions and performance. It’s pretty nice in that way.
Speaking of the soundtrack, did you collaborate with composer Marco Beltrami earlier than you normally might in the production process, since the score is such an integral means of conveying what would otherwise be expressed via dialogue?
This was the first time I worked with Marco. He was recommended by my editor [Zach Staenberg], and he’s such a great composer. He got pretty good scenes for our music, and what I told him was that the only language in the movie would be the music, so he was excited! Also, I think the theme of the movie is not about action. It’s actually a human story. So I let Marco feel what he feels, and he created music to tell how the actors feel, and how I feel, and how he feels. Mainly, it’s very emotional music.
This is your first American film since 2003’s Paycheck. Why was now the right time to return—and specifically, with an action film that’s far more compact than your recent big-budget Chinese historical epics?
I’ve always liked to film what I’m interested in. In Hollywood, I was established as a big movie director, so I got scripts for action and big-budget movies. The good scripts, and the smaller-budgeted scripts, they never sent to me! I was so frustrated, because I know I can do anything, and I could make a good human story. But nobody believed in me. And some studios and producers in Hollywood, they even said this is because he is Asian. So it’s hard to make a movie about American history or any story about bad neighborhoods or lower-caste society things. There are a lot of good human stories, and they never sent them to me. I was a little frustrated.
After all those years, I went to China to make a couple of films, and they were human stories [laughs]. When I came back to the U.S., and I got the script for Silent Night, it was extremely exciting, and I didn’t care how big the budget was for the movie; I loved the script.
Did you look at any silent films to prepare for Silent Night?
No, I didn’t watch any similar kinds of movies. Like I usually do, I followed my own instincts. I just shoot the film like I normally would, and film what I feel. I didn’t check on any films as references.
How did you settle on Joel Kinnaman for the lead role?
Something I like about Joel is that he looks so real. He’s a real person. He’s not a superhero-type, and he’s also not an action guy. He’s just so good as this real man and great husband. A man who works and loves his family—he’s so believable.
Also, Joel works so hard. He did all of his own stunts, and he spent so much time on training for every action scene for the movie. He was so well-prepared and worked so hard. The other thing is, he’s a very smart guy. On the set, he’d come up with ideas which were good. I usually helped him make those ideas work, and even added little things to make them work better.
What are some examples of when he did that?
Like, there’s a scene where he walks into the child’s room and he sees so many toys, and then he has a flashback about him and his son playing with toys. At the end of the day, we were discussing how we were going to do it. Joel came up with the idea: How about I was dreaming that I was sleeping with my son? I said that’s a good idea. He said, what if we did it all in one shot? That gave me the inspiration as well.
I created a shot where, when he lies down, I put the kid beside him, and he dreams of touching him, and then when the camera pushes in, and then pushes out again, the kid is gone. This also helped me create a new style of shooting, and helped me figure out moments that I can use, in one long take, to tell a much longer story.
What’s the status of your remake/reimagining of The Killer? Is it still happening?
Yes, I’m making it now. We were shooting in Paris, but when the actors’ strike started, we had to stop for a while to wait until they solved those problems. When the strike is over, we have to go back to Paris to finish the rest of the scenes.
Of all your movies, why did you want to revisit The Killer?
Originally, we tried to find another director to do it, but we couldn’t get anyone. Then the studio wanted me to do it, so I have The Killer job. I will say, actually, it’s not a remake, because the writer, Brian Helgeland, did a great job of rewriting the whole thing. It gave me a much better main character.
Do you want to stick around in America to make additional films?
Yes, I will do more—I have two upcoming plans. One is a true story about an early Chinese immigrant who worked for a rich man as a slave, and it’s a pretty funny story! And the other thing is a Western. I’m going to make a Western. We already have a very good script. You know, making a Western is one of my biggest dreams. So I think it could be exciting.