All That Jazz

When Nic Cage and John Woo talk, it's a friendly face-off

The humidity outside, and even inside the Adolphus Hotel's hallways, is stifling, but Nic Cage doesn't sweat it--even in a leather jacket (with requisite fringes), black boots (wrapped in silver chains) and dark jeans, which makes one think he's still Wild at Heart. He's dolled up junket-style, playing mean and lean to the TV cameras and print journalists' tape recorders shuffled through the hotel to play meet-and-greet with the Oscar-winning actor--and (oh, yeah) Windtalkersdirector John Woo and Cage's co-star Adam Beach.

Fifteen minutes with three men--doesn't really garner a lot of meaty info (it's less an interview than cocktail-hour small talk only pretending to be deep and meaningful). One could and should spend hours with either Cage or Woo; their reps and résumés merit more than a few moments shared in a hotel room, where their handlers look on with stopwatches to make sure no one interviewer goes over his allotted 15 minutes. But this is the interview circuit, and these men have a movie to promote: the Woo-directed Windtalkers, in which Cage plays Joe Enders, a physically and psychologically damaged Marine charged with protecting a Navajo codetalker, played by Beach, who previously starred in the art-house hit Smoke Signals. If the film's a bit of a bore--I'm reminded of Tom Carson's comments in the recent Esquire, in which he writes that Windtalkersexists as if to prove only that some men really do look silly in a soldier's helmet--the men who made it are far from it.

This chitchat takes place at a conference table in a hotel suite: From left to right, Cage, Beach and Woo sit across from their interrogator. Cage wears an affable scowl, in addition to his midnight-cowboy garb. Beach is all grins--dude, he's just happy to be here. And Woo, legendary for his work in Hong Kong (A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Hard-Boiled,for starters) and liked for his work in Hollywood (Hard Target, Face/Off with Cage, Mission: Impossible 2), is warm and open beneath his coat-and-tie facade.


Dallas Observer, to John Woo:Despite the press kit's insistence that this is a departure for you, Windtalkers seems very much of a piece with much of what you've done, especially the Hong Kong films. How do you reconcile this kind of grand-scale World War II epic with what's essentially a very intimate story between Nic and Adam?

John Woo: After Mission: Impossible 2, I really wanted to try something different, to go back to my own style, you know? My movies are always so much concerned about human nature; that kind of topic always attracts me. So when the writers, John Rice and Joe Batteer, pitched their story to me, I was deeply, deeply moved. I almost cried, you know, because before then I had never heard anything about "codetalkers" or Navajo people. After I heard their story, I was so touched by what they had done for the country, their great contribution to the country. So I think this is very brave and patriotic, and the movie's all about friendship. Friendship's always the theme of my movies.

DO:It's funny, because it's often something that's overlooked. They're often described and taken as very visceral action films, but at their core they're all really films about an emotional relationship between male characters, the bonding that goes on between them. And that's sort of why I thought it was inevitable, in some ways, that you and Nic would work together again--because the two of you come at the same ideas from different angles. You both seem obsessed with the idea of men being vulnerable, being naked about their emotions--but always with this veneer of toughness.

Nicolas Cage: Yeah, when I first discovered John's movies, I had an epiphany, 'cause I was, of course, blown away by the choreography, the action, but even more so, I was taken with the acting in his movies--with Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung--and I just thought, "These are great actors." They seemed to be dancing in a place that is almost operatic. I've always tried to figure out what the next level is in acting, you know--where can you go; can you think beyond naturalism as a style. You know, like art synthesis: There are other art forms that can become abstract; why not do it with acting? John was really the first director I worked with that understood the idea of going there. In fact, he encouraged it and showed me how when we did Face/Off, and I was just blown away by the performances. Then when he called me about Windtalkers, I saw once again that he was going to transform himself and go into a more documentary style, a more real, natural-style approach.

And that sounded exciting to me, because John's the type of artist that continues to grow and transform, you know, and I see myself still very much as a student of acting. With him, I know I'm going to learn something. So we have a lot of mutual respect on the set, and I think his thematics and his movies appeal to me. I like the themes of emotion and friendship amongst men and bonding, and that kind of loyalty is important to me. I think we understand what the other wants when we work together.

DO: It's interesting, because this is, in some ways, the antithesis of Face/Off. In this film, yours is a very quiet performance in a lot of ways. It's done mostly with the face, mostly with the sort of buried pain and anguish.

Cage: For me, that was where I wanted to go with John. I have a lot of heroes in film, like Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood, who have this magical ability to just do very little, and they emanate a great presence. You know, I always wanted to try to aspire, on some level, to be able to capture some aspect of that. With John's help, that's where I was trying to go with all that.

DO, to Woo: This is a film that's deeply rooted in very tiny moments--the look of an eye, the silence of a character. Putting those small moments into a film that is a sweeping epic, yet making it about these people and not just about the things going on around them all the time had to be difficult. As someone who admired Bob Fosse the way you did...

Cage, sounding surprised:Wow. I didn't know you liked Bob Fosse. That's wonderful.

Woo: Yeah, I love his movies; I love him. I think he's just a real genius.

Cage: Yeah, me, too.

Woo: It's soulful.

Cage: Yeah, All That Jazz.

Woo: I keep watching it all the time, because I saw myself in a movie--the same kind of emotion, the same kind of creative way...

Cage: I want to do that moment with you, where the pencil's behind Roy Scheider's back and it breaks in half...

Woo: Yeah, yeah...

Cage: That would be cool.

Woo: Yeah, you know, I learned so much from that scene. It's so incredible, how could they think it up? The people talking, all silence, no sound, only the sound of him holding the pencil and breaking it. You know, I used that in The Killer.

Cage: Ahhhhh....

Woo: When, uh, Danny Lee...I mean, the inspector of the cops chases the bad guy, and the bad guy runs into the train, and he looks around in slow motion. People are walking by, in slow motion, and there's no sound. All of a sudden, the whole world is quiet and we see him pull out the gun and pull the trigger. Click!

Cage: Wow!

Woo: Then all of a sudden, he sees the bad guy holding a woman, and he just fires one shot--pow! That was from All That Jazz.

Cage: And then you both came from dance, right?

Woo: Yeah. I love dancing. I got so much influence from musicals and, you know, even camera moves and the editing also, also, I learned--or stole--from Bob Fosse.

Cage: Do you think you can take a dance move--an actual step in dance--and think about it for a camera and make a camera move the way a dancer moves?

Woo, excitedly: Yes! Actually, if I have the chance to make a musical, I'm going to do it that way.

Cage: That would be beautiful. That would be amazing. That's extraordinary.

DO: Obviously, that's the way the camera moves--like a dancer--throughout your movies. They are balletic and operatic, musicals without any music. When one watches your films, you're thinking not just about what these people are doing, but about what they're feeling. What's that process been like for you in figuring out how to reconcile, or balance, the action and the emotion?

Woo: Well, you know, while we're shooting a movie like Windtalkers, the first thing is, it's hard to keep the balance with action and drama. It's very, very challenging. When I am shooting on a set, for a drama scene, I will let the actors do whatever they want to do. I will see how they feel, of course, and then I will let them know how I feel. Also, there's no limit. They can use any kind of method to deliver that emotion, so I will shoot all I can get. I like something more than from the script--something very fresh, something very new. So that's why I'm so happy working with Nic. He's such a creative actor. He always gives me a lot of big surprises, a good surprise. Also, it helps to make all the characters so strong, so convincing. After I capture all the great moments, then I decide in the cutting room what all the drama is. Just for myself, I really enjoy the great performance, you know? I love it. Then when I'm shooting an action sequence, it's the same thing as when I'm shooting a drama. I take it very seriously.

DO, to Cage and Beach: When you guys are watching this, when he's talking about letting you have free reign to find your voice, when you then see it edited together for the first time, can you be surprised by your own performance and by things about the characters that perhaps you didn't realize at the time of shooting?

Cage: Absolutely. Especially with John Woo. You see things you don't know how he put it together; it's very magical. It's like you watch the movie as an audience member, just really wowed by it. I don't know how he does it, but he can get so much out of a look. It's all in the details, you know? When you see it cut together, he can take the most far-out concept and make it work, make it actually be cogent in the film. And that's totally a surprise and exciting to watch.

Beach: He doesn't waste any time with his movements with the camera. It's like, in a scene, if that scene required a body language and movement, that's what he's going to use: your body as a movement. He's not going to waste his time coming in with a close-up when he knows that body language could sell a lot more. It's like this guy knows how we think, how we move. And he follows that and knows how to edit it.

Cage: I remember how we were doing Face/Off, and there was this moment where I had to get out of the prison. John had this idea of: "Take the bottle of alcohol or something, and throw it and then shoot it. When it explodes, then you get away." I thought, "Well, that can't possibly work," but I did it, of course. Then I see the movie and go, "That worked amazing, that was great!" So I was just like, anything he wants, I'm going to try it. I'm going to go there.

DO, to Cage:Your character in Windtalkersis, in some ways, the older brother or older version of the character in Birdyin 1984--a tormented soldier who's seen too much and experienced too much. I look at those two performances, and one's clearly by a younger man who's sort of at the beginning of his career, and the other's by someone who evolved. Are you aware of things you've learned, of the different things you actually get from acting, of your own evolution? Do you think of those things when you play someone who's close to someone you've played before?

Cage: That's actually a good question, and I hadn't thought of it before, but if you look at the two--Al Columbato and Joe Enders--you see they're both Italian-Americans, both from back East. It's kind of a sad way to look at it, because Al was sort of bright-eyed and full of possibility and hope, not unlike Adam's character. Then when you see Joe, I guess the maturity and the years of seeing too much can transform a man into what happens. It's a great comparison, actually.

DO: I'm always fascinated by how the filmmaker and the actor sort of evolve, and the different things you learn over a period of time and sort of the different things you get out of the process. I assume that making films to you means something different now than when you started. Just as I'm assuming it did for you, Adam. You're not a rookie, but the gentlemen sitting next to you have a few years on you.

Beach: I'm in awe. Just the performance of Nic in Raising Arizona to that extreme, and then bring him back to the normality of someone caught in the war and how intimate he is with everything--to killing someone, to looking at a seagull. That extreme shows how amazing the guy is. And with John, it's like he's trying to challenge himself all the time, when people would say, "Hey, dude, just stick to Mission: Impossible 2." And he's always wanting to evolve, and that's where I learned: You gotta evolve, you gotta move, challenge.

Cage: I think it's like, the more I do this, the more I want to get to a place...I try to aspire to get to a place like Carlotti's definition of "beautiful" in the dictionary. You know: "a summation of the parts working together in such a way that nothing need be added, taken away or altered." Just the right amount is all you need.

DO, to Woo: What do you get out of this process of making movies now? What different rewards does it offer you now than at the beginning? Your recent films are the antithesis of The Killer, Hard-Boiled, A Better Tomorrow and Face/Off. These stories are becoming if not more intimate, then intimate in a different sort of way. As a storyteller, what do you want to get out of filmmaking now that you didn't even know about 10 years ago?

Woo: Well, I must say that every movie I make is a learning process for me. I learn so much from every movie, and I like to work with people. I think that is the only way I can communicate. Like you said, I like to work with the actors, I learn so much from them, and also I find so much great friendship with them. So when I'm making a film, it's just like I'm writing letters to my friends, sending a message to someone I really care about. I always feel, myself, that I'm living in a movie world. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I'm always thinking about movies. When I'm thinking about movies, it's like I'm thinking about friends. I feel the pain, I feel the love, and I feel the friendship and feel the history, you know? Doing a movie makes me feel I always have friends.

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