24 Things We Learned From The 'Face/Off' Commentary
In the mid 1990s, Nicolas Cage and John Travolta enjoyed similar career paths. Both had received renewed interest in their acting ability thanks to Best Actor Oscar buzz: Cage winning the statue in 1995 for Leaving Las Vegas and Travolta earning a nomination in 1994 for Pulp Fiction. Soon afterwards, they began a behind-the-scenes war in Hollywood to become the highest paid movie star on the planet.
It was only inevitable that they would face off in a film.
In 1997, Hong Kong action director John Woo was tapped to direct Face/Off, a film in which an FBI agent literally swaps faces with an insane master criminal. The film was a box office success, in spite of wildly ridiculous science and goofy acting from everyone from the leads to background stunt people. But that’s what you should expect from Woo. That, and doves. (Yeah, they’re in the movie, too).
Ten years after the release of Face/Off, Woo sat down with writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary to chat about the movie for its special edition release on home video. Here’s some of what they had to say.
Commentators: John Woo (director), Mike Werb (writer), Michael Colleary (writer)
1. This was the first film that John Powell scored. The original placeholder music for the opening scene in which Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) kills the son of Sean Archer (John Travolta) was Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
2. The carousel scene was originally scripted to fall in the middle of the film, but Woo insisted on opening the film with it.
3. The original script was more futuristic and sci-fi-focused, including an extended sequence in a futuristic prison, which was trimmed down and simplified greatly in the final script. Woo originally passed on the project because he wasn’t confident doing a science fiction movie. However, after the production changed hands from Warner Bros. to Paramount and Michael Douglas came on as producer, Woo was approached again after he completed Broken Arrow and accepted.
4. The script was originally written with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in mind. Then it was changed to Johnny Depp and Nicolas Cage. It was changed again to be Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis before the casting settled on Travolta and Cage.
5. The initials “JW” on the steering wheel of the plane in the beginning is a nod to Woo. So, a self-nod?
6. Werb and Colleary wrote about ten different ways for Castor Troy to get injured and end up in a coma. Rejected ideas included falling from an air traffic control tower as well as accidentally getting cryogenically frozen.
7. The scene of what would eventually be called a 3D printer forming a human ear in the operating room was inspired by a contemporary news story of scientists growing a human ear on the back of a mouse.
8. It was not uncommon for Woo to be happy with a single take in dialogue scenes. In particular, when Travolta and Joan Allen have a conversation early on in their bedroom, he only shot one take, even when the actors told him they wanted to do more.
9. The only remnants of the futuristic prison left in the move were the magnetic boots that all the inmates wear.
10. Cage and Alessandro Nivola ad-libbed a backstory as to why their characters became criminals. They said it was because their father would make them wear pink dresses. However, Werb and Colleary insisted that be cut from the film because it makes their background too humorous. The scene is included in the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray.
11. Allen came off multiple Oscar nominations to do this film because she wanted to be in an action movie with lots of bullets.
12. The writers got in a fight with studio executives as to whether a grown woman like Eve (Allen) would keep a diary.
13. When being developed at Warner Bros., the studio wanted to cut the scene in which Castor Troy has sex with his Archer’s wife while wearing Archer’s face.
14. The scene in which Archer escapes from prison was shot on an active oil rig platform. Because of fire hazard potential, they could not use real squibs, which had to be shot on a back lot or added with CGI.
15. The toy shark that Eve puts on their son’s grave is Woo’s tribute to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
16. They had Archer steal a car using an automatic remote because the schedule and budget would not allow the production the time to shoot this scene inside a car. The writers came up with this because Mike Werb had once lost his automatic remote to his car and had worried someone would be able to find his car and steal it by pressing buttons in a parking lot.
17. There was a scene envisioned that would feature Castor Troy’s mother. They wanted either Jack Nicholson in drag or Elizabeth Taylor to play her.
18. The writers’ favorite review they received ran in the Washington Post, which said, “This has got to be the strangest movie ever green lit by a major studio.”
19. In the UK release of the film, the shots of Troy opening the butterfly knife and giving it to Jamie (Dominique Swain) had to be cut because movies are not allowed to show that kind of knife in operation.
20. During the loft shoot-out, Woo originally wanted the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” playing in Adam’s (David McCurley) headphones. However, he changed it to “Over the Rainbow” because Woo had fond memories of watching The Wizard of Oz in his local theater which he considered his refuge from the terrible neighborhood where he grew up.
21. There is only one scene in the film during which the entire plot is explained. It comes when Archer (as Troy) tells everything to his wife after she gets out of the shower. It was also the first day of shooting, and Cage had been wrapping Con Air the day before.
22. At one point, the studio wanted to remove the scene in which Eve admits she had sex with Castor, but the writers and Woo insisted it remain in because it resolves the storyline.
23. Gina Gershon wanted to shave her head for her final scene, but Woo would not let her.
24. There was a huge studio meeting with executives and department heads in which Colleary had to justify the use of a slash in the title. The studio was afraid it would be hard to put on a marquee and that it would confuse people. Colleary eventually convinced them to keep it in by suggesting that people would think it was a movie about ice hockey rather than an action thriller.
Best in Commentary
I’ve never been a huge fan of Face/Off, but I appreciate it for where it falls in the string of bizarro Nicolas Cage action movies of the 1990s. I also appreciate any commentary that offers the writers a chance to talk about the film, and it was clear throughout this one that these guys were intimately involved in the production throughout.
Woo gets a bit long-winded at times, rambling through stories of the production from the set, but Colleary does a decent job keeping things on track while running point. There’s definitely more insight from the writers’ side, and if you’re interested in how scripts can change throughout production, this is a nice commentary to listen to.
There is one very tragic moment in the commentary where Woo is recalling how he worked with Travolta to shoot the opening scene where Castor Troy shoots his son. Woo asked Travolta to imagine this was his own son and how he would react. With the commentary being recorded in 2007, it was only two short years before Travolta would lose his son Jett, making this tiny portion of the discussion cut a bit too close to the bone.
Kevin Carr is a features contributor to Pajiba.