Some directors loom so large in cinema that their names alone conjure some of the most recognizable visual motifs and genre elements of all time. And you know if you ask their advice, it will be some of the best you've ever gotten.
One such director is John Woo, one of the greatest living action directors, who's back on the scene this month with Silent Night, a no-dialogue holiday film starring Joel Kinnaman. The movie was technically an indie film, which is entirely new territory for Woo, who is now 77 years old and returning to U.S. cinemas after about 20 years and a period of making historical films in China.
The film tells the story of bereaved father Godlock, whose son is killed in a rain of stray bullets during a gang drive-by. When he pursues, he's shot in the throat and loses the ability to speak. (Thus the silence of it all.) He plots revenge, training to become a lethal one-man army to strike back on Christmas Eve a year later.
The film has Woo's trademark touches of gritty action sequences, including an impressive opening chase scene, and a gunfight later in the film that was filmed in a long oner (with a few well-hidden cuts). The movie also has his flair for the dramatic—although the doves are technically missing from this one. And fans, by and large, are loving it.
We spoke with Woo (yes) via Zoom ahead of the film's premiere. You won't want to miss this one.
Silent Night (2023) Official Trailer - Joel Kinnaman, Scott Mescudiwww.youtube.com
How John Woo tells a dialogue-free story
This being a dialogue-free film presented some unique problems—while the movie isn't entirely silent, with score, sound effects, and diegetic dialogue on the world's radios or TVs—the story sometimes was complicated.
John Woo acknowledged the challenges and why he accepted them.
"Well, I think the script is really well written," Woo told us. "Even though it had no dialogue, it had great drama and a very, very good story. And that's the script I'm always looking for. In the old times, I had been established as a big movie director, but all those much smaller-scale [projects] and much better scripts—they never came to me. And then my partner always said, 'Those movies are too small for you. Don't do it.'
"So I was so frustrated. And after 20 years, I found Silent Night so exciting, even though it was my first independent film, and I feel that the script was such a great idea."
The script, he thought, would give him a chance to flex one of his biggest strengths.
"I'm very good at the visuals," he said. "I think for Silent Night, it could allow me to use my visuals and my sound to tell a story, to express myself. Also it could make the audience more involved with the characters. Even though there's no dialogue, then the audience will [pay] more attention to their face and look straight at the eyes and can feel what they feel and to see what they see. I think there's a lot of good things about it.
"And for the meantime, it's a new experiment for myself. I feel like Alfred Hitchcock has said, 'Each film, each movie is your new experiment.'"
The biggest challenges for Woo on 'Silent Night'
Joel Kinnaman and John Woo behind the scenes of Silent Night
John Woo is known for big-budget action features with gritty fight scenes and gun battles. How does he tell his style of story on a limited budget and will non-speaking characters?
"This movie made me make a lot of changes, unlike what I used to do," Woo said. "My movies usually have a lot of gun fights, a lot of explosions, and the action is way over the top, and a lot of romance and cars flying and things. But this one made me change, made me feel like I should make it more realistic."
There were complex action sequences, but due to the nature of the film, some of the most challenging sequences for him to direct were the emotional beats.
"I think the first, most challenging [moment] was the emotional moment, the drama. I mean, when the couple, when they found that their son had been murdered, they have a very emotional moment and they feel so much sadness and pain about losing their son," he said. "That kind of moment we had to get very serious. Fortunately, we had a great actor. Even though there's no dialogue, all their expressions and all their feeling came up on the face. And then we needed enough time and discussion to shoot all those scenes very carefully."
The action, of course, was also a hurdle on this film, particularly the oner during the finale.
"And another challenge is a lot of action," Woo said. "I asked [Kinnaman], we need raw and real fighting ... Because the character, he fights for the love of his son, and for pain, for redemption, for everything, so it's got to look real.
"The most difficult one is when Godlock, the character, he's going in the building, the building with the long stairs going up to the fourth floor. And the building was an old building. It looks like it could collapse at any minute."
It was certainly a unique set that Woo chose to utilize uniquely.
"I look up, and I look at the stairs," he said. "It looked like Hell upside down; not going up to Heaven, it's going up to Hell. So I asked him, 'Okay, let's do all the action in one shot; our hero fighting from the bottom to the fourth floor.'
"So the whole crew and every stuntman, and even the camera crew, we are working in a very dangerous situation. But fortunately, the shot worked so well, and everyone [made] a great contribution to it. It was the most difficult scene we shot. It was dangerous."
John Woo's favorite sequences, and why
Woo again focuses on the emotional moments of the film most of all. He said his favorite moment in the film is at the very end, after Godlock has defeated the gangsters in a bloody shootout. He lies down under the Christmas decorations to rest.
"And they lay on the ground, almost dying, and then he looks up to the golden balls [at] the reflection, an image," Woo said. " It's a reflection of the birth of his son, from birth to 1 year old, 2 years old, 3 years old, to 7 years old, And Godlock, he's got tears in his eyes, and he tries to touch his son."
It is a very Woo moment, we'll say. There's also that shootout on the stairs he's already mentioned, but Woo also praised his team's ingenuity despite the restrictions of their indie budget.
"The other thing is, our scenes, we didn't have much time and much money," he said. "So sometimes we only had half a day to shoot a scene. Sometimes we only got one and a half hours to shoot a scene. It was forcing me to shoot everything in a very clever way, in a very smart way. And we didn't have the luxury of time and money to work like a studio movie. But we still liked to keep the great quality of the film even though we are short on time."
The original script, he said, contained more scenes, including flashbacks.
"But we didn't have time," Woo said. "We only got half of the day. And then all of a sudden Joel had mentioned, 'How about this, [I'm there] sleeping with my son. I think it's a good idea. Let's do it all in one shot.'
"And the cameraman was so excited. I said, 'Okay, you lie on the bed and the camera pushes into a tight shot. When the camera pulls out, we'll put the little kid beside you ... And then the camera, pulling gradually, goes out again, and the kid disappears, and you wake up, you will feel so sad. So we did everything all in one shot because we had no time, and we had to make it. And it's become my new technique. And everybody, the camera crew and everybody, felt so excited, and I felt excited for the change as well. And I had never had the freedom to do this kind of shot before."
John Woo's advice to new filmmakers
John Woo and Kid Cudi behind the scenes of Silent Night
We had to ask John Woo, as such a legend in film who has been working across genres for decades, what he wants young filmmakers to know.
"I think that the movie is about people. And I think for a new, young filmmaker, [they] should learn more about society and more about other people's thinking," he said. "How they feel and what they're happy for, what they feel sad about, and what's going on in the world.
"And then, like myself, when I'm making a film, I never adapt anything from a novel, and I had never [been] inspired by any other books or anything. All the things happening and the characters all came from the people around me.
"And what I really care is how to communicate with other people; how to give your heart, give your love to the audience, to share the love with the audience. I think that young people, they too soon get the chance to direct a movie before they know enough about society. So I think we should learn more from society first and then direct a movie.
"I think for the director, techniques, from the old time to now—everyone's doing the same thing. We learn from the same theory. We learn using the camera. We learn all kind of techniques, but the most important thing is we should learn more about life.
"If you've got more life experience, then you will make a good movie."