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Exclusive Interview: John Woo talks about violent action without talking in “SILENT NIGHT”

Friday, December 1, 2023 | Interview


The director who reshaped the action genre with Hong Kong classics like A BETTER TOMORROW, THE KILLER and HARD-BOILED, then brought his blistering talents to Hollywood with BROKEN ARROW, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II and FACE/OFF, now has his first American movie in 20 years seeing release. SILENT NIGHT is in theaters today from Lionsgate, and RUE MORGUE got the chance to speak with him about this English-language comeback project.

Actually, that description is a misnomer, since SILENT NIGHT contains virtually no dialogue, as its protagonist is unable to speak. Played by Joel Kinnaman, he’s a father who loses his voice (due to a throat wound) and his son when rival gangs bring their gunplay to his neighborhood the day before Christmas. Consumed with the desire for vengeance, he spends a year both arming and training himself in preparation for a one-man war on the gangsters the following December 24. Written by Robert Archer Lynn, SILENT NIGHT co-stars Catalina Sandino Moreno as the avenger’s wife Saya, Scott Mescudi (X) as sympathetic detective Dennis Vassel and Harold Torres as vicious gang leader Playa. Woo is following it up with a remake of THE KILLER for Universal Pictures to premiere on the Peacock streaming service, starring Nathalie Emmanuel and Omar Sy.

How did SILENT NIGHT come to you, and what led you to make it your first American project in 20 years?

Well, about four years ago, when I got the script for SILENT NIGHT, I was so excited, because for some time, I’ve been established as a big-movie director, you know? Sort of an A-class director. So all those much more small-scale and better scripts, they never came to me. My partner always said, “Oh, John, these are too small for you. You should make big movies!” I got tired of making big movies; the biggest movies give you the biggest problems.

So when I read the SILENT NIGHT script, I loved it, and it became my first independent film in America. It was very well-written, and it had no dialogue, and I saw that as a big challenge. I usually hate long dialogue, and trying to use it to explain so many things–to explain how the characters feel and how they think, you know? I thought it would be a good idea to let the audience think, and I also felt that since there was no dialogue, it would allow me to use my gifts. I’m good at using visuals to tell a story, and sound, to communicate the feelings, and let the audience connect with the characters more directly. They can look at the actors’ eyes and at their faces, and feel with them.

Did you do any significant work on the script once you signed on to direct it?

No, the one thing was that since this was an independent film, and with this subject matter, it led me to change my style a little bit. Usually, my movies are a little fancier, and sometimes the action is way over the top, and more fun, you know? But for SILENT NIGHT, I felt like I couldn’t make fun out of it. I tried to make it more realistic, and take out a lot of the over-the-top things, and concentrate more on the characters. Even in the fight scenes, I wanted to make the audience feel like these are real fights, these are real hits, this is real pain. I changed some of the action so I could film it in one long take, without any cuts, and let the audience see the whole thing and feel it with the actors, feel the danger. That saved a lot of time.

I have so much appreciation for the producers, because the good thing about independent movies is you can have a lot more freedom. I worked with a much smaller team, but a great team, very professional, and there were no notes from a studio, and no other interference, so I could make my own film.

What made Joel Kinnaman the right actor for SILENT NIGHT’s lead?

When I met with Joel, I found that he just looked like a man from the neighborhood, you know? He’s not a superhero type, he’s not a super-fighter; he’s a real man, a man with a very common job, with a great love and sense of responsibility to his family, and a great love for his son. I thought he would bring real depth to the role, and he’s a very good actor, very emotional, with a good heart; he really cares about other people. And he’s so smart; he came up with some good ideas, and then we worked together to make changes, to make the scenes work better. I was so happy to work with him.

How was it directing the actors to work just with expressions and no dialogue?

Well, since I had a very professional cast, I would just let them know the situation: “OK, you’re remembering your son being killed, you’re feeling the pain,” and then go to his wife and say, “You’re feeling the pain of your husband, but you feel even more pain than him.” They knew what to do, so I didn’t need to explain too much, because I respect my actors. I know what they’re capable of, and I know they will usually bring some new things to me, that will surprise me.

Did you ever consider the lack of dialogue a restriction in telling the story, or did you find it more freeing?

Well, I usually like a script to have not much dialogue. In a lot of Hollywood scripts, they like to write so much. And I’ll ask the writer, “Why did you use so much dialogue?” Because the studio wants them to explain everything that’s happening that way, and there’s actually no need to explain so much, because a movie is about the visuals. The visuals can explain so many things, and the audience is smart; when they watch a film, they can look in the background, they can see the expressions of the actors, they can look at the colors, and they can get a feeling of what a scene’s about. There’s no need to tell them how to feel. So whenever I get a script with a lot of dialogue, I think, “OK, I can cut this, I can cut that…” [Laughs]

How much training did Joel and the other actors have to do for the action scenes, because it looks like they did a lot of their own stunts.

They spent two months working with the stunt guys, training for every action sequence. I told them, “OK, we’re going to start the fight here and go there, but I want it to be a real fight, the real thing.” And they’d be rehearsing every morning, and I’d be there seeing how they were doing. And then on location, I’d give them some instructions, and they would find a way to work it out. Because we had no time to do any rehearsal on the set; we only had 43 days, so once we got the camera and the lighting ready, we’d just go through the rough idea, and then we’d shoot it.

Joel was such a professional; he wanted to do all his stunts himself. He didn’t like to use a stunt double. In one shot he had to fall on his back onto the ground, and we were so afraid that he might get hurt, and we had a stunt double who was very well-trained and very well-protected do that one fall. But 99 percent of the stunts was Joel.

The big hand-to-hand fight is especially impressive, so what were the particular challenges of that scene?

Well, the real challenge was, the timing of the fighting was very important. Trying to figure out how to make it look real. I think one idea was, “OK, you two are fighting from here to there,” and I pretty much gave them freedom. There was no order; I would say something like, “I need you to grab something and throw it in his face.” And in one scene, the guy grabbed a real toolbox and threw it at Joel’s face! And because they had the right instincts on the set, and that natural instinct for self-defense during the fight, it doesn’t look like it was choreographed in advance; it looks like a real fight.

You’ve influenced so many action filmmakers over the years; do you ever feel now like you’re competing with movies made by people who were inspired by your own cinema?

I just feel like I’ve got some new friends, and we’re all learning from each other. When I was young, a long time ago, I learned so much from the great cinema of the West, from Hollywood and Europe. I have so much admiration for Sam Peckinpah, Jean-Pierre Melville [note: during our Zoom interview, there’s a poster for Melville’s L’AÎNÉ DES FERCHAUX, a.k.a. MAGNET OF DOOM, on the wall behind Woo], Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone and even Fellini, he’s my idol. I’ve learned so much from so many of them, and I’ve used their techniques and combined them to create my own style. And now, when I see some other filmmaker taking inspiration from my movies, I feel like we are actually all in a big family. We are sharing all the good things together. I’m so happy to see that, and to be honest, I’ve found that some of the young filmmakers have made even better action than I do. I’m not trying to be humble, I think some of them are fascinating. Like JOHN WICK; even though I haven’t seen all of them, I’ve seen a couple, and they’re very interesting, and they have their own style.

What’s happening with the remake of THE KILLER right now?

It’s still going. During the actors’ strike, we had to stop for a few months, and now that it is over, we’re going back to Paris to finish the rest of the scenes. It went pretty well, and it’s very interesting; the killer character has been changed into a woman, so that’s a big change, and I’m excited about it. It’s been great working with Nathalie Emmanuel; she’s wonderful.

And I have to ask: How do you feel about David Fincher coming out with a movie called THE KILLER?

Well, I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I heard that it was adapted from a graphic novel with the same name, so that’s a coincidence. And I love David Fincher’s style, so I’ll see that soon.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).