'Hard Target' at 25: John Woo on Fighting for Respect in Hollywood

Hard Target John Woo_Inset - H 2018
Photofest; Dominique Charriau/WireImage
The first Asian director to helm a Hollywood studio movie had to battle execs (and star Jean-Claude Van Damme) to deliver the film he wanted.

On Aug. 20, 1993, Hard Target premiered in U.S. theaters. The film — based loosely on Richard Connell's 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game and set in New Orleansstars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Chance Boudreaux, a merchant seaman hired by a woman searching for her father, a homeless veteran who, it turns out, has been literally hunted down and killed. The villain, Emil Fouchon — played by a perpetually glistening, characteristically intense Lance Henriksen — makes his living arranging recreational manhunts for wealthy sportsmen in world cities of note. It's fun.

The anniversary could have probably passed unremarked, but for the fact that the film was legendary action director John Woo's first in the U.S., and the first Hollywood studio film to ever be helmed by an Asian filmmaker.

Woo, then 47, was already an icon in Hong Kong, where his gangster epics A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head and The Killer were massively influential. He caught the attention of Hollywood studio execs when 1989's The Killer made a festival run through Toronto, Park City and Cannes, rolling up critical accolades for its hyperkinetic action sequences and luxuriously excessive gunplay.

By the early '90s — with Hollywood still in the midst of a star-driven action film golden age — Woo was being sent scripts from several studios interested in bringing him over to the States. He decided on Hard Target after Van Damme — then at the height of his fame — screenwriter Chuck Pfarrer, and producer James Jacks flew to Hong Kong to plead their case in person.

Woo has said in many interviews that he preferred making films in the U.S. as opposed to Hong Kong, but his first experience wasn't without its unpleasantries. First: the endless meetings and levels of bureaucracy before shooting could begin. Second: the star system, whereby Van Damme could, for instance, insist that one camera be dedicated to capturing closeups of his oiled biceps. Third: Universal was worried enough about Woo's capacity to handle an American crew that it hired Sam Raimi to shadow him on set, instructing him to step in and take over if the director faltered. (Instead Raimi would become Woo's fiercest defender, even getting into a shouting match with execs to defend his autonomy.)

The film performed well at the box office, debuting to $10.1 million, good for No. 2 behind The Fugitive, though reviews were mixed (The Hollywood Reporter's critic, Duane Byrge, was into it, however, calling the film "mesmeric" and even praising Van Damme's acting — twice). But 25 years later, the film's main legacy is its massive action set pieces — including a finale that plays out in a burning warehouse full of retired Mardi Gras floats — which introduced American audiences to the Hong Kong style of munition superabundance and showcased what the father of "gun-fu" could accomplish when given a big budget and all the cameras, jibs and cranes he desired. That, and the scene where JCVD punches a snake in the face (Mr. Woo was kind enough to send over a series of storyboards for an early, punch-less version of this scene. See below).

Some of the supporting performances stand out as well, including South African actor Arnold Vosloo — who looks like a gaunt Pvt. Pyle from Full Metal Jacket — as Fouchon's severe No. 2, Willie C. Carpenter as another homeless vet tracked across the French Quarter by a Fouchon client, and a delightfully over-the-top Wilford Brimley as Boudreaux's bayou-dwelling, moonshine-swilling Uncle Douvee. (Some might argue that Van Damme's shoulder-length, boat-show-worthy mullet — which cuts a graceful, shining arc through the air with each roundhouse kick and flounces after him as he sprints in glorious slow-mo — is a character in itself. Some might argue.)

Earlier this week, Woo took a break from preproduction on a gender-swapped remake of The Killer starring Lupita Nyong'o to speak with THR about his transition from Hong Kong to the U.S., his first experience working with a Hollywood star, and the one movie he's still dying to make.

Can you talk a bit about how you were recruited to come over to Hollywood. Who made first contact? In one interview you credited Sam Raimi with "giving [me] the opportunity to come to America and make Hard Target." What was his involvement in bringing you to the U.S.?

Before I came to Hollywood I had never dreamed to come to work [here]. I thought it was an impossible dream. At the end of 1991 I was making my last Hong Kong film, Hard Boiled. All of a sudden I got a call from Tom Jacobson, who was [executive vp production at] 20th Century Fox. He was the first one to call me. I was so surprised I didn't know what to do! (Laughs.) He asked me to come over to Hollywood and had very high interest [in producing] a movie for me. And he gave me several scripts and asked to set up a meeting and all that. And the second call was from Oliver Stone. And we [met in Paris during the Cannes Film Festival] and had a great meeting, and he wanted to produce a movie for me. He gave me a script. It was a modern kung-fu movie set in South Asia and Los Angeles — called Kato, or Ballistic — and the star was a Korean-American actor, Phillip Rhee. I liked the script, and I even had an idea for a butterfly scene. The main character is practicing martial arts and a butterfly [lands on him], so he holds the butterfly in his palm and keeps practicing. Many years later, when I met Rhee’s brother, he said, "Mr. Woo, butterfly!" I laughed. "Yeah! Butterfly!" Mr. Stone gave me great respect and also help me to team up with a very good crew, but the film didn't work out. It was a Warner Bros. production. My agent and partner said the studio treated me like a first-time director and didn't give me respectful pay. (Laughs.) I was quite disappointed because I greatly admire Oliver Stone and I really wanted to learn something from him. After that I continued to do my own work, finished Hard Boiled. By then I was getting lots of scripts from other studios like New Line and Universal. And one of the scripts was Hard Target, and I found the idea and the story quite interesting, but I didn't have much desire to make it because I thought it would be a difficult film to make. But then later the producer from [Universal], Mr. Jim Jacks, the writer, Chuck Pfarrer, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they flew over to Hong Kong to meet me, and push me to do the job. They all loved my movies, liked my style, and they wanted an American action film with a new look. And I found the people from the studio were very sincere, very warm, and made me feel very relaxed about doing the film. So I took the job.

About Sam Raimi. I was very impressed with him. I liked his work, and I found he was a man with a big passion for film. He gave me a lot of great respect and support in many ways. Like, I had never known that movie stars in Hollywood had so much power! They had final cut approval, final draft approval, lots of final approvals! And I was so shocked because in Hong Kong the director is everything. The director has so much freedom to do whatever he wants! So while I was cutting the film with my editor, Bob Murawski, [Van Damme] wanted to do another cut with the chief editor from the studio behind my back. Of course, I was so upset, you know. "It's not right! This is my movie, I should do my own cut!" And Sam wasn't happy as well, so he arranged a big meeting. He got together all the producers and the editor and he was screaming in the meeting! "This is a John Woo movie! Let John do his work!" And he made everybody back off, and I was so grateful. And then a couple years later I found out the reason the studio wanted him on the set: They had asked him to watch over me in case I had any kind of problem, like I couldn't do a scene or had difficulty communicating with my actors, and [the studio] would have him take over the job. And Sam would have never done that, and would have never wanted to do that! Every time he would come on the set, he just came in a few times to ask me to dinner, and we'd have a great time having drinks and talking about movies and exchanging experience. I was so glad on my first Hollywood movie to have such a great friend. And aside from him, his partner Rob Tapert, [producer] Sean Daniel, [producer] Jim Jacks, [screenwriter] Chuck Pfarrer, they were all on my side. They tried to make me feel comfortable to do my own work.

What were some of your favorite America action films at the time? And what, if anything, did you feel American action films lacked that you wanted to bring to Hard Target?

Actually, I hadn't watched that many American action movies. One thing I thought [about] American action films, they didn't have that much of a romance element, not much of a human story. And I think the people who were interested in me wanted me to bring my style into the American action movies. So while we were making Hard Target I did try to make it a little bit more like Hong Kong film style even though it was an American movie. Which didn't work well in the beginning because I found the audience, in general, they were not familiar with Hong Kong style. In the meantime I tried to make the movie a bit more romantic and and on the other hand I wanted to make the move look like a modern Western because I'm so crazy about Westerns. Anyways, in Hard Target I was too ambitious, and tried to do everything in one film.

I read a New York Times article from around when the film came about and it talked about how the first preview didn't go well because, for instance, you used dissolves as transitions between scenes, and to American audiences dissolve means flashback.

At the time, the audience thought dissolves could only be used as a transition of time, but for me, I like to use them in characters’ emotions, for example in a romantic moment. This is unlike any traditional films in the States, so the audience didn’t understand what’s going on with these techniques. It’s not a typical Hollywood action movie. And slow motion. When there was a slow motion shot the audience would say, "Oh! It's a commercial!" (Laughs.) And also the violent moments, too, the audience couldn't take it. And some people left the theater in the middle of the movie. Although the film didn’t achieve great success, it sold well. I still miss it since it’s my very first Hollywood movie. It helped me to understand audiences’ feelings, and more importantly, I met so many good friends. This was the important first step.

You originally wanted Kurt Russell for the lead role, but he was booked up. What had you seen Kurt in that made you interested in him as your first American, Hollywood lead?

At the time I really liked Kurt Russell. He's kind of my type of hero. Great energy, lovely smile, strong, and always makes audiences feel comfortable and happy. He felt more like a friend than a movie star. And he had that American boy image. So that was why he was my first choice. But I didn't regret working with Van Damme. I thought he was a quite interesting guy. The only thing I didn't get used to was he was always talking business. Like making deals with other studios or other projects on the set while we were setting up a shot, and we were always waiting for him! He was always talking on his mobile phone, and everyone is waiting for him to finish the call. And the producers and the people from the bond company the were pushing me so hard. "John! You have to shoot!" "I cannot shoot without my star!" The other thing is he was so concerned about his look. I liked to set up four cameras, and he'd want one camera to [focus only on] his arm, muscled arm, you know! (Laughs.) And I know everyone wants to look great onscreen — and that's my job [as director] — but I never liked anybody to tell me how to set up a camera angle, especially a shot for their muscles! But I shot it anyway on set because we were on schedule that day. I shot it, but I never used it.

I read that Chuck Pfarrer set the film in New Orleans as a way to explain JCVD's accent. Is that true? It struck me as odd only because the setting is so integral to the story in other ways — like, the final set piece takes place in the Mardi Gras graveyard!

It's true. [Chuck and the producers] all wanted Van Damme and they all liked him and wanted him to feel comfortable. But I also liked the idea. I love jazz, I love the city. It's a very interesting city. It feels so earthy and dangerous and artistic and romantic.

I want to ask about the Uncle Douvee character, which I love, and as a kid — having never been to the South — he was kind of my platonic ideal of a Louisianan. Wilford Brimley is great and provides a welcome bit of levity and comic relief in an otherwise pretty serious film.

I think the Uncle Douvee part was the main great thing from the film. I was overjoyed making those scenes and especially working with Wilford Brimley. Whenever I saw him on set I'd feel so relaxed and happy! I love the character! I always want to bring some humor element to the film and Wilford did it. I also love French film and wanted to have French culture, a French element, in the film. During the shooting I found Van Damme's character, even though he tried so hard, I found his part of the scenes were quite boring. So when the Uncle Douvee part comes in all of a sudden it lights up the whole film and makes the movie look so much different.

You had to submit Hard Target to the MPAA seven times before they gave you an R. Have you ever considered going back and releasing an original cut? I guess there's a bootleg long version that's out there and some of the foreign DVD versions restore some footage but nothing official.

I like the original cut, of course! And I also heard the long version became a cult movie — some people have seen it and liked it a lot, which is so interesting. And I wish the studio would have interest in releasing the movie again. I think it's worth it to do it.

So if Universal were to come to you and say, "Hey, we wanna do this" —

Oh yes! Definitely.

You have said several times that when you came over, despite certain issues, you preferred making films in the U.S. to Hong Kong, and that you imagined you'd be in Hollywood for good. But in recent years you've made most of your films in China. What drew you back there?

Well after I came over to Hollywood I really loved it and I learned a lot. I loved working here. The people were so professional. And the whole country, it had made me feel so proud as a filmmaker because I got great respect from everywhere. But in 2005 I met some producers from China in Cannes, my friends. They asked me to go back to China to make some films that could be released worldwide and also to try to do something new. And I loved to do that, because since I'd been working on Hollywood for such a long time I really wanted to bring that experience into the Chinese business and help some young people to learn the Hollywood [way of filmmaking], to teach them how big Hollywood movies got made. So that's why I went back to China, and also brought in quite a lot of the Hollywood technicians to work on that project, Red Cliff. It's a Chinese historical film, but I wanted to give it a more international feel. And in China, they were just at the start [of growing the national film industry], and they wanted me to make a film that would attract people to the theater again. We spent a lot of money and went way overbudget. I gave up my salary! I didn't take a penny, but I didn't give up my film, and didn't give up the opportunity to let the young people learn something new and work with the American team. And the film was a big success in Asia. So after that film I just wanted to do a little more. But I never gave up Hollywood. And now the film industry in China is doing so well. So I feel like I did my job.

I wanted to ask real quick about Crazy Rich Asians, which came out almost 25 years to the day after Hard Target, which was the first Hollywood studio film to be helmed by an Asian director. Have you reflected on that legacy at all?

All I can say is that I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to work in Hollywood, and I was the first to have a chance to work here and to learn from here. I didn't do much of a great [first film], but I did make some good movies. And I found the people in Hollywood so generous. I was really touched that people were so nice to me. I think Hollywood is always open for every kind of talent to work here and introduce some new element to Hollywood film. I can't say I made history, but I do believe that it was a great encouragement for Asian filmmakers [at the time], that they could have the same opportunity as me to come to Hollywood.

Have you seen the film?

I haven’t watched it yet. But I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. I’m pleased that Americans get to see different culture through movies — like Black Panther. Now they get to see films about Asian culture. This is really exciting. It’s like a bridge; you get to look at actors and filmmakers from different ethnic [backgrounds], and they bring the same laughter and energy into the theaters. This has benefits for everyone.

What are you working on now? Your remake of The Killer?

Yeah. We start shooting in January. It's very interesting, remaking my own film! I actually tried to get another director to work on the film but it didn't work out so I took over the job. But I do like the idea of making the killer into a woman. And I'm so excited about Lupita. I really like her. It's a very interesting idea using her as the killer — I think she'll give us lots of surprises.

Last question! I read a 1994 interview with you that included this exchange:

There are rumors that you will direct the next Star Wars film. Is this true?

No, I am afraid it is completely false! Although it would be an honor to work with someone as talented as George Lucas.

So, uh, still interested?

Well I love Star Wars but I don't think I'd do a good job because I'm not familiar with the technology [involved in making CGI-heavy films and sci-fi]. But I love the characters, I still have great admiration for George Lucas. But my dream is to make a Western. I'm dying to make a Western. I'm trying to get the script and financing. I'd like to bring back that old spirit [of Western films].

Can you say anything specific about the script?

I don't want to say the name but it's very much like one of Howard Hawks' films. I like that kind of Western. And of course, [Sam Peckinpah's] The Wild Bunch was my favorite. [To be able to make it] would fulfill my dream.