Creative: 10 Questions – John Woo

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Feature director John Woo (The Killer, Face/Off) wrapped his first commercial–a global Nike spot for Wieden & Kennedy. Shot in Brazil and Italy, the large-budget ad introduces a soccer shoe, the Mercurial. A huge soccer fan, Woo, working through A Band Apart, says the experience reminded him of his soccer-playing days as a child in Hong Kong.
Adweek: Why commercials?
Woo: I don’t want to stop working. I want to freshen my mind between films, and I want to learn. You can experiment in commercials. You have room to try new techniques, to find new ways to tell a story. Commercials are clever. They tell a story in a few seconds or in one frame. The most interesting things to watch on TV are commercials and the news.
Adweek: Any favorites?
Woo: Coca-Cola, Nike and Levi’s. Coke is my lifetime favorite. The commercials are always fun. They’re clean, like old-time Hollywood musicals. I also like the Budweiser frogs. They’re funny.
Adweek: You are known for your high-octane, violent action sequences. Do you feel there are many opportunities for this style in advertising?
Woo: I’m not always violent. My next film, King’s Ransom, is a comedy with some action. It’s a very romantic film I’d like to try everything. I would even like to make a perfume commercial, something romantic, beautiful and joyful. I’d also like to make a commercial for charity. Our family was so poor, we were homeless for a couple of years. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to school. An American family sent money to the church to support my school. That’s how I got an education. I would love to do a commercial to help poor children.
Adweek: You can’t discuss specifics about the Nike ad, but will your fans be able to recognize your work?
Woo: People will recognize my work, even though there’s no violence or action scenes. They can touch the purity and the humanity. This commercial looks very human and has a sense of humor. In some ways, it’s pretty funny. It’s elegant, charming and has a pure, innocent look. My movies also have those elements.
Adweek: You often use multicamera work in your films. Were you able to do the same in the Nike spot?
Woo: We used three or four cameras, even five to shoot the games. It was like a little movie.
Adweek: How do you feel about Hollywood’s current fascination with Hong Kong?
Woo: It’s good for both sides. I have learned so much from American and European film, and I’ve learned so much from the West. I’ve combined it with my own culture and [American directors] get something from me. Actually, they are learning from themselves. We are exchanging and learning from each other.
Adweek: You’ve made quite a few films. Any particular genre you would like try?
Woo: One of my dreams is to make a western and a musical. I love musicals.
Adweek: What type of music inspires you?
Woo: I’ve always liked country and rock and roll. Our high school was run by Lutherans and our headmaster was an American. He brought over a lot of country music, which we danced to. I like jazz, it inspires me for the romantic scenes in my films. I also like Chinese and Asian music. I’m a little old-fashioned, I like the old classical folk songs.
Adweek: What made you become a filmmaker?
Woo: It’s very simple. I was raised in a slum in Hong Kong and I had to struggle hard to survive. We lived in hell, and I always wanted to fly away from hell. Two places I liked to go as a kid were the church and the theater. Whenever I got sad or got beat up, I would go to church or the theater. There I found my dream. I could go to a place that was not violent, where there was love and respect. When I was 11, I used to draw an image on broken glass, a cowboy or Bugs Bunny, and I would cover myself with a blanket to make everything dark. I used a flashlight to project the image on the wall and I would move it around to move the image.
Adweek: Did you go to film school?
Woo: My family was so poor. After high school, I couldn’t go to college. So I learned from watching movies. I loved movies so much that I had to learn. I went to the library and stole books on film, art and philosophy. Fortunately, I never got caught.