[On the set of Blackjack]
It's a cool, clear evening in November 1997. The cast and crew of Blackjack assemble for an all-night shoot in a downtown Toronto warehouse. The scenes to be shot this evening include a fight scene between both actors Lundgren and Phillip MacKenzie in a set that has been constructed to resemble a dairy warehouse. Lundgren's character has a terrible phobic reaction to the color white. Rory, played by MacKenzie, lures the unsuspecting Devlin into the warehouse for the confrontation because he knows the all-white environment will incapacitate Devlin.
As the crew sets up and the stuntmen ready themselves, producer Terence Chang strolls around the set checking on all the preparations. He is a tall man with an easy smile and a casual demeanor. Once everything is in place, Woo comes out of his trailer and heads into the warehouse for what will be at least twelve hours of of works. He is a diminutive person to start with, but the numerous sweathers under a big parka make him look even smaller. Woo immediately discusses the main fight sequence with the stuntmen. He walks the stuntmen through the scene as he sees it. He wears a broad smile and watches with a precise eye. Lundgren appears, and watches quietly as the stuntmen go through their moves. Then he enters the set to ask questions and try out the moves.
Lundgren is a big man, aproximately 6'5'' tall with broad muscular shoulders. His thirty-eight birthday was two days before, but you would not think him a day over twenty-five given the nature of his physique. Lundgren holds a master's degree in chemical engineering and can speak five languages fluently. He first came into prominence when he was cast as the Russian challenger to Sylvester Stallone's Rocky in Rocky IV (1985), a completely ridiculous movie that Lundgren managed to survive. He has since starred in several low-budget action movies, some of which are quite entertaining (check out The Punisher ; Showdown in Little Tokyo , in which he co-starred with Brandon Lee; Red Scorpion ; and Roland Emmerich's Universal Soldier ).
Lundgren's biggest asset is his awareness of his limitaions as an actor. Contemporaries like Steven Seagal delude themselves into believing that they can do everything and play evrything because they've been in a hit action film. Lundgren plays only characters he knows are within his range, and he does it well.
Bill Wong, the cinematographer, walks around the set checking th lighting for this scene, which involves a lot of bright white and coverage by at least four cameras, while Woo turns his attention to showing Lundgren the particular moves he wishes to see during the fight. It is quite a sight watching the very animated five-foot Woo demonstrating fight moves to the towering actor. The stuntmen continue to refine the fight as Woo coaches his actor. Something the suntmen are doing catches Woo's eye. One stuntman has cracked Lundgren's stand-in behind the legs with a fake shotgun to bring him down. Woo takes the shotgun and animatedly demonstrates that he prefers to have the stuntman cracked in the back rather than behind the knees.
Woo is obviously not entirely comfortable with English yet and often gets his point across with gestures and pantomimes. As the rehearsal continues, it becomes obvious that Lundgren is uneasy with some of the physical dynamics of the scene. Lundgren is a martial artist himself, so he knows how to fight and he knows what will be easy to achieve, and what will be prohibitively difficult. Lundgren says of working with Woo, "He makes me look good. He takes what I do and adds to it what he does and it looks great. He hired me for a reason. If I live up to it then it will be a great time."
With all the necessary preparations done, the cameras are about to roll on the first part of the sequence. Lundgren rides into the frame on a beat-up dirt bike, stops, and reacts to all the white he sees. Everyone has been warned how loud this dirt bike will be, and earplugs were passed around. Woo, who is sitting behind the monitors in his director's chair, declines the ear protection with a smile, saying that he does not want them. When the bike starts up it is so loud it actually does cause Woo to flinch.
After a few tries that don't work because the bike is slipping sideways on the warehouse floor, the exhaust fumes become noticeable. Crew members pull shirts up to cover their noses. The back doors to the warehouse are thrown open for ventilation. Woo holds a handkerechief to his nose, until he finally gets the take he likes.
Woo then moves to direct a complex four-camera set-up of what most would consider a simple shot. It involves Lundgren astride the motorbike inside the warehouse, realizing that he has been lured in to an all-white environment. He gets dizzy, puts on the blue-tinted shades he always carries with him, draws a gun and climbs off the bike. Woo has this covered with an overhead camera, a handheld camera and two locked-down cameras, one positioned strategically behind large plastic vat-like containers filled with what appears to be milk. He strolls around the motorbike with his hands positioned like a camera viewfinder specifying what is to appear in the frames of all four cameras. He turns his attention to Lundgren and directs the facial expressions he wants during the upcoming scene.
Blackjack is unusual in that it is a TV pilot that may be turned into a TV series. It's Woo's first project since directing Face/Off, but you would never know it. He does not exude the attitude that comes from huge show-business success. The fact that he is directing something for television after a big-screen success is a rarity in itself. Most directors wouldn't dream of doing television after feature work. To Woo it is all work a that he loves.
By the tenth day of the shooting schedule, everything is proceeding on budget, and according to plan. The set is now being flooded with atmospheric smoke, a dense, foggy substance, which gives the set the ominous, hazy look of a chilled environment.
Woo watches the material he has shot so far, playing it back on his monitors. The stuff is terrific. He then jumps up to join Billy Wong on the set, demonstrating the next scene so Wong can light it properly. On his way, Woo holds the 9 mm pistol that Lundgren will wield. When he plays out the scene for Wong he becomes Lundgren's character himself. Behind the camera Terence Chang is entertaining guests with stories of how Woo loves to do cameos in his movies and usually prefers to play a cop.
Two men, Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, writers of Face/Off, enter the set and are greeted warmly. Werb hast jus flown in from Amsterdam where he attended the Dutch premiere of Face/Off, and Colleary has flown in from Los Angeles. They are here to meet with Woo about the just-completed sceond draft of the screenplay for King's Ransom.
Werb and Colleary stand and watch Woo work, both marveling at how such epics come out of this elegant little man. Both remark that Woo loves the process of shooting a movie. Even though he has been doing it for twenty years now, the magic has not worn off for him. They are both sure that Woo has already shot King's Ransom in his head several times.
Woo finishes on the set and returns to his monitors where he notices and enthusiastically greets Werb and Colleary. Woo turns his attention to his writers. Werb mentions that he has just read that Face/Off has gone over the $200 million mark in worldwide box-office returns.
Werb says, "Hopefully it [King's Ransom] will do $400 million." Woo is embarrassed and chides him, "You should not be so greedy. You should learn to be humble."
Woo is called back to the set just as a good-natured ribbing starts about John's rank in Entertainment Weekly magazine's 100 Most Powerful People in Hollywood survey (Woo is ranked 67).
It is 1:30 A.M. and shooting is about to start up again after a break for a midnight meal. Woo comes bounding back onto the set looking completely refreshed. He is asked to pose fro some publicity stills before starting to work. He sheepishly agrees, then it is back to business. A big action scene is being set up, which involves shotgun blasts, gunfire and a vicious fistfight that is to take place in six inches of fake milk.
During the setup, Michael Colleary pulls up a chair beside Woo so he can tell him about the reaction to Face/Off at the recently held British premiere. Their discussion then moves to recent movies. Woo speaks of his dislike for Air Force One (1997) ("Typical Hollywood movie with not enough story") and his love for Shine (1996) ("I cried at the end") and his curiousity about a little British movie called The Full Monty (1997) ("I'm working all the time now, but I will definitely go see it").
With the preparations almost complete, Woo dons his silly-looking black rubber rain boots to keep his feet dry against the milk flood.
It is almost 3:00 A.M. when Lundgren reacts to the call for "action!" He steps under a white pipe, which is exploded through special effects. Lundgren is drenched in white liquid. Before filming the big fight scene, Lundgren has his eyes flushed after getting some of the "milk" in them.
Woo checks the viewfinders of all four cameras, but something bothers him. There is so much clutter in the foreground. He calls for the set to be cleared. Once his instructions have been carried out, he stands looking at his empty set. There is nothing happening on the set at the moment, and no one is on it, but Woo studies it with a curious intensity. It is plain to see that the scene is playing itself out in his mind from every angle.
It is now 5:00 A.M. and this shooting day is still in full swing. Chang is still here even though he doesn't have to be. Chang, Woo and Wong engage in an animated discussion about the fight scene, and it is evident how much more comfortable Woo is when speaking in his own language. He seems to only let his guard down completely when he is with people he trusts and has known for a long time.
By 5:30 A.M. Woo has given the hulking Lundgren a comically animated demonstration of just how this fight scene should unfold. Woo has been working for twelve hours straight on this night, there are at least another couple hours to go. He has not raised his voice once, nor shown any impatience, and he certainly has not chasticed or berated any crew or cast member.
The fight scene is finally shot. It is a very rough physical altercation that has the two actors throwing each other around in the simulated milk. After the scene is shot a couple of times the actors are forced to change into dry costumes for subsequent takes.
It is just 6:00 A.M., and Woo is rehearsing Lundgren and MacKenzie on some changes that he has devised for the fight scene. As the actors go through the paces Woo claps his hands and says, "good, good" over and over.
Michael Colleary marvels at Woo's energy. He relates a story from the shooting of Face/Off. "The prison scene was shot in an old power station," says Colleary. "This was the dankest...place you can imagine and we shot there for three straight weeks. John remained calm and collected throughout it. Everyone got sick, virtually everyone except John. He did the whole fucking thing with a smile on his face."
The filming of the fight scene is not going well at all. Lundgren and MacKenzie are getting very tired, causing their moves to be off just enough to throw the entire sequence out of whack. Lundgren and Woo huddle to revise the fight. They shoot it one more time and it comes together perfectly. Woo then calls for the day's shooting to be wrapped. It is 7:10 A.M.
As Woo heads to his waiting car he smiles broadly and walks with a spring in his step. You just know he can't wait to get back on the set for the next day's work.