DP Oliver Wood shoots to kill on John Woo's Face/Off

In Face/Off, John Travolta plays Nicolas Cage, and Nicolas Cage plays John Travolta. Confused? Director of photography Oliver Wood explains the setup. "Travolta is Sean Archer, an FBI agent who has spent many years tracking down Castor Troy, a terrorist played by Cage. After the big aerial chase that opens the movie, which climaxes in a confrontation between the two in a hangar, Troy falls into a coma--but Archer needs him up and about, because Troy's minions will only communicate with him about an explosives attack planned on Los Angeles."

Archer's solution to this dilemma is the stuff $85 million summer movies are made of: In a high-tech surgical procedure, he has Troy's face removed, and grafted onto his own head, "becoming" his nemesis as the sleuthing continues. The twists and turns shift into overdrive when the now-faceless Troy awakens from his coma, discovers Archer's masquerade, and spies the agent's detached mug floating in a bottle of preservation fluid. Troy forces the doctors to attach Archer's face to his head, and escapes to assume the G-man's identity and plot new treacheries. As the action is directed by John Woo, the Hong Kong-born director whose Broken Arrow was a hit last winter, it's reasonably certain these two don't resolve their differences over a friendly chat and a cup of coffee.

Wood was in fact approached about shooting Broken Arrow, but his broken ankle (sustained while shooting aquatic scenes for Cutthroat Island) delayed those plans. "I love the hard-edged romanticism of Woo's Hong Kong movies, particularly The Killer, and when he came to Hollywood I was determined to work with him," says Wood. "On crutches, I hobbled into a pre-production meeting for Broken Arrow, and John just smiled and said, 'Maybe next time.' "

Once the DP recovered from his injury, Woo made good on his promise and hired him for Face/Off, which Paramount Pictures is scheduled to release June 27. Mobility is a prerequisite for the 12-hour shooting days, "shooting all over Los Angeles, almost never pausing," on a Woo picture, Wood says. Shooting began last August on the movie's final setpiece, a wild boat chase through Los Angeles Harbor, and wrapped in March. Interviewed in April at a Manhattan restaurant, Wood had to phone the post-production team in Hollywood a couple of times to check on the visual quality of some bullet hits.

"There are a lot of those to check--just hundreds and hundreds of guns were used on the film," Wood says. "And it seemed like hundreds of Panavision cameras, too; we were doing four- and five-camera setups. John's films are about movement, movement, and more movement within the anamorphic frame, including some of the quieter domestic scenes with Archer's wife Eve (Joan Allen) and daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain)."

For one sequence, a high-velocity shootout in a loft owned by Troy's equally nefarious brother, Wood and camera operator Peter Janson employed two Steadicams, to better capture the exhilarating onrush of violence. Part of this particular encounter is viewed through what Wood says is the "carousel" perspective of Troy's illegitimate son, whom the disguised Archer befriends in the course of the story. "It's a very beautiful sequence, and one of the few where the lighting is stylized; the premise of the film is rather offbeat, and we decided early on to keep the lighting as traditional as possible, so the story would seem more down-to-earth and credible. In this one instance, though, we stood the boy on this large, square, glass table, and underlit him with strong, bright lights, so he looks like an angel, watching in wonder as these people explode all around him." If Woo has his way and the rights are granted, the musical accompaniment for this scene will be "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"--"the boy is wearing headphones to muffle the sound of gunfire, and John thinks that song played on the soundtrack will go great with what we were trying to do with the imagery," Wood says.

Performing other lighting-related tasks on the film, the DP realized he wasn't in Kansas anymore, either. In a 30-year career that began as an assistant to director John Boorman when both worked for the BBC, the British-born cinematographer has shot several pulse-quickening films, notably Die Hard 2 and this fall's Going West in America, a chase drama set in the Rocky Mountains. Woo's hands-on approach to the shoot was a change from the norm, he reports. "John doesn't talk very much, but he is very involved with the cinematography; he goes right up to the camera operators to address how a shot will be executed, something I've seen more in England than America. He's completely prepared in all aspects of the production.

"Lighting every scene on this film was difficult," Wood continues. "Not that we were using any special equipment, but there was so much to do, all the time. I worked very closely with Neil Spisak, the production designer. He created this one marvelous set, the FBI headquarters, that was virtually all glass. If you turned on one lightbulb anywhere, you got 60 reflections in the camera, and it took some time to hang blacks to disguise them. And, of course, the big action scenes took days and days to film, but John kept us moving right along."

Shooting the two male stars, in the flesh and in dummy form, called for careful illumination as well. "John demanded that the actors be lit to look glamorous no matter what was going on around them, and there was quite a lot," Wood laughs. "Makeup-wise, Kevin Yagher created these beautiful full body models of both actors for the transplant sequences, so uncanny in appearance that Nicolas Cage found it quite spooky to be on the set with his manufactured double. Kevin and I figured out how close we could get in with the camera for the operation scenes, and from what angles, to preserve the illusion. John didn't want to do scenes like this, or the big chases, with digital effects; he finds that flat and boring, and prefers to keep everything as real as possible."

Wood's first American credit was The Honeymoon Killers, realism of a different stripe. The minimalist true-crime classic, released in 1969, was started by Martin Scorsese, whom Wood met while both were shooting commercials in Amsterdam. After a week of shooting "wide master shots, too slowly, meticulously, and expensively for the producers," Scorsese was fired from the no-budget, black-and-white film, and ultimately replaced by its screenwriter, Leonard Kastle. "I sat every day with him and I personally cut the film in the camera. I see gradually during the movie how I actually learned how to light film because it was my first time doing a feature, and not a short subject. I can see the cinematography crystallizing till it gets to a point where I say, 'Ah, that's me--that's my style emerging.'"

For Face/Off, Wood put away his preferred shooting style, inspired by his favorite cinematographer, French New Waver Raoul Coutard, to satisfy Woo's vision. "The constant movement of all those cameras, some controlled from a remote unit, wasn't something I necessarily like to do, but John likes to do it and I just went along with it, enjoying the experience more and more," Wood says. "Besides being a great filmmaker, he is a very nice man, full of energy and always poking fun at everybody." The two have made plans to reteam, possibly for a musical, "a genre of film I've always wanted to make, and John's favorite type of movie besides," Wood says. Given the firepower of Face/Off, think of what they bring could bring to a remake of Annie Get Your Gun.