15 Peachy Facts About Face/Off
Face/Off is a marvel: two of our hammiest actors impersonating each other, under the guidance of one of the world’s most visually fluent action directors. Let’s not kid ourselves, the movie (which was released 20 years ago today) is incredibly dumb—but darned if it isn’t the kind of incredible dumbness that goes down smooth. Here are some things you might not have known about the epic battle between Sean Archer and Castor Troy.
1. IT WAS CONCEIVED IN 1990 BUT DIDN’T HIT THEATERS FOR ANOTHER SEVEN YEARS.
Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, both UCLA film school grads, set out to write something together in the summer of 1990. They sold Face/Off to Warner Bros., but as Werb put it, “I don’t think that they ever understood the script ... Stallone was attached to Demolition Man, and we were over there with our movie, and they saw the two movies as being too similar, so they made one, and ours got shelved.” When WB’s rights to Face/Off expired, someone at Paramount who knew about the screenplay pounced on it. Werb and Colleary thus had the rare pleasure of selling the same screenplay twice.
2. IT WAS WRITTEN WITH SYLVESTER STALLONE AND ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN MIND.
Separately, they were among the top action stars of the day (the day being the early '90s), so teaming them up was an irresistible idea. Moreover, they were both really famous, and as Colleary once said, “The movie doesn’t work unless the actors have a well-established persona” so audiences can appreciate them impersonating each other. (Editorial note: there’s no way Schwarzenegger and Stallone could have imitated one another’s mannerisms as well as Cage and Travolta do.) The two didn’t make Face/Off, but they did eventually make Escape Plan, in which they escape from a futuristic, off-the-grid, middle-of-the-ocean prison very much like the one in Face/Off.
3. ORIGINALLY, THE FILM WAS FUTURISTIC SCIENCE FICTION—WHICH IS WHY JOHN WOO DIDN’T WANT TO DIRECT IT.
The writers’ first version was set in the future, mainly to justify the face-transplanting technology. But Woo wasn’t interested. "I just felt I hadn’t learned enough to make a great sci-fi movie," he said in a Blu-ray featurette. He told another interviewer, "I want more character, more humanity. If there is too much science fiction, we lose the drama." As the project evolved at Paramount, the writers stripped away the extraneous—and expensive—futuristic elements, bringing the focus back to the characters. With that settled, and with Woo having made Broken Arrow with Travolta in the meantime, the director was approached again and took the job.
4. THE MAN WHO WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO DIRECT IT MADE DRAGONHEART INSTEAD.
That would be Rob Cohen, who also went on to make The Fast and the Furious. He was signed for Face/Off when the project went into “turnaround,” i.e., limbo. With Face/Off’s future uncertain, Cohen went and made the dragon movie.
5. THEY CONSIDERED A WHOLE BUNCH OF WAYS OF PUTTING CASTOR TROY INTO A COMA AT THE BEGINNING OF THE FILM BEFORE SETTLING ON THE JET ENGINE BLASTING HIM THROUGH THE WIND TUNNEL.
He was supposed to be frozen in liquid nitrogen, but Paramount didn’t like it. Screenwriters Werb and Colleary suggested Troy climb an air traffic control tower and fall, which John Woo didn’t like. Electrocuted by high-voltage wires? Nope. How they arrived at the solution they eventually went with is lost to the mists of time.
6. THE EPILOGUE, WHERE THE ARCHERS ADOPT CASTOR TROY’S ORPHANED SON, ALMOST DIDN’T HAPPEN.
It was part of the writers’ original story and survived all of their many rewrites, but Paramount didn’t think audiences would like an ending where the hero adopts his enemy’s son. Woo’s alternate idea was for the film to end with some ambiguity about whether or not Eve Archer had her real husband back. When a test audience found that unsatisfying—and, moreover, wanted to know what happened to Castor Troy’s kid—the studio ponied up the money to get the necessary cast members back to film the original ending. According to Werb, “The next time we tested, the numbers went through the roof. There was spontaneous and thunderous applause at the end."
7. IT WAS THE FIRST PARAMOUNT MOVIE RELEASED ON BLU-RAY.
In 2008, after having initially backed HD-DVD in the high-definition format wars, Paramount saw the tide turning and shifted to Blu-ray. The first batch of films the studio released in that format were recent theatrical hits Next and Bee Movie, plus good ol’ Face/Off.
8. MICHAEL DOUGLAS EXECUTIVE PRODUCED IT.
The legendary actor had produced a dozen films before this, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Starman, plus a few that he also starred in (like Romancing the Stone). Don’t go looking for a pattern, though. When The A.V. Club asked Douglas if there was any connection between the movies he stars in or produces, he said, “Not really, except they’re all contemporary. I mean, even the ones like Face/Off or The Rainmaker, that’s the only thing I’ve ever seen that ties everything together. Except for one or maybe two exceptions, they’re all kind of contemporary.”
9. THE CINEMATOGRAPHER WOULD HAVE SHOT BROKEN ARROW, BUT HE BROKE HIS ANKLE WORKING ON CUTTHROAT ISLAND.
Oliver Wood had been the director of photography for Die Hard 2 and more than 50 episodes of Miami Vice, and he was approached by Woo’s people to shoot Broken Arrow. In his own words, Wood hobbled into a pre-production meeting on crutches, still recovering from the ankle injury that had forced him to resign from Cutthroat Island (a blessing in disguise, perhaps). "John [Woo] just smiled and said, ‘Maybe next time.'" True to his word, Woo hired Wood for Face/Off the following year.
10. DESPITE HIS FONDNESS FOR GUNS IN HIS MOVIES, JOHN WOO HAS NEVER FIRED ONE IN REAL LIFE.
Or he hadn’t in 1997, anyway. While discussing his films’ abundant use of firearms, he told an interviewer that he didn’t own any guns himself and that he had "never fired a real gun. I just like the look." In particular, he favors the Beretta. “The good thing I like—how many bullets can it fire? Seventeen bullets? You can fire 17 bullets. When you continue firing it’s like ... the drumbeat. Like music.”
Woo said so. That includes footage shot by the second unit (involving stunt personnel and not the lead actors).
He said, “Nic [Cage]’s character is such an egomaniac. He loves himself—the way he talks, acts, walks, everything about himself. So, we just figured that it follows that he would hate being in my body, having my face. So I added a lot of lines where he makes fun of the way I look—like ‘this ridiculous chin,’ things like that.”
13. IT WAS GINA GERSHON AND NICK CASSAVETES’ IDEA FOR THEIR SIBLING CHARACTERS TO KISS INAPPROPRIATELY.
The behind-the-scenes features on the Blu-ray make it clear that, as methodical and efficient as Woo is, he also gives his actors a lot of leeway with improvisation and alternate ideas. (The Troy brothers’ prison reminiscences of childhood traumas were Alessandro Nivola and Nic Cage’s words.) For whatever reason, Gershon and Cassavetes wanted to give their characters an extra layer of weirdness. And Woo let them go for it.
14. THE EVOCATIVE IMAGE OF A LITTLE BOY LISTENING TO “SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW” WHILE A DEADLY GUNFIGHT UNFOLDS AROUND HIM WAS A LAST-MINUTE IDEA.
It was just a straightforward action sequence before, with the FBI raiding Sasha’s loft and shooting up the place. In the process of filming it, Woo realized he’d like to balance the destruction and mayhem with something less depressing. He had to persuade the producers to let him do it—not just because it’s uncommon (and potentially controversial) to show an innocent kid surrounded by such mayhem, but because they feared the last-minute adjustments would make the day’s shooting run long. Woo promised he’d finish on time, and did. (He got to keep his trademark doves in the climactic church shoot-out by likewise promising it wouldn’t slow things down.)
15. FOR THE FACE-TRANSPLANTING SCENES, SPECIAL EFFECTS WIZARDS MADE UNSETTLINGLY REALISTIC LATEX DUMMIES OF CAGE AND TRAVOLTA.
Not only did they look just like the actors (right down to the painstakingly sewn-in body hair), they were animatronic, with facial muscles that twitched and chests that rose to simulate breathing.
Additional Sources: Face/Off Blu-ray bonus features