The acclaimed action-movie specialist, John Woo, is back with an entirely different approach: a movie without dialogue. What inspired his return after an absence of 2-decades, is a riveting screenplay for Silent Night, crafted by Robert Archer Lynn, which Woo describes as: “Surprise, surprise, and surprise. The script is full of surprises so that’s one of the biggest reasons I took it. I enjoyed the script because I like challenges.”
“I think the script is really well written,” says Woo. “Even though it had no dialogue, it had great drama and a very, very good story. And that’s the script I’m always looking for. In the old times, I had been established as a big movie director, but all those much smaller-scale [projects] and much better scripts—they never came to me. And then my partner always said, ‘Those movies are too small for you. Don’t do it.’ So I was so frustrated. And after 20 years, I found Silent Night so exciting, even though it was my first independent film, and I feel that the script was such a great idea.”
The script, he thought, would give him a chance to flex one of his biggest strengths. “I’m very good at the visuals,” he said. “I think for Silent Night , it could allow me to use my visuals and my sound to tell a story, to express myself. Also it could make the audience more involved with the characters. Even though there’s no dialogue, then the audience will [pay] more attention to their face and look straight at the eyes and can feel what they feel and to see what they see. I think there’s a lot of good things about it. It’s a new experiment for myself. I feel like Alfred Hitchcock has said, ‘Each film, each movie is your new experiment.'”
Woo’s over-the-top action style has been the stuff of legend for many decades, but now, at 77, the Hong Kong filmmaker has changed up his approach, beginning with the virtually dialogue-free revenge thriller Silent Night, which redefines the action genre with visceral, thrill-a-minute storytelling.
The Joel Kinnaman-led actioner is Woo’s first American film in two decades, an absence he chalks up to no longer being sent quality scripts. On its surface, Silent Night is a classic tale of vengeance, as Kinnaman’s Brian Godlock stops at nothing to avenge the gang-related death of his 7-year-old son. The quest is made all the more intriguing by Godlock’s inability to speak, having suffered a life-altering injury during his failed attempt to go after the offending gang in the immediate aftermath of his son’s death. While recovering from a wound that costs him his voice, he makes vengeance his life’s mission and embarks on a punishing training regimen in order to avenge his son’s death.
“Making a film without dialogue is more difficult. It’s not an easy job to do. You have to think more than usual. You need to find new ways, new style, and a very unique language to tell the story. Unique visual language to tell the story. The sound, the vision. Using the vision instead of the language. It’s not easy work. It needs a lot of thought,” says Woo.
The ability of the cast to portray and breathe life into each of Silent Night’s characters is bolstered significantly by the many talents of the distinguished John Woo, from whom they discovered much more than what they were expecting.
Says Joel Kinnaman: “John is not just an iconic film director. He is the master of the camera. I’ve never worked with a film director that can tell so much of the story just in the way that he moves the camera. And I can also tell and understand why he wanted to do this film that doesn’t have dialogue because it just opens up so many opportunities to design these beautiful shots and instead of just shooting this scene where you have the coverage, closeups, mediums shots, wide shot and then you cut it all together, here we’re very sparse with the coverage. A lot of the scenes are just one or two set ups. And you tell the whole scene in how we stage it and how the camera moves. It’s gonna be a very artistic film. I grew up watching subtitled films but there is always a nuance in the language that gets lost. You can still get the experience but some of the nuance is amiss. [In ‘Silent Night’] this doesn’t happen. You are watching the same movie as everyone else as it is told visually.”
Despite his considerable experience in the action genre, John Woo still feels compelled to reinvent himself by returning to a genre he had mastered long ago
“Basically, the action is pretty much the style. It’s exciting, it has style. I tried to make something different, more of a street fight vibe. The audience can feel the punch, the power, the anger. The movie has no language, so all we need is strong visuals to tell a story. Besides the fight, we’re trying to use the sound, the heat of the punch, even the car crash. It became a new type of language”.
This project encompasses facts and characters that each represent a particular perspective of the same story. The varying tones of each perspective is what strengthens the overall attitude of the film. This was no easy task though, as it required arduous investigation by the different department heads, which include production design, costume design, and even make-up design. These essential departments were the backbone of this movie’s handcrafted personality.
Grant Armstrong’s production design team on Silent Night were able to completely transform various locations, such as a gas station and a mall, to perfectly fit the aesthetic of the story. They even created a complex set from scratch that is the backdrop of crucial fight scenes in the film. His design tasks involved extensive research into typical gang street art, which practically decorates every space you’ll see on screen.
In a similar fashion, Mariestela Fernández’s costume designs required proper research in order to showcase each character’s personality through their clothing. Fernandez worked to accurately represent the working class of a difficult neighborhood as well as allow the costume designs to depict the evolution in the script, and specifically of each character’s mission.
Her research also informed her about gangs and how dress-codes apply to those groups, so it became important for her to correctly style characters according to the groups they represent on screen.
The work of the costume department is very interconnected with that of the makeup and special effects department in order to create a cohesive being. Together, they mold the appearance of characters down to specifically tattoos, which are evident on Playa’s face. For Torres’s character, the departments would spend up to two hours of preparation perfecting Playa’s aesthetic for filming.
With John Woo’s guidance, Nayeli Mora and Carlos Segui created each of the tattoos that create Playa. They even had to redesign some of the tattoos in order to fit Woo’s vision shortly before production began.
Thanks to these departments and their collaboration with the director and director of photography Sharon Meir, we visually see the shift in the nature of the story through the characters. We start with a warm, colorful, familiar beginning that is then transformed as the family tragedy develops, revenge is taken, and we are taken into increasingly darker paths. Depicting those changes through the characters reveals the deepness and development of this story.
The importance of the visuals of this story and its characters is highlighted by the fact that there is no “spoken” dialogue in this film. Each character has to rely on their ability to communicate through available tools and skills that don’t require speaking.
This style sets Silent Night apart from the traditional silent film; it’s also an action movie, which only increases its level of complexity.
The design departments certainly had their work cut out for them, as did the actors. Everyone who performed in front of the camera for this project had to be cognizant of the story they were embodying and perform in a nontraditional capacity for an action film. They each had their own experiences with this form of performance and described it as such:
“Acting without dialogue is very freeing. It’s where you show truly what kind of actor you are. Sometimes when I watch movies, I put mute on them just to see if I would understand their acting, what they’re saying. However, this is beyond. I’ve never seen a thriller with so much action and so much drama with no words.” ~Catalina Sandino.
“I think a lot of people imagine that doing a film without dialogue is somehow easier, workwise. I don’t have to learn lines, and I have to admit it’s kinda nice to not have to learn any lines, but it’s actually a lot more demanding. It forces you to prepare so much more in a lot of the other aspects. I talked about it with the camera guys as well because everything else becomes so much more important: the camera movement, the intensity of your inner life, what’s expressed in your eyes, body language. Everything else becomes so much more important because you remove that one element. It really demands intense preparation. It’s very exciting and experimental in some ways.” ~Joel Kinnaman.
“A silent film sometimes is pretty hard I think. I did many characters that did not talk too much, but here it is the tone for the whole movie. It’s some kind of environment, a way to go inside of the fiction that is not normal, and so it was a bit difficult, because sometimes we react to the things that happen to us with words. Just like “hey”, “you”, “fuck” or whatever. Like, all the time we answer with language in some way. But here it was the main thing this movie had, an action movie. It is complex to see what it is you need to do to go in the correct zone, in the correct way, to act in this film.” ~Harold Torres.
“I thought it was gonna be challenging but it didn’t seem to be. It was kinda one of those things that once I got the rhythm, I understood the character, the story. Just being in it and finding emotion in certain scenes. I just one hundred percent got it. It wasn’t challenging at all. I was really surprised.” ~Scott Mescudi.
John Woo acknowledges the kind of cast a film such as this one requires, when there is no spoken dialogue and explains what he was looking for: “We also need a lot of talent to join and help. They need vision. The use of proper tone to use it as a language. To understand what it is all about. The message you want to send. When we make a film without dialogue, I’m forcing myself to find a new style, a new language even though there’s no language in the script. Give the actors creative freedom. They can find any language to express themselves. Use more focus on facial performance. Speaking is an easy way to make people understand everything. They need to use their eyes and expression to tell what they’re feeling. The actors love it. They always try to make a great performance through their eyes and facial expression. So this is hard for them. Besides, we have an incredible story. It’s interesting and it’s a story that makes you think.”
John Woo’s illustrious career as a filmmaker began in Hong Kong where he spent over two decades at the center of a thriving film industry, directing over twenty-six feature films. He was known primarily as a comedy specialist until the mid-1980’s before creating a series of inspired romantic and violent gangster dramas that broke box-office records.
Woo was born in Guangzhou, China and came to Hong Kong with his family at age four. He was educated at Matteo Ricci College and at age nineteen, began making experimental films. In lieu of film school, Woo sought entry-level positions in the flourishing Hong Kong film industry. In 1971, he began working as an assistant director at Shaw Brothers. Just two years later he made his directorial debut with ‘The Young Dragons.’
A Better Tomorrow Films is John Woo’s newly named headquartered in Los Angeles, California. Woo’s latest film ‘Silent Night’ starring Joel Kinnaman is currently in post-production while his next project for Universal, ‘The Killer’ will go into pre-production January 2023. In addition to being known for his Hong Kong hits ‘The Killer’, ‘Hard Boiled’, and ‘A Better Tomorrow’, Woo’s credits include ‘Hard Target’ for Universal, ‘Broken Arrow’ for Twentieth Century Fox, ‘Face/Off’ for Paramount Pictures, MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE II for Paramount Pictures, ‘Paycheck’ with Paramount Pictures, ‘Windtalkers’ and producing ‘Bulletproof Monk’ with MGM and ‘The Big Hit’ for Sony.
Television credits include ‘Red Skies’ for USA Network and ‘The Robinsons: Lost In Space’ with Fox for the WB Network. Independently produced projects include ‘Blood Brothers’, ‘My Fair Gentleman’, ‘Reign of Assassins’, ‘Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale,’ the blockbuster hit ‘Red Cliff,’ and ‘The Crossing.’ Woo has also directed numerous commercials including ones for Nike, Asahi and Volvo while also directing the short film ‘The Hire’ for RSA’s BMW short film series
Transmedia properties include the animated film ‘Appleseed: Ex Machina’,the award-winning ‘John Woo Presents: Stranglehold’ with Midway Games, ‘John Woo’s 7 Brothers’ with Virgin Comics and critically-acclaimed game app ‘Bloodstroke’ by developer Chimera Entertainment.
John Woo has received 15 nominations and 19 awards including the 2015 Samurai Award from the Tokyo International Film Festival, 2012 UNESCO Award, 2010 Career Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival and the 2009 Outstanding Abroad Director from the Huabiao Film Awards.
A Better Tomorrow Films operates in both Los Angeles and Beijing with feature film and television projects for their respective markets but always with the eye of the global marketplace. Woo named his company with the hope and promise of new and exciting projects to come.