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The Boys in Company Woo: Christian Slater, Roger Willie, and John Woo on “Windtalkers”

Leading the charge in filming Windtalkers is action maestro John Woo, best known for flying doves and two-fisted gun battles in numerous outstanding action films on both sides of the might Pacific pond. Accompanying the Woo-man into the jungles of Sai-pan are newcomer Roger Willie and veteran screen actor Christian Slater. Recently, sat down with these three individuals to discuss their latest film. John, talk about your style of directing. What approach do you employ during a shoot?

John Woo: When directing, I feel more like a painter than a general of armies. A painter puts his emotions and his art into his work – all of those elements are driven by instincts. On the set, though, I am viewed as a headmaster, a father figure, because I like to work with everyone as a family. I love my actors and my crew – as if they’re my children. I tried to create a community atmosphere during the production of Windtalkers and hopefully those attitudes are present in the final product when viewed up on the silver screen.

Were there any deviations from the film’s original script?

Woo: The one major change we made from the original script was the scene in the Japanese village. We changed the tone of the scene with the inclusion of Nic Cage giving a painkiller to a Japanese child and one of the main characters of the film, Harrington, handing out chocolate bars to some the village’s children. The original scene was very simple involving the death of one of the film’s main characters and a major firefight between the Japanese and Americans. I wanted to change the tone of the scene to a more tranquil environment before the introduction of the violence.

Roger, talk about the experiences as a Native American that you brought to the role of Private Charles Whitehorse and the impact a film like Windtalkers might have upon the Native American community.

Roger Willie: Speaking from experience, I am very aware of the socio-politic issues of the Native American communities. With Windtalkers, I feel the film holds such a high caliber that it will be discussed in every Native American home and university linguistic courses – which will in turn give merit to the contributions of the Native American peoples in WWII.

Despite the racial ignorance many Americans had during WWII, it is important to focus upon cultural values of the Navaho people and how these people were able to fight for a county that for many decades had discriminated against them. These motivations can be found in the root of the Navaho culture – their identity, their values, and their traditions. These elements bring a greater understanding to the Navaho people despite the socio-politic issues pressed upon them for decades.

John, talk about your own experiences of growing up in post-WWII China and Hong Kong and the perspectives you brought to the film’s production.

Woo: I saw a lot of the American war movies as a kid. Most of those movies portray the Americans as the saviors of the free world. The Japanese killed many Chinese during WWII and I’ll never forget the pain and suffering endured by the Chinese people. With Windtalkers, I tried to construct something different from other war movies. I was more concerned with the characters of the film; the story was about friendship and my focus was on those elements. I placed myself in a neutral position in making this film regarding any type of pontification that could be made about Native Americans, white Americans, and the Japanese.

Christian, I understand you and Roger attended boot camp prior to the film’s production. What was the toughest part of that experience?

Christian Slater: Marching in the sand. That was tough for miles. Also, we had a boot camp CO who was reminiscent of R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket. Scary guy.

Roger, talk about your experiences working as a novice actor with Christian Slater as your partner on a big Hollywood production.

Willie: When you want to learn how to paint, the best thing to do is go to someone who has painted for years and they can tell which are the best brushes, the best colors, and the best technique, and that is how I view Christian’s involvement with myself and the film. His creativity and open mind attitude brought a better understanding to the way actors are involved in the creative process – such as revisions to characters during a shoot.

Christian, what elements of the film brought you on board in the role of Sergeant Peter ‘Ox’ Henderson?

Slater: I loved the script, I love working with John and Nic Cage, and I felt the character of Ox was a strong one to tackle. I enjoyed making Broken Arrow with John and I wanted a new experience making a film with him. For me, Windtalkers had a more realistic quality to the material, and working with John again was great – comfortable, safe, and a lot of fun.

In the film, there are a number of major battle scenes. Talk about the intensity of those scenes and your experiences during the production.

Slater: We started production of the movie with the battle of Sai-pan. It was a thing to see – to pull up to the set and look at the vastness of everything. We had three thousand extras, tanks, ships, and guns all out on this vast field. John had thirteen cameras set up but they all had long lenses so you didn’t get a sense of being invaded by the trappings of a usual production. When you looked out onto the set, you had this appreciatory feeling of waiting for battle.

When you heard ‘Action,’ Roger and I started running and tanks started up and explosions went off – you had a feeling that you were running for your life. We had these extremely long four-minute takes and you usually became completely lost in the moment.

Woo: During filming, I did a little trick. I had the special effects guys add a little more powder and spark to the explosions to create a better human reaction from the actors and stunt men. After Adam Beach’s first experience in a firefight, he came up to afterwards and told me, ‘John, it’s so violent out there.’ I told him it was only the horrors of war provided by a first-hand experience.

John, were any changes made in your directing style for this film?

Woo: For this film, I let the action tell the story and didn’t employ any slow motion or double-action stuff. I shot the scenes in a documentary style to give the film a more authentic look and feel.

John, talk about your reactions to the constant mimicking of your directing styles. Do you take any offense in the pilfering of the styles you’ve developed in your current film roster?

Woo: I am not offended when a filmmaker employs a style reminiscent of my work. I have studied the works of Peckinpah, Hitchcock, and the French New Wave and have infused those styles with my own style of filmmaking. I feel that it is only a continuation of the evolution of filmmaking and that we are contributing each other’s ideas and innovations into one big melting pot of communicating ideas and stories to a mass audience.

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