Face/Off: How Nicolas Cage, Die Hard and a confused Johnny Depp helped make an action classic

Nicolas Cage had come face-to-face along with his personal picture. He was disturbed. It wasn’t the sight of John Travolta with Cage’s personal face grafted on – as occurs when the actors commerce locations within the 1997 actioner Face/Off – however when Cage met a life-size reproduction of himself. It had hair, wrinkles, distant managed facial options, and an inside bladder system that allowed the Cage-a-like dummy to simulate respiratory. He and Travolta had been recreated as robotised dummies for the movie’s pivotal surgical procedure scene, wherein their faces are sliced off and swapped round.

“Nic apparently saw the replica and was really affected,” says Michael Colleary, co-writer and producer of Face/Off. “They had to go in and clear the set or something, so Nic could go in and look at it… it looked like him dead!” “He was flipped out!” laughs Mike Werb, Colleary’s writing and producing associate.

Cage meets an analogous, Madame Tussauds-style reproduction within the new self-lampooning action-comedy The Insufferable Weight of Large Expertise (“Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque”), which is launched in cinemas on Friday (22 April). It’s a nod to Face/Off’s rightful rep as one the Nic Cagiest issues to occur in the entire historical past of bonkers, mad-eyed, cranked-up Cage-ness. Now, 25 years since its unique launch, Face/Off stays a part of the Holy Trinity of Nic Cage Nineties motion, together with The Rock (1996) and Con Air (1997). It got here only a 12 months after Cage had received the Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas, and his crushing efficiency as a suicidal drunk. Travolta, in the meantime, was driving the wave of resurgence after the cutting-edge cool of Pulp Fiction (1994) and Get Shorty (1995). Travolta had even been branded, amusingly in hindsight, “the coolest man alive” by Empire journal in April 1996.

In Face/Off, Cage and Travolta play mortal enemies: Cage is the cassock-wearing, backside-squeezing terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (“I’m Castor Troy! WOOOO!”); Travolta is wounded, sourpuss FBI agent Sean Archer, whose son was killed by Troy years earlier in a botched assassination. A high-octane shootout between them places Troy in a coma, forcing Archer to find and deactivate the baddie’s last bomb. However how? By having a face transplant and masquerading as Troy in a top-secret jail, the place Archer can surreptitiously squeeze info from Troy’s incarcerated brother. In the meantime, the true Castor Troy awakes from his coma, discovers his face is lacking, and has Archer’s face transplanted onto himself – it was going spare, in any case – thus taking Archer’s place as a prime federal agent and flawed household man.

So ludicrous is the idea of Face/Off that when Colleary and Werb pitched it to their agent, they had been laughed out of the workplace. “But once we hit on the idea, we couldn’t stop writing,” Werb says. Conceived in 1990, Face/Off got here on the naked, bloodied heels of Die Hard. “The order of the day was, ‘Where’s the next Die Hard? Show me the next Die Hard!’” says Colleary, who – together with Werb – was attempting to get a foothold within the movie enterprise.

Hollywood was spending large bucks on unique spec scripts, and adrenalised, high-concept concepts had been beginning to muscle out the Schwarzenegger and Stallone-type motion that had reigned over the Eighties. The likes of Velocity and The Rock – together with different Die Hard variants – quickly supplanted the pneumatic, oily-biceped energy of Commando and Rambo. “We got together and said, ‘What would our Die Hard be?’” remembers Colleary.

“We were astounded by how bad some of these action films were,” says Werb. “The bad guy was always nude in a hotel, doing one-armed push ups and plotting to take over the world.” See Die Hard 2 – large on nude exercises and devious plotting. “One of the things we thought was, ‘Why can’t the bad guy be as interesting as the good guy?’ Which eventually morphed into, ‘Why can’t the bad guy be the good guy?’”

Face/Off started as Die Hard in a jail, partly impressed by the 1971 Attica Jail riot and partly impressed by the gangster traditional White Warmth, wherein a federal agent goes undercover in a jailhouse to query James Cagney’s on-top-of-the-world prison. “We were working under the idea that our hero goes undercover as somebody else,” says Colleary. “Then it became, somebody on the outside takes over his life. But how does that work? We really backed into the idea of a facial swap.”

The story was initially set 100 years into the longer term – a straightforward technique of explaining away the face-swap surgical procedure – and opened with a set-piece in an organ financial institution, which was like a daily financial institution. “You could get anything you wanted there if you had enough money,” says Werb. One futuristic side stays within the last film: a hi-tech jail the place inmates are managed by large magnetic boots.

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Powerhouse producer Joel Silver picked up the script for Warner Bros, however there have been inventive clashes between the writers and the studio. Warner Bros opted to make Demolition Man as an alternative – a set-in-the-future (however horribly aged) smackdown between Sly Stallone and Wesley Snipes. “We never had any support at Warner Bros,” says Colleary. “They already had Demolition Man in the pipe and they looked at it as the same thing – futuristic action, mano-a-mano, what’s the difference?” Because of a small print oversight, Colleary and Werb received the rights again. “The day after, three different studios called to try and get the script,” says Werb.

Nicolas Cage’s floating face in an early scene in ‘Face/Off’


After Paramount Pictures jumped on board, a further turning point came when Steven Reuther and actor Michael Douglas came onboard as producers. Douglas had read every script draft and told the writers: “This is a psychological thriller masquerading as an action film. Write that movie and you’ll get not simply film stars however nice actors.” Douglas defined that Face/Off offered a singular problem for actors. “If we get offered good and evil, it’s always as identical twins,” Douglas stated, talking as an actor. “This is something different.”

Colleary and Werb had initially written their film with Schwarzenegger and Stallone in thoughts – Hollywood’s largest, most pumped-up motion stars. They might play with the celebrities’ well-known personas, similar to Stallone saying “I’ll be back” with a giant-elbowed nudge and a wink. Different twosomes had been additionally mentioned. “Bruce Willis and Alec Baldwin! Mick Jagger and David Bowie!” says Colleary. “When Michael Douglas came on to produce, we said to him, ‘Why don’t you do it with Harrison Ford?!’”

John stated one thing like, ‘Any chance of you gaining any weight before we shoot this movie?’ Nic stated, ‘No, I don’t assume so.’

Mike Werb, co-screenwriter

Paramount, although, needed Johnny Depp, who would have doubtlessly performed reverse Cage. Douglas even went to the set of the Depp-starring action-thriller Nick of Time and tried to speak Depp into it. The actor apparently learn the Face/Off script, however misplaced curiosity when he realised that it wasn’t about, erm, hockey. Cage, in the meantime, was taking pictures Die Hard-on-a-plane film Con Air on the time (Cage has known as Face/Off and Con Air – launched in the identical 12 months – his “double album”). As soon as Cage and Travolta had been forged, all of them met at Reuther’s home. “They were throwing a small dinner party – we were meeting with Nic and John for the first time,” says Werb. “Travolta was there first. He was very nice, chatty, and gracious. Then in the middle of us talking to John, he froze and looked past us like we weren’t there. Nic Cage had shown up. The two of them started bonding and talking about each other’s more famous on-screen quirks – ‘In this movie you did that… in another movie you did that.’ Michael and I almost simultaneously receded behind this palm tree and shook hands. We said, ‘You know what, this movie’s actually going to work!’”

Cage and Travolta studied one another intently. Travolta, says Colleary, is a pure mimic and would impersonate different stars – Jimmy Cagney, Edward G Robinson, Barbra Streisand. Cage and Travolta, although, had been in comparatively few scenes collectively, so seemed on the dailies to get a measure of one another. Cage was solely keen to impersonate Travolta thus far. Colleary and Werb recall queuing up at a buffet-style platter with each stars earlier than filming started. Travolta piled his plate with carbs and lamb chops, and seemed again at Cage, who had a modest serving to of kale and salad. “John said something like, ‘Any chance of you gaining any weight before we shoot this movie?’” laughs Werb. “Nic said, ‘No, I don’t think so. I’m shooting Con Air – I’ve been in prison for years!’ John said, ‘It’s not your problem, it’s mine!’” “He started putting lamb chops back on the platter,” laughs Colleary.

Relating to his look, Travolta had reservations about one gag, when Troy laments his new Travoltan seems: “This nose, this hair, this ridiculous chin!” He summoned the writers and probed them concerning the joke – to make sure they weren’t simply making enjoyable of him. They instructed him: “John, you are famously one of the most handsome people on Earth. But right now, you are Nic Cage! And Nic Cage as Castor Troy is a total narcissist ­– nobody is better-looking than he is!”

Cage and Travolta face off in, er, ‘Face/Off’


Face/Off was all the time greater than a two-man present. Simply as essential was director John Woo. By the mid-Nineties, Woo was already a legend of Hong Kong motion cinema: innovator and grasp of slow-motion shoot-outs, guns-in-faces standoffs, lengthy sweeping trench coats, and double pistols thrust ahead, bullets pumping. Colleary and Werb first met Woo whereas he was modifying Damaged Arrow – one other mano-a-mano actioner with Travolta (this time vs Christian Slater). “Face/Off is the best action script I’ve ever read!” Woo instructed them – his very first phrases to the writers.

Different administrators had been hooked up to Face/Off, every desirous to take the idea in their very own course, however Woo understood one thing the others seemingly didn’t: that Face/Off was essentially about characters, not motion. In accordance with Colleary and Werb, all Woo needed to speak about was character. He saved the writers shut always throughout manufacturing, and added his personal character particulars: Archer’s hand-down-the-face gesture of affection; Troy tying the laces of his childlike bomb-maker brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola – most not too long ago seen in The Many Saints of Newark).

The private stakes emerge from a deliberate spin on the motion style: Troy’s ticking time bomb is disarmed nonchalantly; the true menace is Troy’s grip over Archer’s household. The organising precept of the story, say Colleary and Werb, was that these mortal enemies turned “better people in each other’s lives than they were in their own”. See Troy, within the guise of Archer, being a extra attentive husband to Archer’s uncared for spouse (Joan Allen) and an unlikely mentor to Archer’s rebellious daughter (Dominique Swain). See Archer, within the guise of Troy, turning into a father to Troy’s deserted five-year-old son. Face/Off is greater than pores and skin deep.

John Woo directs Nicolas Cage on the ‘Face/Off’ set


Nonetheless, for all of the character nuance – balanced out with Cage’s devilish mania – Face/Off was prime motion fodder for Woo, a director who likes to show up the motion as he shoots; to throw large explosions in opposition to the wall and see what sticks. Starting with a chase down a runway – Travolta in a helicopter, Cage in a airplane – the movie is a masterclass in off-the-scale, escalating motion: an epic shootout to the sound of The Wizard of Oz’s signature ballad “Over the Rainbow” (“I’m so glad they left it in,” Woo as soon as stated concerning the tune, “because it gave the killing scene so much meaning”); a memorial service than turns right into a speedboat chase. Certainly, why settle a private grudge with a gentlemanly chat or a easy punch-up when you’ll be able to stick two stuntmen in a speedboat and chuck them 25ft within the air? (“That gets me every time,” Colleary says concerning the stunt.)

These signature Woo prospers – the slow-mo, the standoffs, the double pistols – develop into an train in duality: Cage and Travolta are mirror photos of one another, extensions of the identical entity, circling themselves in a lethal dance, weapons poised, evenly matched, oddly in tune. Within the movie’s defining visible, Cage and Travolta stand both aspect of a two-sided mirror, going through themselves within the final, self-reflective showdown. “[Woo] was very proud of it,” says Colleary concerning the shot. “I was on the set when he blocked it and had two guys standing back-to-back. I said, ‘Yeah, that looks cool…’ It wasn’t until I saw it that I thought, ‘That’s the movie! That’s the poster, That’s everything!’”

Simply as Michael Douglas had instructed the writers again of their first assembly, Face/Off was a singular performing problem: not simply enjoying hero and villain, however enjoying one masquerading as the opposite; to each mimic and add layers to a personality already established by one other actor. Travolta’s model of Castor Troy turns into extra sinister: quietly calculating, like a person with a goal past chaos – he desires to develop into an “American hero” and corrupt Archer’s household. Travolta additionally finds a smidgen of regret in Troy when he’s pressured to go to the graveside of Archer’s lifeless son – the boy Troy killed years earlier – and faces the grief.

The original poster artwork for ‘Face/Off’

(Paramount Pictures)

Cage as Archer, conversely, teeters on the edge. Passing himself off as a highly dangerous sociopath, he almost loses himself in the violence, while also trying to keep his inherent good and emotional turmoil buried. “In a way, Nic had a tougher acting job,” says Mike Werb. “When Nic was Sean Archer, he had to act like he’s Castor Troy however the humanity of Sean Archer has to bleed by always.”

Past the surgical procedure itself (“We simply connect the muscles, tear ducts, and nerve endings,” explains the surgeon) the movie is a collection of bold-faced implausibilities: that Archer’s face transplant occurs “off the books”; that Castor Troy, freshly awoken from his coma and faceless, nonetheless manages to smokes a ciggie with none lips; that Archer’s spouse doesn’t spot that her husband has fully completely different fingers (or, ahem, different bits); that Troy, posing as Archer, is called Time journal’s ‘Man of the Year’ in a matter of days; and that Archer – after lastly killing the dangerous man – nonetheless will get his outdated face again, regardless that the surgeon who pioneered the process was burned alive within the first act. The writers chuckle that one off. “We cover that with one weak line of dialogue!” says Werb. Certainly, the Feds are “bringing in their top surgical team”, we’re instructed, somewhat reassuringly.

Maybe most implausible is that, in the long run, Archer brings residence Troy’s son as an alternative choice to his personal murdered youngster – a psychological breakdown ready to occur. The implausibilities, although, are undoubtedly the enjoyable of Face/Off. Launched on 27 June 1997, Face/Off was a field workplace hit – making $245m (£187m) from a price range of $80m – and a crucial success. Colleary and Werb had been not too long ago invited to introduce a screening at Quentin Tarantino’s arthouse cinema in West Hollywood. “We thought there would be 15 people and it was a packed house,” says Werb. “We were shocked.” A sequel can also be within the works, with director Adam Wingard hooked up. Werb pays homage in his personal manner: he has Travolta’s cut-off face framed on his wall at residence. What would Nicolas Cage say about that?

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