Interview – John Woo discusses directing a movie with no dialogue in Christmas action film ‘Silent Night’

From acclaimed Hong Kong-based action director, John Woo (FACE OFF, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II) comes SILENT NIGHT – his first American film in 20 years. Starring Joel Kinnaman (THE SUICIDE SQUAD), SILENT NIGHT tells the story of a man who witnesses the death of his young son on Christmas Eve, when the boy gets caught in crossfire between warring gangs.  Recovering from a wound that has cost him his voice, he soon embarks upon a bloody and gruelling quest to punish those responsible.

Leading up to the film’s release in Australian cinemas on December 7, Nick L’Barrow had the privilege of talking with the legendary action director John Woo about using music instead of dialogue to push the emotions, and why Joel Kinnaman was the ideal choice for the lead role.

Nick: Mr. Woo, it’s such a pleasure to meet you and talk with you today. I appreciate your time. With Silent Night being a film not driven by dialogue, I noticed how important the score was to the story, and how it was used to drive the emotional core of the film. What were the conversations with Marco Beltrami like when it came to creating this bellowing score?

John Woo: I think since we have no dialogue, I think the music is very important in the movies, right? The music is the dialogue. It’s something Marco Beltrami and I are working on together. I gave him some little reference, you know? I think the movie music should have a little taste of that Italian film, Cinema Paradiso, which was composed by Ennio Morricone. Very soft music with a little romance in there. The music serves the drama and is involved in the character.

He [Marco Beltrami] got so much creative freedom. He would look at it scene by scene, and he made the music work even better than dialogue

When you were casting the lead role, what was it about Joel Kinnaman’s look that you felt was going to work for this character who doesn’t talk at all during the movie?

John Woo: When I met Joel Kinnaman, he looked so real. He’s a real man to me, you know. He’s not a kind of superhero, he is a real actor. And since there is no dialogue, and no need to speak, we have been talking about using their eyes to motivate expression. Every moment, every emotion, they all came from the heart and through the eyes to tell the audience what they think and what they feel.

The great thing about no dialogue, it will make the audience focus on their face. More focus on their performance. They can look into the eyes directly and make the audience feel more about him. That is the best thing about it.

Some Hollywood scripts use a lot of lines that explain how a characters feels, and how they think and tell their audience what the scene is about and not necessarily think that the audience is clever. I think they [the audience] can see what they see, they feel what they feel and they don’t need to listen or have [it] explained. So, sometimes no dialogue is better.

Being a film that solely relies on visual storytelling, was that easier or more challenging as a filmmaker?

John Woo: I think it was pretty easy for me. When I am shooting, I just feel like I am making a normal movie – just with no dialogue! The only thing I needed to be concerned about is the techniques I use and the way I’m looking at the actors. I have to be in control on the pacing and the timing.

Silent Night. Photo Credit: Carlos Latapi

You’ve been making films for over 40 years now. Leading up to Silent Night, how have you found the action genre has evolved, and how have you evolved as a director during that time?

John Woo: I never usually care about what else is going on right now. What kind of changes or what kind of movies other people make. I like to stick with my own characters and my own style, you know. I want to do the things or topics that I really like. Something that I can express myself. I have never gotten any reference from other people’s movies either.

When I was making Silent Night, I felt like I was making my own movie. I got a pretty strong feeling about the concept and then very carefully shot around the performances and focused on how they feel.

I read an interview you did over 20 years ago where you spoke about how your difficulty with English as a child led to being shy and not talking a lot, but making films was your way of expressing your language. And now you’ve made a film without any dialogue at all! Does that feel almost like a full circle moment for you?

John Woo: I think I still have a problem with language and expressing myself. I think movies [are] a much better tool for me to send a message to the audience. It’s nice to love making movies that everybody can access and understand. That’s the way I can try to communicate with everybody and every time I’m making a movie, I just feel like I’m writing a letter to my friend.

What are you most proud of with Silent Night?

John Woo: I am so proud of the actors. Also, the camera team. The cameramen are from France and some cameramen came from Colombia and Mexico. They helped me to make all the visuals work. The actors, Joel Kinnaman and Catalina [Sandino Moreno], they give their heart and they’re strong performers.

I also feel good about the action sequences. They’re very well designed, and I’m so glad I could shoot using a new method or new camera work to shoot everything in one take. I just wanted to shoot a real thing that will impact, you know. Make it different from the other movies. I love the editing of the film. The editor is like a magician.

What I’m proud of is we had a low budget and low parameters. I only got 38 shooting days. I couldn’t make everything like I wanted to, but everyone did so well. And it didn’t feel like we rushed. I’m so proud of it.

Thank you so much to the legendary John Woo for his time. Silent Night hits Australian cinemas on December 7, courtesy of Rialto Distribution.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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