Windtalkers Syndicated Interview
Nicolas Cage (Joe Enders)
Roger Willie (Charlie Whitehorse)
John Woo (director)
Before making Windtalkers did you know much about the real Navajo codetalkers?
Woo: “No I didn’t. When the writers brought this story to me I was stunned. It made me want to read the history, and helped me understand that there are so many great people who have made so much of a great contribution, and their story has never been told. Also it made me admire the codetalkers themselves, and the Navajo people. I thought they were very brave and loyal, patriotic and so incredible. They were using their language as a code because their language had never been written down and so was almost impossible to break.”
Willie: “Growing up in the early 1970s I heard a lot about the Navajo codetalkers. My Mum and Dad would relate to us the bounty of our language, ‘from the tip of our tongues sacredness begins’. In addition they said ‘our language was used to help win a war’. But the actual facts came like new to us, because this story was classified until 1968. After that Native Americans began to learn about it like everyone else. Then the codetalkers were able to step forward people would say that they never knew their husband or father or grandfather was a codetalker. I always think about the tremendous personal loyalty and integrity that the codetalkers demonstrated.”
So it’s obviously a film that means a tremendous amount to you?
Willie: “I feel what a privilege and an honour to be a part of this film as a Navajo codetalker, especially because I am Navajo myself. I enjoy the responsibility of representing these gentlemen, these heroes in the most positive way I can. I can’t help but say what a lesson it has been to portray those guys.”
What was the main appeal of the film for you?
Woo: “I thought their story should be told. They did a lot to help win the war and saved a lot of marines’ lives. And also the whole movie was about friendship, that’s what really attracted me. I’ve done so many different movies: quite a few comedies, gangster films, kung fu and even Chinese opera. And movies like Face/Off and Mission Impossible, so I felt I should just do something a little more serious. I wanted to go back to my old style and when I heard about this story I felt this was a movie I should make. It’s so nice to learn from history, and to let the young people of the whole world know all about it.”
The notion that war is Hell comes across loud and clear in the film. Mostly loud. Didn’t you find this out first hand?
Cage: “I did. I actually forgot to put my earplugs in for one scene and entered a world of sound that I never want to go to again. It’s huge. I think John had about 280 bombs going off out there.”
Were you conscious of the influence of any other films when you were making Windtalkers?
Cage: “I was thinking of the film Halls of Montezuma, which starred Richard Widmark. I try to be as honest as I can in my roles and often that means that there are flaws and there are issues in the human condition. What I’m not interested in are those roles that are about flawless heroism.”
Woo: “For me this movie was a tribute to Sam Fuller, one of my favourite directors since I saw The Steel Helmet and The Big Red One. I tried to make this movie more human, the whole idea that it was a group of young, innocent simple and ordinary people in a war. They’re not superheroes. The whole idea was about friendship and understanding, it’s about a group of people who came from different places, different cultures and they learn how to work together. I think that was the most interesting thing, and it also made it slightly different from other war movies we’ve seen.”
Were the action sequences straightforward to accomplish?
Woo: “Well they were unlike the sort of action I’ve done before, which is usually pretty fancy. I wanted this one to be taken a little more seriously, almost like a documentary. I also wanted the audience to feel like they’re inside a battlefield, and to let them witness the violence and horror in war. I also wanted to make them relate more to the characters. It’s a very new experience for me, even though it was an American story, I must say that it had a universal theme about friendship.”
Did you take a different approach to the action as a result of that?
Woo: “When I shot all those action sequences I did so with the intention of trying to reflect the pain and my emotion of the characters. It was like I put myself into the scene. Like the moments where the guy with the flame thrower is burning the Japanese soldiers, then we show him feeling pain and remorse for that, even though they were the enemy. I also show my sympathy for our guys, whoever got killed or blown up I felt sad for them. When I shot all those actual sequences I didn’t have fun at all, but for a director it was a lot of big toys to play with. I was very emotional at that point, and it was based on a true story so I took it very seriously.”
How else did you manage to achieve that level of realism?
Woo: “I wanted to capture the true expressions on the actors, so I had to use a lot of hand held camera to follow them into battle. And I also set quite a few big bombs close to the actors, and sometimes I wouldn’t let them know where they were. Some of the moments must have been pretty real for them.”
Did the film make you wonder what you would have done had you been in the shoes of those particular characters?
Willie: “I guess that’s one of the most common questions thrown at me, the idea of fighting for a country that has historically tried to exterminate the native identity. We tapped into the minds of these Navajo codetalkers, as far as Navajo cultural and traditional boundaries were concerned. There’s a motive behind almost any action you take, so if you tap into those ideas you begin to unveil the essence of being human.”
Cage: “I can only guess at what I would really do if I was in that situation, I’m just an actor. As an actor I try to use my imagination. There were moments when we were filming those battles scenes where I did imagine what it must have been like for people who really went through it. I don’t know what I would do, but I’d like to think that I would stand tall and be brave.”
Your character, Joe, is a man who is wounded physically and emotionally. Does it make a difference to your performance when you have to wear some kind of make-up or prosthetic to simulate this kind of physical infirmity?
Cage: “It was a long process applying it in the morning. I wish I didn’t have to wear it but I did and it’s there. I love using make-up and prosthetics. Lon Chaney, man, that guy is one of my heroes so anywhere I can use that I’ll do it. But it takes time, it’s hard on a movie to wait for the actor, it takes time to get the make up on but that’s all part of it.”
It seems quite surprising to see Christian Slater in a relatively small supporting role, how did his involvement come about?
Woo: “When Christian heard about this project he called me and said he wanted to be part of the movie. But the only part he could play was Ox, and in the script this character is huge, over six feet tall, a big guy with a big heart. A typical soldier image in other words. But I thought that Christian would bring something different to it, because the whole idea was that I wanted real people to play the roles. And Christian is a good friend, he has so much charm and he’s a very honest man. I thought that he would give this character a lot more soul, and I thought it worked very well in the movie.”
Will Windtalkers ultimately change anyone’s attitudes to war?
Cage: “I’m not sure that it’s possible for a movie to change things like that. I know that after The China Syndrome was released people became much more aware of nuclear power and the danger of it, so it certainly opened my eyes. I would like to think that it might be possible that some people might see the movie and maybe think twice before they send their children off to fight.”