The Many Faces of Face/Off: How The Classic Almost Didn’t Star Nicolas Cage

A film once pitched as a Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle evolved into a John Woo classic. Along the way, it almost starred Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Michael Douglas, and Johnny Depp. Here’s that unlikely journey.

Nicolas Cage and John Travolta In Face/Off
Photo: Paramount Pictures

The 1990s was a decade packed full of brilliant action movies but few, if any, reached the delirious heights of 1997’s Face/Off. Built around an absurd yet ingenious premise involving a cop switching faces with a comatosed master criminal in order to find and defuse a bomb, only for said bad guy to then awaken and return the favor, it featured a director and pair of A-list stars at the peak of their career powers.

Nicolas Cage had just won an Oscar in 1995 for his breakout performance in Leaving Las Vegas, following that up with two star-making turns in The Rock and Con Air, making the idiosyncratic actor an unlikely action movie star. John Travolta, meanwhile, was enjoying a career renaissance, buoyed by films like Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. He had worked with director John Woo on the helmer’s previous English language actioner, Broken Arrow, but the pair would hit new heights here.

Though Woo went on to helm Mission: Impossible II, Face/Off remains his English-language magnum opus, a heady mix of dazzling gunplay, slo-mo, stand-offs, and his signature white doves. It’s the closest the Hong Kong director ever got to replicating the magic of his earlier work on films like The Killer in American cinema. 

Yet there was a time when the film’s writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary feared the movie might never get made at all. Even after Cage and Travolta were cast, there were concerns over whether the two stars would gel. Thankfully, as Werb recalled in a recent interview with The Independent, from the moment they all met during an introductory dinner, it was love at first sight for the pair. 

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“Travolta was there first, he was very nice,” Werb recalled. “Then in the middle of us talking to John, he froze and looked past us like we weren’t there. Nic Cage had just 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!’”

After the rewrites, change of studio, shift of setting and a revolving door of actors and directors, they could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief. It had already been quite a ride, and the movie could’ve once looked quite different…. 

Die Hard and White Heat

Like all great action movies in the 1990s, the idea for Face/Off was born, in part, out of the success of Die Hard. “Every studio in Hollywood was looking for the next Die Hard,” Colleary explained in an interview with Shortlist

More importantly, every studio was willing to pay top dollar for anything that had even a whiff of John McClane, terrorists, or white vests. Shane Black made headlines after pocketing a cool $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout. Colleary and Werb, who had met at UCLA Film School in the 1980s, wanted a piece of the pie. So over Independence Day weekend in 1990, they got together to try and come up with a fresh spin on the tried-and-tested formula. 

Finding inspiration in the real-life 1971 Attica Prison riot, the pair also took their cues from the 1949 James Cagney classic White Heat, which saw a federal agent tasked with posing as the cellmate of a psychotic criminal mastermind and teaming up for a daring escape that would ultimately lead to the latter’s downfall.

“We were working under the idea that our hero goes undercover as somebody else,” Colleary said. “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.”

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Though Die Hard had been the jumping off point for Werb and Colleary, they were determined to take things in a different direction, particularly when it came to the film’s central antagonist. 

“We were sick of all the action films that depicted the bad guy as a giggling psycho bent on taking over the world,” Werb told Spec Screenplay Sales Directory. “We thought, ‘Why can’t there be a movie where the bad guy is every bit as interesting as the good guy.’ From there, we spun off into, ‘What if they become each other,’ and from there we wondered how we could do that?”

Real Life Inspiration

Hitting upon the idea of setting the story in a high tech prison of the future, Werb said the idea of face swapping was actually borrowed from real life. “A friend of a friend of mine had been in a hang-gliding accident and they had to remove his entire face, reconstruct all his bones and tissue, and then put it back on. We thought that if that can happen, then why not switch with someone?”

That idea quickly spun out into a concept that would see the protagonist and antagonist swap lives, with Werb hitting upon the genius twist that the two characters would ultimately come to enjoy their new lives more than the old ones. 

Despite the fact the concept riffed on a real-life, modern day medical procedure, both agreed that the face swapping premise called for the movie’s setting to be shifted to the future. 

“When we were pitching it in 1990 it just seemed insane,” Colleary explained. Initial drafts set events 100 years in the future and featured flying cars, and chimpanzee slaves while the Golden Gate Bridge served as a kind of fortress for an army of homeless people. “The movie was originally very futuristic, and it was significantly more of a rollercoaster ride,” Werb later admitted.

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The movie opened on a set-piece based inside an organ bank depicted much like a regular bank, albeit with withdrawals involving things like kidneys rather than cash.

“You could get anything you wanted there if you had enough money,” Werb recalled to The Independent. This version of the film still contained the high tech prison, complete with giant magnetic boots, which would still play a major part in the final film. One of the biggest initial stumbling blocks during the writing process, however, was establishing the motivation for why the film’s hero, Sean Archer, would trade faces with Castor Troy.

“That’s when the idea of the death of his son came in,” Werb said. “Once we had that, it took only about five days to scene-card the whole movie.” Though much would change in the years that followed, the basic structure established on those cards stayed intact.

Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. Sylvester Stallone at WB

After several months spent polishing their work, a spec script for Face/Off  was sent to several studios. Though the start of the Iraq War dampened some of the expected interest in an action movie, it ultimately wound up in the hands of an executive working under Die Hard and Lethal Weapon 2 producer Joel Silver, who convinced Warner Bros. Pictures to option the script for 18 months, paying just over $100,000 while they mulled over whether it was worth the risk.

Initial meetings did not go well, with Colleary recalling to Inverse how one executive asked, “How is this supposed to work anyway? The prosthetics are not nearly advanced enough to make a facial swap possible.” Evidently the exec had either not read the script or had fundamentally failed to understand the concept. 

“It was not a very productive, creative environment for those two years and it was very discouraging,” Colleary said. To make matters worse, they found themselves competing with another futuristic action movie pitting two A-list stars against each other. Demolition Man, directed by Marco Brambilla and starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, certainly shared some surface similarities. The high-concept actioner also pitted an elite cop against a super criminal arch-nemesis while dabbling in a futuristic technology (cryogenics). Ultimately, the presence of this rival project would  prove a stumbling block too big to overcome at Warner Bros. 

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As Colleary concluded: “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?”

“I don’t think that they [the studio] ever understood the script, inexplicably to me, because it is such a Warner Brothers movie,” Werb said. The decision to shelve the project in favor of Demolition Man was made all the more galling by the fact the script had been written with Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in mind. 

“The movie doesn’t work unless the actors have a well-established persona,” Colleary explained, with the writers envisioning a version of the film where the two action heavyweights of the 1980s and early ‘90s quite literally traded catchphrases.

Thankfully, when Warner’s option expired, the pair had no shortage of suitors with New Line, Columbia, and Paramount all keen. They ultimately plumped for the latter of the three. 

Paramount Steps In… with Michael Douglas?

According to the Independent, a crucial addition in the development of Face/Off came with the arrival of Steven Reuther and actor Michael Douglas as producers. Douglas almost immediately called on Colleary and Werb to rewrite the script.

“This is a psychological thriller masquerading as an action film,” he reportedly told them. “Write that movie and you’ll get not just movie stars but great actors.” 

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Douglas felt the unique challenge of the project would attract A-list talent. “If we get offered good and evil, it’s always as identical twins,” he explained. “This is something different.”

That also prompted a shift away from the more overt sci-fi elements and futuristic setting of the original script. As Werb later recalled: “When it became more psychological, we raised the question of how much in the future does it really have to be, and we discovered that it is really five minutes in the future.” Almost all of the futuristic elements were removed while the focus on the high tech prison was pared back.

Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Johnny Depp

While Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing was a keen admirer of the project, the initial development stages at the studio was not without its hiccups. The film was initially set to be directed by Rob Cohen, who would go on to helm the very first Fast and the Furious movie. According to Shortlist, Cohen came up with some unusual ideas during his time on the film.

One would have seen the film end with Archer and Troy teaming up to disarm the very bomb that prompted the movie’s crucal face swap. Even more bizarre, still, there was talk of the bomb becoming sentient. Ultimately, Cohen left the project, which was in turnaround at that point, to direct the Dennis Quaid/Sean Connery medieval family fantasy film, Dragonheart, but the issues didn’t end there.

Next in the director’s chair came Marco Brambilla, fresh from Demolition Man and eager to make his own mark. By then, discussion over who would play Archer and Troy had taken a turn away from Stallone and Schwarzenegger. A pairing of Bruce Willis and Alec Baldwin was discussed along with the tongue-in-cheek suggestion of Mick Jagger and David Bowie. 

Colleary even recalls them suggesting to Douglas: “Why don’t you do it with Harrison Ford?!” though the idea did not appear to go anywhere. Eventually Cage’s name began to be discussed for the part of Castor Troy, but by then Brambilla had a very different name in mind for the role of Sean Archer: Johnny Depp.

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He saw the project as working better with two younger actors in the lead roles, but the writers disagreed.

“That made no sense and we were totally against it on every level,” Colleary told Shortlist

Despite this, the situation reportedly reached a point where Paramount were only willing to accept the idea of Cage being involved provided he starred alongside Depp. Thankfully, that never came to fruition with rumors claiming Depp turned down the project after reading the script and discovering, to his horror, that it wasn’t about hockey. 

Once he was out, Brambilla followed shortly thereafter.

That paved the way for John Woo to come onboard. He was busy working on Broken Arrow with John Travolta when he first read the script for Face/Off, but was an instant fan—albeit with some slight caveats. The main one being he wanted to jettison all of the sci-fi elements. 

“I just felt I hadn’t learned enough to make a great sci-fi movie,” Woo later explained in a Blu-ray featurette. He elaborated further in an interview with SplicedWire: “”The first draft was frustrating. I told the studio I love the concept, but I want more character, more humanity. If there is too much science fiction, we lose the drama.”

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Werb and Colleary stripped more of the sci-fi elements away, rewriting the script further to appeal to Woo’s proclivities. Eventually, the director signed on with Travolta, who had enjoyed working with him, joining soon after along with Cage. 

The Beginning

Werb reckons the pair wrote as many as 30 different drafts of the Face/Off script throughout its lengthy production history. While it would be nigh on impossible to track each and every one, the pair have spoken in previous interviews about some of the most significant changes. 

For starters, the opening carousel murder was originally a flashback that played out in the middle of the film. However, after some discussion, the writers suggested to Woo that the scene, complete with Cage’s memorable mustache, be the scene the movie opens on. “John totally supported that,” Werb said. “He was a very collaborative person to work with.”

The means by which Troy ended up comatosed was also a source of some debate. 

“Originally, Nic was flash-frozen by liquid nitrogen, but [Paramount] didn’t like that. Then we had him climb up the air traffic control tower and he crashes through the tower window, ending up in a coma,” Werb recalled.  

Woo didn’t like that idea either, forcing the writers back to the drawing board. Another suggestion was that Troy end up electrocuted by high voltage wires but the pair couldn’t make it work. “Finally, we came up with the turbine idea, and that’s what ended up in the movie.”

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The Middle

Another notable change came midway through the movie when Archer as Troy escaped the film’s technologically advanced prison. The script originally saw Archer escape the prison, which was based in the middle of the sea, by jumping in a helicopter before crash landing in the sea and winding up in an underwater train tunnel. It featured a frantic helicopter chase and some pretty nifty underwater action. 

Werb later called it his “favorite action scene” in the script. Unfortunately, it was simply deemed “too expensive” to shoot.

“Nic was very upset when that got cut out,” the writer revealed. “Unfortunately, it would have cost a million dollars a minute.” In place of the elaborate chase, the scene instead saw Archer simply leap off the side of the prison rig into the sea. The next time he’s seen is on dry land, with Woo leaving audiences to fill in the blanks.

Ad-Libs and Improvisations

Aside from inserting all his familiar filmic trademarks, one of Woo’s most notable changes came in the scene in which the FBI raided the loft of Troy Castor’s sometime girlfriend, Sasha (Gina Gershon). 

In need of some levity amongst the violence and gunplay, Woo convinced producers to let him go with the now-classic sequence in which Troy’s young son Adam watches the violent mayhem all around him while listening to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Although the director had originally wanted the song to be “Puff the Magic Dragon” he changed it at the last minute after recalling his fondness for The Wizard of Oz.

Cage got creative too, according to co-star Nick Cassavetes telling. In an interview with Inverse, the actor recalled how during the scene when his character, Dietrich, does drugs with Archer as Troy, Cage proceeded to ad-lib the line “I want to take his face…off,” repeatedly.

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“We just kept saying “face off” for 10 minutes,” Cassavetes said. “I was trying not to laugh. It’s preposterous. I was thinking, ‘That’ll get cut, for sure.’”

Cassavetes, who was a late addition to the cast having worked with Travolta on a previous project, also created the whole idea of an incestuous relationship between his character and his onscreen sister Sasha.

“She didn’t know it was coming,” he told Inverse. “I just thought, ‘Hey, if they’re bad guys, maybe they’re incestuous bad guys’… She was annoyed with me, but it wasn’t like she was offended.”

Travolta, meanwhile, was more by the book. Although he wasn’t entirely happy with the script and, in particular, a scene where Troy, as Archer, referred to his “ridiculous chin.”

Colleary said they explained it to Travolta, thusly: “John, the joke is that you’re such a famously handsome person that saying that anyone would complain about looking like you… that’s the joke: Nicolas Cage doesn’t understand how good-looking he now is.” Travolta went with it. 

The only other oddity ultimately omitted from proceedings was a scene the writers envisioned in which Castor visited his mom, who, according to a DVD commentary, they wanted played by either Elizbabeth Taylor or Jack Nicholson in drag. In truth, it sounds like a bullet dodged. 

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The End

The other main bone of contention came with the film’s ending. Werb and Colleary always envisioned Adam ending up with Sean and Eve Archer at the end of the film, but Paramount were not convinced audiences would like an ending that saw the hero adopt his arch-nemesis’ son. Instead they went with an idea Woo cooked up that would have seen Sean staring into a bathroom mirror, appearing uncertain about something.  A second later Eve walks in and, to her shock, sees Troy’s face looking back at her. The shot then cuts to Sean looking in the mirror again at his own reflection before hugging his wife… before beginning to smile menacingly. 

Though the ending was filmed, it scored badly with test audiences, many of whom were left confused by its ambiguity and remained eager to know what happened to Adam. Realizing their mistake, Paramount paid for the ending to be reshot at no small expense.

Said Werb, “The next time we tested, the numbers went through the roof. There was spontaneous and thunderous applause at the end.”

It wasn’t the first time the writers had to take a stand—according to the scribes’ DVD commentary, a huge meeting took place with the studio in which Colleary was asked to justify the use of a slash in the title. 

Paramount was worried it might confuse moviegoers but Colleary eventually won through by explaining audiences might otherwise think the film was about ice hockey. 

Having wrapped filming on April 1, 1997, Face/Off hit cinemas (rather miraculously) on June 27 of that same year, with The Washington Post calling it, “The strangest movie ever greenlit by a major studio.”

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That may have been true, but it turned out audiences wanted something a little strange in their lives that summer, with Face/Off going on to gross over $245 million off an $80 million budget. 

Twenty-five years on, it still feels as fresh now as it did all those years ago and, with talk of a direct sequel on the way, this may not be the last we’ve heard of Sean Archer and Castor Troy. Let’s just hope there aren’t too many rewrites this time.