As we look forward to The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent heralding the return of Nicholas Cage to prime time, big-ticket movies from his tax debt-clearing stint in direct-to-streaming movies, we remember another time. It was a time when, unbelievably, Nic Cage was the biggest action star on the planet for a fleeting moment, and Face/Off happened.

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Fresh off the Academy Award win for Leaving Las Vegas, a triple whammy of The Rock and Con Air was rounded out with Face/Off and it propelled Cage to the top of the heap as the pumped-up likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger were replaced by a more thoughtful breed of action hero.

Also unbelievably, Face/Off is approaching its 25th anniversary. This touchstone of action cinema is a rare beast. It manages to be completely stupid, yet absolutely brilliant at the same time. How the hell does anyone pitch a movie like this and then get John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, two of the biggest stars of the day, to sign up?

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I Can Eat A Peach For Hours

Co-writers and producer Michael Colleary and Mike Werb have been out doing the rounds ahead of the 25th anniversary of Face/Off and have dropped some great stories about the production in various interviews. They say one movie meant it was suddenly open season in Hollywood for spec-action scripts.

“The order of the day was, ‘Where’s the next Die Hard? Show me the next Die Hard!’”

Speed and The Rock were leading the way, but before them there were a hundred other imitators of Die Hard, or any other interchangeable high-concept spec movie. It’s those imitators that drove Colleary and Werb on in 1990 when they started to generate ideas together. Werb said:

“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.

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?’”

So Face/Off had its origins as a simple idea – Die Hard in a prison. It was inspired by the 1971 Attica Prison riot, mixed with gangster classic White Heat. In that, a federal agent goes into prison undercover to get information from James Cagney’s criminal kingpin.

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The idea was to take this further, with what happens if somebody else takes over your life outside while you are locked up. The idea grew from there and that is where the face swap idea first happened. Then it was to be set 100 years in the future around the idea of an organ bank.

“We really backed into the idea of a facial swap. You could get anything you wanted [in the organ bank] if you had enough money.”

No More Drugs For That Man

When they first pitched the idea to their agent? They were apparently laughed out of the office. They refused to give up.

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Eventually producer Joel Silver picked up the script for Warner Bros, but after creative differences, the studio chose to make the similarly themed Demolition Man instead with Stallone. News that this script was back in circulation, at a time when studios were screaming for high concept action, meant things then moved fast.

Three studios were in play to take it on. Eventually Paramount Pictures jumped on board, and actor Michael Douglas joined as a producer. It was him that unlocked the secret. He read every draft of the script and then spoke to the writers, telling them:

“This is a psychological thriller masquerading as an action film. Write that movie and you’ll get not just movie stars but great actors. If we get offered good and evil, it’s always as identical twins. This is something different.”

Whenever they were writing, Colleary and Werb had Schwarzenegger and Stallone in mind as their stars. The long-awaited team-up of the biggest action stars. Now they started thinking about different stars.

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Bruce Willis and Alec Baldwin were one pairing considered. Mick Jagger and David Bowie another. Harrison Ford was suggested to Douglas.

Out in movieland, Nic Cage was hot property and John Travolta was reborn. After a career dip his turns in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Get Shorty (1995) had brought Travolta’s star power back. When Rob Cohen left the production in 1995 for Dragonheart, the producers turned to Asian cinema and grabbed John Woo. He immediately zeroed in on Cage and Travolta as his two leads.

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Johnny Depp had wanted to play Sean Archer, but when he read the script he passed as he had assumed that Face/Off was actually about hockey. This left the way clear for Travolta and Cage to pair up. Cage would eventually go on to refer to Con Air and Face/Off as his “double album”.

I Want To Take His Face Off

Nic Cage and John Travolta first met at a dinner party at a producer’s house and immediately started to bond, which gave producers hope that this whole idea wasn’t completely crazy. Nic Cage was still shooting Con Air at the time and this caused a problem for Travolta as it meant he had to lose weight instead of Cage putting some on.

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Travolta had worked with John Woo previously on Broken Arrow and when he met the writers he simply told them:

Face/Off is the best action script I’ve ever read!”

Woo has said that he understood that Face/Off is about the characters first, and the action second. In fact, according to Colleary and Werb, for the whole thing to work it is essential  that these two opposites both change, becoming:

“…better people in each other’s lives than they were in their own”.

Released on 27th June 1997, Face/Off was a box office hit with a $245 million haul against an $80 million budget. Unusually for this type of movie, it was also a hit with critics, no matter how stupid the central premise.

25 years. Doesn’t it go by in a flash?

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