Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off

Of all the classic action movies to come out of the 1990s (or any decade, really), Face/Off is one of the few that can genuinely be described as one of a kind. Outside of its astonishingly inventive concept (FBI agent John Travolta literally switches faces with the notorious terrorist who killed his son, played by Nicolas Cage at his most unplugged), it invokes an aura of dizzying, unfiltered absurdity that has rarely been done in such a compelling and advantageous fashion. Yet, if you think the movie itself is cuckoo (and rightfully so), you should hear some of the behind the scenes facts about its production.

For instance, I cannot think of a better title (or more appropriate construction of said title) for this 1997 thriller, from the legendary action director John Woo, than Face/Off, but that was almost changed. Plus, I think most would agree that John Travolta and Nicolas Cage as vehemently polar opposite enemies is a near-perfect pairing, but they were not the first choices to lead the film. In fact, one original casting hopeful passed on the film after learning it had a much different plot than the title led him to believe.

Who was this actor, what did he initially assume the movie was about, and just how is Adam Wingard possibly going to top a film already so gloriously over-the-top like this when he directs the recently announced follow-up? We can confidently answer two out of those three questions, and many others, about the making of Face/Off in the following collection of 10 trivia bits, including a glimpse into the film’s almost “future.”

Nicolas Cage in Face/Off

Face/Off Was Originally Set In The Future

Let’s face it: the idea of John Travolta’s Sean Archer taking on the resemblance of Nicolas Cage as Castor Troy is a bit far fetched, especially in 1997. A cutting-edge, temporary facial transplant procedure with such virtually seamless results sounds like it would have to exist something like, 100 years down the road. As it turns out, that was the original plan.

Following the news of its upcoming sequel, ShortList conducted a thorough inside-look into the making of Face/Off and revealed that writers Michael Colleary and Mike Werb’s original draft was set in a future with flying cars and such to justify the otherwise improbable face-swap. However, when John Woo signed on to direct, he opted to modernize the story in order to focus on its more psychological and emotional elements, leaving much of the futuristic ideas in the prison set design.

The title card from Face/Off

Paramount Originally Wanted To Remove The Slash In The Title

I honestly think it was for the best that Michael Colleary and Mike Werb had to abandon much of their futuristic ideas for Face/Off. However, there was one developmental dispute that the screenwriters, thankfully, won.

According to Pajiba’s breakdown of the Face/Off DVD commentary featuring “the Mikes” and John Woo, Paramount Pictures had some reservations on the “slash” in the title, feeling it may be confusing and difficult to display on a movie theater marquee. The studio was convinced to keep it when the writers suggested audiences might think it was about hockey instead of an action thriller. Plus, not only is there an actual 1971 hockey movie released as Face-Off in Canada, but a later hiccup in the casting process would only further prove the writers’ argument.

Johnny Depp in Nick of Time

Johnny Depp Was Interested In Face/Off Before Realizing It Was Not A Hockey Movie

Early on in the development of Face/Off, Paramount Pictures wanted to cast Johnny Depp, hoping the film could be the then 27-year-old’s ticket to blockbuster stardom. In fact, Nicolas Cage had already expressed interest in starring in the thriller, but, initially, the studio would only agree if Depp could be his co-star.

As ShortList’s analysis reveals, what led the future Oscar-nominated Pirates of the Caribbean star to pass on Face/Off was the discovery it was not about hockey after reading the script. If Paramount needed any other reason to keep the title’s slash, they certainly had it then.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in Escape Plan

Arnold Schwarzenegger And Sylvester Stallone Were Reportedly Considered For Sean Archer and Castor Troy

Johnny Depp was not the only actor on Face/Off’s original list of casting hopefuls, before John Travolta and Nicolas Cage landed the hero/villain to villain/hero roles. In fact, before Cage was officially brought in, the studio apparently wanted the likes of Michael Douglas with Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis paired with Alec Baldwin, or even Robert De Niro facing off with his pal Al Pacino.

However, one of the first choices to lead the thriller in its early stages were, reportedly, the most famous rival action stars at the time: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. The fairly obvious and, frankly, pretty cool pairing would not become a reality until The Expendables franchise, and 2013’s Escape Plan, in which they play inmates teaming up to breakout of a futurist prison. That may be the closest to an Arnie/Sly Face/Off movie we will ever get.

John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in Face/Off

John Travolta Gave Nicolas Cage A List Of His Movies To Watch To Better Match His Mannerisms

Of course, the roles of Sean Archer and Castor Troy were ultimately given to John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, who were at the peak of their popularity at the time. The biggest challenge they would face was learning how to act like one another for when their Face/Off characters switch identities.

During an interview on Build in 2019 to promote his bizarre thriller The Fanatic, Travolta (slipping in a near-perfect imitation of his co-star in the process) recalled how he found matching Cage’s more exuberant characteristics somewhat easier than Cage did to achieve the opposite. To help him, Travolta suggested watching films like Phenomenon, Michael, Look Who’s Talking, and others that see the actor invoking his more natural personality onscreen.

John Travolta in Face/Off

John Travolta Felt Mocked By A Line In The Script About His Chin

Speaking of John Travolta’s natural personality, ShortList’s comprehensive history on the making of Face/Off also includes a particularly revealing claim about the actor’s feelings over the script. Apparently, he took offense to a line in which Castor Troy expresses disgust over having to wear Sean Archer’s face, with emphasis on his “ridiculous chin,” to which Mike Colleary responded with the following:

We said, '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: that Nicolas Cage doesn’t understand how good-looking he now is.'

The co-writer’s attempt to prevent a “face off” with John Travolta seemed to work. It does make me wonder, however, what the actor thought of how his highly realistic, artificial double lived up to his appearance.

Nicolas Cage and John Travolta's artificial doubles in Face/Off

Animatronic Dummies Were Created For The Face Transplant Sequence

Probably the most impressive “how did they do that?” moment in Face/Off is when we witness the Sean Archer and Castor Troy facial swap. Obviously, it is not really John Travolta and Nicolas Cage on those hospital beds receiving the wildest surgery ever, but how could it not be, with how life-like they appear?

The secret, as a 1997 making-of featurette reveals, was two dummies developed by make-up effects artist Kevin Yagher that recreate the actors’ appearances down to the most minute detail with built-in animatronics to perform subconscious acts like breathing and twitching. Nicolas Cage said the striking resemblance of his artificial clone made it “terrifying to look at,” but that was not even the scariest moment he was faced with on set.

Nicolas Cage preforming a stunt from Face/Off

Nicolas Cage Confronted His Fear Of Heights Shooting The Prison Break Scene

In order to survive his escape from the maximum security penitentiary he enters as Castor Troy, Sean Archer takes the risk of leaping from the oil rig it's hidden under and into surrounding waters with a helicopter sniper on his tail. Also taking that risk to film the thrilling Face/Off sequence was Nicolas Cage.

The actor actually performed the 200-foot jump, which he later called “one of the more frightening moments” of his life. It would not be the last time he has taken the opportunity to perform crazy stunts, such as in the sci-fi thriller Next, and Disney’s National Treasure franchise, despite being open about his fear of heights in interviews before.

The plane from Face/Off

Practical Effects Were Preferred Over Green Screen For Face/Off’s More Challenging Scenes

Of course, Nicolas Cage’s willingness to face his fears was likely by the order of producer Barrie M. Osborne, who would go on to work on The Matrix in 1999. As he says in the following except from an interview with MatrixFans.net, Osborne urged the use of practical effects for Face/Off over the studio’s initial ideas to take the easy way out, so to speak:

On Face/Off they originally wanted to do a lot of green screen stuff – the fight on the deck of the boat, the airplane going down the runway – and I felt that it would be supporting the story, the realism, if that was done practically. To actually make it a process on a real boat.

That is another reason why Face/Off has stood the test of time: its best stunts are the result of a refreshing dedication to honoring realism. However, I cannot tell if any green screen was used to film what almost became its final scene.

Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, and John Travolta in an alternate ending from Face/Off

An Alternate Ending Shows John Travolta Seeing Nicolas Cage’s Face In A Mirror

The theatrical cut of Face/Off ends with Sean Archer getting his true face back and returning home with a new addition to his family: Castor Troy’s orphaned son, Adam (David McCurley). This relieving conclusion is much appreciated after the high-octane insanity that precedes it, although that almost was not the case.

An alternate ending, which can be found on YouTube, was shot in which Sean is staring at his bathroom mirror with a look of uncertainty, at which point his wife, Eve (Joan Allen), walks in and is audibly shocked to see Castor Troy’s face staring back. Sean looks in the mirror again to reveal his own reflection and the couple share a warm embrace. However, in a close-up, Sean begins to form a menacing grin.

I am not sure what I like better: the “happily after ever” moment we got in the end or this Hitchcockian twist of a cliffhanger. In retrospect, it would have made Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s sequel much easier to set up. Then, with how rewatchable Face/Off already is on its own, does it really need a follow-up?

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