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SYFY WIRE Action & Adventure

Did You Know? Face/Off Was Originally a Future-Set Sci-Fi Film

The Nic Cage/John Travolta classic was originally much more science fiction heavy.

By Matthew Jackson
John Travolta in Face/Off (1997)

Today, Face/Off is remembered as one of the great action movies of the 1990s. Directed by Hong Kong legend John Woo and packing the dual star power of Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, it's one of those movies that exemplifies the kind of heightened action of its decade, and features plenty of stylistic flourishes and great performances which have helped it endure. 

Face/Off is, also, a famously wild sci-fi high-concept film, the story of an FBI Agent (Travolta) who swaps faces with a supercriminal (Cage) via an experimental procedure so he can try to thwart a devastating bomb plot. Though set in the present day, its plot requires several technological leaps that might feel like something out of the future. That's partly due to the over-the-top plotting, but also due to the film's roots as sci-fi spec script set in the literal future.

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According to screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, who wrote the first draft of Face/Off in the early 1990s, the film emerged as an idea that was hoping to merge the idea of a cop undercover in a prison with the now-signature futuristic face-swapping tech. The prison, and eventually the entire film, was placed in the future -- as much as 100 years beyond present day -- in part because the screenwriters were concerned that the audience wouldn't buy the premise in a more contemporary setting. 

“When we were pitching it in 1990 it just seemed insane,” Colleary told Shortlist in a look back at the film.

Though the eventual filmed version of Face/Off turned out quite different from the far future version, Werb and Colleary's script was still promising enough to get it sold. Eventually the film landed at Paramount Pictures, where discussions began to question whether or not the futuristic setting was really needed.

"At a certain point in time, if we did everything that was in that script, it was going to be over $100 million," producer Barrie Osborne later told Inverse. "The biggest single cut was bringing it out of the future. They paused for a second when I brought it up and they said, 'Well, no one will believe this. They can’t do a facial operation like this.' And I said, 'I think they will all go along with the flow of the movie.' They went with it, thank God because that allowed me to cut $20 million out of the budget right away."

But producers weren't the only ones interested in tweaking the setting. Woo, looking for his first major American effort as a director, also felt that there was a lot to be gained by moving the film into the present. 

"The first draft was frustrating," Woo told Spliced around the time of Face/Off's release. "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."

So, Werb and Colleary tweaked the story, and Face/Off became a present-day struggle between two men whose identities are pushed to the limit through swapping with one another. An action classic was born, but despite how well it worked, we'd still kinda like to see the version that pushed everything deep into the future.

Face/Off is now streaming on Peacock.