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Face/Off: 11 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The Nicolas Cage And John Travolta Movie

Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off
(Image credit: Paramount)

Of all the best 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, which is why it is still as fascinating now - as it celebrates its 25th anniversary - as ever. 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 in one of his most unplugged performances), 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 Travolta and Cage as vehemently polar opposite enemies is a near-perfect pairing, but they were reportedly not the first choices to lead the film. Those are just a couple of the bits of trivia that we’ll get into about the movie below.  

John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in Face/Off

(Image credit: Paramount)

Nicolas Cage And John Travolta Observed Each Other While Filming To Better Inform Their Performances

While I may have claimed in the introduction above that Nicolas Cage gives one of his most unplugged performances in Face/Off, you really only get a limited amount of “Cage Rage” as he spends most of his time playing John Travolta’s character, Sean Archer. One method that both actors used to figure out how to act like each other was, simply, by watching each other act. In an interview published online by ScreenSlam, gives a specific example that we have annotate below: 

There’s a scene at the beginning where John Travolta is very upset because he has to go on this mission and he can’t tell [his wife] Joan Allen… and he wants to tell her so bad and he kind of goes ‘Oh, god!’ and he [holds the back of his head] and I said, ‘OK, good. Now, when I go back to the house after I break out of prison, I’m going to find a way to say “Oh, god!” and [hold the back of my head] so that we mirror one another.’

Travolta would recall in 2019, during an interview for Build, that he also helped Cage get into character by suggesting he watch a few films that might help him better match his mannerisms. The list included Phenomenon (in which he played telekinetic genius), Michael (in which he played winged angel with a devilish personality), and Look Who’s Talking (in which he became the adoptive father of a baby voiced by his future Pulp Fiction co-star, Bruce Willis).

Nicolas Cage in Face/Off

(Image credit: Paramount)

Nicolas Cage Claims He “Left His Body” During A Prison Fight Scene

There is one moment in Face/Off, however, when Nicolas Cage does go pretty unhinged as Sean Archer: the scene when he gets into a quarrel with some prison inmates and begins manically shouting “I’m Castor Troy!” over and over again. While promoting his 2021 drama Pig, Cage revealed to Entertainment Weekly that, during that very shoot, he thought he had “left [his] body” and grew concerned over whether or not this situation was real or still just a performance. Apparently, you can see that very moment in his eyes, as the Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent star claims.

Nicolas Cage in Face/Off

(Image credit: Paramount)

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.

Face/Off title card

(Image credit: Paramount)

Paramount 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 on 21 Jump Street

(Image credit: Fox)

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 that 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.

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

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 break out of a futuristic prison. That may be the closest to an Arnie/Sly Face/Off movie we will ever get.

John Travolta in Face/Off

(Image credit: Paramount)

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

ShortList’s comprehensive history on the making of Face/Off also includes a particularly revealing claim about John Travolta’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.” 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 his highly realistic, artificial double.

Face/Off dummies

(Image credit: Paramont)

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 in Face/Off

(Image credit: Paramount)

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 is 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

(Image credit: Paramount)

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 Face/Off

(Image credit: Paramount)

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 was almost not the case.

An alternate ending was shot in which Sean is staring at his bathroom mirror with a look of uncertainty, at which point his wife, Eve, walks in and is audibly shocked to see Troy’s face staring back. Sean looks in the mirror again to reveal his own reflection and the couple share a warm embrace, but, in a close-up, he begins to form a menacing grin. In an interview with Showbiz Cheat Sheet, Face/Off 2 scribe Simon Barrett mentions that he found the alternate ending on his Blu-ray copy of the original film and, after watching it, he and director Adam Wingard agreed not to think about it while developing the sequel as it was “unclear” to them what it really means.

I, however, would be very curious to see what the potential implications of this scrapped cliffhanger could be (is Troy still alive in Archer’s scarred psyche?), but trust that Barrett and Wingard are thinking of something even better for their upcoming follow-up. In the meantime, you can celebrate the 25th anniversary of the original classic by streaming Face/Off on Pluto TV. You can also buy or rent Face/Off on Amazon (opens in new tab), too!

Jason Wiese
Jason Wiese

Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.